Co-authored by Hirra Azmat:
Srinagar, April 1 – The villagers in south Kashmir wait in anticipation for the election campaign to begin. As she walks towards the podium to address a gathering, a young woman beckons her. Ridhwana Sanam steps down the dais and hugs her followed by loud cheers. Then she begins her speech, promising her supporters of addressing their issues if she gets elected.
“The restricted engagements of Kashmiri women in public affairs, class, and caste restrictions have fed into the existing patriarchal practices, reducing the women to the domestic spaces,” she believes.
Ridwana is one among three women candidates out of 104 candidates contesting six-parliamentary constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir. Except for the PDP, the three main parties – National Conference, Congress, and BJP – have not fielded any female candidate in the state despite women contributing over 48% of the electorate. In the absence of women candidates, women’s issues are missing from the agenda of the contestants.
On April 6, the Election Commission of India announced lawyer turned model Sana Dua as its brand ambassador for Jammu and Kashmir. The poll body was happy to select a woman as its mascot to send a larger message to voters of Jammu and Kashmir especially women to exercise their franchise. But the political parties still neglected to field them into the electoral fray in the state. There are 78,50,671 voters in the state, comprising 40,37,993 male and 37,39,951 female. In all election rallies, it is being seen that there is a significant number of women participation. But the low figure has attracted criticism that the major parties have once again missed a chance to redress the gender imbalance.
Ridhwana, a doctor turned politician, who is an Independent candidate says she wants to become a spokesperson of people rather than a politician to highlight people’s issues.
“Voters often complain to me that politicians have a different face and after we cast a vote, their behaviour changes altogether. This is because they don’t think in a long term manner,” she says.
She gives several reasons for the negligible number of women candidates. “Women politicians don’t put in enough effort, to motivate more women to join politics. There is no doubt that women shoulder more responsibilities than men. They can manage their families and also create their space in politics. The society instead of putting them down should support and encourage them to prove their mettle.”
She adds, “I believe in the power of sincere intentions. If people trust my intentions and give me their vote, I will ensure that justice, development and peace is delivered.”
Besides Ridwana, another female candidate is Peoples Democratic Party president and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. She too is contesting from south Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency, where she emerged a winner in 2014 parliamentary polls. She later became the chief minister of the state following her father’s death. She is the most prominent female face of the state. Spanning over four districts – Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian, and Pulwama- the south Kashmir Lok Sabha is going for polls in three phases due to the volatile situation there. The first and second part was held on April 23 and 29 in Anantnag and Kulgam districts. Elections in the third part of the constituency will be held on May 6 in Shopian and Pulwama districts.
We tried to get comments from Mehbooba Mufti for five days to know the reasons why political parties field a negligible number of female candidates.
In 2016, after the death of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Mehbooba became the first woman chief minister of the state. She is the only dominant woman in the mainstream politics of the state. There are several women politicians like Sakina Yatoo, Asiya Naqash, Safeena Beigh, but are lesser known faces who are in politics because of their political background.
Meenakshi, who is the Shiv Sena candidate from Udhampur constituency, claimed that the negligible participation of women in polls should not come as a surprise.
“This is mainly due to the patriarchal structure of state politics. There is an unwillingness among political parties to give tickets to women, and less awareness of electoral politics among women and the lack of family support,” she says.
Meenakshi adds that she was reflecting the voices of thousands of women and will ensure that the problems faced by them are highlighted and redressed.
Although, the trend exists everywhere in India that fewer women join politics, but J&K has still the lowest women candidates.
Political expert, Professor Rekha Chowdhary attributes Jammu and Kashmir’s “conservative society and conflict” responsible for fewer women joining politics here. “In Kashmir, even men are reluctant to join the politics because of the situation and can’t move out without security. Most of the homes here have a dominance of men in decision making and women have a lesser role,” she says, adding there are some women in politics because of their political background.
Rekha, however, said youngsters are now floating political parties and many women having joined them. “But overall when comparing with other parts of the country, very few women join the politics in Jammu and Kashmir. Even those women who are in politics do not have a dominant role in the party except in one party here, which is headed by a woman. Some parties don’t trust that female candidates would win in any elections and garner support,” she added.
In the previous Lok Sabha elections, the trend was almost similar when only a few women contested the polls.
In 2014 assembly polls, the National Conference (NC) had fielded five female candidates – two from Kashmir and three from Jammu.
The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) had given the mandate to three female candidates in the Valley. It had fielded Hina Bhat from Amira Kadal, Neelam Gaash from Zadibal and Daraksha Andrabi from Sonawar constituency.
Khem Lata Wakhloo of Congress contested from Srinagar’s Sonawar constituency while Shameema Raina had been fielded from Zadibal constituency. However, none of the female candidates from the BJP and Congress won the seat.
In 2014 assembly polls, only two candidates made it to the legislative assembly – PDP’s Asiya Naqash and NC’s Shamima Firdous. Later Mehbooba also got elected in by-polls in 2016.
PDP chief spokesperson Rafi Ahmad Mir believes that political parties should encourage women to come into politics. “Women hold top posts in our party. We have fielded our party president, who is a woman, to contest from south Kashmir. Female politicians understand the problem of women in a better way,” he says.
National Conference General Secretary, Ali Mohammad Sagar admitted that political parties shall give the mandate to females. “In last assembly polls, we fielded a lot of female candidates. But in this elections, we wanted to send some top leaders like Farooq Abdullah, retired High Court judge Justice Hasnian Masoodi, and former minister and speaker assembly Mohammad Akbar Lone to parliament to raise Kashmir issues especially defending special status.”
Senior BJP leader Kavindar Gupta said his party does not see any difference between genders. “But sometimes we want to field a candidate who has the strongest chances to win. But our party has always raised the issue of women and tried to address them. At the national level, the BJP has fielded so many female candidates,” Gupta added.