Taking to the veil under threat

SRINAGAR, AUG. 31. Kashmiri women seem to have finally given in to the threat of the shadowy militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Jabbar, as many of them have started donning the veil in adherence to a ``strict Islamic dress code.'' The ``deadline'' set by the outfit, despite criticism from various quarters including the Mirwaiz (head priest) of Kashmir, ends on Friday.

Srinagar city and other parts of the Valley look different with women, including young girls, coming out in a burqa (traditional veil covering even the face) and abhaya (the Iranian purdah). And those who have ordered for the burqas cover their faces with `dupattas,' apparently to drive home the message that they are all set to adhere to the diktat.

The women, clearly, have no option but to obey the ``orders.'' Deployment of police outside women's colleges and other institutions has hardly had any impact, given the fact that a few weeks ago, acid was thrown on the faces of four women by unknown persons.

Despite condemnation of the attack by almost all the militant groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, women in Kashmir have decided not to take any chances. ``All of us are scared,'' says Mehmooda, a social worker. However, many women believe that a ``dress code'' can not be implemented by force. ``One should have the conviction to do so (wear a purdah) and whosoever has it is doing it,'' said an angry woman.

Denouncing ``such tactics'' of force, the Mirwaiz of Kashmir's main mosque, Moulvi Umar Farooq, told The Hindu ``nobody can be opposed to the purdah but it can be enforced by delivering sermons in mosques or through door-to-door campaigns.''

But not all the Muslim women in the State are opposed to the veil. ``There is nothing wrong in observing purdah as our religion teaches us to do so but there could be other means (of enforcing it) also,'' says Ms. Mahjabeen, a teacher.

As the sale of black cloth, used for the purdah, has gone up, its price has also sky rocketed. It has triggered the suspicion that cloth merchants may be behind the campaign, now supported by the radical women's group, Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM).

The veil campaign is among a series of steps the separatists have sought to enforce since the onset of militancy in Kashmir. Their earlier diktats included closure of cinema halls, beauty parlours and wine shops. This time though, the issue has snowballed into a major controversy with even the Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, making it the topic of his Independence day speech at the Bakhshi Stadium.