SRINAGAR, India (WOMENSENEWS)--In this disputed region of Indian-administered Kashmir, the Daughters of Islamic Community, or Dukhtaran-e-Millat, play the part of an all-female Taliban.
The group--which formed in 1981 with 200 members--does what it can to police female behavior, stamp out what it considers moral degradation and promote a strict version of Islam and the separatist militants who, for the last 17 years, have fought for independence from India or a merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan next door.
The Daughters now claim 500 active members in Kashmir and thousands of sympathizers throughout the state, the United States and Europe.
In late July, the Daughters marched in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, to protest Israel's war on Lebanon. They burned Israeli and U.S. flags and chanted slogans against them.
After Kashmir was rocked by a sex scandal in April, the Daughters marched in the streets to demand the arrest of state officials and others implicated in the scandal. When a mob inspired by the protest set fire to houses owned by an accused prostitution ringleader, leaders of the Daughters praised their actions.
On Valentine's Day 2005, the Daughters, draped in their customary head-to-toe black burkas, burned holiday greeting cards as symbols of a despised, dangerous and anti-Islamic Western cultural incursion.
Because the Virgin Mary is revered in Kashmir as a symbol of chastity; the Daughters last year divided into "Mother Mary Squads" of 15 to 25 women and began a campaign against licentiousness. They raided cyber cafes--where small booths inside might house young couples on dates--and forcibly segregated men from women and threatened them with God's wrath.
Beauty Parlor, Restaurant Raids
The squads also raided beauty parlors and hurled abuses at beauticians and their clients for treading the un-Islamic path of fashion and Western style. In restaurants, the squads smashed wine bottles to enforce the Islamic prohibition against alcohol consumption.
They are also accused of hitting unveiled women with canes to compel them to put on the burka.
At other times, they have been accused of splashing women with black paint and even acid; but that's a charge that Aasiya Andrabi, the group's 40-year-old leader, denies.
"Our organization never used the acid," says Andrabi. "In fact, I myself test the color which we use for splashing, so as to ascertain that it is not harmful."
The Daughters first attracted international attention in 1987, when thousands of black-veiled women stormed the streets of Srinagar, a city of approximately half a million, to express outrage over posters of scantily clad movie stars that were plastered in the main city markets and downtown areas.
Fearing that the protests were ordered by the separatists, the government raided the Daughters' offices, interrogated its leaders and officially banned the group. It also accused the Daughters of funneling money from Pakistan's intelligence agency to Kashmiri militants.
"The administration thought I was mobilizing the entire women's population against India," Andrabi told Women's eNews in an interview at one of the Daughters' schools. Andrabi spoke while looking out through the narrow vent in her veil and surrounded by veiled, unarmed female bodyguards.
'Soft Terror' Outfit
India's leading anti-terrorist think tank Institute for Conflict Management, based in New Delhi, puts the number of Daughters activists at 350 and considers the group a "soft terrorist outfit" that uses threats and other "extra-legal means" to spread its doctrine but has not yet "taken to arms."
The group has established 65 Islamic schools throughout the region to guide young women in religious values. These institutes also teach such work-from-home skills as sewing and embroidery.
The Daughters says it gets calls from Muslim women in the United States and England asking them to open branches in those countries.
Andrabi, the leader, says she is committed to the Islamist cause. "I am determined to achieve my goal of creating the pure Islamic society in Kashmir, no matter what kind of hurdles come in my way," she said.
Born into a liberal Kashmir family, Andrabi turned to orthodoxy in 1981 after reading "Words From the Hearts of Women," an out-of-print book written in Urdu by the late Indian Islamic scholar Mail Khairabadi. Among other things the book describes the conversion of a U.S. Jewish woman, Margaret Marcus, to Islam and her subsequent life as Mariam Jameela in Pakistan.
Andrabi said the story aroused her curiosity about the power of a religion that could inspire such a conversion and called the book the most powerful influence upon her life.
Andrabi has been arrested four times for support the insurgency and she has lived underground on and off since 1987. After her first arrest in 1993, she was imprisoned with her infant son for 13 months.
Sees Religious War as Mandatory
She believes that religious war has become mandatory for all Muslims given what she sees as a U.S.-dominated Western policy to subjugate Islam. During U.S. military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan, she was at the forefront of a campaign in Kashmir to boycott all U.S. goods.
Andrabi stirred controversy in Kashmir when during a press conference in 2000 she openly advocated to her husband to take more wives, perhaps from widows of the insurgents.
Although polygamy is permitted by most Islamic nations, it is not practiced in Kashmir.
Andrabi's husband, Mohammed Qasim Paktoo, is a former commander of Jamiat-ul Mujahideen, a militant organization fighting for the overthrow of Indian control in Kashmir. He is currently serving life imprisonment on the charges of being involved in the secessionist armed struggle. He has not taken more wives.
Andrabi hopes her two sons, Mohammed, 12, and Ahmed, 6, will become mujahids like her husband."
I never wanted them to become doctors or leaders, I will be happy if they will fight for Islam," says Andrabi.
Andrabi accepts that she is labeled a fundamentalist. "If observing the tenets of Islam in the true manner is fundamentalism," she said, "then I am fundamentalist and quite happy with it."
Haroon Mirani is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who has covered the region for the past five years.
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