As J&K Votes, Women Power Speaks
While women in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have continued to remain marginalized from formal peace negotiations and mainstream political processes to resolve the Kashmir conflict, many of them have decided to choose the democratic electoral process to reach the high table and help bring about development. Contesting the 2008 J&K Assembly elections from different constituencies, these women are the markers of a change that this troubled state desperately needs, especially after the protests and agitation that it has witnessed recently. The elections are being held in seven phases till December 24. "J&K has to be saved from further destruction," says Khalida Abdullah, 73, a senior campaigner of the Awami National Conference.
Despite the different reasons propelling these women into the public sphere, one factor that binds them is their concern for the common people. "No one listens to the poor, especially poor women," says Gousia Bashir, 26, an independent candidate from Bandipora constituency, who is contesting for the first time. Braving the adverse weather, Bashir is on an aggressive door-to-door campaign to garner support. She is enthusiastic about her decision to contest. "I want political power to voice issues and concerns of the people who live in remote villages. No elected representative from major political parties has ever visited them." Bashir's house is located just across the Bandipora police station and the anger in her voice is discernible when she says, "I often see how women are being exploited by corrupt officials. I want women's desperate voices to reach the threshold of power."
Voicing similar reasons and de-linking the resolution of the Kashmir issue from the present elections is another new entrant: Shabnam Lone. A Supreme Court and Srinagar High Court lawyer, Lone is an independent candidate from Kupwara constituency and has been spurred on by the abysmal living conditions in rural Kashmir. "I was so disturbed to see how women have to walk miles and climb mountains to fetch water; and how they are harassed and exploited in government offices when trying to procure relief and ex-gratia payments. Our young boys have to go out of the State for jobs. Why?" Lone asks pointedly.
Notwithstanding the experiences of violence and personal tragedy, the responses of the Kashmiri women to trauma and political instability showcases a remarkable resilience, whether they live in the strife-torn Valley or in the camps for the displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu, or elsewhere in India. However, historically, it was the Muslim women in the Valley who had always responded positively to peace maneuvers. In 1996, Sakina Itoo of National Conference (NC) chucked her MBBS course in Bhopal and successfully contested the Assembly elections from Noorabad constituency in Anantnag district, after the assassination of her father, Wali Mohammad Itoo, in 1994.
"I survived two IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blasts and two grenade attacks. I campaigned under heavy security cover and my house became a fortress. Yet, I remained committed to my political goals for I did not want anyone to say that 'she backed out because she was a woman'," says Itoo. Although Itoo lost the same seat in the 2002 Assembly election, she hopes to regain it this time round. "There are 136 villages in my constituency and undoubtedly women's issues are very important but I believe in an inclusive approach."
This is a perspective Lone shares. "Women do undergo strenuous experiences in the absence of infrastructure and information about the law. This affects their family and, thus, the community. Yet, policies cannot be framed exclusively along gender lines," she explains. Education, health, unemployment and infrastructure are some of the areas that Lone is going to prioritise, if elected to power.
Empowerment of women was, however, always an important theme in the region, as Shameema Firdous of NC contesting from Habbakadal constituency in district Srinagar, points out. As early as the 1950s, Madre Meherban Begum Abdullah, wife of the late Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah and mother of the former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah of the NC, plunged into politics. The Cambridge-educated Begum is said to have gone from door-to-door, encouraging Muslim girls to get educated. "Parde se bahar aa jayo" ("Step beyond the veil") she would say to Muslim girls, reminiscences Firdous, who was thus inspired to join politics and became Begum's political secretary.
Ever since, the literacy rate among women in Kashmir has shown a dramatic rise, with women joining various professional streams. Yet, few among them have opted for a career in politics.
The 2002 assembly elections changed things a little. They saw a surge in women voters and candidates and it reflected a popular response to the political situation and a desire for peace. Of the 29 candidates contesting the last Assembly elections, 12 were women. However, only two - Suman Lata Bhagat of Congress from RS Pura, Jammu province and Mehbooba Mufti of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) from Phalgam, Kashmir province - proved to be victorious.
"While women in Kashmir have pursued peace within their homes and communities, they are not often voted to power. The few who do reach the Assembly are shadowed by men," says Firdous.
While political parties have women's wings with women presidents at the district and block levels, women have to learn to define their agenda and political role. Women politicians here believe they have to mobilize and become the critical mass within the political domain in order to translate their understanding and experiences into policies. For instance, among the issues that women candidates want to focus on this time are the strengthening of the State Commission for Women, the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act and the cessation of atrocities against women. "A woman's concerns, issues and sense of injustice should be addressed for both better governance and the resolution of the Kashmir issue," says Shafika Begum, contesting from Handwara on a Panther's Party ticket.
But there can be no denying that despite the enthusiasm the task for women politicians in the Valley is an uphill one, as Firdous points out. Itoo adds, "We have to challenge divisive forces which have polarized our region." But it is Shafika, a grassroots political worker, who had lost both her brother and brother-in-law to militancy, who provides perspective to the issue. She explains that by joining the fray, she hopes to deliver good governance so that people experience true 'azadi' (freedom), which is a life free from want and fear - a better and secure life.
One can only hope that these women who see the situation with such clarity do finally make it to the high table and contribute towards solving the region's innumerable problems.
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