Nation for Peace

Urfa Mir: Kashmir’s first ‘peace psychologist’

Peace psychology is a kind of psychology based on reducing the impact of violence on society and finding ways of fostering peace.

Urfa Mir: Kashmir’s first ‘peace psychologist’S

RINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – With the light of the sinking sun flashing through a plate-glass window, Ufra Mir leans over a spiral notebook with intricate designs doodled on it. Scattered on the floor of her office, dozens of Faber-Castell crayon colors-some old, some new. She raises her head on the half-open door when someone knocks.

With a wide smile, 29-year-old Mir greets a veiled woman, 55-year-old Amina Shiekh, who hesitates to step into the room. Shiekh lifts her veil, looking tired.

Mir takes out some blank paper sheets, and hands them to Shiekh. Shiekh, a widow and a mother of three children, tells Mir that she has a lot of “pain and hopelessness” to deal with in her life. Four years ago Shiekh had lost a son to cancer, and two years ago a husband to a heart attack.

Prior to his death, the ability of her husband to earn a living as a carpet weaver had been affected by clashes in the disputed Kashmir region, leading to curfews and the regular shutdown of all activity in the Kashmir Valley. Shiekh was left as the head of the household when he died; she became likewise a carpet weaver.

The Himalayan region is beset with a seven decades-old territorial conflict between India and Pakistan. An estimated 70,000 people have died since an armed insurgency against Indian rule broke out in 1990. And many men just disappeared, giving birth to a new category of women known locally as “half-widows.” These women don’t know if their husbands are alive or dead.

Mir asks Shiekh, using whatever colors she likes, to express her frustrations through a drawing. To draw abstract forms she chooses yellow and brown. In Shiekh ‘s life, Mir interprets the picture as the “chaos” and “clutter.”

“It feels so good when someone listens carefully to your problems, without judging you,” says Shiekh. “I learned here that giving voice to the emotions makes one’s heart light up.”

Mir gives her some meditation exercises involving deep breathing before Shiekh leaves, to help control her stress and anger.

Mir is the first – and so far only – “peace psychologist” of Kashmir. Peace psychology is a kind of psychology based on reducing the impact of violence on society and finding ways of fostering peace. Mir’s personal brand of peace psychology includes talk therapy, art therapy, and stress management techniques, but she also teaches leadership skills to ordinary people, and helps them to analyse the conflict that unfolds around them so they can better cope with their environment.

“I believe there is room for art, imagination and the strengthening of relationships where there is pain, confusion and tension, if only we can make the turn in our minds,” says Mir. “This is why I teach people how to use artistic speech to communicate their pain, tension and conflicts.”

Mir, 29, was born in Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley heartland. When the armed insurgency against Indian rule broke out in 1990, the restaurant business of her father was badly hit, and they had to move to Leh, more than 250 miles (400km) east. She moved back to Srinagar in high school, and went to university abroad, first to Luther College in the United States, then to Nottingham University in the United Kingdom for her master’s degree. She wanted to use her acquired experience after completing her studies in her conflict-ridden homeland, where tens of thousands of people have been killed since the beginning of the armed rebellion.

Besides working as a counsellor at a local private school, through her NGO Paigaam, Mir also gives free sessions to women and youth from all over Kashmir, both individually – as in the case of Shiekh – and in groupings. Those with whom she works include at-risk youth; high school and college students who were injured during protests by pellet shots last year; and “half-widows.”

She says she is trying to rekindle the trust of Kashmir’s widows and “half-widows,” who often tell her that their families feel weak and burdensome.

“Women here […] don’t realize how, in the absence of a male head, they take charge of their families through their patience, perseverance, compassion and empathy,” she says. “Mothers cater for their children’s daily needs and do everything possible to keep them safe. They are fighting at micro- and macro-level to ensure peace, whether it is through small household chores or participating in peaceful street protest alongside men.

Mir says she’s trying to open her eyes to her own resilience: “When there’s so much turmoil around, women mostly take their little steps of courage for granted and that lowers their self-esteem,” she says.

Mir also says she sees many women seemingly disconnected from the present, with thoughts focused on past loss.

“Recognizing the sense of loss is no bad thing,” she said. “But I’ve seen these people restrict their definition of peace to some form of constant future target without attempting to cope with what’s going on, making the people more depressed and powerless.”

Mir also represents the Kashmir region in various national and international fora on mental health and development of leadership. She is currently working on leadership development with a New Delhi-based organization for educational officials working across Kashmir. The ultimate aim is to enhance the student learning outcomes in a area where general shutdowns often impact schools.

“Trust is important in building peace,” she says. And women’s self-confidence is key to building lasting peace: “Women in Kashmir are trying to change things in extraordinary circumstances, where they could have lived as victims their entire lives.”

From some news agency

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