In J&K, Gender Is Just a Political Tool
The recent turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir has brought a lot of visibility to women in the public space. Both in Jammu as well as in Kashmir they have become the face of protest politics. For many this can be interpreted as a sign of their emancipation and empowerment. Have they not succeeded in tearing down the male bastion of politics by joining the processions and leading them from the front? But the issue of empowerment and emancipation is not so simple for the women of this state, who have been facing the trauma of conflict for the past two decades.
Conflict has touched women across the regional and religious divide and they have emerged as its worst sufferers. They have been the victims of violence from every side - whether perpetrated by the agents of the state or the militants. Many of them have been sexually abused, many have been widowed, many are still struggling to find the whereabouts of their husbands and live lives of 'half widows', many are stressed by the trauma of displacement, and many are facing the onslaught of the fundamentalist forces. However, they have not been able to articulate their suffering from the point of view of their gender identity.
Interestingly, the state presents a picture of multiple identity politics. Besides the Kashmiri identity politics, there is Jammu's regional identity politics; the sub-regional identity politics of Doda, Leh, Kargil, Poonch-Rajouri; tribal identity politics of Gujjars and Paharis; and so on. In this scenario, there is no space for the politics of gender identity.
It is taken for granted that women will follow the dominant identity politics and identify with it completely, even when it may be in contradiction with their gender interests. The issue came on to centre stage a few years ago when women of the state - rather than uniting on a very important gender issue - got divided along regional lines.
The issue related to the Permanent Resident Status of married women illustrated this point. By an administrative anomaly, the women of the state tended to lose their right to the Permanent Resident Certificate if they married outside the state. Such a provision did not apply to men. A High Court decision that was aimed at correcting the anomaly was seen as endangering the Kashmiri identity and there was pressure on Kashmiri women in the Valley to identify with the ongoing opposition to this move. The response of Jammu women, although apparently more gender sensitive, was neither spontaneous nor autonomous and was organized by the male-dominated political parties, which saw the issue more from the perspective of the inter-regional divide than from a gender perspective.
However, this is not the only issue where gender identity has been rendered subservient to 'political identity'. Almost on any issue where women could have bonded together and raised issues on a common platform, they have been divided on regional, communal and other lines. Political identity, in almost all cases, takes precedence over gender identity.
The manner issues of violation of gender rights are framed within the context of identity politics indicates how limited is the politician's concern for women. Issues of sexual harassment and rape are seen as an assault on the community. Two instances suffice to underline this. The first is that of the infamous case of Kunanposhpora, a Kashmiri village, where all the women were alleged to have been raped by the security forces. The case forms an important part of Kashmir's human rights discourse and is cited by various social and political groups of Kashmir as one of the worst cases of the victimization of hapless Kashmiris by the Indian State. However, despite the anguish expressed about the sexual exploitation of these women, the village remains almost abandoned and the women face the additional stigma of being raped.
The second instance relates to a 'sex scandal' that had surfaced a few years ago. A number of state officials were involved in promoting the sex racket. In this case also the whole issue was seen more from the perspective of the community rather than that of women. It was projected as an affront for the Kashmiri community and its cultural ethos.
It is because of this co-option of the gender identity that the women's movement has bypassed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Since women are not organized on the basis of gender and do not count in political terms, some of the national policies and institutions meant to empower women have not been extended to the state. In the rest of India, millions of women have been the beneficiaries of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment (that reserves a third of the seats in local bodies and village councils for women). However, the women of J&K remain untouched by this provision. Similarly, they do not have access to the National Commission of Women. The casual approach towards women is reflected in the fact that the Chairperson of the State Commission for Women was unceremoniously removed some six years ago and the Commission has remained headless ever since.
Meanwhile, the conflict situation has aggravated competitive identity politics. As the recent agitation in both Jammu and Kashmir has shown, there is an increasing gulf among people and sharpening of both regional and communal identities. This has clear implications for women's politics. Women are not only coming under the influence of reactive political parties but are being projected as the major agents of divisive communal and regional politics.
Women's empowerment and emancipation are ultimately connected with their gender consciousness as well as with an increasing sense of being a collective. But the current conflict situation in the state does not allow women to either assert their gender identity or unite across ethnic, regional and communal lines. As long as this conflict continues, issues of gender will continue to be subordinated to other issues of identity and women in J&K will continue to pay a heavy price.
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