Kashmiri Sufi Music (Click on link to play)

Insights  about a conflict come from the oddest places.  A  trip to a beauty parlour in a battered land can be revealing. Reproduced below is a report  from Srinagar, Kashmir. It was published online by  MSNBC.com almost 10 years ago . I chanced upon it last evening  –  it  is making the rounds  of google  group  sites.

Kashmir’s beauty under siege
In Srinagar, residents resist ‘Talibanization’ of
culture

By Patralekha Chatterjee
MSNBC

SRINAGAR, India, Dec. 21 —  In a quiet, upscale
neighborhood, a young woman winces as a beautician removes
her facial hair by electrolysis. Nearby, a teenage girl
plucks a client’s eyebrows. A lilting number plays on the
radio in the background. But a typical beauty salon this is
not. The Kashmiri women who frequent Srinagar’s Sabreena
Beauty Parlor do so at great risk.
\
“THIS IS a war zone,” said Sabreena Majid, the
salon’s owner. And in Kashmir’s capital, the beauty
business has had to adapt.
“I started out in 1984 with a big sign at the top of
the road. It had a picture of Elizabeth Taylor, and beneath
it my name and qualifications in bold letters,” said Majid,
a U.S.-trained beautician who tactfully does not disclose
her age. “Business was brisk from the first day.”
The sign came down in 1989 and the rules of the
beauty business changed when Srinagar and the valley of
Kashmir went up in flames. That was the year
Pakistan-backed Muslim separatists launched an armed
struggle against the Indian state.
Today, this city of lakes and gardens, nestled
picturesquely against the backdrop of the Himalayas, makes
news as the strife-torn capital of Jammu and Kashmir,
India’s only Muslim-majority state. For the past decade,
the lives of the people here have been convulsed by bomb
attacks, blasts, reprisals, crossfire and curfew as
militants fought it out with Indian security forces.
Honeymooners do not come to Srinagar any longer.

It is an old story of struggle for custody of
Kashmir between arch-foes India and Pakistan, and a
continuing tussle between militant groups, some of whom
dream of a homeland independent from India and Pakistan,
and Islamic hard-liners who want an aggressive brand of
their faith to replace Kashmiriyat, or the Kashmiri spirit,
a distinct 700-year-old identity based on religious
tolerance.

SRINAGAR’S RESISTANCE
Srinagar residents say that in the heyday of
militancy in the late 1980s and early ’90s, there was an
attempt by religious-minded hard-liners to enforce a strict
Islamic code — purdahs, or veils, for girls and women like
their counterparts in Afghanistan, where the Muslim
fundamentalist Taliban militia controls most of the country
and imposes a strict reading of Islamic law.
But Srinagar’s women resisted the so-called
Talibanization of society. Many who refused to follow the
order were shot at or showered with acid. Beauty parlors
were attacked, movie theaters burnt, cable television
banned, and liquor shops shuttered. Everything deemed
un-Islamic became taboo. Young couples stayed away from
restaurants out of fear.

In the past two years, however, a quasi-normalcy
has returned to Srinagar: residents have adapted to living
under siege. In Srinagar-speak, that means no curfew even
if there is violence in the city.
“People have to live, and adapt,” says Majid, who in
1998 put up a sign — albeit much smaller than her original
version — on the gate in front of her salon. “It as only
because my neighbors complained that women were knocking on
their doors not knowing which one was the beauty parlor.”
Still, owning a beauty salon is a dangerous
business.
In September, a man running a beauty store in a
congested quarter of Srinagar was shot at, along with two
of his women clients, and fear returned to the city. Many
beauty parlors in the city still remain shut. Those in the
beauty business either keep a low-profile like Majid
(Sabreena’s Beauty Parlor does not have a phone) or work
out of their homes and rely on word of mouth for their
business. Men are not allowed inside any parlor.
“The girls who work here have to wear an uniform —
shirt and trousers. But they come and go from work in
traditional gear. Their heads are covered in scarves, and I
don’t allow them to wear lipstick. I have not received any
threats, but there is no point attracting attention. There
is no hanky panky, nothing un-Islamic going on inside, and
I am going to keep it this way,” Majid said.

MUSLIM WARRIORS CHANGE TACT
Nineteen-year-old Rifat, a worker at Sabreena’s
beauty salon, said she hopes that Kashmir will one day be
“free” and the “blood of martyrs” will not have been shed
in vain. But she wistfully looks back to her childhood when
she could run in a track suit.
“I cannot anymore,” she said. Rifat, afraid to
reveal her last name, said it is not so bad for girls from
wealthy families who only travel in cars. But she has to
walk on the streets and use buses in downtown Srinagar, so
extra care is essential.

Locals say that the Mujahedeen, the gun-wielding
young men espousing jihad, or Muslim holy war, have changed
tack. Now the focus of their campaign is primarily on state
police, Indian army and paramilitary forces stationed in
the valley.
However, people are still scared of cultural
commissars on the lookout for breeches in Islamic faith. On
Residency Road, the city’s central business district, a
news stand owner says he would not dare stock video
cassettes of “Mission Kashmir,” a mega-budget, much-hyped
Hindi film set in the backdrop of militancy in the Kashmir
valley. Militants reportedly did not quite like the version
of their tale.
The state government is desperate to package Kashmir
as the tourist’s paradise it once was. The administration
has offered interest-free loans to cinema-owners for
repairs and equipment and to encourage them to reopen their
theaters. Two movie halls in Srinagar have opened their
doors to the public in the last two years. But both
function in the best-protected part of the city where
politicians, senior bureaucrats and army officers live. The
theatres have an additional layer of defense — a wall of
corrugated tin sheets — and gun-wielding security men at
the front gate. Handbags, cell phones, cameras and
briefcases are not allowed in for fear of an explosive
device or gun being smuggled inside. And there are no late
night shows.

In October 1999, militants attacked movie goers at
Srinagar’s Regal Cinema, killing one person and injuring 20
others. A grenade was also lobbed at a video shop in a busy
area nearby.
Cable television has staged a tentative comeback
since last year but cable operators have decided to abide
by the militants’ fiat: there is news and sports, but no
MTV, no Hollywood films and no adult channels.
“A grenade was thrown at our office and our people
were attacked,” said Lipsy Kohli, president of the Srinagar
cable operator’s union.

TAKING NO CHANCES
Elsewhere in the capital, liquor shops do not hang
out signs. And salesmen sell alcohol to furtive buyers from
behind iron grills, flanked by security men. Hotel Ahdoos
on Residency Road, a favorite with visiting journalists,
has notices in every room prohibiting guests from drinking
alcohol in its premises.
‘Anything can happen anytime. I don’t take chances.’
— KASHMIRI WOMAN
“Anything can happen anytime. I don’t take
chances,” said a woman at Sabreena’s beauty parlor,
adjusting her head scarf. She, too, did not want to be
named or photographed.
That nameless but palpable fear is writ large over
the faces of everyone on the streets of Srinagar. Once upon
a time, locals say, militants were known faces and they
brandished their guns. Today, terror has changed form. No
one knows who is who, or who will strike from where and
when.
“Our boys are either buried in the graveyards or
have left the valley or surrendered,” said a Srinagar cab
driver. Home-grown militants are not calling the shots any
more. They have given way to what the taxi driver called
“guest militants” — foreign mercenaries who wear street
clothes. So it is best to play it safe and not take
chances.
A young man sitting in the Hollywood Bakery in the
heart of Srinagar moaned that time is passing him by. “I
want to go out, I want to dance, I want to have fun,” he
said.
The growing lament of Srinagar’s youth, however, has
opened up business opportunities. Cyber cafes have
mushroomed in the last one year. So have snooker parlors.
There is even a new dance-gym in town called The Shappers.
Throughout the week, young men pump iron, and on Sundays,
dancing is thrown in — reggae, techno, rap and jazz. Girls
are not allowed to join in the fun.
Srinagar’s entrepreneurs have to maintain the strict
code. “I do not allow a woman to play snooker here. In the
cyber-kiosk, girls can surf but they are not permitted to
chat with boys. I have to be careful,” said Basharat
Rasool, owner of an Internet café-cum-snooker parlor.
“Tomorrow, I can be attacked.”

MSNBC.com’s Patralekha Chatterjee is based in New
Delhi.

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2 thoughts on “The Bold and the Beautiful in a Battered Land

  1. Patra….You’ve captured the underlying-fear flavour so well.

    We went to Srinagar in the Pujo hols last October. “Hamein aman chahiye” was the common refrain of cab drivers and hotel staff in towns like Pahalgam, Gulmarg etc. We came back feeling awfully sad about how those beautiful and poetic Kashmiris, full of love and overpouring-hospitality, have lost a generation of their lives in this mahol.

    Am seeing your blog everytime I receive a mail-link.
    Gentle and caring mind. Thank you.

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