The Muslim women of Indian Kashmir are bracing themselves for fresh horrors on Saturday. A militant Islamic organisation has threatened to begin punishing women who appear in public in outfits other than the all-enveloping burqa.
They were given a taste of what could lie ahead two weeks ago when two young women were admitted to a hospital in Srinagar, the state's summer capital, suffering from burns to the face after acid was thrown at them because they were not totally covered up.
But the women of Kashmir are not in a mood to submit to the order, which comes from a new and obscure militant group going by the name Lashkar-e-Jabbar. Mehbooba Mufti, a leader of the opposition Jammu & Kashmir People's Democratic Party, told an Indian newspaper this week: "The action should be condemned. Islam doesn't force people to do anything. The people who are doing it seem to have no understanding of Islam." Echoing that view, Sabiya Maviya, a college student, said: "Throwing acid on women is inhuman and unIslamic." Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, the two most prominent militant Islamic outfits in the trouble-torn state, added their own condemnations and said that if anyone was caught enforcing the menace they should be handed over to the militants for punishment.
But the deadline, which is only one element in the darkening of the mood in Kashmir after the failure of the Indo-Pakistan summit last month to make any progress towards resolving its problems, is being taken seriously by many women in the Kashmir Valley. The traditional outfit worn by Kashmiri Muslim women consists of a baggy calf-length woollen phiran or cloak and a headscarf tucked behind the ears. But now the shroud-like black burqa, which permits women to observe the world only through a narrow slit, is available in most of the valley's garment shops.
This is not the first effort by fanatical Islamists, many of whom come from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to bring about the Talibanisation of Kashmiri Muslim society, which has been home for centuries to a notably liberal version of Islam inspired by Sufi holy men.
At the start of the insurgency there was a similar campaign, killed off in 1992 by mass resistance. But the urge keeps recurring: in 1999, two teenage girls in Srinagar were shot and wounded for the crime of wearing jeans.
Ms Mufti predicts the new threat will also be fought off. "Women will resist such moves as they did earlier," she maintains. "An urban Kashmiri woman is very emancipated. She knows what she wants."
Moreover, she knows that once she gives in to the veil, other sanctions might follow. The next will be that she cannot attend office or leave the house without male escorts. "We have the Afghanistan example before us ... Kashmiri women do not want a similar future for Kashmir."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies