by Justine Guérin, 1st year International Relations Student from France
Located in the very north of India and sharing its borders with Pakistan and China, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is a highly politicised and conflictual region of India. It has been at the heart of the territorial animosity between India and Pakistan since 1947. Deeply rooted in a patriarchal tradition, the region has always been governed by men until April 4th when Mehbooba Mufti, a 56 years old Muslim woman, was elected as Chief Minister (CM).
Mehbooba Mufti’s predecessor was her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who passed away in January 2016 after years as politician in J&K and at the national level. He was indeed, Home Minister in India from 1989 to 1990. He was a significant figure in J&K due to his long lasting investment in the political struggle of the region. He therefore had a strong footprint in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir, as a strong advocate of the re-establishment of dialogue between India and Pakistan, Sayeed helped by his daughter, founded his own political party the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 which he presided until his death in January. With his party he was elected CM twice in 2002 and 2014.
The region Mehbooba Mufti is now responsible of, is a very diverse one in which communities are highly pronounced. Indeed, Jammu’s population consists of 66% of Hindus and 30% of Muslims whereas the Kashmir valley is mostly inhabited by Muslims (95%). There are two main political parties in the region, Mufti’s party, the PDP which supports a reinforcement and appeasement of relations between India and Pakistan. And Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s party the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Since the general elections of 2014, both parties form an unstable coalition, in which Mehbooba will have to obtain consensus and to maintain cooperation in order to avoid a split and a destabilization of the region’s politics. Furthermore, as most of India, Jammu and Kashmir are embedded in a patriarchal society where the place of women is perceived through their gender role as mother, sister and daughter.
With a woman holding the reins of such a patriarchal region as J&K, does Mehbooba have the possibility to improve the conditions of women in the area? How far can she go? And last but not least, is the population concerned with the resolution of gender based discriminations or does it perceive other issues as more urgent?
Who is Mehbooba Mufti?
Elected to succeed her father on April 4th as Chief Minister of J&K, Mehbooba Mufti’s first plans of career were not to represent the citizens of J&K as an elected CM but rather to evolve in the domain of law and justice. According to herself, she entered politics “by accident” encouraged by her father. He, indeed, convinced her to be involved in politics in order to help him. Consequently, in 1996, she was convinced by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to run the elections of Bijbehara (town in the South of Kashmir) which she won. Her commitment to politics grew as time flew by and after having helped the foundation of her father’s party, she was elected in the 2004 and 2014 general elections in the Lok Sabha (the National Assembly’s low Chamber). She has political experience permitting her to build a strong image in the region.
Mehbooba’s qualities have convinced the local population as she has always been devoted to help citizens. In fact, it has been reported that she was a significant support for families of victims and especially women who lost children or husbands in the armed conflicts animating the Kashmir region. In addition, after the floods that struck the region in 2014, she was very concerned about the post-flood management and drew the attention of the Prime Minister to provide financial and humanitarian help, she obtained economic support for relief and rehabilitation measures. Her closeness with the population has helped her built a strong relationship based on trust and help. In the eyes of her father, his daughter’s involvement has proved successful, he said that “she built the party and she is better connected with the masses. I think she is talented enough to run the state”. Her father’s dream has been accomplished and she now runs the state.
What are the implications of a woman ruling a patriarchal state? Mehbooba is, according to her daughters an “emancipated woman” who always promoted freedom in the house, she is a divorced woman strongly committed to her job and who loves her role in the society. Even her personal life differs from the tradition animating the country has she does not depend from any man. This is a true revolution for a woman to be elected at the head of a region in such a country as India where human rights are often baffled and where the place of women is dictated by a masculine figure.
However, as revolutionary as her nomination is, it is important to bear in mind that Mehbooba does not come from the very bottom of the Indian society and that she entered politics under her father’s protection. She has not crossed the gaps dictated by the caste society but rather benefited from her dynastic origins. Though it represents a true evolution as she has been elected by the popular vote of the citizens of J&K, her origins helped her to reach the political realm easily which would not be the case for every woman in India.
How can she, as an elected woman at the head of such a geopolitically significant state, change the rules of the society and improve the gender perceptions and reduce the men/women gap? Does she have scope to fundamentally modify the caste system and promote women’s right at the regional and why not national level?
Women’s rights in India
India is the largest democracy in the world, however, in the political realm, women are highly under-represented both as voters and as participants to the elections. Indeed, according to the think tank Delhi Policy Group, in the General Elections of 2009, “women comprised 6.9% of the total contestants out of which only 10.9% were elected”. In addition, despite an increasing number of feminine voters, inequalities in absolute numbers are significant. There were at least 38 million more men than women registered in voting in the electorate in 2014. Gender inequalities in political representation in India affect gender based discriminations at the national level. Indeed, as women politicians are lacking in the political scene, the patriarchal traditions remain and do not change. As a matter of consequence, India was ranked 144th in the World Rankings of Women in National Parliaments with 12% of women representation in 2016.
Despite attempts to improve the situation, the society is strongly settled in patriarchal traditions usually opposing or slowing projects of modernisation. For example, in 1999 was introduced the Women’s reservation bill. It was supposed to guarantee a 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha (the low Chamber) and state assemblies for 15 years which would have permitted an increasing presence of women in the realm of politics. Though not guaranteeing parity the bill would have been a first step to desecrate the established place of women towards more representation and responsibilities. It would have opened the gate towards enhanced reforms on the place of women. However, fierce opposition to the bill emerged and it never passed. The Indian society is scared of crossing the threshold of evolution of the place of women as it remains highly dependent on the traditions and on masculine rule.
Established traditions and modernizing politics are often in conflict barring the road towards improvements and dismantling hopes towards a short coming equalitarian society. Indeed, the Mumbai high court granted women the fundamental right to enter temples in early April 2016 in the state of Maharashtra (West of India) considering that men as well as women have the right to worship everywhere. This happened after petitions and protests emerged in the state. Indeed, women are barred by the tradition to enter certain temples but recently a group of women called the “Women Warriors of Mother Earth” (Bhumata Ranragini Brigade) decided to march into temples and to exercise their right to pray. However the ‘modern’ decision of the court to grant women the right to enter temples displeased some more traditional people. Following the authorisation of the high court, women attempted to enter the traditionally only opened to men temple of Shingnapur. Despite the law, villagers opposed their action which resulted in violence, interviewed by news channels, a villager declared: “our age-old tradition cannot be violated. Our village has decided that women cannot be allowed into the inner sanctum”. The gap between traditions and modernity is not ready to be filled and women rights improvements are a second hand consideration.
Considering the recent events in the West of India and the general conditions of women in a male dominated society as India, how can concretely Mehbooba improve the situation in her region but also at the national level? Is it feasible? What role can she play in the improvement of female representation?
How can Mehbooba bring change to J&K or to India?
“I don’t think gender has anything to do with your capability to govern” said Mehbooba Mufti. In an interview given in December 2015, she explained her vision of the improvements of women conditions in J&K and argued that “we are focused on providing various skills to females to make them employable and self-supporting”. Mehbooba carries with her role as CM a real sense of hope for women to reach male dominated sectors. She believes that “only when we have women in governance will we be able to construct a system to help [women]”. This exceptional nomination also brings hope among women within the society, therefore Rekha Chowdhary, a university professor states that “rather than remaining an individual achievement, this should be translated into a gender advantage” as well as “social, economic and political empowerment of women”. The perspective of a woman leading the region carries enthusiasm and optimism for the coming years concerning the improvement of women representation and consideration in the Indian society.
However, several newspapers have interviewed J&K citizens about their expectations on Mehbooba’s governance and despite the real hope she represents, she is expected to resolve other issues dominating the political scene. Therefore, Mehbooba’s ascent to the reins of the region is perceived by Essar Batool, a writer and social worker as being “symbolic” more than as a real solution to the male dominated society. Furthermore, issues of unemployment and corruption are more concerning for the population. Indeed, citizens argue that there is a need to build a “right atmosphere of trust” in the region in order to improve the general life conditions. As a matter of fact, in 2012, J&K was one of the regions with the highest unemployment rates in India, reaching 5.3% of the population. Therefore the population, already anchored in patriarchal perceptions more than in women’s right improvements, prefers Mehbooba to fulfil her duty and respond to economic issues to improve everyone’s life rather than just a portion of the society. Finally, even her daughters believe that “her election should not be viewed through the prism of gender but performance and rigor to fulfil people’s expectations”. Despite the social threshold she crossed by being nominated, the population of J&K does not perceive it as a revolution but rather trust her for the potential benefits she can bring in improving the economic and social life in general.
As a conclusion, despite Mehbooba’s election as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in April and the hopes for women it carries in the region and at the national level, it is hard to believe that her nomination will really change the patriarchal framework of the region. Indeed, she has plans to improve women life but she also has other considerations dominating her mandate such as the crumbling of the political coalition with the opposite party and social and economic issues such as unemployment. However it is important to bear in mind that her nomination as a woman is a rare achievement and that it does somehow carry potential attempts to lower the influence of the patriarchal tradition if combined with national political decisions; as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said “you can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”.
 Apoorva Rathod, “Women’s political participation and representation in India”, Delhi Policy Group, April 2014.