By Anuradha Sengupta
Friday, January 24, 2003
In the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, politician Mehbooba Mufti is seen as a healing force for a traumatized populace. Women survivors, she says, can only rebuild their lives if their rights are re-established.
KUPWARA DISTRICT, Jammu and Kashmir (WOMENSENEWS)--The family of farmer Basheer Khan is still mourning his death in this region's territorial conflict. Khan's wife, Mehri, was left to raise a mentally ill son plus six daughters on her own when he was killed.
As Mehri Khan and her children survive on the maize they grow on their few acres of land, they are looking to the daughter of a prominent male politician for hope. "More than the father, Ibelieve the daughter will come to our aid," Khan says. "She feels our plight."
The daughter of whom she speaks is Mehbooba Mufti, the vice president of this region's ruling People's Democratic Party, known as PDP. In its first election in October, Mufti's fledgling party, which wants the disputed territory of Kashmir to remain part of India, won 16 of the state assembly's 87 seats, making it the third-strongest party. It has formed a coalition in the state with second-place Congress, India's main opposition party, and a handful of independents.
Mufti is the face of the PDP, though her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, is the PDP chief. Yet many believe that it is Mufti, not her father, who is responsible for the party's remarkable showing in the polls. In fact, some analysts had believed Mufti, regarded as the soft face of Kashmiri politics, would be the choice as chief minister because of her common touch and widespread popularity.
Mufti's ascendance marks the first time a woman politician has emerged as a significant player in the politics of the Kashmir Valley. Since the Kashmir insurgency began in July 1998, when a pro-independence group called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Force launched an armed campaign against Indian rule, women have been mostly absent from Kashmir's political process.
Before the days of insurgency, Kashmir had many women in prominent posts--in politics and in other fields. Although a few women have formed activist groups such as the Muslim Khawateen Markaz and the Kashmir Women's Forum and have led marches, especially against human rights violations, their numbers remain small. It is said that the women who have taken the plunge are, at best, reluctant politicians--in harness because a father, husband or son has been killed or made way for them.
For more than half a century after 1947, when India gained independence from Britain, Kashmir has remained at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan. The dispute--basically one over the ownership of land--has led to three full-scale wars, several smaller ones, and a number of "proxy" wars along the Line of Control, with India holding Kashmir to be an integral part of its territory and Pakistan claiming that Kashmir is rightfully with the Muslim majority in the state of Pakistan. Currently, a small part of the territory of Kashmir lies with Pakistan, and a larger area with India. The current phase of Kashmiri separatist nationalism began at the end of the 1980s, with young men and women coming into the streets in large numbers.
Only one woman was elected during the state elections in 1996 to the 87-member legislative assembly; the ruling National Conference government nominated two others. In the Legislative Council, two of 36 nominated members are women. Although the National Panchayat (Village Council) Act of 1989 was supposed to guarantee one-third of elected posts for women, this level has not been reached. Of 22,700 elected posts, only two sarpanchs (heads of local governments) and 68 panchs (one rung below sarpanchs) are women, most of them from Jammu and Ladakh. Out of 24 ministers, only one is a woman--Sakhina Itoo, now the minister of state for tourism.
Mufti's popularity stems mostly from her campaigning on behalf of victims' families in a state where almost every family has lost someone. She often visits grieving relatives, whether the victim was killed by rebels, security forces or was himself a militant. "People of this state want peace, but with honor and dignity--that's the point that has been vindicated most," she says.
Mufti wants to focus on women's rights and issues in Kashmir. But she will have a tough time from militants who are bent on issuing diktats on women from their dress codes to the age by which they should get married.
A militant group, the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islamia (HUJI), has asked Muslim women to quit their jobs by Saturday and stay home, or face punishment--including death. Posters to this effect have appeared overnight on the main walls of Shahdara Sharief, a mosque in Jammu Kashmir. Similar posters appeared last week, too, asking Muslim families to marry off their daughters by the age of 15.
The posters have been removed by the police, an official said.
Women's issues feature prominently in the PDP's agenda. More than a decade of insurgency in strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir has brought on a huge social cost for women. With 30,000 men killed and an estimated 11,000 widows, a major issue facing Kashmiri society today is the economic survival of widows and the care of the fatherless children left with aging grandparents.
There are no sources of support. Women who have some land face fewer problems but most eke out a living by doing piece-rate work such as making caps or by selling their labor. Feeding and rearing children is almost impossible.
"Their economic status is at stake," Mufti says. "We have to provide for health facilities. The education of the girl child, employment, rehabilitation and human rights violations against her--these are the issues we will take up."
Right now, topping Mufti's agenda is a dialogue with separatist militants. She has vowed to press for unconditional talks for the first time to end the nearly 15-year revolt against Indian rule. Unfazed by the spurt in militant violence after the new government took over last month, Mufti says the coalition, by implementing its "pro-people" agenda, can help in creating a "conducive atmosphere for resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan," which she maintains has a role in resolution of the Kashmir conflict.
Her stand has upset many, but Mufti remains adamant: Only jobs and respectability for militants will bring peace to the Valley, she says. The task, say analysts, is easier said than done. However, all agree that Mufti's politics--communicating to ordinary people about their problems--have shown a new way to handle the situation in Kashmir.
"You can contain violence by fighting violence but if you really want to get rid of violence you have to get to the root of the violence and that is the alienation," Mufti says. "The problem of Kashmir is more of alienation rather than violence. Violence is the second part. So if we are able to address the alienation, I think we will go a long way."
The ongoing conflict has left a huge scar on the Kashmiri psyche, particularly female survivors. The Government Hospital for Psychiatric Diseases in Srinagar says that the number of outpatient cases has gone up from 20 to 125 per day since 1989, according to a study undertaken as part of the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project run by Oxfam India, a British nongovernmental organization. Most patients are women and young men suffering from depression and insomnia and psychological stress. Treatment consists of tranquilizers and anti-depressants. Many people buy these drugs without prescriptions, and women often send male members out to purchase them. In the hospitals, women and villagers complain of what they call a "heart problem," their way of describing the psychological trauma, stress and fear that has sunk into the hearts of a population living with terror.
Probably one of the greatest attacks has been on the reproductive rights of women. Muslim women in Kashmir, unlike nearly anywhere else, have historically had the freedom to decide how many children they want and when. The erosion of these rights began in 1989 when posters and leaflets were distributed proclaiming that sterilization and abortion were anti-Islamic. Consequently, maternal mortality rates have increased, as have cases of septicemia, a raging and often fatal bacterial infection, since women now attempt to abort themselves or with the help of untrained providers.
Mufti, the diminutive 40-something mother of two who was one of the few women to hit the campaign trail in the male-dominated Muslim north, traveled through nearly all the villages in the Valley during her campaign. She has seen and heard the tales of horror and knows that her party has a tough task ahead.
"The problem is not just political in Kashmir; it is also a human one: 20,000 widows, innumerable orphans, countless missing people. Women can understand the pain," Mufti says. One of her aims will be to get more women occupying more seats in the state legislative assembly and issuing more challenges to the men who currently dominate proceedings.
"Women," she says, "make better leaders."
Anuradha Sengupta is a journalist based in Calcutta, India, specializing in women's reproductive issues.
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