It seems as if the Kashmiris haven’t had enough yet! The bullets and pellets now have a partner in crime to haunt poor valleyites inside out. This new ‘event’ does not take away life though, thank God for that, but takes away a woman’s most prized possession – her hair! The media has termed it, ‘braid chopping’ and over the past few weeks, it has been witnessed in many rural and urban areas of the valley adding oil to the fires of fear that have already made Kashmir their home for a pretty long time now.
If rumours are to be believed some say these ‘choppers’ come like ghosts wearing cloak-like garments – an abaya or a pheran with their faces covered except of course for those eyes much needed to spot their prey. Others say they come on the motorbikes. They target a lone woman by spraying some chemical(s), making the victim unconscious, and promptly chopping off her braid, themselves disappearing into thin air. Oh, no! they don’t take away the braid, so it’s not a case of hair mafia here, but leave the cut braid as it is, for its pictures to be clicked as evidence of their machoism (read cowardliness) that get circulated on social networking sites, sending across waves of anxiety, anger and apprehension; and of course for this woman to look at her cut braid that moments ago was a part of her being and now to cry over all the oil and shampoo she’s nourished it with till date.
Ask women what their hair strands mean to them – braided or ponytailed; with or without hijab, in a bun or loosened – it is an important part contributing to their sense of individuality. It is their possession, a part of their body that someone without permission, all of a sudden, unlawfully takes hold of and chops, providing a glimpse into the ridiculous safety standards within the valley!
As a part of my research fieldwork in one of the downtown areas of Srinagar, I went around with my own hair tied in a bun with multiple rubber bands around it, to capture the mood of the people corresponding to braid chopping. Women, mostly young, with long and healthy hair, were utterly fearful and it was the first time they felt that those with shorter hair were better off. However, while there are fear and uneasiness, these women also have strategies to ward off the evil intentions of the choppers or at least make things difficult for them.
Razia is in class 12th, preparing for her board exams which are a month away and she has completely stopped going out for the past one week now. “I send my brother to bring me stationery because that’s mostly what I need these days”. But what if they come to your home? I asked. “We live in a joint family, so it’s safe that way,” she says and chuckles.
Sofia is in her mid-20s and is fearful to even show her hair to me. Her hair is in a bun and she now puts a plastic cap (the ones used after colouring the hair) over it in multiple layers fastened by hairpins. She and her mother believe that it would take time for the choppers to get this plastic thing off and they might just get caught in the meantime. Her mother, however, has put no tactics in place even when her hair is quite healthy. “I do not need hair as much as she does; she is yet to get married.”
Shameem has multiple braids and each braid separately done in a bun – she thought she looked funny and laughed saying “they won’t get time to chop off so many buns” she further stated that “Kashmiri women have fallen prey to the evil eye.” Her cousin Asiya teased her saying that cutting one braid still leaves hair in some symmetry unlike her multiple buns out of which if they God forbid cut one or two, would spoil her entire hairstyle! Asiya herself has longer but thinner hair and believes in the power of Aytal Kursi before leaving the house and inside the house keeps the doors and windows bolted when she is just with her mother. She further told me how her nieces who live in a different locality have brought pepper sprays to fight these choppers!
Women who go out to study or work or commute alone for other reasons have started covering their heads now if they did not earlier. Covered hair, they believe, does not attract attention as uncovered hair does. On that note we may encounter a growing number of women with covered heads in the coming days and mind you the reason would not then be ‘religious fundamentalism laced with terrorism’ as is ‘normally’ suggested by many of our friends living in plains. And, with chopper’s reign of terror, women would further be confined to the interiors of the home – now locked and bolted, reducing their chances to make claims on the public space; and the moral police would now more candidly tell women what to do and what not, and by chance someone comes home with a cut braid they would know whom to blame – woman who “invited” attention!
In Kashmir, scissors are now competing with guns to make life difficult. Hair not only matters to the individual but fortunately or unfortunately to the family and community at large. To describe a person especially in terms of beauty – hair is one of the primary elements. “Wow! She has such pretty hair” or “Oops! She has a receding hairline.” This applies to men as well but where society gives men a choice to get comfortable with its meagerness, women continue to be snubbed and thus, are haunted by the same especially – if they are young and unmarried! On that note thank God these choppers in a fit to climb up the hierarchy of evil are not becoming shavers!
While it is a grave concern and demands attention and promptness to bring the culprits to book, these women in the meantime have demonstrated how fear must be shown a back door by not getting too anxious and are working out strategically and collectively to fight this mess. An elderly woman who I spoke with said:
“We are paying too much attention to it and giving these choppers a chance to think big about themselves as if they have really achieved something! We must instead keep vigil and guard each other.”
“Hum kya chahte azaadi,” she yelled after that; and,
It still needs to be contemplated whether people here have come to chant this slogan against all the evils or do we seriously have a connection with conflict here? Only time will tell.
*The names of the respondents have been changed to maintain anonymity.
(The views expressed are author’s own)
The author is a PhD research scholar in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at IIT Delhi. Feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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