Behind the Veil, a Muslim Feminist
By BARRY BEARAK
RINAGAR, 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.
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
If she ever has a daughter, she
said, maybe she will be a prime minister.