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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Taking the 'jihad' to Kashmir's women
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Srinagar

In Srinagar's Zakoorah Khwaja Bagh area, a crowd of 50 has gathered in a makeshift tent.

Women and children listen to Asiya Andrabi
Only women and children were present to hear Ms Andrabi speak

The audience, made up of women and children, sits cross-legged on carpets. A small woman, fully veiled, sits on a chair, giving a very charged speech.

"You need to protect your daughters," she tells the gathering.

Heads nod in agreement. The anguish on some faces is transparent. One elderly woman wipes her tears.

The speaker is Asiya Andrabi, leader of Kashmir's separatist women's organisation, Dukhtaran-e-Milat, or Daughters of the Faith.

Today's speech, says Ms Andrabi, is to raise awareness among the women about a recent sex scandal that has rocked the Kashmir valley.

'Reform movement'

Ms Andrabi, who has been leading protests against the scandal, is an excellent orator. The daughter of a physician and a housewife, she has had a long career in the limelight.

After graduating in 1981 from Kashmir University, she wanted to go to Dalhousie, in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, to study chemistry.

Dukhtaran-e-Milat members
Ms Andrabi says only virtuous women can join her organisation

But her brother's refusal to let her travel out of Kashmir was the turning point in her life. She says it led her to a book in her father's library about the inner feelings of women.

"When I read it, I was shocked to realise how little I knew about Islam, about the status of women in Islam."

So, she learnt Arabic and studied the holy Koran. And in 1982, she started a part-time school to teach girls the tenets of Islam.

"Dukhtaran started as a reform movement for Muslim women in Kashmir," says the well-known Kashmiri journalist, Shujaat Bukhari.

'A nice militant'

Ms Andrabi's first brush with the authorities came in March 1987. "We took out a procession chanting slogans against nudity and the exploitation of women," she says.

Ms Andrabi and her band of supporters also went around blackening posters and hoardings depicting women. They also demanded separate seats for women in buses.

"That day our office was sealed, documents and books were seized, our landlord was arrested, my parents were threatened and the police raided my house."

Ms Andrabi went underground for 21 days.

A woman can beautify herself, but only for her husband. My husband says I have beautiful eyes and he loves them when I use kohl
Asiya Andrabi

When the anti-India movement started in Kashmir in 1989, she was one of the first to offer support.

"I was very glad to see our boys come out to fight with India," she says. "We told them we are with you. If you go for jihad, we'll support your women."

Her group was banned in 1990 for supporting militancy and a year later, she went underground again - this time for 14 years.

In this period, she got married to Mohammad Qasim and bore him two sons. "He was a very nice militant," she says, describing him as a man of principles.

Qasim, a former "commander" of the separatist group Jamiat-ul Mujahideen, is serving a life sentence in Srinagar Central Jail.

Activism and imprisonment

Ms Andrabi is clear that a Hindu "Brahmin India" has no legitimate claims over Kashmir.

"Our strong belief is that Kashmir should be part of Pakistan," she says. "We believe in Muslim unity. There's no nation in Islam, and Muslims shouldn't be divided into countries."

Ms Andrabi is not afraid to be labelled a fundamentalist. "I believe in the basic fundamentals of Islam. You can call me a fundamentalist if you like, I'm proud to be that."

Women with children, listening to Ms Andrabi
Most of Ms Andrabi's supporters are said to be in Srinagar

"I don't believe in secularism, I don't believe that all the religions are good and that they're all based on truth."

Over the past two decades, Ms Andrabi has led campaigns against alcohol and prostitution in Kashmir.

She has played an important role in closing down cinemas, accused television channels of corrupting the youth and has raided internet cafes and restaurants for allowing young couples to meet privately.

For her activism, Andrabi has been in and out of jail many times.

Recently, she accused beauty parlours of promoting obscenity, describing them as dens of prostitution. She issued an ultimatum, asking them to shut shop.

"A woman can beautify herself, but only for her husband," she tells me. "My husband says I have beautiful eyes and he loves them when I use kohl.

"But I don't use kohl even before my brother. I use it only when I'm with my husband. It's only his right. He alone can tell me what he likes or doesn't like."

'Virtuous Muslim'

It is because of such views that Dukhtaran-e Milat does not have much popular support, despite having been around for 25 years.

"Dukhtaran-e-Milat is an extremist organisation and I think it's base is limited mostly to educated Muslim women in Kashmir," says Shujaat Bukhari.

"Ms Andrabi has a strong, committed group of women who are part of her organisation," he says.

"But they have a presence only in Srinagar - outside in the rural areas we haven't seen much support for them. "

Ms Andrabi says this is because she refuses to dilute her ideology. "I'm not a hypocrite like most politicians. I believe in Islam and we have very strict rules for membership," she says.

"When I'm satisfied a girl is a virtuous Muslim who strongly believes in the oneness of Islam, we take her as a member."

Ms Andrabi has often been accused of using force in her campaigns and although she denies the charge, many in Srinagar say they are afraid to speak about her on record.

A well-known writer and social activist says: "There's no flexibility in her approach."

"She needs a broader perspective. She should lighten up. I've known her for a long time but I'm afraid of her."




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