All of a sudden, everyone is concerned about the rights of women in Jammu and Kashmir. At the risk of being shouted down by feminists and new converts to the cause of equal rights for women, I would like to introduce a note of caution and some scepticism. Women in Jammu and Kashmir and in the rest of India struggle daily against discrimination and inequalities - those that are written into the law and those that are practiced as a part of society's rituals. They also encounter, despite laws designed to protect them, violence at the hands of the very people assigned the task of looking after their interests - the police, the security forces and their husbands, fathers, brothers.

Yet, whenever the concerns of women transit through the arena of politics, they come into the limelight. We saw this in 1985 when for months no one bothered about the fact that an indigent Muslim woman divorcee called Shahbano living in Indore had been granted a miniscule relief of Rs. 500 per month as maintenance from her estranged husband through a ruling by the Supreme Court. Within a few months all that changed when mullahs and politicians realised the potential for a full-blown controversy. Shahbano's name became a household word. Everyone expressed concern for her plight. The media investigated the situation of other Muslim divorced women. The Hindu right screamed that this was an opportune moment to introduce a Uniform Civil Code so that Muslim women would not have to struggle for maintenance. And autonomous women's groups tied themselves into knots as they tried to work out how to support a more equal set of personal laws without appearing to support the Hindu right.

In the midst of it all, Shahbano was more or less forgotten. The Congress Party went along with the mullahs and introduced the Muslim Women's Bill that excluded them from the rights given to all women under Section 125 of the Cr. PC and the Hindu right cried "foul" and has used this move ever since to flog the Congress Party for its policy of "appeasement of the minorities".

Today, we know little about the situation of Muslim women divorcees and their ability to receive maintenance, or indeed women divorcees from any other community. A study done by the group Majlis in Mumbai revealed some shocking facts. Section 125 Cr. PC, under which Shahbano had been awarded maintenance in the 1985 Supreme Court ruling, is designed "to prevent destitution of women". In 2001, through an amendment, the upper limit of Rs. 1,500 per month (it was only Rs. 500 per month before 1997) to be awarded as maintenance was removed. In theory, women could be awarded a higher amount as maintenance. The Majlis study found that in Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and Nagpur, the largest proportion of maintenance awards fell between Rs. 201 to Rs. 500 per month. What is worse, the largest number of cases in the category dealing with maintenance was for recovery of arrears. These arrears began at Rs. 1,000 but went up to Rs. 50,000.

Such data clearly show that even as politicians espouse the cause of women, as they did at the height of the Shahbano controversy, the general public knows very little about the reality of the lives of women divorcees of all creeds. Nor is much done to genuinely help the women who find themselves helpless despite the law.

I suspect much the same has happened with the Permanent Resident (Disqualification) Bill 2004, which has now been put in cold storage. There is no question that there are discriminatory elements in it where a woman loses her right to qualify as a Permanent Resident of the State of Jammu and Kashmir if she marries a non-resident while a man does not. However, the woman does not lose her right to inheritance or immovable property. She is prevented, as is any other Permanent Resident of J & K, from selling or gifting this property to a non-resident even if it is her husband.

Permanent Resident status is granted to those people whose ancestors lived in J & K for at least 10 years before May 14, 1954. An executive order, based on the 1927 law defining the rights of the subjects of this state, was passed in 1967. Even then, the compulsion was political as the order sought to prevent the granddaughter of a former Prime Minister (as the Chief Minister of the State was called then) from claiming the Permanent Resident status after she married a man from outside the State. Not much was heard about this order, or its ramifications until several cases challenging it came up before the J & K High Court. On October 7, 2002, a full bench of the court struck down the order. The J & K government went in appeal to the Supreme Court and it is here that the problem began. Possibly anticipating that the court would uphold the lower court's judgment, the government withdrew its special leave petition and instead decided to introduce a new law.

Mehbooba Mufti and other Kashmiri women are willing to subsume their concerns in the larger interests of their fight for greater autonomy.
 •  Interview : Mehbooba Mufti
Both the proponents and the opponents of the bill seem more concerned about the politics of the controversy than the status of women. Then again, it is striking that one of the main defenders of the bill is a woman, Mehbooba Mufti who can hardly be charged with being indifferent to the status of women in the State. Yet, as women have done in similar situations, she and other Kashmiri women in the valley appear to have opted for what they consider to be a larger concern, the future character of their State, than their own rights. They are willing to subsume their concerns in the larger interests of their fight for greater autonomy or even freedom. We in the rest of the country may not understand or accept that. But our daily lives, our existence is not threatened in the same way.

This issue does require a proper debate. But it has to be placed fairly and squarely within a larger canvas. Politicians of all hues jumped to the defence of Kashmiri women without really asking them what they thought.

There is a lack of consistency in political parties of the left or the right when they speak up for women's rights. The former will not look within their own party structures, that are overwhelmingly male, and yet they will speak of discrimination against women. The latter promote regressive values that will ensure that Indian women remain imprisoned behind the bars of patriarchy and yet champion the rights of Kashmiri women to equality.

Unfortunately, the media tends to exacerbate the problem. It has a tendency, particularly in these days of 24-hour news channels, to jump onto the bandwagon. Those who shout most frequently and the loudest are given the maximum mileage; the quieter, more thoughtful voices of those presenting a different perspective are lost or drowned out. The public at large is given to believe that the issue is black and white without any shades of grey. The very manner in which the problem is presented prejudges it. And where does it leave women, in whose name all this is being done? Nowhere, or perhaps in a worse situation than when the debate began.