Articulate and feisty, she is the new icon for women in Jammu and Kashmir. Having weathered several political and personal storms, Mehbooba Mufti is determined to make Kashmir smile again. The first step towards achieving this goal, she says, is to reduce gender poverty by ending gender discrimination. If she has to take advantage of being the president of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the daughter of the J&K chief minister to accomplish this task, she is ready to do so. She speaks to Swapna Majumdar.

Where does J&K stand in terms of gender discrimination?

Unfortunately, discrimination against girls permeates all parts of the country and J&K has not remained untouched. It affects both the rich and the poor. Gender disparities begin from our homes. My mother's world really changed after my brother was born. So, it came as no big surprise when my mother began to cry when my first daughter was born. Then she hoped my second child would be male. When my second daughter was born, she fainted. So gender disparities and the preference for sons are not limited to the poor. The affluent and the educated are affected equally.

Ironically, it is we three daughters who are doing well while my brother is still struggling to make a mark. I am in politics and my sisters are well-respected doctors. My brother is doing a course in cinematography in Hollywood and is still striving for a career.

Do you believe education can reduce disparity and poverty?

Yes. Education holds the key to development. No government or state can prosper if women, who constitute half the population, remain poor. We have to stop giving priority to boys and invest in girls. Not only do we educate a whole family by educating a girl, we enable her to know her rights and give her the power to realise her potential. It is also important for society to acknowledge her potential. Only then can we reduce disparity and poverty. If everyone is ready to hand over the responsibilities of the family to her, why not empower her to take decisions within the home and outside? Even her brother, husband and father don't take a woman seriously.

Does your father, J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohd Sayeed, listen to you?

Yes, he does. I don't interfere in the working of the government. But as party president, I give him feedback on what the people want or think about a particular policy or scheme. In fact, if some action needs to be taken, I keep nagging him until he acts. For example, the government had raised the power tariff. The hike had the effect of doubling the amount payable. This affected the poor and many came to me with their tales of woe. I took up their problem with my father. He heard me out and said he would consider the issue. After some time when nothing happened, I reminded him. He finally called a meeting of the concerned officials and the tariff was reduced.

So you take advantage of being his daughter?

Actually my role as a daughter and a party worker are interlinked. But I make sure that whenever I take up any issue with him, I have the facts and figures ready and verified.

What has the government done to redress the problem of gender poverty in the state?

If I, as a single mother, can come into politics, there is nothing to stop women from coming forward and joining politics. Unless women are confident of their own abilities, gender discrimination will continue.
It is well known that women bear the brunt of poverty. In our state, the problem gets exacerbated because of the conflict. We are trying to bring about a sense of security and instil confidence in the people first. There exists a government scheme wherein the dependent member of the family killed in the conflict is given Rs 100,000 in cash and a job. Now, with a saturation of jobs, we are considering increasing the sum of money. The only problem is that if the claimant is the widow, then she cannot remarry.

Isn't this discriminatory?

Yes, it is. Unfortunately, we are not able to bring a change in this provision right now. There are some differences of opinion on it. Some believe that if the widow remarries, she tends to desert the family of her first husband. There have been some cases where the widow has remarried and left her children in the care of her old in-laws. So we have to give this some thought.

Do you think J&K women would benefit more if you were the chief minister instead of your father?

I don't think comparisons between my father and myself would be fair. He is far more experienced than I am. Also, right now I am not temperamentally suited for the job. I prefer to keep my link with the common masses. I also want to send the message that if I, as a single mother, can come into politics, there is nothing to stop women from coming forward and joining politics. Unless women are confident of their own abilities, gender discrimination will continue.

Tell us about the Umeed Trust.

Umeed is a Trust and has no link with the government. It aims to give hope to those without hope. We are going to educate one child in every family that has no male adults. The Trust believes that by educating one child belonging to these families, which are already in dire straits because the men have been killed due to violence, it can assist their rehabilitation. So whether the recipient is a militant's child or hails from a family victimised by a militant, they will receive a sum of Rs 1000. Since most people prefer to send their sons to school, we will try to ensure with the help of this monetary assistance, there is no discrimination against the girls. Our aim is also to promote gender equality. We believe that an investment in women is investment in peace and prosperity. Hopefully, through its work, Umeed can bridge the emotional and political divide that exists in Kashmir today.