Before the partition of the country in 1947, Kashmiri women had little social role to play. While those Kashmiri women belonging to the aristocratic families would remain confined to their homes only, the rural Kashmiri women would participate in almost every domestic and agricultural chore right from working in the fields, harvesting of the paddy etc with their men. But even this active economic role did not give them complete economic independence and higher social status as it was predominately a patriarchal society. They always remained under-represented in political and decision-making positions; hence there could not be a perpetuation of policies and practices that could serve the needs of women.
After independence, Kashmiri women got a boost when reforms took place in various fields including the field of education which brought Kashmir women out of the shackles. Encouraged and motivated by all the respective state governments, many Kashmiri women entered jobs in various fields in the past 60 years of Indian independence.
But even in these past six decades, a strong women's political activism is still not visible on part of Kashmir's women. Women in Valley are not only under represented in political and social life, but the conservative Kashmiri society is the main barrier and constraint in their participation.
Ironical is the fact that in the 89-member state assembly, there are just three women members. While Kanta Andotra of the Congress is an elected legislator, she is in politics by virtue of being the wife of Congress Member Parliament Lal Singh who vacated his seat for his wife when he won the parliamentary elections. The other two, Khem Lata Vakhloo and Shanti Devi, are nominated members.
As Professor Hari Om, a former Head of history department, University of Jammu and member Indian Council for Historical research (ICHR) puts it, "The only visible face in Kashmir politics has been that of Begun Sheikh Abdullah, wife of Sheikh Abdullah who remained a Member Parliament twice, but that too by virtue of being the Sheikh's wife.
And now Mehbooba Mufti, MP, president of Peoples Democratic Party and the daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Sayeed." Prof Hari Om also believes that all of these handful of women have been able to carve some political space only because of their political family background.
Political patronage or background may be alright but what the Kashmiri women have witnessed in the past 17 years of violence in Valley is something different. They have not only lived through political turbulence but also negotiated and renegotiated their roles in the conflict that also does not remain static but keeps on changing.
In these past few years, Kashmir women donned a new role when they came out of their houses to work in the absence of their men folk in the family who become prey to the mindless violence, thus breaking the stereotypes related to women, especially in the background that they had no work experience and were forced to support their families and thus take over the role of a head of the family.
This clearly gives us an insight into the fact that they aren't the passive recipients of conflict as most of the agencies see them but have an inborn, innate resilience, the will to survive the most challenging situations.
But then has anyone pondered over the fact that why women voices from Jammu and Kashmir have been conspicuous only by their absence in the dialogic processes that are now unfolding in the terrorism-hit state? Even none of the Kashmiri women, except the high profile president of People's Democratic Party Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, was part of Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh's five working groups on Kashmir which were set up after second Round Table Conference on Kashmir. Not a single Kashmiri woman from the state was included in the conference or in the five working groups.
Does it also mean that women are no stake holders to the peace in Jammu and Kashmir?
Ask Hameeda Nayeem, who teaches English at Kashmir University and is a founder-member of the Women Waging Peace, an initiative of Harvard University's Kennedy School and she responds: "Ironically, in our society, there has been a cosmetic empowerment of the women. Ours is a very parochial society. Even if we assume women have a greater role, we need to know who are they representing? Only the daughters of politicians contest polls, that too if there are no sons to carry forward the legacy," adds Prof Nayeem, whose passport has been confiscated by the Union government for her activism.
Women in Kashmir are greatly bothered by the non-representation of women at various intra-state dialogue processes too. Mrs Seema Khajooria Shekhar, Additional Advocate General, J & K ( who incidentally is the first women AAG in the history of Jammu and Kashmir) strongly believes that the absence of women in these working groups is both unacceptable and short-sighted, especially as the women and children are the worst affected by the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.
"Steps should be immediately taken to address this serious gap," she says suggesting women of Jammu and Kashmir should throw their weight behind any initiative across the LoC that promotes better people to people interaction rather than restricting themselves to gender specific initiatives.
Women who have working at the grassroots believe that women's equal participation in political life, as voters, candidates and members of electoral committees, could play a crucial role in the advancement of women and the reconstruction of violence-ridden society.
Professor Rita Jitendra, renowned women rights activist who was also member of Jammu and Kashmir State Women's Commission believes that though women haven't come forward in political sphere in the real sense, yet for the first time in past 27 years in the troubled history of the state, the local bodies (Civic) polls held in Jammu and Kashmir in February-March 2005, have shown given us enough proof of women activism.
"What else you require? Involve women in all decision making levels as she understands about peace much better than anyone else," she advocates adding never before in the troubled history of Jammu and Kashmir, women came forward and participated in the elections which were held after a long gap of 27 years, even in troubled valley as the contesters. If women can come out in huge numbers desisting terrorist threats, why cannot they be included in the peace negotiations, argues adds Professor Jitendra adding after all, nobody can understand the meaning of word 'peace' better than a woman who has lost her husband, son, brother and father in the past 17 years.
In the first civic polls in which women participated, a total of 934 women contested the elections, indeed a significant number keeping in the fact that women never tried to break the stereotypes and entered politics. Of these, 270 women ultimately made it to the municipal council in 2005 and committees through out the state.
What surprised the world was the fact that Kashmiri women, despite facing strong barriers at these polls due to coercion by male relatives, threats or intimidation by militant groups contested and women. One sixty one women contested civil polls for Jammu Municipal Corporations, 61 for Srinagar Corporations, 27 for Kupwara, 75 Baramulla, 51 Anantnag, nine Pulwama, 108 Kathua, 22 Budgam, 89 Udhampur, 66 Doda , 19 Poonch and 36 Rajouri. At least for the first time in the history of state Kashmir women ultimately got some say in decision making though these civil polls.
"Real progress towards gender equality will be seen when women have more say in the decisions that affect their lives. Even though it could be termed as beginning, these elections gave an opportunity to Kashmiri women to express newly found political impact," says Professor Rekha Chowdhary, Department of Political Science, Jammu University.Till now, local women associated politics with fear and violence and saw them as synonymous but when some efforts were made by the government to give them opportunities to strengthen the democracy at grass root level, Kashmiri women, enthusiastically, came forward to contest the polls. "Give them some space and see how their confidence can do wonders besides inspiring other local women into political activism," adds Jitendra.
Agreeing no less, Seema Khajooria Shekhar adds that affirmative action for adequate representation of women in the state legislature should be actively encouraged. Jammu and Kashmir, she argues, has a Constitution of its own and Article 370 will give it added leverage in doing so. What the State requires is the political will of the decision makers who are mostly men for women's equal participation in deciding the political and economic future of Kashmir and a commitment at the governmental and administrative level.
Dr. Sumona Das Gupta, assistant director, Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP), says that a peace process that excludes more than half the population greatly risks the possibility of keeping several creative solutions and options out.
'When we talk about a gender sensitive discourse on Kashmir, we don't mean to exclude males. It's about building partnerships between men and women who agree that if conflict affects them differently it's only natural that they may want to access the peace process differently,' Gupta adds.
Empowering women would shape the path for peace and reconciliation that would organically grow out of participatory dialogue and lead to peace and development of the state, opine Professor Poonam Dhawan, Director, Centre for Women Studies, University of Jammu adding peace building attempts, in order to promote sustainable peace, need to address and transform structures which not only refer to the system of access and distribution of resources, but also social and political institutions, situations and relationships.
In this process, she feels, principles of democratic participation, human rights and gender equality are crucial elements for the longer-term process of building peace based on social justice and equality for women.
By Kavita Suri
(Kavita Suri is a journalist based in Kashmir and this article was written for the Sanjoy Ghosh Fellowship she got for 2006-07)