Gul Muth as an Act of Solidarity

How do women create little spaces for themselves? How do they care for each other? In trying to find answers to these questions from my own lived experience, I focus on an age-old practice/tradition in my region—Kashmir—that has silently empowered women. Silently is the keyword here since a vast majority of men do oppose such a practice. However, it continues to remain resilient to such opposition.  

Gul Muth is a financial practice between women of a particularly large family or between women in a neighbourhood, or between close friends. In this practice, women provide money to each other on occasions related to marriage or death or even at the particular accomplishment of a close family member like passing exams or getting jobs. Pertinently, it is not lending since at no point do women put markers on it like when the money should be returned or should it be returned at all but expect other women to show up when they need it. Moreover, financial support is provided after the event or the occasion has passed. This unique nature of monetary support at the family and community level made me think of this practice as feminist solidarity. But before that, I wanted to understand why such a practice is prevalent in the first place. Of course, I was looking for answers without reducing it to a reaction to patriarchy.  

I asked a Kashmiri cultural historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef about the background of Gul Muth or HuorBuor as it is known in some areas of Kashmir. Rather than thinking of it as a noun, he used it in his answers as if it was a verb and said it is part of a gesture to help people in dire economic conditions. In the past, people in Kashmir did not have many avenues and GulMuth would help them in paying off debt and other essential needs. “It was given even in the period of sadness to support other people in whichever way possible.  Now that time has progressed, so have avenues but this tradition continues to run in Kashmiri households.” Then he provided caution and said that with better financial means,“Gul Muth nowadays is considered as Tijarat (business) that involves confiscating money. People then used to give it with the utmost respect, however it has been replaced now with ostentation.”

One thing was certain from my conversation with Zareef Ahmad Zareef that Gul Muth was part of the broader activity in which people lent money to each other on special occasions. Lending money through women has always led to deeper suspicions of the general risks involved. However, in my own lived experience, Gul Muth is more (and even less) than lending. It was a completely different practice. When I look at this other part of the story, in which women are central figures, I see Gul Muth in terms of how women are creating spaces of empowerment within. In my naiveté, I wanted to reclaim Gul Muth as an act of feminist solidarity. 

Let me first briefly explain what solidarity would mean in this context. Hannah Ardent writes that “we can view solidarity as the collective power that grows out of action in concert, binds members of the feminist movement together, and enables feminists to build coalitions with other oppositional social movements.” By action, Arendt refers to collective work that feminist movement has produced, which has led to solidarities. On solidarity, bell hooks makes a point when she says “feminist solidarity between women necessarily includes the obligation to struggle with other women against racist, class-based, and homophobic structures that dominate them, even if one oneself is not the direct target of these structures.” hooks convincingly talks about how feminist solidarity amongst women obligates one to fight against the dominating systems alongside other women. This is true even if one is not a direct target of these systems. In one of the essays, hooks talks about sisterhood where she writes that the feminist movement is weakened and diminished when sisterhood as an expression of political solidarity among women is abandoned. 

To understand how Gul Muth manifests in my society and see it as part of a larger sisterhood, hooks is convincing although she is writing in a completely different context. I wonder if it is also an act of sisterhood between her and the women in Kashmir. For me what was important was how women use Gul Muth to meet their needs: sometimes clothes, their sanitation needs, attending to a guest in the middle of the day, medical emergencies, or even a new Gul Muth. It makes women less dependent and somewhat empowered them. In the grander scheme of things, it is a small act but a proverbial giant leap. A lot of women, I talked to, admitted how with the help of this tradition they paid off their debt or how they paid their children’s school fees.

Critics of the tradition, mostly men, accuse the source of money in Gul Muth comes from men. But isn’t that the bare minimum that men can do? It has been also called fitna (conflict) because alongside money it also involves giving things like Gold. But deep down we see how this custom has helped women in any way possible. Gul Muth as solidarity is powerful as it unites womanhood not only in the monetary sense but also in times of grief and happiness. Gul Muth allows them to meet, greet, and talk about a lot of issues, which society sadly describes as “gossip”. It is in these conversations one will find how women have been tolerating nonsense in the name of dowry, abusive marriage, financial dependency, eagerness to study,and many other things. It is in these conversations, I understand the vulnerability of feminist expression. I do not know how to summarize it but they can be regarded as feminist gatherings, even though women in Kashmir will not recognize the term. But they do talk about the problems they face in their quotidian lives. They talk about the many hopeful and hopeless promises of their lives knowing they have a listener, a support system, and the assurance of monetary help.   


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