Talking Gender in Kashmir – V

Social Norms and Dress Code – 2 

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

This article is a continuation to the topic of social norms and dress code that I started in my previous piece in the series on gender in which I argued that it is misleading when people argue that Kashmiri women wear traditional clothing only because our society is more traditional, or that they wear hijab only because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries. Both of these positions are misleading and I will explain why based on my personal experiences in Kashmir over the many years.

When I was a child in the 80’s, many of my aunts and older cousins who were either in college or in the university, did not cover their head; today all of them do. There was a great diversity in women’s attire – both Pandit and Muslim women in shalwar-kameez with transparent chiffon dupattas on their shoulders, some putting them on their heads in front of elders, and only some covering most of the time. I would also see a young woman or two occasionally in pants and shirts near our Khankahi Sokhta neighborhood in Srinagar – my ancestral place. My mother’s Seyyid family being exceptionally conservative, for many years I was the only girl in my classroom who wore a headscarf. Almost all of my girl friends came to school without covering their head and this continued until 1989 when things suddenly changed for everyone.

During my higher secondary school and college years in the 90’s, a number of incidents happened where I found myself amidst confrontations with people on matters of dress code. Our college principal extended several “rustication” warnings to me when I refused to follow the new dress code that was made mandatory for Muslim girls by the dukhtaran-e-millat (‘daughters of the nation’), who paid regular visits to schools and colleges to provide lectures on azaadi and shariyah. The prescribed code included, besides the headscarf that I already wore owing to family traditions, a burqa or an abaya. Additionally, an unofficial temporary ban was imposed on various other things in educational institutions, such as wearing high-heeled sandals or make-up. Many atrocities were hurled at the girls on the pretext of not observing purdah. Women squads of militant organizations would patrol bus stops and catch potential targets for a lecture, an admonishment or simply public shaming. Colored paint, and sometimes acid, was thrown upon girls who did not comply. Many schools and colleges were forced to change their uniforms – from skirts to shalwar-kameez in schools, and from white color to grey color for kameez (‘shirt’) in colleges (white being more “transparent”). A young schoolgirl was once shot in her leg for wearing jeans; women were terrorized. Non-Muslim women were asked to were symbols (such as a bindi for Pandit girls), so that Muslim women could easily be identified, targeted and punished for any violations.

While I chose an abaya, my younger sister was pressurized to wear a burqa after a shocking experience one day. She was returning from school in her uniform – an all-white qameez-shalwar and a dupatta that properly covered her hair, when a squad of dukhtaran-e-millet patrolling near Nauhatta threw color on her from inside a moving auto-rickshaw. Humiliated and angered, she ran after the woman holding on to the auto only to be dragged on the street as the auto ran away leaving her bruised. Many years later, a similar incident happened to a young family acquaintance. Naheed, a young girl from a remote area of Kashmir and poor family background, went to school in Srinagar and lived with my aunt helping her with the household chores during the after hours. One day I was visiting my sick aunt at her residence in Soura (Srinagar) and I asked about the girl. I was shocked when she narrated the story of Naheed’s horrific ordeal: “She was returning home after buying groceries. A bunch of young boys, some of them covering their faces with handkerchiefs, followed her in a “tempo”, stopped and dragged her by her hair for not wearing hijab. Her neck is broken; she is back home in her village.”

Although such horrific incidents are rare, they happened nevertheless and changed the face of our society, which became monochrome in a number of ways (Barring an island of the elite society, which is out of reach of the commonplace space and norms, and lives in a mini-world of its own). Last year I was invited for a lecture at a college in Kashmir. When I met the college principal – a lady in her late fifties with a head-to-toe cover – her face suddenly struck me. “I think I know you but I cannot remember,” I told her scratching my head. It took me a while before I recognized my teacher of the early 90’s. I was extremely excited to see her but before I could express my feelings, she said: “Please excuse me, I have to say my prayers.” In a women-only college, I felt it was bizarre and unnecessary to be covered from head-to-toe all the time.

Sometime later, I bumped on to an elderly neighbor on the street walking home with a burqa-clad woman. I stopped for a salaam and as I looked at the woman through the little holes in her face veil, I quickly recognized his daughter, my college friend, but she refused to recognize me and headed home in a jiffy. A year later, two of my distant cousins visited my painting exhibition at the Cultural Academy. It took me a second to recognize them from underneath the burqa. “We read about your exhibition in the newspaper and came to see you. We are so happy for you,” they said to me. But when I invited them in, they refused to come inside amidst a male dominated gathering and left quickly from the main gate. I found a barrier between us that did not exist when I left Kashmir. The two women, now married, never wore burqa when I was in Kashmir in the 90’s though they did cover.

I was at a mushairah (poetry recitation) in Srinagar one day. I had invited my family to come as well as it was the first time I was to read any of my poems in Kashmir. Right before the session started, my aunt turned to me: bay maray agar na kalas pyetth duptta thawakh (‘You will see me dead if you don’t cover your head’)an aunt who was quite up-to-date with fashion and did not always cover in the early 80’s during her youth. Today when my father asks me to wear traditional clothing and cover my head in public space during my visits home, I get very annoyed. “You will leave in a few days; I have to live here in this society”, he tells me.

*****

For feedback, the author can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir: http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/EPaper.aspx?kH2sJU5b4Ae_bseFzuBuykEQ_ep_ep )

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