Ather Zia’s obituary of her Grandfather
On January 21, 2017, early morning an everyday Kashmiri feminist died quietly in her sleep [this “her” is a typo, but I prefer to leave it here; for if anything he always felt it was an honor to be a woman] after few bedridden years, which he absolutely hated. This was also the first ever, I had seen my maternal grandfather Gulam Ahmed Lone, who I call Daddy like everyone else in the family, cower before life a little. Even asking the universe to let him go rather than for wellness. He thought he had lived it all, and ended if not the best but still a little better.
In the 1960’s this man, my grandpa was a single father to 8 girls and 1 son. His wife died of a sudden brain hemorrhage leaving him with the large brood and the last one a 6-month-old infant who was found technically nursing at a dead mother’s breast. He never remarried and gave up his forays into writing and philosophy turning his fatherhood as a means of the world as well as spirit. At one time his Murshid (spiritual teacher) had offered him to become the caretaker of his tutelage but Daddy was single-minded in raising his “koreh” – a singular word for daughters/girls in Kashmiri and to him denoted a mission. I am told he clothed them all the same, mostly allowing non-traditional dresses without any fuss. He encouraged them in what was seen as too modern at that time; getting a higher education, aspiring for careers other than just teaching, and even sending them on field trips chaperoned only by school staff. He believed in giving daughters as much freedom as sons.
Simultaneously, his spirit was deeply entrenched in Islamic thought and spirituality, which he always explained served the needs of the changing times rather than constraining them. At around 2 am he would wake up to recite Quran, which was a constant background to our sleepy mornings. After that, he would feed the birds; going around the brick wall in his yard, placing dainty little mounds for the birds to peck at. He was very graceful in all he did, very gentle and he cried often. He would always say that Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) heart was gentle, and that he cried often not only in grief but witnessing the beauty of this world. Daddy tears were copious and healing. Be it while reading Quran, watching a bird feed a fledgling, someone’s sickness, poverty, or a grandchild’s antics – everything touched him equally.
He raised me and his other grandchildren never to think with our gender “first” but only after and if possible never. He would often exhort me to stride into a room, and not just walk in, and to look people in the eye. He even gave me a “male” name; not that he thought any less of women but to convey that gender hardly mattered in what he saw as unfolding: a new way of being a woman and also a new manhood. He was such a learner. He said that the current history was a place to prove yourself no matter who you are, male, female or the other. He would always end an analysis of gender challenges especially for a woman as “hatew az chaw su zamaneh” (roughly that time is long passed). When sometimes I would feel a little daunted he would say “go forth, you are equivalent “of” twelve men.” That was his way to say women are as well equipped or even more to take on life’s challenges than men.
My grandfather had not come to this realization easy. He had lived a young life being educated no doubt, but also married off when he was in middle school. I suspect somewhere in the late 30’s or early 40’s. As a gauche teenage bridegroom, he had dismounted the horse in panic, and run away, not wanting to get married. But he was caught and brought back in time. As a young boy given to spiritual quests, he had pledged his fealty to Peer Meerak Shah Kashani of Shalimar, who was a well-known Islamic scholar, poet and healer. Grandpa had planned a more spiritual than a domestic life for himself, but that was not to be. He and his wife barely teenagers when they married, got caught in the familial property dispute, not of their own making. Between kin members whose machinations brought them to the brink of destitution, and a burgeoning family, the young couple found themselves mostly in the rough trenches of a chaotic domesticity.
Daddy would often liken the Sabr (fortitude) of his wife to Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) daughter, Hazrat Fatima Zahra (ع) who was pivotal to many of his prayers and whom he considered a patron saint of his own spiritual life. He heralded Fatima Zahra as a bearer of true Islamic knowledge and spirituality. He would often remind that the Prophet (PBUH) had a habit of going by her house to greet her not only with a customary greeting of “Salam” but adding that she was “the Substance of the Message.” Grandpa talked about Hazrat Fatima Zahra’s (ع) erudition, her knowledge, her poetry and her fortitude in leading a household under constant duress. He found wisdom in Prophet (PBUH) training his daughter in spiritual and intellectual knowledge just as he would have done with a son. Grandpa used this fragment from the Islamic history for chalking his own fatherly duties. Just as the Prophet (PBUH) had trained his daughter as per the needs of his household and time, Granddad saw merit in providing all avenues to daughters in the changing era, and not treating them as less than men and never seeing them as a burden which he deemed as wholly un-Islamic. On the birth of a son he would give the customary greeting of “Mubarak” (Congratulations) but if it was a daughter he would say “Alhamdullilah” (Thanks be to Allah). Grandpa exhorted us to understand the soul of Muslim womanhood not only through Hazrat Fatima Zahra (ع) but also through her fearless daughter Hazrat Zainab (ع) whose oratory, the strength of character and speaking truth to power are prominent moments in the Islamic history. One of best prayers for everyone, especially his “koreh” was “that may you be covered with Hazrat Fatima Zahra (ع) grace and mercy.
Daddy himself had never known the love of a parent in a proper manner. He would say he never had a childhood. His father had remarried when his mother had died while giving birth to him. My grandmother, his wife, whom he seemed to be passionately in love with even after her death, had seen some very stereotypical male parts of him. An example of that would be when he had yanked her off the hospital bed after she without telling him had gone to get her tubes tied. My grandma had been worried that they were only producing daughters, and it would become too tough for them if they had more children. He had reasoned to his wife that their daughters were not a burden and would become “better than sons.” Yet, as a man – who was a product of a certain social and cultural maleness, he had kept a woman, his wife from making a choice about her own body and life. In comparison, in the 80’s when one of his sons-in-law expressed similarly, Daddy put his foot down, trying to reason that the times have changed. [Kashmir has one of the most successful family planning programs in South Asia: an anomaly if we were to consider it is an unrelenting orthodoxy.] His son-in-law agreed. Daddy’s lesson in everyday feminism was not only directed to where it needed to end (the women) but also where it should begin that is with the men.
Like countless other Kashmiri men, my grandfather segued from an ethos that placed a woman squarely inside a home to acknowledging and supporting what she could achieve outside. The road has been tough and not without reason since traditions are hard to abandon. What I saw in my grandfather, father, and other men in my life, and that in my own research I term as a “benign” patriarchy after considering all the gender inadequacies that are present in most societies and in Kashmir specifically, that also are fueled and exacerbated by militarization. For my grandpa, women could excel as much as men and even more. And yes, he did not mind gender displays that were not in sync with the stereotypes. He did no mind I was not girly, he preferred that I liked to have short hair, and especially liked my favorite boots that he called “hunter shoes.” Grandpa would proudly look at his daughters narrating their achievements – from my mother, who became a doctor, to other daughters who became teachers, officers, and to the one who was his pride as one of the first female journalists in the valley. As relentless as Grandpa was in his daughter’s pursuing education, jobs, and careers, he was also quick to equally respect if a woman wanted to be a homemaker instead; but provided it was her choice and not forced upon her. Like what the heart of feminism teaches, to have an option was most important. My grandpa was not alone in this attitude but his story is that of many of the Kashmiri fathers from that time, and after.
Even though he lived a life of deep spirituality, steeped in the Quran and worship, my grandfather never wanted to perform Hajj. Instead whenever he found some extra money he would spend it in causes of the poor and the stricken; this he professed was more needed, healing and urgent to him than any pilgrimage. These cases would often be linked to women who did not have any financial support. Such events would time and again become a reminder for him how important it was for women to stand on their own feet. Many times in his daughter’s lives due to childbirth, sicknesses, transfers or promotions, he would jokingly tell them to “stick to their jobs rather than their man.” This was not said in secrecy but with the full knowledge of the men who as son-in-laws had come into his life and who had grown to adore him and his ways. They often said that they aspired to be the half-the-man he was. It was a precious sight to see him with his son-in-law’s, sitting together, embracing and even crying in gratitude for some minor family success. He treated them with care, not with the traditional ceremonial fear of a father whose daughter had been given in marriage, but as people who had been entrusted into his own fold. He broke every little stereotype with a love so humanist and tender, that it is heartbreaking to know it is not present on this earth anymore to witness.
He married most of his daughters based on their own choice. The wedding would be austere and he often mused he would throw large feasts if he had more means. But I suspect he would anyways have used the extra money to help someone especially an obscure destitute woman somewhere. This lovely man whose name means the Slave of the Prophet (PBUH) was a lesson in everyday feminism practiced by men who choose to mold their traditions and belief to suit changing times. This everyday feminism teaches kindness to women as intellectual and emotional beings but also exhorts kindness from and for men (and for all genders). He loved his son’s in law, offering his heart and ear just like a mother. And his son’s wife, she became what he would say “the recipient of the love of eight daughters.” He reasoned he had received her as gift in place of the eight women who had left his home. His daughter in law brought two sons into the world. He raised them both to be more in touch with their feminine side invoking gentleness in their hearts for the women and men in their lives like he did with all the rest of us.
Today is the first day in my life when I know the gentle armor of his physical prayerful body is gone. Yet he left a few words, a letter that I was to open after he passed. It professes nothing but love and puts me (and everyone he leaves behind) in the eternal grace of the Prophet’s (PBUH) daughter (ع); again he has left us in the memory of grace, of a woman who he believed was spiritually protecting him all his life. This is the everyday feminism I know of a Kashmiri man of modest means, who was born into very traditional era, lived most of it abiding what the norms were, but also chose to grow with the changing times. And in that, he is not alone in Kashmir.
Rest in peace and power Daddy! May the tribe of your kind of men, women, and others flourish. Ameen.