The Telegraph
Thursday , May 1 , 2014
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Women step out to make a difference

Winds of change are sweeping Kashmir’s mini-Afghanistan. Make that a gust, if the long line of women, their finger of choice taut with the anticipation of a tryst forbidden so long, is anything to go by.

The right to vote had remained a near-exclusive preserve of men in this Pashtun neighbourhood, some 35km from Srinagar. Not any longer.

On Wednesday, a large number of Pashtun women joined their men at polling booths, many of them for the first time, in what was — as a senior leader of the community put it — a vote “to be able to make a difference”.

Basically, a vote to be heard after years of alleged discrimination between the dominant Gujjars and the Pashtuns, who have been clamouring for tribal status that would bring with it a host of benefits.

Around 10,000 Pashtuns live in the foothills of a mountain in over half-a-dozen villages, including Wayil Wedar Payeen, Nadir Bagh, Baba Wayil, Chanihaar, Gotli Bagh, Wayil Wedar Bala and Banjar — their biggest concentration in any part of Kashmir, the reason many call it “Chhota (mini) Afghanistan”, where Pashtuns form the largest ethnic group. Thousands more live scattered in other parts of the Valley.

The Pashtuns had migrated to Kashmir nearly two centuries ago but their attachment to their culture has never weakened. They still largely prefer segregation between the genders and their women move about in purdah, unlike their less conservative Kashmiri counterparts.

April 30 was different. “Today, many of them came out to vote,” said Mohammad Sharif Khan, 65, convener of the All J&K Pashtoon Jirga. “One reason is that education is spreading in our villages. When I was young, just one or two women in a hundred were educated. Now most of our girls go to school.”

Mohammad Sharif Khan

But more than education, it is the alleged discrimination the Pashtuns face that brought both their men and women in hordes to the booths.

The villages are part of the Kangan Assembly segment in Ganderbal, where Gujjars are close to a majority. The constituency is represented by Mian Altaf, a Gujjar from the ruling National Conference.

“We have all along voted for Mian sahib. Gujjars and Pashtuns have lived like one community despite differences, but they are a Scheduled Tribe and we are not. The ruling party promised us inclusion but we have only got promises all these years,” Khan said. “This is a vote for change and we brought out women to vote so that we are able to make a difference.”

Mir Ahmad Khan, a Pashtun elder, echoed Khan. “We live in forests but are not counted as backward area residents (which would entitle them to reservations) while others who have roads leading to their villages are. So we asked our women to come out to vote because their vote also counts.”

Khatija Begum, a 38-year-old mother of three and one of the many first-time women voters, cited a more pressing problem. “At times, we have to travel 3km downhill to get water because we get water only when there is electricity. How long should we continue to live like this?”

The numbers, at an all-Pashtun booth at Wayil Wedar, reflected this longing for change: among the 520 who pressed the button, 188 were women. Just nine women voters had turned up to vote when The Telegraph visited the booth in the 2009 elections.

At a neighbouring booth, more than 200 women voted.

Not that all Pashtuns voted for one party. Local residents said a rivalry between two Pashtun villages, one supporting the ruling party and other the Opposition, also helped increase the participation of women.

Srinagar city, however, maintained its record. A large number of people stayed away in response to a separatist call, living up to its tradition of being a “boycott constituency”.

The Srinagar parliamentary constituency, which includes Budgam and Ganderbal, recorded 26 per cent polling overall, 1 per cent more than the 2009 elections. The turnout in Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal was 11 per cent, 39 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively.

One person was killed and one was injured in firing by security forces in the old city, where most of the booths were deserted, during a clash with pro-aazaadi protesters.