June issue 2006
Interview: Asiya Andrabi
“Prostitution is being used as a weapon of war”
– Asiya Andrabi
Sitting in her home located on the outskirts of Srinagar, 43-year-old Asiya Andrabi doesn’t give the appearance of a leader of one of Kashmir’s most right wing, fundamentalist groups, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith). Comfortably rotund, with a half-smile playing on her lips, attending to her seven-year-old son’s incessant demands, Andrabi could be your average Kashmiri homemaker.
Only she isn’t. Once she starts speaking she exhales fire and you realise that she is a woman on a mission: to sanitise Kashmiri society by purging it of all its ”immoral ” urges, and protecting it from “Hindu cultural aggression.”
After remaining relatively low key for a while, Andrabi is back with a bang, exploding moral landmines in the Valley.
Mannika Chopra talks to Andrabi about the sex scandal that has rocked Kashmir.
Q: Why are you reacting so strongly to the sex scandal that has been exposed recently in Srinagar?
A:People do not realise that what is taking place here is not simply flesh trade, it is a trade in the honour and chastity of all Kashmiri women. This is a ploy by the Indian state to spread Hindu cultural aggression. It is an issue that we should all take up. In the 1900s there was an illiterate barber, Shubham Hajjam, who took it upon himself to get rid of this sex trade. And he succeeded. If an uneducated barber can take up the cause, I thought I should, too.
Q: How is the scandal a sign of Hindu cultural aggression?
A: In August 2005, I went to restaurants like Sheena in Chaanpora that had cabins at the back of its main hall. When we went to the cabins they were full of boys and girls. I saw a girl without clothes. It was horrible. I had to cover the eyes of a young girl who was with me. It was so shameful. I slapped the face of the naked girl and then tried to counsel her. Now with the growth of tourism, cinemas have opened up and so have liquor stalls. And when a drunken man is found on the road, the state says it’s a sign that Kashmir is returning to “normal.”
Kashmir was never like this. It’s a conservative society. It has always been a religious society. I have come to realise that the Indian state is trying to destroy our culture. It is encouraging prostitution in Kashmir as a weapon of war. It is using innocent Kashmiri girls to suppress our society. Most of the culprits are mainstream politicians and top-level police officials, who use militants who have surrendered to play the role of pimps. In 2004, when Sabeena was first arrested, I formed the Mariam-me-Desla, a moral squad. But instead of going after her, the police arrested me under the Public Safety Act.
Q: But all the people named in the so-called list of clients in this scandal are Kashmiri Muslims?
A: Yes, but they are all connected in one way or another to the state. They are all high officials representing the government. Kashmiris are basically religious people, but when the Indian state started ruling Kashmir they began to exploit young women. Prostitution was unknown here but was introduced about seven years ago, and it has affected everybody. Even principals of the most prominent women colleges in Srinagar would force students to dance before Indian officials in cultural programmes. This is not our culture. That is why I decided to start a movement to purify society. I took out advertisements in newspapers telling girls to quit this business. I said if they needed money to live I would look after them. There was a good response.
Q: So why did the girls working for Sabeena not contact you?
A: They were probably threatened and blackmailed. Sabeena has very powerful contacts and they would be sure to help her out. I am continuously being threatened.
Q: Your campaign to make women in Kashmir wear the burqa has has not been very successful; it seemed more of a publicity stunt.
A: All women are aware of the advantages of the burqa — it is through this garment that a woman’s chastity can be kept safe. But the Indian state tries to intimidate women who wear burqas.