Women in Politics Encourage Change in Attitudes, Institutions, Laws in Kashmir
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – There is a crowd of people waiting outside the office of Shamim Firdous, one of only four women in the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir. They wait to meet her to address issues ranging from to electricity bills to rape reports.
One woman, who declined to give her name, says she has come to Firdous’ office to seek justice for her daughter, who was recently raped. She is glad there is a female legislator whom she can talk to.
“She is a woman and will understand my plight,” the mother says. “It will be much easier for me to talk to her about my problem than a man.”
The assembly woman proves her right, dismissing all employees and visitors from her office so that she can talk to the woman alone.
It was this opportunity of helping people that motivated Firdous to join politics.
“I was inspired by my mother, who would never say no to those in need,” says Firdous, who also serves as chairwoman of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women.
Firdous says she also received guidance and inspiration from Begum Abdullah, the late grandmother of Omar Abdullah, current chief minister of the state. Firdous used to visit the prominent political family’s organization, Madri Meherban Women and Child Welfare Institute, when she was a young adult in the 1980s.
“Begum Abdullah took me under her wings and taught me the intricacies of politics,” she says. “She became my godmother.”
Firdous says she has also relied on her own willpower and hard work, especially during the violent period of conflict in the region during the 1990s. Separatists of the anti-India armed insurgency saw mainstream political parties as collaborators with the Indian government, making politicians vulnerable to military attacks.
“People called me a traitor,” Firdous says. “But I was adamant to pursue it.”
When things got difficult for Firdous, her mother’s words sustained her.
“She told me that now was the time to prove yourself, as I had struggled hard to reach where I was,” she says. “It was time to show my existence. Her words woke me up.”
Firdous committed herself to providing similar support for women in her state.
“Women were most affected by the conflict,” Firdous says. “The women and children were helpless.”
Firdous, a rare example of a successful female politician in Kashmir, strived to show women that they are not helpless. She weathered the turbulence of the time, but she admits that it’s still not easy being a politician today.
“It is very difficult to pursue politics in a male-dominated society,” Firdous says. “They don’t let you move forward.”
She says that the low number of women in the legislative assembly is indicative of this. But she encourages women to change it.
“You have to force them to give you space,” she says. “Otherwise, they won’t give you any room.”
Successful women in politics are still rare in Jammu and Kashmir, but these women say it doesn’t have to be that way. Decades of conflict in Kashmir have made politics, already a male-dominated field, especially dangerous for women. But their supporters – especially women – say they are grateful to have female leaders that they can bring their concerns to. A state reservation law has increased the number of women in local politics, but a federal law increasing this number on the national and state levels has been pending for years. Men and women agree that institutions, not people’s attitudes, are keeping women out of politics. Women in office pledge to use their positions to chip away at this.
As of January 2012, India was one of just 17 countries in the world with a female head of state, according to the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. But it ranked 105th in the world for number of women in Parliament, with just 11 percent. This is below the regional average of 18 percent.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir falls even further below this at 4.5 percent. Of the 89 members in the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, only four are women. One was nominated, and three, including Firdous, were elected.
Another elected assemblywoman is Sakina Itoo, minister of social welfare, administrative reforms, inspections, trainings and grievances.
Itoo says she never aspired to be a politician. She was studying medicine in India when her father, a ruling politician in Jammu and Kashmir state, died suddenly.
“I was brought into politics by my circumstances,” Itoo says during a phone interview. “My father, a politician, was killed by militants in 1994, and I joined politics in ’96 after abandoning my studies.”
She says that her father’s supporters inspired her to join politics. But she’s never regretted abandoning medicine.
“I realized that I can get a chance to serve everyone by joining politics, which was not possible if I become a doctor, wherein I could only help those who were ill,” she says. “Politics would provide me an opportunity to help people in every way, whether their problem is food, electricity, roads or anything that concerns their lives.”
But Itoo admits that it’s an opportunity that’s hard to come by as a woman.
“Politics is no doubt a male-dominated field,” says Itoo, a member of the state’s governing party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference party. “They are not ready to give women a chance. The political parties are afraid of how the women will fare in elections.”
Still, Itoo acknowledges that some of the blame falls on women themselves.
“We should always keep in mind that no one will come to our home to give us our rights,” she says. “You have to go out to get them, fight for them. It is difficult for both men and women [to pursue] a life in politics. If one has to succeed, one has to work hard for it.”
She says that women here seem hesitant.
“I think women here are not political,” she says. “They don’t try to join politics. No one is ready to take that risk.”
Itoo traces this to the home.
“In our society, parents don’t encourage their daughters to take this field,” she says. “Instead, they want them to become doctors, engineers, teachers – but never politicians.”
She adds that political parties are also hesitant.
“Political parties are also reluctant to give women a chance,” she says. “They are thinking, ‘What will happen if the woman candidate doesn’t win?’”
Itoo did win. Still, a political career in the conflict-ridden region comes with risks. She has survived several attacks on her life by pro-independence militants, who routinely attack security officials and pro-India politicians in the Indian-administered state. In September 2002, she faced four such attacks within a span of two weeks.
“I have struggled a lot,” she says. “It was so dangerous to be a politician in the ’90s, and I worked in those difficult times. We worked when bullets were raining.”
There even came a time when her mother asked her to leave this profession because of its risks. But her supporters continued to encourage her.
“My supporters had so many expectations from me, and I couldn’t let them down,” she says. “When things were very difficult and my life was in danger, they asked me to sit at home, telling me they will take care of things for me. But I took it up as a challenge and succeeded.”
Like Firdous, she says women have born the brunt of the conflict.
“In the two decades of conflict, women have been the worse sufferers,” Itoo says. “Whether someone’s husband or brother was killed, all the responsibilities shifted on women.”
Gul Wani, a political analyst and professor at the University of Kashmir, says that women haven’t been alone in this fight. But he acknowledges that they have been leaders.
“In the 20 years of violence of the conflict, men also found it difficult to pursue politics,” he says. “Still, many women came out in various political camps with issues like human rights violations.”
He says that they protested against human rights violations by security forces against citizens.
“Even in the years of violence, women were not quiet,” he says. “They participated in demonstrations.”
Female citizens say that having more women in office also helps them to speak up.
Saja Bano, an elderly widow, recently visited Itoo’s office about a problem with her pension.
“It was a comfort to visit a woman minister and seek help, rather than a man,” she says.
Farooq Ahmad, a retired government employee, agrees that women can be an important resource for other women.
“I think the gender of a legislator doesn’t matter much,” he says. “But yes, [if] it is a department like social welfare, where most of the beneficiaries are poor, downtrodden women, a woman at the helm is an advantage. And a position like head of women's commission has to be a woman always.”
The federal and state government have begun to implement laws to increase the number of women in politics.
Last year, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir passed a law reserving one-third of the seats for women in panchayats, grassroots administrative bodies in villages. Each panchayat consists of five panches and is led by a sarpanch.
Women succeeded in gaining one-third of panch seats last year, according to state records. But a female sarpanch is still rare. Only three women won the 2,125 sarpanch seats in Kashmir, and 25 women won the 1,956 seats in Jammu.
The Women's Reservation Bill is still pending in the Indian Parliament. The bill reserves one-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha, the national lower house, and in state legislative assemblies for women. The Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, passed the bill in 2010. The lower house has not yet voted on it.
Wani says the holdup creates doubts about its passing.
“There is a doubt that it will be granted unhindered,” he says. “There is reservation about the reservation. There is no consensus on the bill, even when there is a consensus on the fact that we need more women in politics.”
Itoo says the source of the reservation is men.
“I don’t think men are ready for that,” Itoo says. “It is true for all parts of the country. There should be reservation not only at the parliamentary level but also at the state level in the legislative assemblies.”
Itoo adds that this will leave political parties with no option but to give more women a chance to get into the field.
Nighat Shafi Pandit, a prominent social activist, goes even further than the proposed reservation, based on the fact that women constitute half the population.
“Unless 50 percent of politicians are women, we won’t be able to streamline things,” she says. “It is not the issue of women not being capable, but of chance. They are perfectly able to lead the masses.”
Wani says there is nothing stopping women from joining politics.
“Historically, women in Kashmir have remained emancipated politically,” he says. “Women don’t join politics, not because society has not been accommodative, but because of women’s own reluctance, except for the last 20 years of violence.”
Still, he says that, even then, women had a voice.
“There hasn’t been a discrimination of gender, and women here have got as much space as they can ascertain,” he says.
Pandit agrees to some extent. She says that Kashmiri women have never shied away from politics.
“We should remember that when women in politics were a rarity, even at that point, we had women in politics in Kashmir,” she says.
But she says that institutions stand in the way.
“This is a male-dominated field, and women have to fight to get into politics,” she says. “She has to fight with the society but also at home for politics. It’s not like people are against women, but our institutions are such. Otherwise, women have courage and are perfect[ly] capable for politics.”
Firdous says that the main issues affecting women in her constituency are divorces, unemployment and illiteracy. She says she values her position to help other women.
“But here I can’t help them financially,” she says, “which is what many women need, that is to stand on their own feet.”
Still, she says she does her best.
“I find ways to help them,” Firdous says with a smile.
She says that reserving 50 percent of all jobs for women could help.
Itoo says that the female parliamentarians are trying to give women more economic power.
“There was no concept of gender budgeting in any sector,” Itoo says. “We have introduced it.”
She says that they have also made progress on protecting women in other ways.
“We succeeded in getting the Domestic Violence Bill passed, which was pending for a long time, wherein a mechanism has been put in place whereby the cases will not only be registered but will also get redressed,” Itoo says.
Women in office are just scratching the surface.
“There is so much to do,” Itoo says. “My focus is not only women but the general public.” (GPI)