Silent Awakening Among Kashmiri Women
1 August 2006
The Indian Express
Srinagar: Twenty-five-year-old Saima Farhad is a Kashmiri woman who has shunned the veil and set out to discuss dating in a region where cinemas showing Bollywood romances are hard to find and beauty parlours scorned upon.But few eyebrows were raised when Farhad and friend Sheeba Masoodi launched She - the first women's magazine in Kashmir, where an Islamist insurgency has killed more than 45,000 people. The two women epitomise the new face of Kashmiri women who are eager to experiment with some of the social changes sweeping the Indian subcontinent while maintaining their Islamic identity and values. 'Kashmir is changing,' Farhad said one afternoon as she sat on the sprawling lawns of Kashmir University. The world thinks Kashmiri women do not have guts and they are very conservative. This is not true. She is an effort to show how talented Kashmiri women are and yes, we also date.' There was a time in Kashmir in the early 1990s when a mere poster on a mosque wall, asking women to wear head-to-toe veils, would be enough to send then scurrying back home. Barring one theatre in a high-security zone, all cinemas have remained shut since 1989. This May, some cable TV channels were ordered to shut, allegedly by the militants, for spreading 'obscenity' in the form of slightly risque music videos. And since April, when a prostitution scandal - in which girls, some of them minors, were said to be supplied to politicians and police officers - surfaced in the capital, Srinagar, women avoided beauty parlours after claims they were also involved in the sex trade. Dreaming big But below the surface, a silent awakening is taking place. Old taboos are breaking as parents pursue new dreams for their daughters. 'Our religion does not say you can not send your women out,' said Mukhtar Ahmad, a Srinagar bank employee. 'My wife is working. My daughter is in a medical college and I want to send her abroad for further studies. Kashmiris are moderate and this moderate society has survived the bloodshed.' A lull in violence compared to the height of the insurgency has also helped women get out of their homes. In the sun- soaked university campus, dozens of young girls were seen flocking outside classrooms and walking confidently in colourful clothes: heads were covered but there were no veils in sight. 'Due to the violence, I think the voice of Kashmiri woman was not heard before,' said Dilruba Malik, a 23-year-old student. 'But things are changing now. Our voices are becoming louder. Kashmiri women are working alongside men.' The change, however, is not easy and every now and then comes a grim reminder that women in this scenic Himalayan Valley live under the watchful eyes of Islamist militants, who have the power to change their lives. Protective Veil Since the sex scandal, allegedly involving top politicians, police and bureaucrats, the streets of Srinagar have seen many protests demanding that Indians leave the Valley. The protests have often been led by Asiya Andrabi, leader of the Dukhtaran-e-Milat (Daughters of the Muslim Faith), a women's separatist group. In the past Dukhtaran activists have raided hotels, restaurants and wine shops to stamp out 'moral decline'. Andrabi, the wife of a jailed militant leader, is influenced by the Iranian Islamic revolution and her group has campaigned to force Muslim women to wear veils. Dukhtaran believes the sex racket was a result of India 'corrupting' Kashmir women and one way to protect against this, is to wear veils. 'It is not a diktat from Dukhtaran-e- Milat,' says Andrabi, a 40-year-old mother of two. 'It is a diktat from Allah. Islam says a woman should be covered in veil. The veil is her security.' Farhad knows her task to set the Kashimri woman debating about her rights is not an easy - perhaps, one of the reasons why the 16-page 'She' is more of a newsletter and has no pictures. 'We've had a soft launch,' she said. 'We wanted to see the reaction and so far it has been overwhelming. We've been flooded with emails.' Farhad also knows her limitations. 'We have the guts to talk about sex but what is the need?' she said. 'Why not talk about problems of depression in Kashmiri women and problems of women travelling in buses?'