A veiled wail

[ Sunday, October 14, 2001 12:34:52 pm TIMES NEWS NETWORK ]



I can never forget August 6th, 2001. As far as I am concerned, it was a black-letter day for the valley. Two unidentified men splashed acid on the faces of my school friends, Kulsooma and Fowzia. My mother was very upset on hearing the news and insisted I must start wearing a burqa also. I protested. My mother has never worn a burqa. She has always worn a phiran with a scarf tied over her head. A huge argument erupted at home. "Double standards," I shouted.

My younger brother Ahmed, studying in the Sixth Form, sided with my mother. We waited for my father to return from college to resolve the dispute. My father, a professor of chemistry at the Srinagar Univeristy, has brought us up to have a fairly liberal attitude. He knows that I too want to grow up to be a chemist. I was confident he would take my side. My father opted for caution and sided with my mother. "She'll get used to wearing one," mother told father when she saw how discomfited he was getting by my tears. "Why do these militants want to Talibanise us Kashmiris? Why don't they force the women in Pakistan to wear burqas? They dress up pretty much as they please," I pleaded.

My words were falling on deaf ears. To keep doomsday at bay, I insisted I would seek the advice of my school principal. She is a very sympathetic lady. "Many of your friends have come to me to discuss their dilemma. In Kashmir, there has been no tradition of wearing the burqa. Purdah in Islam does not mean abayas (veil) which was brought to Kashmir from Iran. But the Lashkar-e-Jabbar is a new and dangerous outfit. They have warned that those who refuse to wear the burqa will end up having to bite the bullet."

I shudder at the prospect. Who can fight an AK-47 gun? It's not fair, I tell myself. As it is, our school uniform comprises a white salwar-kameez and dupatta. No girl would dream of wearing a skirt or a pair of jeans to school, though many of them do confess to having worn them when they visit relatives outside the valley.

During the school break, my friends and I break into a loud discussion in the canteen. "There is no reference in the Qu'ran and the Hafiz about a woman having to cover her face," Haneet, a history student, points out.

Sakina, a girl from my class, felt that wearing a burqa was a positive step. "Too many girls had started wearing see-through dresses. Things were getting out of hand," she said. I glared at her. I was going to pick up an argument with her but stopped myself. She was not imposing the ban, so why argue with her?

When I got home, my mother insisted on taking me to a tailor. The tailor, Mohammed Ali, acted as though getting a burqa stitched was the most normal thing for a teenager. "I've got burqas in beige, black and chocolate brown; what colour do you want?" Ali asked. Feeling exasperated, I said I wanted one in red. my mother wrapped me on the knuckles. I opted for a black burqa. "It will cost rs 4000," Ali said. "It used to cost rs 800," she murmured. "Those days are over. Now we're working overtime to cover all our daughters in the valley," he said.

One of our teachers had mentioned in class that the militant diktat could be the handiwork of some over-smart tailors. I now believed her. One can rule nothing out in Srinagar. Some years ago, an over-smart car dealer selling Hindustan motor cars had got some militants to issue a diktat against Maruti cars and so the entry of these cars was delayed by several months.

"This burqa phase will soon pass," mother tells me as we walk home. I do not believe her. Ever since militancy reared its ugly head in the valley, we Kashmiri women have been regularly exhorted to don the veil. During the early '90s, and much before the Taliban arrived on the scene, the militant women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith) were in the forefront, insisting women adhere to a strict Islamic code. This was followed by the Allah tigers, giving the same war cry. I insist on stopping at a cosmetic shop to take a look at some new shades of lipstick. Mother does not stop me. Once I'm wearing a burqa no one will know what shade of lipstick or mascara I use. Next afternoon, there is a burqa lying on my bed. I try it out with trepidation. "It's better to wear it, than to be a dead duck," I tell myself as I slip it on. As it is black, it's like my shadow. But everytime I go past a policeman, I feel sorry for him. If the state police cannot stop women from being persecuted in this way, then what kind of protection are they offering us anyway?

One dare not ask questions; one dare not seek answers. I take life as it comes.

Elisa Maria has sent us this interesting article from the India Times. Can it inspire any of you lot?