How One Women's Rights Advocate Came to Be

byRomana Hai


August 8, 2019 .6 min read

"I recognize that I had been raised in a pluralistic environment; I recognize that I had been raised in a syncretic environment. But it was only when I found myself in difficult situations that I could put that holistic teaching, or that pluralistic upbringing into practice."

Born in New Delhi and raised in Kashmir, Nyla Khan has taken her rather privileged upbringing and experiences to channel and expose topics that are quite the contrary. Nyla has used her voice to not only advocate for women’s rights but to also advocate for societal change. And to help deliver her message, Nyla has authored a series of books, given countless lectures at several universities across the United States and abroad and has spoken out at women's state penitentiaries in Oklahoma.

But before Nyla became an author and advocate, Nyla was simply known as the daughter of a retired professor of literature, Suraiya Abdullah Ali and a retired physician, Mohammad Ali Matto. 

Born in a disputed border region of India, raised in a Muslim household and educated in a Catholic school, Nyla's upbringing was far from stereotypical. When Khan attended school, she was encouraged to attend catechism classes and go to chapel. When she returned home, Nyla was immersed in the Koran and learned all of the Muslim traditions. 

She was also brought up in a family who was known to speak out, politically. Nyla's maternal grandfather, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, was the founding leader of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference and the first Muslim prime minister of the region.

So, to say the least, Nyla's upbringing was very syncretic. Her upbringing forged a new way of thinking for Nyla, enabling her to incorporate all faiths and traditions, empowering her to forge her own path with a very open mind.

When it came time to attend college, Nyla attended Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi. In 1995, she then married a Kashmiri - marrying a Kashmiri was especially important to her as she wanted to hold on to the culture that she knew so well. 

She then taught 19th and 20th-century British literature at a women’s college in the summer capital of Kashmir. During this time, while she taught, there was a constant feeling of apprehension. Everyone felt as if they were on eggshells due to uncertainty and volatility the territorial conflict (which started in 1989) brought on. 

But despite the toxic masculinity that was felt throughout, Nyla was surprised by the amount of empathy, compassion, and humaneness that was retained. And it was during this time that she truly recognized her ability as an educator to communicate - her ability to build bridges, and this was something she wanted to build on.

With that, in 1998, she and her husband moved to the states. To the good 'ol state of Oklahoma to be exact. This move came due to her acceptance into the master's program in English literature at the University of Oklahoma and her husband’s desire to fulfill his medical residency program in the United States.

And if you're wondering where the connection is, this move, this transition and this new environment required a lot of change and new thinking, allowing Nyla to tap into tap into abilities she wanted to form into strengths.

This move became a major paradigm shift.

Remember, Nyla had a very privileged upbringing where she was protected and very sheltered. So, when she and her husband made their way to Oklahoma, all those protections that she had taken for granted were now removed.

Leaving behind a world of tradition and privilege for a one-bedroom apartment located in the university town of Norman was quite the change, to say the least.

While the one-bedroom apartment was a true test to her relationship, this was not where Nyla blossomed and discovered her intellectual, personal and social strengths.

It was her position at the University of Oklahoma where she came into her own, not only intellectually but politically as well. The removal of all things familiar to her---family, legal and societal obligations---allowed her to mature intellectually and politically.

It was liberating.

"It was at the University of Oklahoma that I recognized that as an intelligent and politically inclined woman I could talk about forging dialogue, and I could talk about building peace, I could talk about forging my ties to the peace process as a woman and still be recognized as intelligent and as someone worth listening to."

Nyla completed her Ph.D. and got her first tenure track position at the University of Nebraska - Kearney. During this time, her husband was doing his medical residency in Queens, New York. So she made the very difficult and brave decision of moving to Kearney, Nebraska on her own with her four-month-old daughter.

As a South Asian Muslim woman, this wasn't easy.

Now formally known as Dr. Khan, Dr. Khan taught courses on post-colonial World Literature and Women's and Gender Studies at the University which, at first, seemed a bit of a struggle.

You see, most of her students came from rural families and to encourage them to cultivate the ability to recognize the developing world as an authentic entity was difficult.

While this remained a challenge, it was an opportunity for Nyla to recognize her strengths as an educator and communicator. It was also an opportunity for her to write her second book entitled "Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between Indian and Pakistan."

Nyla soon was faced with another difficult decision. 

"After I became Associate Professor and my husband was not able to find anything in Omaha, Nebraska, which is where the medical center is, it started to sink in that, you know, if I make a difficult decision one more time, we might have to spend our entire lives apart."

And for the second time, Dr. Kahn made the very difficult decision of moving back to Oklahoma in 2010.

And this time she came back without any certainty, as this time she was returning as a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma. As a visiting professor, she was not provided the same protections and eliminated a lot of certainties her previous role provided her.

This time around, Nyla taught courses on postcolonial literature and on women in Islam.

"Oklahoma is the south and is one of the reddest states in the country. A state where you would think that Muslims would be stereotyped and demonized. But my classes on young women in the Muslim world were a huge success. In fact, the Women's and Gender Studies program conducted their exit poll and found that my course had been the only transformative experience for their students at the college/university level."

Nyla later wrote her fourth book, "The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation." The book examined the life of her grandmother, Akbar Jehan, and other women like her, who were raised in a patriarchal Muslim society, and went on to become political and social activists in the 1940s and 1950s.

"Those were women who learned to recognize their political and socio-cultural agency by pushing the envelope. Not by rebelling against the system, but by working within traditional frameworks."

Nyla hopes that her now fifteen-year-old daughter, who is a Kashmiri-American child, recognizes the strength of her elders as well as the richness of syncretism and pluralism. 

Aside from teaching and writing works of literature and politics, Khan has spent a good chunk of her time getting involved in women's issues in the state of Oklahoma.

In March of 2019, Nyla was appointed to a five-year term as a commissioner for the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women where she will provide research and information on societal violence and structural partisanship that result from deep-seated prejudices against women.

This new position goes hand-in-hand with her second book entitled "Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between Indian and Pakistan,” which focuses on regressive traditions and customs that objectify women and sexualize them. Nyla uses this as a framework and/or guide to her work, helping women in Oklahoma.

"Even today, in Oklahoma, the rate of domestic violence is very high. Even today, in Oklahoma, people still sweep domestic violence under the rug, because their churches and religious organizations don't want to have to deal with the stigma of divorce. There are communities in Oklahoma, even Caucasian communities, that still consider divorce a stigma."

In addition to that, Nyla brings awareness to an alarming fact about the state of Oklahoma, to-date, they hold the highest rate of female incarceration in the world.

"There are women here in prisons, you know, some of whom have taken the blame for crimes committed by their male partners. So if a child has been sexually abused by the child's father, or by the boyfriend of the child's mother, in a lot of cases, the mother gets a much harsher punishment for having failed to protect her child. Does that make sense?"

This is called a failure to protect law.

In addition to her work around women's issues, as an Oklahoma humanities scholar, Dr. Kahn speaks at women's prisons all across the state and receives much support form the Oklahoma Humanities Council as the talks that scholars like Dr. Khan give, lead to a lesser degree of recidivism.

"That makes me feel good about the kind of work that I do."

Today, Nyla Khan is finding more ways and opportunities to continue her advocacy work by networking and building alliances.