SRINAGAR, India (GPI)--
There is a crowd of people waiting outside the office of Shamim Firdous, one of only four women in the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir. They wait to meet her to address issues ranging from to electricity bills to rape reports.
One woman, who declined to give her name, says she has come to Firdous’ office to seek justice for her daughter, who was recently raped. She is glad there is a female legislator whom she can talk to.
“She is a woman and will understand my plight,” the mother says. “It will be much easier for me to talk to her about my problem than a man.”
The assemblywoman proves her right, dismissing all employees and visitors from her office so that she can talk to the woman alone.
It was this opportunity of helping people that motivated Firdous to join politics.
“I was inspired by my mother, who would never say no to those in need,” says Firdous, who also serves as chairwoman of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women.
Firdous says she also received guidance and inspiration from Begum Abdullah, the late grandmother of Omar Abdullah, current chief minister of the state. Firdous used to visit the prominent political family’s organization, Madri Meherban Women and Child Welfare Institute, when she was a young adult in the 1980s.
“Begum Abdullah took me under her wings and taught me the intricacies of politics,” she says. “She became my godmother.”
Firdous says she has also relied on her own willpower and hard work, especially during the violent period of conflict in the region during the 1990s. Separatists of the anti-India armed insurgency saw mainstream political parties as collaborators with the Indian government, making politicians vulnerable to military attacks.
“People called me a traitor,” Firdous says. “But I was adamant to pursue it.”
When things got difficult for Firdous, her mother’s words sustained her.
“She told me that now was the time to prove yourself, as I had struggled hard to reach where I was,” she says. “It was time to show my existence. Her words woke me up.”
Firdous committed herself to providing similar support for women in her state.
“Women were most affected by the conflict,” Firdous says. “The women and children were helpless.”
Firdous, a rare example of a successful female politician in Kashmir, strived to show women that they are not helpless. She weathered the turbulence of the time, but she admits that it’s still not easy being a politician today.
“It is very difficult to pursue politics in a male-dominated society,” Firdous says. “They don’t let you move forward.”
She says that the low number of women in the legislative assembly is indicative of this. But she encourages women to change it.
“You have to force them to give you space,” she says. “Otherwise, they won’t give you any room.”
Successful women in politics are still rare in Jammu and Kashmir, but these women say it doesn’t have to be that way. Decades of conflict in Kashmir have made politics, already a male-dominated field, especially dangerous for women. But their supporters – especially women – say they are grateful to have female leaders that they can bring their concerns to. A state reservation law has increased the number of women in local politics, but a federal law increasing this number on the national and state levels has been pending for years. Men and women agree that institutions, not people’s attitudes, are keeping women out of politics. Women in office pledge to use their positions to chip away at this.