Kashmiri Women Regain Lost Social Space30 May 2011
Times of India
Srinagar: When Maulvi Showkat, head of Wahhabi denomination Ahle Hadith, was killed in April, what troubled many Kashmiris apart from his murder was the phenomenal growth of the sect. It claims a following of 15 lakh people in the Valley alone. Wahhabi Islam, with its peculiar puritanism, is the polar opposite of liberal Islam - closer to Sufism - in Kashmir. One byproduct of the Wahhabi strain has been the marginalisation of women in Kashmiri society. Unlike many other Muslim communities in India, Kashmiri women have had high standards of education and freedom. The last 20 years changed that. With militancy and its Islamic grounding, there was a plethora of impositions, the brunt borne by women. The hijab for instance appears strange to many older Kashmiris. But as more and more men turn to Wahhabism, the women get confined to homes. A striking affirmation of this change is that the congregations at most ziyarats or pilgrimages here have virtually zero presence of men. And its not uncommon to find 10-year-old school girls in burqa. 'For my sister's marriage, I made sure she chose a man who didn't live in Kashmir. She is highly educated and modern. What sort of life would she get here? Make kids and stay at home?' asks Moinuddin, a young businessman. Since 1990, women have been reduced to the sidelines as their sons and husbands got killed or humiliated. There is no voice for them in militant organisations or the political discourse. If one discounts Mehbooba Mufti, the only prominent woman is Asiya Andrabi, who in the past confined herself to issuing statements to women to adopt the veil and follow the Sharia. The panchayats with 33% seats reserved for women has again given Kashmiri women a voice, a stake, and an opportunity to contribute to Kashmir. In other words, a chance to regain some of the social space they lost in 20 years. It has also given them a sense of financial freedom. And that is something they look forward to. For too long the 'spoils' have got divided between those in power in distant capitals. Now there is accountability - at least a perception of it - at the grassroots. When the Kashmiri sees Rs 350 crore make a difference to his life, he will want to know where did thousands of crores go. And for local politicians, playing victim won't be so easy. 'It won't be so easy to direct failures towards Delhi. The bijli-sadak situation is bad not because there isn't enough autonomy. It's bad because there's corruption,' says a former government official. 'The new crop of sarpanches, young and old, are the leaders of this land, and their climb upwards will be on the basis of the work they have done, not on their closeness to powers in Srinagar,' says Adnan Shah.