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In Jameela's Kitchen
Where Kashmiri politics and family-style meals collide
In the male-dominated and war-torn Kashmir Valley, women have historically struggled to have their opinions on political issues heard. But one woman’s kitchen is changing that.
By Rahma Khan
In the spring of 2018, after driving for almost eight hours from the metropolis of Islamabad, I found myself in Mirpur, a city that nestles against the border with India in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir Valley. Western Himalayan peaks cast shadows on the Jhelum river as it flowed between the curvy mountain gorges, Chinar trees dotted the landscape for as far as I could see, and the surrounding lush green meadows shone brightly in the summer sun.
I had come to Kashmir to document the lives of people living through decades of conflict. My grandparents hailed from India and migrated to Pakistan during Partition. Although I did not grow up on the Indian subcontinent, during my childhood, I often heard about how my grandparents left their friends and loved ones behind as they fled from India to Pakistan to escape the chaos and communal riots. I wanted to know more about the ongoing reverberations of this violence and division in the lives of Kashmiris. What was it like to live under heavy military surveillance, under the active threat of attacks from across the border? In particular, how did Kashmiri women — who are largely marginalized in social and political life — cope with the impacts of the war?
Unexpectedly, my quest to understand these dynamics brought me to a kitchen.
I encountered Kashmiri women who have transformed this domestic domain into a space for political mobilization and meaningful exchange, coming together over fragrant woks to advocate for better futures for their families and communities. It’s not the usual point of analysis in the conflict, but my experience in the kitchens of Kashmir reveals how, in the face of challenging circumstances, the humblest and most feminized of spaces can become sites of political mobilization.
On account of its abundance of natural beauty, Mughal poet Aamir Khusro once called Kashmir “Heaven on Earth”. But beneath the breathtaking natural magnificence of the valley lies a dark and continual story of conflict. For generations, Kashmir has been subject to state-administrated violence catalyzed by the cleavage of India and Pakistan following Partition in 1947. In January of 1949, upon intervention from the United Nations, India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire called the Karachi agreement, and a line of control (de facto border) was established in Kashmir dividing the Valley into two parts — Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Another short war broke out in 1965 as a result of Pakistan’s attempts to support an insurgency against the Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir, followed by another ceasefire. Today, even after seventy-five years of Indo-Pak independence from the British, the vastly Muslim majority Indian administered part of Kashmir is still fighting for independence from the right-wing Hindu extremist government.
Between 1965 and 2018, when I visited Kashmir, the area had managed to avoid an all-out war. But ceasefire violations from both countries remained frequent, steeping Kashmir in violence. These ongoing skirmishes resulted in the massive relocation of Kashmiris, leaving the towns and villages closest to the border very sparsely populated. In these border areas, it’s now mostly farmers, many of whom are adamant about not leaving their ancestral homes and farms, who remain. The major cities in Kashmir, like Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, and Neelum Valley, are farther from the worst of the violence but are nonetheless heavily guarded and surveilled.
I visited Mirupur, the second-largest city in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir, with Abdul, a travel guide I had hired to show me around the valley and facilitate connections for my research on the rhythms of conflict. I was interested in visiting people in their homes, and Abdul warned me that it wouldn’t be easy. In Kashmir, the kitchen is a site of intimate socialization, and women usually only invite outsiders with whom they have established a certain level of trust. But he managed to introduce me to Jameela, a connection that would prove crucial to my understanding of the valley.
Jameela, a homemaker and mother of four in her late 50s whose petite frame and gentle smile belie a fiery spirit, runs a weekly baithak — a social gathering organized to discuss political and community issues — for women in her community. Baithak are an old tradition in South Asian cultures. They emerged from mostly rural areas in South Asia as fora in which men would meet in the evening to discuss their day’s business. Over time, baithak developed into more serious gatherings, during which village elders would solve local issues both administrative (problems with water and sanitation, for example) and intimate (disputes over private property or marriage and divorce). Norms of male control over administrative affairs have meant that these decision-making structures remain largely restricted to men, despite the fact that including women in public and private decision-making increases the effectiveness and accountability of institutions at all levels.
Jameela’s baithak is unique in that it is women-only. She started it back in 2016, first as an opportunity for women in her neighbourhood to simply spend time together while the men were working and children were at school. But she found that the conversations quickly became political. In Kashmir, women are often discouraged from publicly sharing their opinions on “important” matters, including the war. But as women and as mothers, the conflict affects them in unique ways that are often not represented in mainstream narratives. Frequent checkpoints and searches leave women particularly vulnerable to the misogynistic “militaristic gaze”, rape has been used throughout the conflict as a means of dehumanizing and controlling Kashmiri people, and the violence and upheaval impact the quality of life for their children.
With so much to fight for and to talk about, Jameela’s weekly baithak was officially born, and she’s been hosting them every Monday morning since.
Jameela’s kitchen is small, located at the back of the house with unpainted cement walls, but it’s big enough to fit the six to eight women — friends, friends of friends, neighbours, and acquaintances — who show up each week for the 90-minute baithak. I was lucky enough to stay with Jameela for three weeks and attend these sessions several times. They are a convivial and intergenerational scene: young children play in the garden outside, while teenage girls sit in on the discussions, often uncertain about chiming in but keen to listen nonetheless.
Given that the meetings take place in the kitchen, food is always a central component. Sometimes the women plan potluck-style meals, and other times Jameela cooks for all the attendees, using vegetables from her own organic farm. She enjoys cooking a big spread of traditional Kashmiri meals for the baithak participants.
“Cooking allows me the time to understand the political situation,” Jameela told me over a crackling wok of homemade ghee (clarified butter) that she’s melting to make saag, a spinach dish popular in Kashmir and Punjab. “Once I understand the politics, I can think through the ways in which I can protect my family from harm.”
Jameela’s saag recipe
In a wok, melt butter. Add cumin, turmeric, garlic, and chilli pepper. Cook for two minutes.
Grind spinach with milk and water to make a thick paste. Add a few drops of mustard oil and a pinch of salt.
Cook the paste on a medium flame for five minutes and then mix with the cooked spices in the wok.
In a separate pot, fry onion and tomato. Add a few spoons of curd to the mixture and cook until the onion and tomato become soft.
Add mixture to the wok and cook slowly, over low heat for an hour.
Garnish the dish with melted butter and coriander before serving.
Once the food is ready, participants sit in a circle around a big coal heater that warms the room during the harsh winter months — the same way that Jameela’s own family would sit down for a meal. They open the discussion over heaping plates of colourful Kashmiri biryani, steaming cottage cheese dumplings served with kasundi, a type of tomato sauce on a banana leaf, and Jameela’s famous saag.
Jameela and her close friends, who she considers to be founding members of the baithak, decide on the topic of each meeting beforehand and share it in a Whatsapp group with all the women planning to attend. In the years since the baithak launched, they’ve discussed everything from recipes and how to increase crop yield, to challenges like ensuring children’s access to education during military curfew and creating opportunities for young women to become financially independent. Crucially, everyone is given a chance to share their opinions. Jameela and the other organizers are the final decision-makers, critically analyzing and evaluating all the arguments raised during each meeting.
Through these debates, Jameela and the other women are catalyzing real change in their community — particularly for Kashmir’s youth. Most of the women who attend the baithak didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, so they are deeply committed to their children having a quality education. In 2016, when Indian airstrikes in Kashmir necessitated a curfew and the local administration threatened to shut schools down indefinitely, Jameela’s baithak group proposed they switch to online studies instead. The motion was ultimately approved. In the weeks that I sat in on the discussions in Jameela’s kitchen, the women were discussing the possibility of starting a homeschool program for young girls in villages around their city. Because girls' schools in the villages are few and far between, girls have to travel long, risky distances on foot to attend; as a result, many parents refrain from sending them. The homeschooling program was the women’s attempt to ensure that girls in these areas had equal access to education.
Sitting amidst the group of women in Jameela’s kitchen, I was struck by how their conversation reminded me of the war stories I heard growing up from my grandparents about their migration from India to Pakistan during Partition. But unlike the male protagonists that tended to dominate my grandparents’ stories, this time, it was women strategizing about how they would protect their families should a war break out.
Witnessing the resilience and resourcefulness of the women in Jameela’s baithak was the highlight of my journey to Kashmir — which, as it turns out, I made just in time. In 2019, a third war almost broke out between India and Pakistan, after members of the Indian police force were killed by a terrorist group while driving on the Jammu–Srinagar National Highway, and a series of armed clashes broke out between the two countries. The crisis ended with a peace offer, but the situation in the region remains volatile.
Jameela plans to continue her baithak irrespective of the valley’s politics. Over time, more and more women have begun to take part, and while Kashmiri society remains male-dominated, Jameela says that when it comes to their participation, she and her attendees have been encouraged and supported by their respective families. Her baithak demonstrates the potential for domestic spaces and shared meals to be transformed into sites of collective resistance and positive change. In Jameela’s kitchen, despite the military conflict and conservative social norms that encroach on their lives, women are harnessing the power of collective action — a small but powerful step in their quest to better their own lives and those of the next generation.
Rahma Khan is a travel writer and independent journalist from Pakistan based in Canada. Her reported features and travel articles are published in publications like Matador Networks, Independent UK, and CondeNast Traveller, among others.