Thanks to the 50 per cent reservation for women in the coming panchayat elections, thousands of Muslim women, until recently discouraged from taking to politics and public life, are likely to enter the political domain in the northern districts of Kerala.

The reservation has forced the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which, not long ago, disfavoured Muslim women's active politics, to press them into the electoral arena. The IUML holds a significant political space in the Malabar region. Since a half of all the electoral seats in the local bodies are set apart for women, the party is now gearing up to harness Muslim women's political energy.

In preparation for the elections, the Vanitha League, IUML's women's wing, has been energised.

“The Muslim League will contest all women-only seats in the elections in areas where we have political influence,” Noorbina Rasheed, general secretary of the Vanitha League, told The Hindu. “We have lots of able women to stand for the election.” The Vanitha League is now setting up committees in all panchayats and all wards.

“A number of educated Muslim women show up at each of these meetings eager to become office-bearers and run for panchayats,” Ms. Rasheed, a lawyer and former State Women's Commission member, who served as councillor in the Kozhikode Corporation for two terms, claimed. The local body elections, to be held in about three months, will be the first gender-equal election in the women-majority Kerala. It is expected to spawn a new generation of women politicians.

This will be much more pronounced among Muslim women, whose political empowerment has been held back by a host of social, religious and cultural factors. Ms. Rasheed, however, says that her organisation does not ask its activists and leaders to work full-time. “Our priority is for the family; family first, then politics and public life,” she said.

As a result, they are told to wind up all public functions by 6 p.m. Women are also told to wear ‘Islamic attire' that does not expose the body other than the hands and the face. “We do not insist on the purdah,” she claims. “Salwar-kameez and sari are perfectly fine.”

The Vanitha League will not take to the street holding rallies and demonstrations, unless it is extremely unavoidable.

(However, a Vanitha League activist told The Hindu that these precautions - of ‘family first' and ‘Islamic attire' - were basically to ward off criticism from the conservatives who did not take lightly to women's political empowerment.)

Over a decade back, the constitutional mandate of ‘one-third quota' for women in local bodies had unleashed women's political energy in Kerala's countryside.

For the politically marginalised Muslim women in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Kasaragod, Wayanad and Palakkad districts, it opened up avenues of political power.

The IUML had no option but to reluctantly let their women contest the elections. In the beginning, the party had difficulty finding sufficient number of candidates. Most of those zestful women who got elected proved their mettle in office and many earned a name for being good administrators.

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