Mehbooba Mufti will take over as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir next week. This is good news because she will be the first woman chief minister of the state. This is also good news because she will only be India’s second Muslim woman chief minister.
But is this good news representative of women in politics in this Muslim-majority state? If you don’t belong to the state and if you haven’t followed the political developments keenly, and if someone asks you about women in Kashmiri politics, Mehbooba Mufti’s will be the only name that will pop up in your mind.
For those who are closer to the state, chances are that they would also have heard of the National Conference’s (NC’s) Shamima Firdous and former social welfare minister Sakina Itoo. In a state where even men are apprehensive about joining mainstream politics, it’s no surprise that women are, more or less, missing from the political landscape. In an interview with Business Line newspaper, as quoted by an article in the International Museum of Women, an online platform, Mehbooba Mufti said, “In a situation where it is difficult to find even good men to come forward and contest—they demand security which we can hardly promise—it is a little too much to expect women to rise above their role in such a traumatized society and come forward to participate in the political process”.
In the first assembly election in Jammu & Kashmir in 1951, there were no women registered as voters. But there was one woman who contested who lost her deposit. It was only in the 1972 assembly elections that women, for the first time, entered the Jammu and Kashmir assembly.
That year, ten women filed their nominations, six of them contested and four won. It was the first election in which the majority of women contestants won. They gave the state assembly its highest percentage (5.33%) of women.
Unfortunately, 44 years on, that record remains unbroken. “Kashmir is still a conservative society. To be in politics means dealing with the public. Most families are not comfortable with idea of sending their women out,” says Hina Bhat, who contested from Srinagar’s Amira Kadal constituency on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket and lost.
“Women here are well educated, bright, doing good in diverse professions… but when a woman decides to join politics, not many families come out to support. I have met many young college girls who aspire to be politicians, but they give up because the families are hesitant,” adds Bhat.
Since 1972, the number of women in the assembly has never been more than 3%, even though the number of women contesting has been increasing. From 1972 to 1996, women went missing from state politics. In the 1996 elections, 14 women contested, 10 of whom lost their deposits. In an 87-member legislative assembly, two women were elected, and the ruling NC government nominated two others.
That was the year NC’s Itoo started her political career—after her father, former Assembly speaker Wali Mohammad Itoo, was killed in a militant attack. She made it to the assembly and became a minister. In the 2002 election, 29 women were in the fray. Mehbooba Mufti and Suman Bhagat from Congress won. In the 2008 election, 67 women contested—Mehbooba Mufti, Firdous and Sakina Itoo made it.
Firdous, who made it to the state assembly after bagging 2,374 out of 5,769 votes polled, also became a minister. From Baramulla, Firdous is one of the few women politicians with no political background. And most recently, in 2014, 3% of women got tickets and out of 29 women contestants, three, including the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP’s) Asia Naqash and NC’s Firdous, made it.
Together, the NC, the BJP, the PDP and the Congress had fielded a total of 14 women, while the rest of the women contested from other regional parties or as independents. Again, Naqash is the sister-in-law of PDP lawmaker Tariq Karra.
As Kashmir-based political analyst Gul Muhammad Wani says, it is unfair to look at the role of women in politics in the state only through the prism of electoral wins. “Like what happens in most of India, women politicians here as well, belong to political families. But we should also look at the separatist politics in Kashmir and women’s role in it.
Organizations like Dukhtaran-e-Millat or people like Anjum Zamrooda Habib are politically very active even though separatist politics is more dangerous than mainstream, where chances of getting security and funds are more. “If the conflict stabilizes, there is a high chance of women’s representation becoming much better than any Indian state because women here are already more advanced and educated than women elsewhere,” says Wani.