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The Burqa Manoeuvre

Kashmiri women have been targets of a reformed Deobandi Sunni element from the very beginning of the insurgency. In fact, they were the first targets.

The Burqa Manoeuvre
The Burqa Manoeuvre
illustration by Saurabh Singh Pakistan's spokesmen never get tired of asserting that what is going on in Kashmir is a war of independence to which they are only lending moral and diplomatic support. At Agra, and in his press conference after returning to Islamabad, President Musharraf went a step further and used this argument to disavow the very existence of cross-border terrorism. So what then is one to make of the recent attacks upon Kashmiri women by this supposedly new organisation in the Valley, the Lashkar-e-Jabbar? In two recent episodes, members of this new Lashkar threw acid on the faces of women who refused to abide by its edict that henceforth all women in Kashmir must dress in the correct Islamic fashion, i.e. with their whole bodies covered and wearing a veil, or swaddled head to toe in a black burqa.

Those unfamiliar with Kashmir's recent history may be tempted to dismiss this as another of the aberrations spawned by a protracted freedom struggle. The Kashmir struggle, one can argue, has always had a fanatical religious fringe. With the advent of the jehadis, this fanatical Islamist element has gained strength. As the Taliban have brutally shown in Afghanistan, forcing women to vacate the public space is part of their creed.

This assessment is very far off the mark. Kashmiri Muslim women have been targets of a reformed Deobandi Sunni element from the very beginning of the insurgency. In fact, women were the first targets of the insurgency. In the summer of 1989, a good six months before the outbreak of large-scale violence in the state, a then little known women's fundamentalist movement, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, warned Kashmiri women to don the burqa or face disfigurement. This was followed by a number of acid attacks on unveiled women. But the attacks prompted a spate of protests from Kashmiris in all walks of life, and were abandoned. The women, especially of Srinagar and other large towns, treated the edict with contempt.

Women did don the veil during the genuine Kashmiri insurgency, from 1990 to '94. In those grim years, there were few women on the streets and nearly all, except the very old and very young, wore some form of the veil. But they did not do so only to express solidarity with the militants. Another pressing reason was to buy themselves a degree of inviolability, from the security forces and militants alike.

They demonstrated how much they had regarded the veil as a temporary expedient by shedding it the moment peace returned somewhat in the Valley. In 1997 and '98, women returned to the streets unveiled, often wearing the traditional black bindis. The more fashion conscious wore sleeveless kameez and the most diaphanous of dupattas.

By 1998, normality had returned to all but the remotest parts of the Valley. Nowhere was this more visible than in the behaviour of Kashmiri women. Not only were nine out of ten going unveiled, but they had resumed their window-shopping, dawdling in groups in Lal Chowk, and parading with families and friends on the boulevard beside Dal lake. Shops in Lal Chowk regularly stayed open till eight in the evening, and on the Bund till as late as ten. On Sundays, families would flock to the Shalimar gardens, or to Gulmarg. But the celebration of normality carried its own political message, and women became its unwitting bearers.

The message was that after seven years of living in fear of dislocation and death, Kashmiris wanted peace above all else; that they had little love for the arid, orthodox Islam that was sweeping Pakistan; that the Kashmiri movement had been political from the very start, and had to do with self-determination and not separation from India on religious grounds, and therefore that most Kashmiris would be prepared to negotiate a settlement with New Delhi provided their sacrifices were recognised and their future autonomy assured.

This message was lost on New Delhi but not upon the Pakistani planners of cross-border violence, and the remnants of the Islamic militant groups in Kashmir. The edict went out once again from the Dukhtaran-e-Millat that women must dress modestly in conformity with the tenets of Islam. On this occasion, militants punished those who refused to listen by shooting them in the legs.

It is tempting to conclude that the recent attacks are a sign of desperation, and a final attempt to break the will of Kashmiri women. But after twelve years of fruitless effort, both the isi in Pakistan and the likes of Asea Andrabi, the head of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, must know that attacks on women will do serious harm to their cause. Why then are they persisting? The most plausible explanation is that once a sizable number of urban women go back to wearing the burqa, it will become easier for the fidayeen and other jehadis to infiltrate the towns in this garb. But since they can do so even now, this is not a sufficient justification for a step that is so fraught with adverse consequences.

Only one explanation remains. The security forces, perfectly aware that militants often masquerade as women, frequently check the identities of burqa-clad women by making them unveil. Normally this is done by Kashmiri policewomen so no offence is given. But if large numbers of Kashmiri women start going around veiled, and attacks from militants masquerading as women multiply, soldiers will be forced to make many more such checks and many of them will be without the aid of policewomen.

Not only will women be offended and their menfolk enraged but this will allow the militants to claim once again, with much greater credibility, that Indian soldiers are dishonouring Kashmiri women. The latest round of edicts may therefore be the opening salvo of a determined attempt to kill two birds with one stone—provide a means for militants to attack unsuspecting security forces, as also alienate Kashmiri women from the cause of peace.
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