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A Feminist Perspective On The Recent ‘Outbreak’ Of Braid Chopping In Kashmir

The Kashmir cauldron is on the boil and this time around it’s about a 'hair raising' issue. What's really going on behind the epidemic of braid chopping?

The Kashmir cauldron is on the boil yet again and this time around it’s about a ‘hair raising’ issue which is scalding Kashmiri women real bad. What’s really going on behind the epidemic of braid chopping?

For the last 40 days, the valley has been witness to episodes of strange masked men accosting women in or outside their homes, casting dizzy spells on them and chopping off their hair/braids. Nearly 100 hair-cutting incidents have been reported from across the Valley, which has left everyone puzzled and shell shocked.

The spiral started from Mewat, Haryana, with a few isolated cases in Rajasthan, Jammu, and Delhi and now has allegedly attained epidemic like proportions in the valley. The victims have mostly been women from semi-urban/rural or conservative social strata with no real suspects or witnesses. In this melee, the biggest casualty has as usual been the economy/tourism and ‘Truth’, apart from the mass hysteria that it has resulted in.

The paranoia across the states manifests from a lot of issues; some visible and some embedded. There are conspiracy theories galore doing the rounds. The separatist lobby puts the blame on ‘agencies a.k.a Markaz ki Chaal’ (the conspiracy of the Centre) who want to unleash mayhem, ensure crowd control by default and turn Kashmiris against one another. The psychologists and analytical reports by Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, who have studied such phenomenon previously, call it a case of ‘Mass hysteria’. In sociology and psychology, mass hysteria (also known as collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear (memory acknowledgment). In medicine, the term is used to describe the spontaneous manifestation (production of chemicals in the body) of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person.

A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment, sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria, according to Wikipedia. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an early study of crowd psychology by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, first published in 1841, chronicles the details of such episodes of history which were given the name of ‘Witch hunting’ at times.

In one of his quotes he opines: “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.” Several such studies have been done on similar such episodes of ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Muhn Nochwa’, ‘Ganesh Milk drinking’ etc, all of which mostly point to delusional episodes of human psyche bordering on mass hysteria.

How do the myths & folklore of the Kashmir Valley play into this?

The scenario unfolding in Kashmir points to intertwined socio-religious and political machinations, resulting in a wave of delusions. Various facets of psychology, anthropology, sociology, occult, religion and geo-politics of a conflict zone, go into its making. The fact or fallacy of this reality or neurotic affliction, therefore calls for digging deeper into the embedded dynamics of Kashmiri mindscape, folklore and gender placement too.

Folklore implies the traditional beliefs, customs and stories of a community, passed through generations by word of mouth. Kashmiri folklore is rich on several fronts and being a treasure trove of imaginative genres of storytelling, it has given birth to several fabled concepts and contexts. The geographical placement of Kashmir endows it with an enigma of mountains, the echo of valleys, the long winding winters and other geographical nuances; serving as an ideal backdrop to the birth of mythical creatures in folklore.

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We are all privy to the tales of witches (Rantas), a Bram Bram Chok (Ignis Fatuus or friars lantern or will-o’-the wisp…a flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, chiefly over marshy ground and graveyards due to spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter), a Yaksha/Yechguch (a form traversing snowy landscape akin to the Yeti), a Chiragbeg (an apparition of a creature) the Parees/fairies residing in brooks, the whispering meadows, the shrieking willows, the solitary white horse wandering along the river nooks and the Betal Pachisi tales on Radio Kashmir Srinagar, aired at the dead of night when the snowy dark winds hissed and banged at your windows.

All in all, we have been imaginative in this genre and our idyllic settings have many a time indulged in creating myths and paranoia out of sheer exaggeration and a strange bonding based on a perceived or visible demon/enemy. Cats, witches, hydra headed monsters, fire spewing demons, love smitten bears etc, have all unleashed some sort of paranoia in our settings from time to time. Sometimes it has been about alluding to strangers or outsiders as some sort of aliens, bordering on Xenophobia and superstition.

Conflict zone & mass hysteria

Kashmir has been a conflict zone since the last 28-30 years and the fall-out of such a scenario has taken a serious toll on the mental health conditions of people in general and women in particular. Considerable research has pointed out the impact of such a conflict on women, with them having no real spaces or channels to vent out. The claustrophobia of conflict coupled with stringent patriarchy and overbearing masculinity in the recent past, has given rise to a plethora of socio-cultural gender imbalances, crime and psychological ailments; as far as women are concerned. The shrinking spaces for women as compared to the past, are a direct manifestation of conflict and its dynamics.

Religious dogmatism and its direct bearing on the way a woman is supposed to carry herself, is a major stressor for women who feel suffocated subconsciously, who observe how the world at large is progressing and how they are supposed to obey, lest they bear the brunt. This resentment would by no means be blatantly visible, because women have been conditioned to adhere, not be vocal, and yet carry on. Recently, the Hizb ul Mujahideen supremo in Kashmir has advocated an Islamic way of dressing to curb the menace of braid chopping.

Little girls and women dread going out after dark and at times are told to put their braids in their shirts. Subconsciously, this takes a heavy toll on their identity, health and placement, and then becomes visible in forms of hysteria or as a tool to propagate a trigger of mass paranoia. The subconscious thrill from such a cascading spiral of rumour mongering creates perfect settings for ulterior elements to take advantage, cause further paranoia, take revenge, seek attention and victimhood, play the blame game and fall for the bait of political and separatist machinations too. After all, nothing works better for the ‘conflict factory’ whose ‘Braid and Butter’ depends on spirals of conflict.

As per standard definitions, “Mass Hysteria/conversion disorder is a mental disorder. A problem or unfulfilled desire which generates stress to the conscious mind gets suppressed into subconscious mind and manifests itself via other channels. The conscious mind dissociates itself from the problem or situation for a short period, in order to seek temporary relief.”

At times such episodes are commonly witnessed in North India during ‘Jagrans’ or ‘Mata ki Chowki’ when women from the comparatively conservative strata go into a bout of hallucinations proclaiming that ‘Mata’ or the Goddess has taken abode inside them. It gives them a Goddess like status for a brief period, in their otherwise lackluster lives. As per research, occurrence of conversion is more frequent in rural, lower socio-economic groups, where technological investigation of patients is limited and individuals may be less knowledgeable about medical and psychological concepts. It is also in such societies that Conversion disorder explicitly manifests itself in deliberate feigning. It is thought that these symptoms arise in response to stressful situations affecting a patient’s mental health or an ongoing mental health condition such as depression. The term ‘conversion’ has its origins in Freud’s doctrine that anxiety is ‘converted’ into physical symptoms.

Hysteria or conversion disorder is commonly seen in women and children in those societies where they are neglected and ill-treated. It becomes a way of communicating one’s distress or a way of protest. Some common symptoms are fainting, abnormal behavior, going into silent spells, shrieking/screaming, physical disablements while awake, alter ego taking over, split personality and multiple personality disorders, overall physical weakness and impairments. All this unfolds dramatically and in a calculated manner with a keen sense of surroundings where the patient seeks negative attention. While she may appear to be suffering she will not suffer any major injury and won’t remember a thing after the episode is over; in this case cutting her own hair, maybe.

In such a scenario it’s pertinent for the support system, including psychologists and family to delve deeper into the prognosis and diagnosis of the malaise, find ways and means to cure it by alternate and allopathic therapies. Chiefly it’s about breaking open communication, redressal of subconscious fears and building an amiable environment for normalcy, without unnecessary fussing and paranoia. This helps alleviate the fears and help build coping mechanisms which should be solely the prerogative of the patient to adhere to. Primarily it’s about the provision of freedom of thought and expression, spaces to channelize her energies, education, economic independence and respectable status, which go a long way in curbing psychological distress and hysteria.

Masculinity, repressed female sexuality & Gender dynamics

As per the CM Mehbooba Mufti “Braid chopping incidents are attempts to create mass hysteria and undermine the dignity of the women in the state”. “Braid chopping is an assault on womanhood. Despite being a woman the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is unmoved about the growing incidents. It has become increasingly unsafe for our women to walk out of their homes,” said NC’s women legislator Shameema Firdous, as quoted in the same link above.

In both these statements, there’s a conditioned subconscious objectification of women whereby her looks (with and without hair) are the bone of contention. Yes, aggression or forcible attack on any of her aesthetics or physicality is reprehensible, but then why should she go paranoid if her braid gets chopped? In all this, we somewhere ascribe her physical appeal by virtue of a feminine attribute a.k.a HAIR, to her femininity. Bereft of that she’s not presentable and thus it becomes a case of honour and shame for the men to safeguard.

This reductionist thought is detrimental to the overall existence of woman and her placement in a gender biased society. It doesn’t simplify her purpose but rather complicates her bigger picture existence. All this has led to nothing but suspicion, conspiracy theories, nervous breakdowns, thrashing of innocents, deaths of mentally deranged suspects and an overall scenario of chaos. This hyper vigilantism is akin to self-sabotage and idiocy of the highest level.

Subsequently, all kinds of machinations take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a primitive society which imparts honor to women by virtue of her ‘Repressed Sexuality’. Women are not supposed to optimize themselves holistically but just about evolve to their lowest common denominators. Sexuality is reduced to her reproductive identity and her sexual appeal to men. The truth however is that a woman in her fully optimized potential, intimidates society at large and is perceived to be a threat since ages and her sexuality is guarded and caged for the same reasons.

There’s a plethora of dynamics (female feticide, dowry deaths, rape culture etc) applicable to our culture which indulges in all this and considers it to be an embodiment of values, virtues and morality; the onus of which is supposed to fall on women. Contrary to this opinion, it’s proved to be a bane for the world at large, when women have been suppressed or her sexuality (her overall existence) is repressed. Societies which have tried to limit or reign in women have dug their own graves in the long run. We have several such examples around us in the Asian subcontinent (Afghanistan, Pakistan and now even India). In conflict zones, with a patriarchal set-up, women bear the brunt of manifold dangers with no escape routes. Masculinity of aggression, militancy, violence, sexual crimes, death, insecurity, being powerless, disappearances and deaths, no support system and overall vulnerability renders women as easy pawns to crime and hysteria.

In the realm of psychology, Freud’s model has suggested that the emotional charge deriving from painful experiences would be consciously repressed as a way of managing the pain, but that the emotional charge would be somehow ‘converted’ into neurological symptoms. Freud has later argued that the repressed experiences were of a sexual nature. Freud described that the scientific name for outbreaks is conversion disorder; converting psychological conflict and distress into aches and pains that have no physical basis. As cited here, “Occasionally, conversion disorder spreads within groups. We may think of mass hysteria as the Placebo Effect in reverse.  It’s like ‘If people can think themselves better, they can make themselves sick.’”

Quoting some excerpts from research; “Much recent work has been done to identify the underlying causes of conversion and related disorders and to better understand why conversion and hysteria appear more commonly in women. Current theoreticians tend to believe that there is no single cause for these disorders. Instead, the emphasis tends to be on the individual understanding of the patient and a variety of therapeutic techniques. In some cases, the onset of conversion disorder correlates to a traumatic or stressful event. There are also certain populations that are considered at risk for conversion disorder, including people suffering from a medical illness or condition, people with personality disorder, and individuals with dissociative identity disorder”

“In Iraq, women are frequently rushed to the hospital in severe anxiety, diagnosed by medical professionals in local hospitals as “hysterical.” The treatments proffered are often disturbingly violent in their own right, indicating the normalization of violence in the conflict zone and the rationalizing discourses of biomedicine to this end. Based on fieldwork in the northern Kurdish region, held to be a prosperous beacon of “post-conflict” stability in an otherwise war-torn country, I consider the ways in which neoliberal interventionist agendas, medical technologies in the aftermath of war, and gendered narratives of the Kurdish nation coalesce to valorize particular forms of suffering while devaluing others as both inherently “feminine” and devoid of either agency or recuperative value. The violence of such biomedical beliefs forms a “natural” rationalized corollary of wider logics of violence in the war zone, and that both inscribe non-normative expressions of trauma in gendered terms”.

“Critics of the nature hypothesis point out that in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where outbreaks are common, females live repressive, submissive lives.  They are often told who they can marry, and may require their husband’s permission just to leave the home”

“Anthropologically, in many less developed countries, close-knit groups under great stress, enter trance and possession states where they can do and say things that they ordinarily would not get away with as they are thought to be in the company of gods and spirits.  Anthropologists call these possession cults.  Most group members are women living in male dominated societies.  Sometimes alone, but often in groups, they will exhibit twitching, shaking and anxiety-related ailments that parallel outbreaks of mass hysteria in African and Asian girls. Often local healers are called in to rid the premises of demons that are thought to be causing the symptoms.  These shamans often enter trances states and claim to communicate with the ‘other side’ to air their grievances.  In reality, they reflect the complaints of the girls.  Many anthropologists believe that mass hysteria and spirit possession in Asia and Africa are culturally appropriate ways of indirectly negotiating problems – a form of subconscious collective bargaining”

What is the way forward?

We can perhaps alleviate the problem if we tend to observe such hysteria by delinking it from our conspiracy theories and aggregating it to a collective response of women. In other states this menace didn’t get nurtured because of the checks and balances in place, to an extent. Kashmir needs to take into account the totality of the scenario and ascertain the reasons which go into snowballing of trivia. There’s too much hype and hoopla around inane things at times, so that it metamorphoses into a problem of giant proportions. Ethnographers, Civil society, thinkers and sociologists need to understand the problem in a holistic manner and find ways and means to nip the evil in the bud.

The feminist discourse needs to be taken ahead without being reticent or apologetic. For all this to materialize it’s of utmost importance that Kashmir and Kashmiris channelize their energies towards pro-active and constructive realms. In the same vein, the policy makers and administration need to take urgent cognizance of the problem in a bigger and more credible way.

Image used via www.wikimedia.org, under a Creative Commons license

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