Given that the number of women in the Oklahoma Legislature is down to 19 from 22 in a House of 149, I have been motivated to imagine the possibility of different destinies for women in a world that is not governed by the aspirations and wishes of those women.
As a member of the Advisory Council for the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, I act as a resource and provide expertise to the commission. I provide research and information on societal violence and structural inequities that result from deep-rooted prejudices against women.
The questions to which I seek to provide well-substantiated answers are as follows:
How can we, as women, develop the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not just at the individual level but at the collective level as well? How can we develop self-esteem for which some form of financial autonomy is a basis? How can we make strategic life choices that are critical for people to lead the sort of lives they want to lead? We require a quality education for these mammoth tasks.
Women in Oklahoma still encounter lack of access to education – only 25.1% of women in Oklahoma work in STEM fields; female students fare worse than their male counterparts in the student loan crisis; female representation in the Legislature is inadequate, women holding only 12.8% of the seats; women, especially the poor and members of minority groups, suffer from inadequate healthcare; women in Oklahoma face pay disparity, making 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts; 41% of all homicides in the state are related to domestic violence; as a result of Medicaid expansion not being accepted, rural hospitals have gone bankrupt resulting in healthcare disparity, particularly for women. Social services, like rehabilitation treatments, are not as readily available to socioeconomically marginalized women, who lack transportation.
In my homeland Kashmir, inadequate attention has been paid to the gender dimension of the armed conflict in the Kashmir province of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir [J&K], which hinders even further the emergence of peace, political liberty, socioeconomic reconstruction, and egalitarian democratization. Although women of Indian-administered Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counter insurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels.
I recognize the attention paid to gender-based violence in Kashmir by scholars, ethnographers, and NGOs, but not enough attention is given to the political, economic, and social fallout of the armed conflict for women in Kashmir.
We, as women, Kashmiri as well as Oklahoman, cannot afford to play havoc with the empowerment that critical intelligence gives us; the credibility that articulate expressions of our situation give us; the intelligence that we employed to create a national identity.
There is an unwillingness in both Kashmir and Oklahoma to recognize the separate niche of women’s narratives in the larger political context of both places, which is symptomatic of exclusionary patriarchy in both cultures, and which does not establish women’s activism as an actuality and an ideology.
Not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri and Oklahoman women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations.
There is a serious lack of a feminist discourse in political/activist roles taken on by women in Kashmir and Oklahoma, where the dominant perception still is that politics and policy-making are linked to the powerful male realist rather than with the maternal, negotiating woman.
As in other political scenarios in South Asia, women politicians in Kashmir are relegated to the “soft areas” of social welfare and family affairs. Women’s rights and gender issues in both places are secondary to political power.
Today in Kashmir and Oklahoma, women legislators constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as “overly soft.”
We, as women, Kashmiri and Oklahoman, cannot afford to play havoc with the empowerment that critical intelligence gives us; the credibility that articulate expressions of our situation give us; the intelligence that we employed to create a national identity.
Educated women should fully participate in professional and political life in Kashmir and Oklahoma, and not make a virtue of helplessness and destitution.
Building on the earlier gains, a pluralistic government can now ensure further economic, social, and educational gains for women and marginalized groups. Here is what the next steps should aim to do:
Women citizens should be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life – economic, cultural, political, and in government services. Women should have the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men. Women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though the law should also give special protections to mothers and children.
In Kashmir, government scholarships for those in need should ensure full access to education, with instruction available in regional languages as well as English.
Obviously, an important challenge is to create new openings for women to discuss public issues and become active participants. To that end, Kashmir and Oklahoma need to revive and reinvigorate civil society institutions that could initiate groups to assemble freely and express shared interests, values, and purposes. As this happens, women citizens involved in civil society as well as government offices need to forge strategies for reconstruction and evolution of society. People must learn to work together across ethnic and ideological divides and insist that everyone be included in democratic decision-making and given full access to basic social services.
Not just in Kashmir, but in Oklahoma as well, women can play an important role in establishing a more inclusive democracy and new forums for citizen cooperation. Female leaders can lead the way by offering new ideas, building broad-based political coalitions, and working to bridge organizational divides.
In this way, women’s groups can thus pave the way for sustainable peace, universal human rights, and security from violent threats of all kinds.
– Nyla Ali Khan is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. She is editor of the Oxford Islamic Studies’ Online’s special issue on Jammu and Kashmir. She can be reached at email@example.com.