As I left the main road, all roads disappeared. There was nothing but dirt tracks that had turned slushy because of the recent rains. Baki Aker village in Handwara in Kupwara district is only a two hour drive from Srinagar, but it seemed to inhabit another planet, with puddles in place of footpaths and electricity available for, at the luckiest, an hour day.
I had come here to meet a special woman. At first glance, Sharifa Begum, 33, looked like any other Kashmiri village woman. Dressed in a khaki green ‘phiran’, a ‘kangri’ close to her chest and the ‘dupatta’ framing her face, she welcomed me warmly. She was one of many brave women contesting a panchayat election held in the Valley in more than a decade.
Sharifa decided to contest the polls, taking advantage of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, that mandates 33 per cent reservation for women in local bodies, and she is doing this in difficult, conflict-marked times. Indeed, a couple of houses away lies the debris of a house that was blown apart a few months ago in an encounter between the security forces and a militant. More recently, just two days before I visited Sharifa, a letter had arrived at the local mosque during Friday prayers in the nearby Gulina village, asking the villagers to boycott the polls. And, there were many villagers too with hardened attitudes who wanted all to boycott the polls.
A mother of two small children, Sharifa who has studied till Class X in this very village is married to a cloth shop owner. She is well known in the village, having often counselled young girls on domestic matters. When I asked what motivated her to stand for elections, she explained that when she had voted for the first time in her life during the 2008 assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir, she had liked the fact that her vote mattered. So when panchayat elections were announced this time, she was thrilled to know that she could actually be a candidate herself.
Her husband also encouraged her, as did the villagers when she began campaigning from house to house. Since most of the household heads are male, her husband accompanied her and did his bit to convince the men about his wife’s candidature. I asked her whether being a housewife left her unprepared for her role as a public figure. Sharifa answered slowly, “I am mentally prepared. I know my community well and we will sit together and make decisions on what needs to be done.”
It is fitting that Baki Aker village has been reserved for women. It has 150 voters, the majority of whom are women. While Kashmir has a number of high profile women politicians, women’s political participation in the valley is still low. As Sharifa put it, “Women here will be able to approach a woman leader more easily with their particular problems. They cannot discuss everything with men.”
Sharifa’s opponent is Parveena Begum, who is in her early 50s. When Parveena campaigned, it was her husband, Peer Abdur Rasheed, who did most of the talking. He explained that Praveena had always wanted to “do something for the poor” and that’s why she decided to contest. Is Parveena not intimidated by the boycott calls, I asked. He immediately piped up, saying that local elections have nothing to do with politics. “We are not going to Delhi. We only want to improve the lot of the village,” Rasheed said.
In neighbouring Dudipora village, I met up with another candidate, Hasina Begum, 30, wife of Bashir Ahmed Mallik, a fruit vendor. The couple has three children. Hasina was not only supported by her husband and brother-in-law even her mother-in-law had unexpectedly proved enthusiastic about her participation. As the older lady put it, “We encouraged her to contest. Someone in the village has to become the local leader, after all. I am sure my daughter-in-law will do justice if elected.”
Who will do Hasina’s chores when she has to go out to attend meetings, and look after other matters, should she win? “We will. I have another daughter-in-law who can help,” chirped Hasina’s mother-in-law. What about her husband, I asked. “No,” she replied with a smile, “Men do not do housework in our culture.” Some things never change, it seems!
At a short distance was Rosie Begum’s home. Slight of frame, Rosie, 25, was all ready to take on Hasina for the reserved seat of Dudipora. Her husband is a driver for a local businessman and she has two children, aged five and three. Rosie has studied up to Class VIII and been twice to Srinagar.
What motivated her to contest the elections, given that she has had no prior experience, and that there had been boycott calls? Rosie dismissed these queries, but confessed that her husband is an activist with the People’s Democratic Party, and his colleagues were keen that she contested. Rosie claimed to be confident of securing 80 per cent of the 200 votes expected to be cast in Dudipora.
Rosie had grown up in another village but moved to Dudipora six years ago after her marriage. She has since come to love the village. “There are no footpaths, no electricity and many of the men are unemployed,” she stated. She advised people to use their vote carefully to ensure genuine improvement.
Village after village in the Valley cries for change. Unemployment is high among the youth, there is no electricity to speak of, and neither are there roads and toilets. Schools and health centres are sub-standard, and central schemes for rural welfare remain unimplemented. Added to that are the over-riding costs of conflict. Immediately after polling began in these panchayat elections, a woman candidate from Pakherpora in Budgam district was gunned down. With that a shroud of fear seemed to descend, causing many candidates to withdraw their nominations.
This makes the courage and determination of illiterate homemaker, Zeba Begum, 46, from the village of Zuhama, also in Budgam district, all the more commendable. Zeba, a mother of four, fought for one of the two seats reserved for women in this block despite the fear unleashed by potential assassins. Zeba instinctively has understood what women’s empowerment is about. As a member of a village self-help group for years, she engaged in crewel work and earned additional income, which translated into an increased clout within the family.
With some encouragement from her husband and the village committee, she jumped into the fray, and filed her nomination. She was glad that there are reservations for women, so that people like her have a chance to participate in politics. As she put it, “Women’s quotas have at least helped us become visible and make our problems known. The women here will get someone to talk to without embarrassment or fear. They can approach me in a way that they will never be able to approach a male panch.”
Like the others, Zeba too wants to “help the poor” and battle unemployment. She would also like to build proper roads and footpaths, and a place for the children to play in. The fact that another woman had paid with her life for contesting the elections did not deter her. “Life and death are in God’s hands, and are not dependent on contesting elections. We are fed up of the violence, of the marginalisation of our people. We want change,” she said.
Zeba Begum, Sharifa Begum, Parveena Begum, Hasina Begum, Rosie Begum – they are all semi-literate ordinary village women, without any security cover, who are facing extraordinary dangers in order to transform the lives of others. They have become the face of a new Kashmir impatient for change.