Even though the state of Jammu and Kashmir is hurtling towards elections, officially, the presence of women in Kashmir's political process is almost a rarity. Historically, women in the Valley have played a frontline role, but 13 years of insurgency have ensured that women bear the burden of rebuilding a traumatized society, and their presence in politics today is almost negligible.
Out of the 87-member legislative assembly only one woman was elected during the state elections in 1996; the ruling National Conference government nominated two others. In the Legislative Council, two of 36 nominated members are women. Although the National Panchayat (Village Council) Act of 1989 guaranteed one-third reservation for women, during the elections in Jammu and Kashmir two years ago, the results were dismal. Of 22,700 elected posts only 68 panchs and 2 sarpanchs were women, most of them from Jammu and Ladakh, says Ajay Kumar Sadotara, minister for Agricultural Development and Panchayats. Out of 24 ministers, only one is a woman -- Sakhina Itoo, now the minister of state for tourism.
However, 50 years ago Kashmir's political theatre was more equitably divided between the sexes. There were more women movers and shakers than you could shake a stick at. Leading the pack was Sheikh Abdullah's wife and chief minister Farooq Abdullah's mother -- Begum Akbar Jehan, popularly known as Madre-e-Mehraban. A Parliamentarian, who represented Srinagar and Anantnag in the Lok Sabha and was lionized by her own generation, she was a social activist who had also fought in the National Militia. As did Zenaib Begum, sister of former chief minister, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq. Much before these worthies, Zoona, a milkmaid by profession was a gun-toting leader of the Quit Kashmir Movement of 1946. And there was Mahumda Ali, a leading light of the left movement. More recently, Kashmiri Pandits like Krishna Mishri spearheaded a teacher's movement in the Valley. These were not damsels in distress -- they were strong women making a mark, fighting as equal partners with men.
But ever since insurgency took root in the Valley, the statistics of women leaders have dwindled dramatically. Although a few women have formed activist groups like the Muslim Khawateen Markaz and the Kashmir Women's Forum and have led marches, especially against human rights violations,
their numbers remain small.
The two most prominent women today in Kashmiri politics ironically occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. Mehbooba Mufti, Vice President of the Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party founded by her father and former Union Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. And Asiya Andrabi, founder of the Dukhtaran-i-Millat (Daughters of the Community), an orthodox Islamic group with only a few hundred members.
Mufti entered politics on a Congress ticket in the 1996 assembly elections. But later, she resigned and joined her father's opposition party. While she advocates greater autonomy for Kashmir under the rubric of a constructive dialogue with India, Andrabi promotes complete secession from India. If anything, Andrabi represents the fundamentalist face of the women's political movement in the Valley. It is well known that her organization wants to Islamize the struggle in Kashmir. It supported the idea of women wearing burkhas (veils), promoted last year by lesser-known radical militant outfits like the Lashkar-i-Jabbar.
In between these opposites are women like Itoo who, at 24, was pressurized into contesting the 1996 elections because militants had killed her father, a speaker in the Assembly. Waiting in the wings are women like Shamima Firdoz, a 23-year-old political activist, and close associate of Begum Abdullah, who heads the recently constituted women's wing of the National Conference. Firdoz agrees on the decline in women's political participation, but she puts it down to the unstable conditions in Kashmir. Besides, extended periods of governor's and president's rule have taken
Mufti believes the barriers to women's political participation have become almost insurmountable today. Very few Kashmiri Muslim women get permission from their families to join politics. To go and meet all kinds of people -- militants and security forces included -- without protection is almost unimaginable for them. As for the active women among the Kashmiri Pandits, they have either fled to Jammu or Delhi or are practically invisible.
The women who have taken the plunge are, at best, reluctant politicians -- in harness because a father, husband or son has been killed or made way for them. Yet Mufti believes that women make better leaders, as they tend to empathise with the situation more. "The problem is not just political in Kashmir, it is also a human one: 20,000 widows, innumerable orphans, countless missing people. Women can understand the pain. Besides, they are less corrupt and more selfless."
Apart from the political cost, 13 years of insurgency have come with a huge social cost for women. Militancy runs on its own dynamics and one of these is enforcing a certain kind of identity for women. It encourages a restrictive way of life and promotes symbols like dress codes. For instance, the modern western dress for men can never be a problem, but even modern and liberal Kashmiri women like Mufti have to cover their heads to ensure acceptability.
In this ethos, men find it difficult to accept women as equal partners. Women politicians shatter the quintessential categories of gender and families reinforced by unstable social conditions. According to Professor Dabla, head of the sociology department at Kashmir University, strong and independent women, the rule breakers of the 1950s and '60s are targets of their own culture today.
Maybe that explains why the National Conference has yet to announce its reservation for women. This despite the fact that in 1931, Sheikh Abdullah went against conventionally accepted Muslim notions and guaranteed equality for women when drawing up the constitution for his party, and later for the state. Maybe it also explains why Shabnam Lone, daughter of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone, quietly made way for her brothers to take over their father's mantle even though her political acumen is well established.
Over a decade of insurgency, then, has ensured that women have become both victims and saints.