A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare
20 Apr 2008, 0133 hrs IST,Sharmila Ganesan,TNN
When Asiya Andrabi first went to buy a burqa at the age of 19, the shopkeeper told her she was too young for one. He didn’t even stock much burqa material then as it was hardly in demand. Today, seated in her in-laws’ home in downtown Srinagar, covered from head to toe in a thick black burqa, the 45-year-old says things are different now. In many ways, she feels responsible for this change. “Islam has instructed women to cover themselves completely,” says Andrabi, who is wearing white gloves and dark glasses too. A few years ago, Andrabi, along with other burqa-clad women, had sprayed “harmless” paint on the faces of Muslim women who were not veiled. Subsequently, she was arrested. For being a threat to national security.
“What has morality got to do with a country’s security?” asks Andrabi, president of a separatist organisation she formed in 1981 called Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith), which was banned in 2002 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She believes that Kashmir is a part of Pakistan.
As she speaks in her flawless English, three young girls in the background, who are equally veiled, listen intently with downcast eyes. When asked a question, all three immediately lower their gaze and search the floor nervously. “They are too young,” says Andrabi, whose carefully-built organisation that she so fondly calls, ‘movement’, now consists of women who are 18 to 90 years old.
Among the criteria for membership to this outfit, are some, “hard and fast rules that I cannot tell you,” Andrabi says. Though the members are not encouraged to directly take up arms or use guns, they are all trained in martial arts. Also, every member carries a knife in her handbag. Andrabi shows one that she recently purchased from Saudi Arabia. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asks, removing it from its ornate case. It is. Has she ever used it though? “Not yet,” she says, laughing.
Andrabi’s life changed when she was a science graduate and her father dissuaded her from pursuing biochemistry and diet therapy in Dalhousie. “The atmosphere in India isn’t right,” he had said. Frustrated, the 18-year-old would often lock herself up in his library, where she stumbled upon a book “that changed my life.” It was a 50-page novel titled Khwateen ke dilon ki baatein (Confessions of Female Revolutionaries) which mentioned a woman named Marcus Margaret who later became Mariam Jamila. The book threw light on the various tenets of Islam and it inspired Andrabi, who belongs to the upper caste Sayyid dynasty. The book had such an impact on her that she scorned her father for not teaching her about her religion earlier. Andrabi was fully convinced that the era in which Prophet Mohammed lived, 1,400 years ago, was the golden period for women. Determined to bring back the dignity women enjoyed in his time, she immersed herself in the Prophet’s teachings and started a school for Muslim women in 1981. She did not know Arabic then but her father helped her read the Holy Koran, which she would later refer to in a classroom that was filled with women of disparate fortunes—illiterate, college-going and employed. In months, the school’s strength grew from five to 200.
From these students, Andrabi chose a few “mature” women to be part of Dukhtaran-e-Millat. A tiny rented room on the outskirts of Srinagar served as a makeshift office. In 1987, six years after the group was formed, the Daughters hit the streets carrying cans of black paint which they emptied on “obscene” posters. The police then raided their office and arrested the landlord. Andrabi went underground for 21 days. She surfaced later and fought for reservation of seats for women in buses, and launched processions against liquor shops. She and her followers would light matchsticks and threaten to burn down wine shops.
In the early ’90s, when Kashmir began to reel under the effects of intense militancy, the government started blacklisting militant organisations. Dukhtaran-e-Millat figured third on this list. Andrabi went underground again. “Even my wedding took place in hiding,” she says. She married Muhammad Qasim of Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, a militant organisation. She always wanted to marry a Mujahid. “It was an arranged marriage,” she says.
In 1993, at the Srinagar airport, she was arrested along with her husband and six-month-old son, Mohammed. While her husband was retained in Srinagar, Andrabi was taken to Jammu where she was interrogated by intelligence agencies. The interrogation lasted for two months and eight days after which she was imprisoned for 13 months. “It was a very tough time for me. My son was kept apart. From the lockup I would see him crying for milk and…,” her voice trails off. She looks down and her next words come out in bursts, “Once I saw him playing with his own stool.” She was later released. Some days after the birth of her second son, her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Srinagar Central Jail.
Meanwhile, Andrabi continued the underground operations of Dukhtaran-e-Millat. She would hold press conferences in secret locations to which select journalists were escorted by burqa-clad women. Slowly, the influence of her outfit grew. Andrabi launched various demonstrations against dowry. All the members of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, she says, take an oath to never give dowry. “I refused to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding as she had offered a handsome dowry,” she says. After almost 14 “difficult” years in hiding, Andrabi resurfaced in 2004 to launch agitations against cyber cafes and restaurants where she saw young couples indulging in “promiscuity and obscenity.” The militant Daughters would go to these cafes and restaurants and hand couples CDs and DVDs about Islam. Once, when she was sermonising in Sheena restaurant, she was arrested.
Her husband, Muhammad Qasim, completed his sentence in January this year, but is yet to be released. Pointing to five thick cream-covered books on a shelf, she says, “That’s his thesis.” She looks fondly at his intellectual work titled ‘Sunna—the source of Islamic Sharia’. “Every woman needs a man,” she says. She would be glad if her husband remarried widows as “it would give their children a father”. She wants her own sons to become “the best and the most pious Muslims”.
Her younger son, Ahmed, who is just back from school, is sitting on her lap. He loves cricket. When he is asked who his favourite cricketer is, he pauses for just a moment, and then says, “Shahid Afridi”.
var RN = new String (Math.random());
var RNS = RN.substring (2,11);
var b2 = ‘<iframe src=\”http://adstil.indiatimes.com/RealMedia/ads/adstream_sx.ads/www.timesofindia.com/Stories/index.html/1′+RNS+’@Right3?\” WIDTH=255 HEIGHT=250 marginwidth=0 align=”left” marginheight=0 hspace=1 vspace=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no bordercolor=\”#000000\”> </iframe>’;
bellyad.innerHTML = b2;