Significant Yet Sidelined—Women in Kashmir Politics

PDP Chief Mehbooba Mufti with party colleague Asiya Naqash, KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

‘Women in J&K are liberal to join other fields like medical, engineering, media but when it comes to politics there is a stigma.’

In the Lok Sabha elections 2019, only four women from Jammu & Kashmir filed nominations out of which one woman withdrew her nomination and another woman contestant didn’t pay the security deposit. In the end, there were only two women contestants with 61 male contestants. Similarly, in the Legislative Assembly elections 2014, out of 831 contestants only 28 were women.

Women entered the J&K assembly for the first time in the 1972. Out of six women contestants, four women won giving the assembly the highest percentage (5.33%) of women. Even after 48 years, the record is not challenged. Since then the number of women in the assembly is not more than 3%.

In the last assembly elections of 2014, only two women contenders won out of 28. Later Mehbooba Mufti also got elected in by-polls in 2016.

The maximum number of women contestants (67) were seen in 2008 assembly elections but only three were able to win a seat.

According to a study by Shahida Shafi and Dr. Mamta Chandrashekhar, women participation in voting is almost equal to their male counterparts in J&K but their overall participation and representation in the politics of the state is not still “up to the mark” in the state legislative assembly, parliament and decision-making bodies, claims the study.

“Historically, women in the valley have played a significant role, but 30 years of insurgency have ensured that women bear the burden of rebuilding a traumatized society, and their presence in politics, today is almost negligible,” mentions the paper.

Women in J&K are liberal to join other fields like medical, engineering, media but when it comes to politics there is a stigma, says Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat, Vice-Chairperson Khadi Village Industries Board. “Politics is a kind of profession in J&K where men are also not spared.”

It is not only difficult for women to join politics in J&K but also for men because of the turmoil, adds Bhat. She believes that women are the major sufferer of militancy. “As a wife, sister and mother, women have suffered a lot which has restricted them to participate in political activities.”

Kashmir has plenty of half widows who are suppressed by the militancy and they don’t get an opportunity to express themselves freely, said the Vice-Chairperson. “As we move forward, we think that society is becoming broad-minded, but reality is quite different.”

Mehbooba Shadab, an independent politician from the valley also believes that turmoil has affected the involvement of women in politics. According to her, a majority of women are kept inside the house out of fear and it becomes difficult for women when they venture out of the concrete walls.

Senior National Conference leader Sakina Itoo believes that it is not the militancy that is holding women from joining politics in Kashmir but it is the society. “Even if we look at data before militancy, limited women contested elections,” says the former MLA.

Itoo claims to have more female ground workers than men but when it comes to higher positions in politics it is dominated by men. “People in Kashmir are more interested to send their daughters for competitive exams like Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) and Indian Administrative Services (IAS),” says Itoo.

Safina Baig, a political activist, also believes that militancy has no role to play in less participation of women in politics. She says that politics has been a male dominating profession and the society believes that women cannot handle such challenging roles.

“When it comes to decision making, it is difficult for society to digest that a woman is taking a lead,” says Baig. The political parties may have women empowerment in their manifestos but when it comes to including women in decision making, they are quite hesitant, adds the political activist.

Baig suggests that the women reservation bill which reserves 33 percent seats in the Lok Sabha, and all state legislative assemblies for women should be passed by the Lok Sabha to provide equal opportunities to women politicians.

Role of media

Media provides a crucial platform to politicians for public debates and helps people to form an opinion. A study by Shah Alam on the participation of women in Indian politics and the role of media, states that media should highlight women’s achievements so that it encourages more females to be a part of the democratic process.

“Media should recognize women politicians, their voices, their contributions in decision making and highlight women’s issues and also appreciate the work done by women to increase their inclination towards the political system,” claims the study.

Shadaf, an independent political leader from Habbakadal, says that she got good media coverage during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “I think media prefer female politicians more,” claims Shadaf.

But when Dr. Darakhshan Andrabi, a senior BJP leader, joined politics she said she did not get much coverage from the Kashmir media. “Jammu print and electronic media helped me a lot during my initial days,” says Andrabi.

She emphasized that the fourth pillar of democracy has an important role in shaping a politician’s life and sometimes female politicians are given less coverage than their counterparts.

Independent Political leader

According to Shadaf, it is very important to have a political backing to survive in J&K politics. She had the backing of her uncle who was a part of J&K politics. “Apart from that you need money and everything will come in place,” says the independent leader.

While Shadaf says that she will contest in the next election as an independent leader only, Rashida Mir who contested as an independent leader from Kulgam in 2014 has joined hands with BJP.

Mir believes that it is tough to work as an independent leader as you have to work from ground zero. “Political party provides you members and people are eager to work with you because they already know the party’s agenda,” says BJP State Secretary of North Kashmir.

Khem Lata Wakhlu, senior Congress leader, says that it is very difficult for a novice to join politics in J&K, especially women. “Name of the party during election matters a lot and sometimes it becomes difficult for an individual to get funding to promote her party,” adds Wakhlu.

What lays ahead?

The political process in Kashmir came to a halt after the abrogation of Article 370 last year. Many political leaders were detained under Public Safety Act (PSA). The environment after the collapse of the PDP-BJP government in 2018 was quite different. The political activities in the valley were present, parties issued statements, organized press conference but after August 5, 2019, a vacuum is created in J&K politics.

While the local unionists are reiterating they would “tirelessly struggle to get back the special status and restore the Constitutional guarantees forcibly are taken away from J&K”, Hina Bhat says that India is a democratic country and every regional party has the right to put their point forward. But it depends what the whole country wants, she continues.  “It is said that Kashmir is an integral part of India but I will say that India is an integral part of Kashmir.”

Speaking about the resentments amongst people post abrogation of Article 370, she says that the wrong leaders have shown wrong dreams to the people of J&K. “People of J&K are not aware of the merits of abrogation of Article 370,” adds Bhat.

Itoo, a senior National Conference leader, believes that the Centre does not want political activities to resume in Kashmir. “How can we think of politics when there is no security for us?”

“Political process will start in the valley when there is hope amongst people,” says Baig. “There should be a plan layout not only by the government but also by civil societies, lawyers, and businessperson to solve the Kashmir issue.”

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