Believing deeply in the power of the written word, Anthropology and Gender Studies professor Ather Zia, PhD, started her professional life as a journalist.

Zia, who is from Kashmir, worked for the BBC but found that what she really wanted to do was to give voice to the political dispute and the stories of her homeland. 

The region of Kashmir has been in the middle of a conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947 — a territorial dispute of grave consequence to the Kashmiri people. For Kashmiris themselves, the issue began long before 1947, and their quest for sovereign democracy started before India and Pakistan became two dominions.

“In the last 72 years Kashmiris have been pushed into invisibility; the people didn’t get a chance to study their history for themselves, or they really didn’t get a chance to talk about themselves. It was always external researchers, journalists and filmmakers who’d come in and talk about the political conflict for them — often presenting a narrative shorn of the Kashmiri vantage. To me, it was so important to think about the history, political dispute and people’s history as a Kashmiri myself, and that’s what made me shift to anthropology, which uses the humanistic optic to voice the opinion of those marginalized,” she says.

Zia earned a doctorate in anthropology at UC Irvine in 2014 and came to UNC as an assistant professor that same year. Since then, she’s found her voice — and given others opportunities to find theirs.

In 2019 she published Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. Her co-edited books include Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (2018) and Desolation Called Peace (2019) and Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak (2020).

Yet to come, a poetry collection that will join her 1999 collection of poetry called The Frame is in the works with Red River Press (slated for this year). Zia’s ethnographic poetry on Kashmir won an award from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and is the co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region. Active in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, she’s also a poetry associate with Anthropology and Humanism journal and a book review editor with the Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Zia’s research on Kashmir focuses on gender and military occupation. In Resisting Disappearance, she writes about how an estimated 10,000 Kashmiri men have been “disappeared” by Indian government forces since 1989, and how their widows and “half-widows” (wives of men who’ve been “disappeared” and not declared dead) have created a “spectacle of mourning” as acts of resistance. They are activists in the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared Persons (APDP), and Zia has spent more than a decade chronicling their efforts to keep attention focused on their lost family members.

Zia has traveled to Kashmir annually for fieldwork. When questioned by the government agencies about her work, she found that because her work involved talking with women, her research seemed unthreatening.

“They’d ask, ‘So why are you working with the APDP?’ I’d say, ‘I’m studying the women and seeing how we can empower them,’ so they thought ‘this is about women’s issues and nothing political.’” 

Placing her study in the context of women seemed to help downplay her study’s political impact, yet it didn’t keep Zia from facing the brunt of state surveillance. In recent years, as her work garnered increased attention and she emerged as a voice in Critical Kashmir Studies, she has come into crosshairs of pro-India forces.

The APDP group itself has had a fair share of threat, coercion and surveillance from the government. Since it started in 1994, APDP activists have emerged as formidable human rights defenders. In 2017 the co-founder of the movement, Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year-old son was forcibly taken by the Indian government forces and then disappeared in custody, won the 2017 Rafto Human Rights Defender prize.

For UNC students, Zia’s research brings home the realities about postcoloniality, gendered struggles, third world feminisms, militarization, modes of resistance and agency.

“Initially the APDP was just a gathering of women, some holding placards, and mourning, they would sing wedding songs in bereavement of people who were never wed because they’re ‘disappeared’ in the prime of their youth,” Zia explains. “So, a mom would imagine a son getting married, and then she would start a wedding song, and then everyone would join in.”

These acts of resistance, Zia says, are important examples of agency, and she shares them with her students.

“I ask, ‘What is agency when you think about women? If you are always confrontational, is that the only agency, or is being active against something also agency?’”

Her students, who may have only seen activism and resistance as marching and confrontation, begin to see how resistance can come in many forms.   

As Zia explains, “In my study, the everyday gendered politics of mourning emerges as what I term as affective law, an agentive mode of challenging violence through everyday acts, cultural engagements and non-traditional sites of confrontation.”

Because she has experienced the power of writing — in itself an act of resistance — she is intentional in her efforts to help her students find their own voices in the written word.

In 2018, she conceptualized a hands-on project for students in Anthropology and Gender Studies in form of webzines. With the help of a founding student editor Gabrielle Scott ’18 and fellow Anthropology student Joanie Finch, the Anthropology webzine was named URMAMA (Undergraduate Researchers Making Anthropology More Accessible). It’s now called UAP (Undergraduate Anthropology Publication). The Gender Studies webzine is called PUGS, an acronym for Popularizing Undergraduate Gender Studies.

Emma Rogers ’19, Dani Thompson ’19 and Randi Olson ’20 took on the editorships for the journals before graduating and turning the publications over to current student Grace Davis and Nichelle Taylor ’21.

“This is an enriching experience, for them to become the editors, and then talk to people, think about issues in their discipline, solicit essays and edit,” Zia says. “They really grow into this.”

–Debbie Pitner Moors