In a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Srinagar, an aging Hazra Begum tills her land. For her, Jammu-Kashmir getting its first woman chief minister is, at best, a harbinger of better times, especially as far as women’s issues are concerned.
“Inshallah, I’m optimistic about Mehbooba Mufti as chief minister on all fields,” says 55-year-old Begum, adding that along with issues of human rights violation there remains serious administration issues like unemployment and corruption to tackle. “I hope she will listen to the woes of Kashmir’s women.”
After Mehbooba, 56, is sworn in on April 4, she will become the first-ever woman chief minister of the state and India’s second Muslim woman chief minister after Syeda Anwara Taimur, who served as the Assam chief minister for six months in 1980-81.
“Being a woman and a mother, Mehbooba can understand the suffering of the people, especially women issues, much better. I am sure she will work for the upliftment of downtrodden people,” says Andleeb Saqi, a humanitarian aid worker in her 30s.
But for many others, the occasion is only symbolic. She — as anyone from “such a mainstream political party in Kashmir” — will follow a path carved by “pro-India” political ideologies.
“A woman chief minister is symbolic only from a gender perspective,” says Essar Batool, a Srinagar-based human rights activist in her mid-20s. “She’s just another politician loyal to the Indian state, and it has nothing to do with her gender.”
“Her coming to power shouldn’t mean anything and shouldn’t be cause for any celebration,” adds Batool, who is one of the authors of the recently launched book, “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?”, based on the alleged mass rape of Kashmiri women by the army in 1991.
Protesting on the streets on human rights issues and often visiting the houses of slain militants, Mehbooba followed what many call “soft separatist” rhetoric and succeeded in connecting with the people by tending to the angst of Kashmiris that the separatists could not assuage.
But today, women who have been protesting against the disappearance of their husbands or sons feel let down, because they feel Mehbooba is a part of the political establishment of Kashmir that “just promises and never delivers any justice”.
“Genuine is our tears, not Mehbooba’s,” says Parveena Ahangar, chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). “True tears are of those whose sons and husbands are missing or whose innocent sons have been killed by the Indian security forces.”
“Mehbooba’s tears are crocodile tears.”
“Mehbooba is a mother. She should understand the pain of losing a son or husband,” says Ahanger, whose son Javiad Ahmed was allegedly picked up by security agencies on August 18, 1990, and never returned.
Ayshia Zahgeer, a 23-year-old law student, agrees with Ahanger.
“She has, of course, spoken about bringing the perpetrators of violence inflicted on women to book but that was when she was in the Opposition, and in her place every political party speaks in that tone. They are basically acting,” says Zahgeer.
Some Kashmiri women, however, view Mehbooba’s accession to the chair through a progressive prism and believe certain stereotypes would be broken.
“I have encountered a patriarchal mindset in Kashmir. Many times, I have been told by grandparents of children I teach that why should their granddaughters be educated? Perhaps a woman leading the state will help change such mindset,” says Iram Wani, 30, a teacher at a government school in Srinagar.
Mehbooba, a law graduate and single mother of two daughters, started her political career as a Congress candidate in 1996 when her father was leading the electoral campaign in the state. She won from their home constituency Bijbehara.
Political observers say that Mehbooba’s rise as a political leader was scripted, not by her father but herself. She was, they say, one of the “chief architects” of the PDP that was founded by her father, former chief minister Mufti Sayeed, in 1999.
But Hirra Azmat, a 21-year-old post-graduate student of mass communication at the Kashmir University, disagrees.
“Mehbooba becoming the CM is just an accident, another gimmick of dynastic politics. It only reinforces the patriarchal notion that a woman must be reliant on a successful man. In this case, her father,” she says.