On the morning of 28 November, 50-year-old Bibi Jan woke up at 6 am, and within an hour she had offered prayers, cooked breakfast for the family, and queued up outside the polling station in the biting cold, draped in a bright blue shawl that she wore only on special occasions. She was the first woman to cast her vote in the Haknaar village of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district.
It was the first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) elections, the first electoral process after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy. The polling booth in Haknaar — a village surrounded by snow-capped mountains, home to members of the tribal Gujjar community — buzzed with voters, mostly men, and dozens of government forces on guard duty.
Jan is the only woman in the household of eight. The night before the area went to polls, Jan had decided to finish all her kitchen chores early in the morning before going out to vote. When Jan reached the polling booth, she knew who she had to vote for. “My husband decides who we should cast our votes for,” Jan said, pointing towards her husband, 72-year-old Gafoor Khan, who was also in line, waiting to cast his vote. That is how Jan has voted in the past elections, sometimes going out to cast a vote despite being ill. “I don’t know much about politics.”
However, this time, also for the first time, the government has reserved more seats for women, among other social categories, instilling hope among many women voters. Of the 4236 votes in the constituency of Gund-A, 1974 votes were cast by females. Even as this is a step towards empowering women of J-K, empowerment in the real sense is still distant. About half-a-dozen women that The Kashmir Walla spoke with, admitted that they voted for the candidates their husbands had chosen.
A new hope?
However, this time Jan wholeheartedly agreed with her husband’s choice of the candidate: 20-year-old Dilshada Bano, who is among the youngest candidates in the fray for the DDC. “I want a job for all my seven sons,” said Jan, with hope. “She [Dilshada] will help us because she is among us [Gujjar community].”
Like Jan, 55-year-old Meema Bano, too, voted for Dilshada. “She will understand us,” Meema said of Dilshada, because only the poor understand the poor. For her, not casting a vote is a sin. “We will cast our vote, she [Dilshada] will have to answer God if she doesn’t help us.” Meema’s daughter, 23-year-old Parveena Bano, however, said that she didn’t understand politics but still voted for Dilshada because they were friends. “Even if she doesn’t do anything, I will still support Dilshada,” she said.
Meanwhile, Shahnaz Bano, 26, from Doipatti in Ganderbal, came out after voting, along with three other women. Shahnaz’s sole reason for contesting the elections, also from Gund, is to bring development to her area, she said, adding that she will try hard to help her people. She believes that she has a stronghold on politics but when asked about the DDC, she said: “I don’t know about it yet. If I win, I will speak after that.” Till then, she said she will not speak anything about it.
For some, there is still no Hope!
Women in Kashmir have traditionally had little say in matters of politics, said Effat Yasmeen, professor at the Kashmir University’s Department of Economics and co-author of a paper on the role of women in grassroots electoral processes in J-K. “They do what they are asked to do by their husbands,” she said, adding that their overall participation–voting or contesting in elections–is usually under family pressure.
Jameela Khan, 55, however, was directed by her policeman husband to not vote and to not step outside. However, Jameela could not stay indoors. “I came to see who cast vote,” she said. Even if her husband had allowed her to vote, said Jameelam she still wouldn’t. “How many elections took place in the past? Has anything ever happened on the ground?”
Most of these women who cast their votes under the compulsion of their husbands, said they force them because their husbands are either friends with the candidates or their workers. Sakeena Balti, 62, has waited for her husband’s death, to vote for her own choice.
“He would always cast his and also force me to cast my vote to the badi paartiyan (big parties, the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party),” said Balti, a mother of four, for whom wasting a vote is a sin. “My husband is dead now, I will choose whoever I want to.”