Voting and women in the valley

By GovernanceToday
In Issue 8
May 4, 2016
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‘Our Voter IDs serve as mere identification documents to take admission or other such needs. Voting is not for Kashmiris, especially women.’

kashmirivoteThe girls in the valley are not happy! They have it all – higher education, good homes, caring parents and now, a woman Chief Minister and yet they are not free. Universal adult franchise, equal rights, human rights and the likes still are decorative only for a select few when it comes to Kashmiri women. A large number of Kashmiri women are not allowed to vote.

These are young women who have started to speak up their rights. “I want to vote but I cannot because women are not allowed to vote. We have our voter identity cards and are registered as voters but these cards only serve as identification documents while taking admissions at educational institutions,” said Insha Lateef, a girl student from the valley.

They accept that they live in a conservative society and that voting; participating in the political process or any out-of-home chores for that matter is something that the women should not be worried about.

“We girls are not allowed to do anything that is related to politics. It is considered a dirty game here. Here people want freedom from India and I cannot say that I don’t want as the consequences could be unimaginable. I cannot say that I want to vote else I will invite disdain and may be even some harm,” said another girl from the valley whose identity she asked to keep.

It was not very long ago that the former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had said that nations that discriminate between children on the basis of gender cannot progress. It was on the eve of launching the Ladli Beti Scheme that he had said these words requesting the people of the state and others to change their perception towards girl children.

Kashmir, a place where the first woman Chief Minister takes over and where the former Chief Minister was of the view that a nation can progress only when girls are given equal rights in every arena of life, many women are treated as second class citizens. They cannot take their own decisions. Sometimes it is the male in the family and at other times it is the society that pulls them back.

A young woman from the valley chuckles with excitement at the thought that it is a woman who is taking over the reins of Kashmir and jokingly says that she wonders if she can be the Chief Minister some day. However, there is no seriousness as she understands her limitations. A woman who cannot even vote at her will, how can she become a political leader? Women in the valley, who are still treated as second citizens expressed their frustration:

Zara Khurshid, an engineering student said: “Most of the women in Kashmir are confined to domestic chores no matter what happens outside. They are more concerned about preparations for lunch and dinner. Because of this unawareness about politics, rights and government formation, they do not vote.”

The women not voting has got deep into the social fabric of most of the women in Kashmir. They refrain from political participation as they consider it a man’s job.

Uzrat Nizam, a journalism student: “Kashmir is a patriarchal society. Men do not want women to enjoy equal rights.”

Another big problem is that the people of Kashmir are yet to believe in their government. Despite recent voter turnouts crossing over 76 per cent and polling stations boasting of long queues, there is acute lack of confidence in the government. Many do not consider themselves a part of India as Uzrat adds, “We want freedom. We don’t want to vote. If we will vote, we will be disrespecting our freedom struggle (freedom of Kashmir from India) but when we will be given freedom, we will vote then.”

A lot has been happening. Most of it is sad and violent and then last month: First women Chief Minister takes over. Hopes? May be. Political analysts also speak on hopeful lines while talking about the plight of women in the trouble-torn state. The recent killings over the alleged molestation of a girl in Kashmir have worsened the situation further. Violence also, in some cases, compels men to keep their women confined for safety reasons.

Noor Mohammad, another citizen of the valley said, “There were times during the era of militancy when polling stations were attacked and number of innocent people got killed. In areas like Lal Chowk and downtown, militants used to make an announcement that whoever will cast a vote will be rewarded and then coffins were put on road by militants as a sign that people will be killed if they cast their votes. How people could have voted in such tense situations?”

The society in the state stands divided on various levels. There are people who wish to vote and participate in the political process; there are some who deny believing that Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India and there are some who have complaints against the works of the government.

Amreen, M Sc. Student said: “Sometimes women are not allowed by their family members to vote because the families do not believe in ‘dirty politics’. Over these years, politics and politicians have not done anything to that would benefit the people of Kashmir in any way. So, there is no reason to vote. Why to vote when they are good for nothing.”

Then there are some who shun voting on the pretext that voting is not permitted as per Islamic laws and there is yet another section that chooses to blindly follow the herd mentality and therefore chooses any of the above stated reasons and stays away from political participation in the country.

Mohammad Musaib, a businessman in the valley says, “Voting in Islam is forbidden. Voting is not for Muslims neither man nor woman. Kashmir is an Islamic state and we won’t bow before Indian constitution. Elections should be boycotted.”

The troubles of the state do not seem to be ending soon as fresh violence keeps fanning the flames of disruption and unrest. However, the good news is that the youth today, especially girls now understand the nuances and hoping for positive change.

Nazira, an MBA student understands that there is a need to make people understand the importance of political participation for their own good. “There is a big no to voting as per Islamic laws.  Even if person wants to vote; whom to vote? They are all crooks. Moreover, not only women but also men don’t know the importance of their vote. Kashmir is a conflict-torn place and almost every time elections are boycotted. People should be counseled about voting system and government formation,” she says.

Being apprised of the situation, Ujwala Kadrekar, Senior Program Officer, Women Rights initiative, said that she is yet to come across incidents where girls are not allowed to vote despite having been registered as voters.

“I have to do my own part of research; however, these women are not asserting their rights enough. There is a need for healthy advocacy and strategic solutions have to be looked at,” she said adding that social situation is grave there but by not exercising their voting rights they are anyways getting a government that is not theirs.”

What it all boils down to is a disturbing situation in which orthodoxy, genuine fear of violence and alienation all put together manifests in a unique apartheid, based on gender. Regardless, there is need for empowering the women in the state to fight for their right and claim what is rightfully theirs. Democracy cannot thrive as long as half the population stays away from polling stations, not by choice, but because of compulsion.