Women and Veiling in Kashmir

WOMEN AND VEILING Traditionally Kashmiri women have enjoyed more freedom than women in other parts of the world. Particularly peasant women and lower class women used to work side by side with men. It was only upper class Syed families who wore burqas to maintain their elite structure and their foreign origin. The nationalist struggle wanted women to be politically mobilized and women found it a liberating opportunity. Their response was overwhelming to the struggle of 1990s.
In Rita Manchanda’s ‘Guns and Burqa: women in Kashmir’s conflict’, according to a Kashmiri scholar in women’s studies, Momin Jan, it was in the 14th century that purdah was imposed on Kashmiri society. In Kashmir there was lack of women’s organization working for gender justice and social reform. The organizations which came up in 1970s and 1980s in Kashmir were imbibed with an Islamic agenda. Many elite women who came into politics were through their involvement in promoting Islamic social reform. As far as veiling of Kashmiri women is considered it started in 14th century with the coming of Afghans.
They forced women to put burqa and pushed them inside. This didn’t last long; the lower class women resisted this veiling by demanding freedom. However women did hold to manage their role in the economic activities by working side by side with men. They were politically mobilized with Asiyah Indrabi coming on the scene, the campaign to reveil Kashmiri women started. Even many fundamentalist organizations were determined to veil Kashmiri women. Pamphlets were thrown in the women colleges, warning Kashmiri women to wear burqa and Kashmiri (Hindu) girls to wear a tikka.

Posters were pasted on the walls of Mosques in different mohallas asking them to veil their women otherwise they would face dire consequences. But the women resisted this thing. Writing under pseudonym, Sara Bano, in a letter to the editor in the daily Al Safa, ‘questioned the legitimacy of linking wearing of burqa with the struggle for freedom and vowed that she would never wear a burqa even if she was killed’. The women did not accept to wear a burqa. But as the support to azaadi grew so the acceptance to purdah was also given.
Many women workers were asked to wear burqa or to denounce their jobs. Women like Nayeema Ahmed Mahjoor, a radio-star and executive producer with Radio Kashmir, were under double pressure, to be veiled and to quit jobs denounced as un-Islamic. Nayeema had colour thrown on her by purdah crusaders. People were blindly following the militants what the militants said would be considered as the voice of Allah. Even the people with the modern outlook and thinking would ask their wives to wear burqa. The veiling became compulsory for the women of Kashmir.
The emphasis on the veiling of women showed the assertion of men of the control over their women. According to them veiling was necessary for women as this would save them from the humiliating treatment by the security forces. But instead of giving them a sense of security it made them more vulnerable to the security forces. The militants in order to escape from the security forces used burqa. This developed a belief among the security forces that one in every three burqa clad persons was a militant. This led to the humiliation and sexual harassment of women at the hands of security forces.
Due to this thing some of the militant groups declared that women need not wear a burqa. But it was for a short duration. Women organizations like DM or MKM started veiling campaign and asked women not to venture out unveiled. Those who disobey these orders had to face the wrath of these outfits. They had green colour thrown on them and also was there the reports acid being thrown on them. Asiyah denied the reports of acid being thrown on the women. Soon the campaign was withdrawn but not before it forced a backlash.
Many of the urban and middle-class women turned away from the movement. Asiyah was not able to bring the urban middle-class support for the movement. But we can’t deny the fact that more women are wearing a burqa now than before the insurgency. But as we saw above, women were participants and not passive sites for reproducing a communal identity. This was most obviously reflected in their resistance to coercive veiling. But it was also discernible in women’s ambivalent negotiations with the ‘other’, in this case the Kashmiri pandit.

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