In the history of Jammu and Kashmir’s 87-member legislative assembly, 56-year-old Mehbooba Mufti is the first woman chief minister, having sworn in today as the head of the coalition government of her People’s Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janta Party.
Because of her father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s poor health, she was set to take over late last year itself but his death in January was followed by governor’s rule in the state because Mehbooba decided to have fresh talks with the BJP to discuss their “Agenda of Alliance”. She earlier demanded more assurances and Confidence Building Measures from the BJP but eventually settled to form the government after three months of negotiations that seemed to offer nothing new.
In Kashmir, women have always played an active role in every field – from the corporate world to art, from law to sports. There have also been two women rulers in in the medieval times – Kota Rani (1329 -1339) and Didda (958 to 1003) who ruled the Kashmir region. Women protesters and stone-throwers are therefore also part of the social reality of the valley.
Mehbooba, a single mother of two daughters, is no stranger to the people of the state. She has always been the public face of her party, personally visiting villages and towns to build up its base, who was very much instrumental in building the PDP in 1999, and the two coalition governments (2002 and 2014).
So far, though, she had the benefit of having her father as the undisputed leader of the party. It now has to be seen if she can on her own lead this fragile and fraught coalition in one of the most complicated regions of the world. Syed Sibghat Geelani, a banker from Srinagar, thinks there wont be much of difference as mainstream politicians and parties in the state are not keen on resolving any issue. Being a woman, Sibghat has no expectation at the moment but hopes that things may, later, change for the good.
“It depends on how she governs the state and whether her perspective changes or not,” said Sibghat. “She has been in the political scenario [for] a long time now. We have not seen much difference – and I don’t think we should be hopeful.”
As is to be expected, there is no one image of Mehbooba among women in the state, who see her through different lenses. She is an inspiration for some, doesn’t arouse much hope in others, is just another opportunist politician and representative of the Indian State for separatists, while many of her supporters want her to be more tenacious.
But there is also a sense of expectation from the first woman chief minister of the state. Some women think this is a step ahead for the empowerment of women in Kashmir. Romana Qazi, the principal of a government higher secondary school in Srinagar, while elated with her taking over as the chief minister, struck a note of caution. “She should understand the needs of the people,” Qazi said.
“As a party leader, she has worked well. No doubt we [the women in politics] are very few, but women empowerment is progressing. I and all of my friends are looking up to her and are happy,” Qazi added.
Farhana Latief, a legal researcher, countered Qazi’s view, pointing out that having a female chief minister is not a sign of women’s empowerment. It is not even a symbolic, she said. “A place where violence against women by the State is used as weapon of war and strategy to counter the struggle for freedom, how does a woman chief minister change anything on ground?”
Mahum Shabir, a young researcher, seemed to have a more realistic expectation. “From what I’ve heard of her, she is well connected to the party workers at the grassroots and has plenty of gumption, which is something women aren’t expected to have or put to use,” said Shabir. “But I don’t believe having a female chief minister will represent a change in the kind of electoral politics we witness. I think it is possible that her being in that position will positively impact the possibilities for women in politics – electoral or protest.”
As per a report of National Crime Records Bureau, 2009 sexual offences were recorded in 2014 and the crime rate against women is at a steep rise. For this very reason, Narjees Nawab, a legal counsellor, said she looks forward to having a woman chief minister, despite the fact that Mehbooba has never presented any gendered perspective. “From acid attacks to bride burning every crime is happening… the state needs politicians who are gender sensitive. We also hope to see competent and people with perspective chairing institutions like State Commission for Women,” she said.
Justice over development
In the valley, politics is divided between the mainstream and the separatists. The PDP has been sailing on the plank of self-rule – a modified version of National Conference’s platform of autonomy, but a large number of people stick to the idea of self-determination. After forming a coalition with the BJP, Mehbooba is no longer being seen as a “soft-separatist”, a move that could cause a dip in her political support-base.
Latief said that there are women in the valley who have been fighting against the oppressive power of the State and they are the ones who are inspiration to men and women in Kashmir. “In ordinary circumstances, it certainly is difficult for a woman to break the stereotypes of being weak and incapable of taking responsibilities, but in a place like Kashmir where India leaves no stone unturned to exploit any vulnerability, this is no different situation.”
With popular support or strong opposition – ruling Jammu and Kashmir is not going to be easy for Mehbooba. Nida Rehman, a student of Kashmir University, said she would love to see how Mehbooba handles being the first woman chief minister in the state. But as a woman, Rehman said, if Mehbooba could deliver justice to the survivors of Kunan-Poshpora, that would be something to be proud about. “Development or anything is not more important than justice.”