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Summer at nytoday.com
August 26, 2000

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SRINAGAR JOURNAL

Behind the Veil, a Muslim Feminist

By BARRY BEARAK



Barry Bearak/ The New York Times
Asiyah Andrabi makes her demands for equal rights for women from behind the all-enveloping burqa worn by conservative Muslims.
SRINAGAR, Kashmir -- Asiyah Andrabi, conservative Muslim and radical feminist, believes that women should be heard and not seen, so she makes her demands for equal rights from behind the black cloth curtain of an all-enveloping burqa.

"The veil is for security as Allah wishes it," she said, pausing to refresh her hidden mouth with sips of Coca-Cola. "If gold is left uncovered along a roadside, anyone will grab it, because it is a precious thing. It is the same with an uncovered woman."

There are other reasons for Ms. Andrabi to conceal her face. She is a militant who opposes Indian rule here. For most of the last decade she has been living either in jail or on the lam, alternating her efforts between the liberation of women and that of Kashmir.

Indian intelligence agents say they suspect that she is a conduit for money to guerrilla groups.

But her notoriety is owed to flamboyant rather than clandestine activities. As head of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of the Community, she has led hundreds of women in street protests. At times they have carried brushes and paint cans beneath their burqas, blackening any advertisements that show scantily clad models.

With the same sense of righteousness, Ms. Andrabi has also tossed colored dye into the faces of Muslim women who shun the veil. Western dress is popular here in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Often Ms. Andrabi is not.

"Such upstarts are like a plague for us," said one older Muslim woman.

With so well-known a reputation and so little-known a face, Ms. Andrabi, 37, carries about her short frame a sense of mystery. But she is hardly press-shy, alerting favorite reporters whenever she calls a protest.

Interviews with her are rare, though. She phones the reporters, not the other way around. Rendezvous are set, broken, reset. Finally, she kept a date, arriving late with her 8-month-old son asleep on her shoulder.

"To people from the West I may seem a contradiction," she said in excellent English, her diction a tip-off to an upbringing in a wealthy family and a college education. "But I have never felt that this veil -- this purdah -- has been a hardship to my work."

As if to serve up a suitably vexing contradiction to her self-declared feminism, she said that lately she had been nagging her husband to marry a few extra wives.

She explained: "Allah says a man can marry one, two, three or four wives, but he must have the means to do justice to them all. The jihad against India has left so many widows and orphans. A man has a responsibility to look after them."

She told her life story.

Her father, a doctor, was a devout Muslim. But while he urged her to get a secular education, he encouraged only his sons to study the Koran.

She studied biochemistry at college in Srinagar. But when she wanted to get an advanced degree, she said, her family refused to let her leave home. While in a prolonged sulk, she happened on a book about women who had converted to Islam.

"It shocked me that I was so unfamiliar with my own religion," she said. "It is a tragedy that only men go to the mosque, and women are told their only duty is to look after the children. In truth, Islam grants individuality to men and women. In heaven, before Allah, a woman, too, will be asked about her worldly deeds."

She studied the Koran -- and encouraged other women to do the same. "Our society cruelly restricts women, from the words of the Prophet, from school, from jobs," she said, her voice taking on an angry edge. "But in today's world women can even be astronauts. So they must be educated. You know, an ignorant woman cannot answer even the simplest question from her child, and a mother must be the first school for her children."

In 1989 a revolt erupted in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley, an insurgency that still goes on. Ms. Andrabi believes now, as she believed then, that Kashmir ought to sever itself from India and become part of Pakistan, an Islamic state that in her view needs to do better by its own women and be truer to its faith.

"I believe the whole universe should be governed by the laws of Islam, and Allah says all Muslims should be united as one," she said.

The Kashmir dispute involves dozens of political parties and soldierly factions, some foreign, some domestic, some Islamic, some secular.

There is usually little role for women in such a male-dominated occupation as holy war. "The social milieu does not allow it," said Abdul Ghani Bhat, the leader of an umbrella group of Kashmiri organizations. "It's hard for a woman to go into the market to make a speech or go into the forest to shoot a gun."

Ms. Andrabi, then, is quite the exception. Her husband, Muhammad Qasim, who belongs to the militant group Jamiat-ul-Mujahadeen, is her life partner in jihad. In 1990, at age 27, she told her father that she would accept an arranged betrothal so long as the groom was active in the insurgency. She met Mr. Qasim on the day of their wedding, she said.

Each has been arrested several times. Indian jails are brutal places, Ms. Andrabi complained. In 1993, when their first son was a baby, she was jailed for 13 months. The infant was allowed to stay with her. "But all he had was my breast milk," she said. "They gave him not even a biscuit."

She wants her sons to grow up with gun in hand. "I want them to be mujahids," she said. "I never pray or dream that they be doctors or prime ministers. I want them to be mujahids who fight for the cause of holy Islam."

If she ever has a daughter, she said, maybe she will be a prime minister.
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