When Kaneez Fatima was asked by the Congress party leadership to contest the Karnataka assembly elections in 2018, she was left quite baffled. It hadn’t even been a full year since her husband, Qamar ul Islam, a six-time MLA and a two-time cabinet minister, had passed away.
After all, a hijab-clad Muslim woman is hardly the poster-figure of electoral politics in India, let alone Karnataka. Hesitantly though, Kaneez agreed to contest the elections from Gulbarga North constituency — the seat that her late husband had held for three decades — and won by a margin of nearly 6,000 votes, making her the only Muslim woman MLA in Karnataka’s 224-member assembly.
Five years later, in 2023, the competition was fiercer. Not only did the BJP campaign actively in the region, Kaneez also had to compete with nine candidates from within the Muslim community, including those from the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S), the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and multiple independent candidates.
This time she won by a margin of nearly 3,000 votes, and just managed to defeat BJP’s Chandrakanth Patil, a Lingayat leader.
“When multiple Muslims contest in a seat that has a significant Muslim population, it’s always tougher. But it’s not just that. BJP was also very active in its campaign here, especially since they saw how vocal I was on the hijab ban issue. They knew it could be a good subject to polarise voters on,” Kaneez told The Quint, days after her victory.
Excerpts from an interview:
"Congress Will Remove Hijab Ban, Bring Back 2B": Kaneez Fatima
While her husband was engrossed in his four-decade long political career, Kaneez mostly stuck to household duties and bringing up their son. Some of the political acumen, inevitably, did rub off on her.
“I would be involved in Qamar saab’s campaigning, especially when we had to specifically meet women voters. Many women would also come to me with their problems that they wanted relayed to him. But that was it. This was my limited exposure to politics,” said 64-year-old Kaneez.
After becoming an MLA in 2018, she turned a new leaf in her life. “People started recognising me and I got so much respect from the locals that the transition became easy,” she said, over a phone call.
In early 2022, the BJP-led state government imposed the hijab ban, and since then, Kaneez has been at the forefront of the protest against the ban. It is pertinent to note that she is one of the few sitting MLAs to have done so.
Before that, she was also active during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and led the sit-ins in Gulbarga region of the state. She was also involved in COVID-19 relief work in her constituency.
"Today I am an MLA and politician in my own right. I have been vocal whenever the people of Karnataka have been oppressed either by way of the hijab ban or by the CAA-NRC,” said Kaneez.
In a conversation with The Quint, she claimed that the Congress will remove the "hijab ban and bring back the 2B reservation for Muslims immediately after forming the government."
In April this year, ahead of elections in the state, the Karnataka BJP government had scrapped the four percent reservation for Muslims, which fell under the '2B category'. The reservation was beneficial to Muslims of the state, whose families earned less than Rs eight lakh annual income, thus making them disadvantaged. The four percent reservation was applicable in government colleges and jobs.
The Quint had reported from Karnataka about how the scrapping of the reservation had ignited fear among the Muslim community of the state about their future.
“In the very first cabinet meeting, we will pass resolutions removing the hijab ban and bringing back the 2B reservation. I am confident,” she claimed.
'Could Identify With Hijabi Women Being Targeted'
While Kaneez was active in the protests against the hijab ban, she said that she herself didn't face any issues despite being a hijab-clad woman.
“I personally didn’t face many issues because of my hijab. This is because I had security guards with me at all times -- when I would travel for work, go to my office, or anywhere else. But I realise that most hijabi women in Karnataka don’t have that privilege,” she said.
In the last one year, several videos of Hijabi students being accosted by classmates, peers, and members of right-wing groups, have gone viral. “When I would watch those videos, it would upset me. I could identify with those women. I felt a heightened sense of urgency about the need for the Congress to come back to power, so that we can stop all this from happening,” said Kaneez.
"So in that sense, there was a lot more at stake this time," she added.
"Society, Muslim Community Need To Accept More Muslim Women Politicians": Kaneez Fatima
Kaneez was the only Muslim woman MLA in Karnataka in 2018 and now again in 2023. The only other Muslim woman MLA in the history of Karnataka was Mukhtar Unnisa Begum — that too back in 1985. Women, in general, have had a poor history of representation in Karnataka’s politics.
Over 2,000 candidates contested in the 2023 Karnataka elections, of which only 185 were women, as per an analysis of the data available on the Election Commission website. Of these, only 11 made it to the Karnataka Assembly. Karnataka has never touched even 10 percent representation of women in its Assembly.
This despite the fact that women voters play an important role in the elections. As per the Election Commission, more women than men polled in 52 assembly constituencies of the state this year.
Muslims too, despite being 13 percent of the state’s population, have traditionally been under-represented in the Karnataka assembly. A total of nine Muslims made it to the Assembly this year, including Kaneez, making them four per cent of the Assembly. The highest number of Muslims to ever be in the Karnataka assembly were 11, back in 2013.
Kaneez said she recognises the under-representation at play here. “Muslims aren’t represented adequately, and neither are women. Muslim women, then, are grossly under-represented. There are a number of factors responsible for this. The society needs to be more accepting of Muslim women in politics and even the community needs to stop seeing it as a bad thing. They need to welcome it,” she said.
“Muslim women come from their specific stand-point, which they can talk about more strongly if they enter politics. Muslim women must enter politics," she added.
Kaneez also said that she didn’t just get support from the Congress, but also from her own community. “Muslim residents and even the ulema (scholars) were very encouraging,” Kaneez said. Every few years, Imams from different mosques across different parts of north India, release statements saying Islam doesn’t permit women in politics. Most recently, such a statement was made by the imam of Ahmedabad's Jama Masjid, Mufti Shabbir Ahmed Siddiqui, ahead of the 2022 Gujarat polls.
“Ulema in Karnataka and generally in southern states are far more educated, in terms of deeni (religious) education as well as duniya (worldly). So they are encouraging of Muslim women in politics,” she said.
Soon after Kaneez’s victory, some on social media began sharing an old picture of hers performing the Umrah (holy pilgrimage) at Mecca, trolling her.
Kaneez said, “Communalism has risen in Karnataka over the years.”
“With BJP’s antics, communalism and hate have risen substantially in Karnataka in the last few years. Ours has traditionally been a syncretic society but things have got bad lately. Hopefully, now we can work to improve things,” she said.