A Kashmiri groom in traditional attire arrives at his in-laws' house on his wedding day in Srinagar. Photo: AFP

Wedding season is booming in the restive north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir as the summer sun shines on the westernmost Himalayan mountain ranges.

However, in a region racked by conflict, even wedding celebrations can become a source of concern. Many invitations to weddings now carrying an unusual order – the local term is diktat – for female guests: please wear the Islamic headscarf known as the hijab.

The hosts of some wedding parties have asked women to observe “Islamic dress code” in special notes on their invitation cards. “Ladies are requested to attend the party with their heads covered as it will add to the honor of the hosts,” read one invitation written in Urdu in the summer capital of Srinagar.

No Islamist groups are known to have issued such diktats, or orders. The hosts say they are “self-imposing such norms lest any untoward incident someday spoils wedding celebrations.”

One host of a wedding celebration said he was “fed up of finding female guests wear semi-nude attire and vulgar hairstyles that don’t match with Islamic principles. They can only invite trouble through provocation,” he said.

Women’s rights

Critics have called the dress code being imposed at weddings undue interference in women’s rights in the largely conservative Muslim-society.

Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only Muslim dominated state and is now run by the Indian federal government, which is led by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. The wedding dress code is being enforced at a time when the state is witnessing a revival of armed conflict.

Several Islamist groups claim to be “fighting for the cause to bring in the caliphate” in the region, which acceded to India in 1947.

Many women in the largely patriarchal society of Kashmir find the precondition on invites “offending and unethical.” They spoke to Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

“This is demeaning and embarrassing for female guests. What right do the hosts have to decide the dress code for some female guest? If they believe in such ethics, why do they invite non-Mehram women to parties?” asked a woman who works in the education sector who boycotted one wedding because of the order. Mehram is a term that refers to female kin – marrying one would be considered illegal in Islam.

‘Middle Eastern dress code’

Another woman termed the dress code order a “blot on the communal harmony” of Kashmir. “Does it mean non-Muslim women, like Sikhs and Pandits [upper caste Hindus] are not welcome at such Islamist parties?” she asked. Kashmir’s civil society has taken note of the development too, but is choosing its words wisely while making public statements.

“The emphasis on women-specific dress code is a deviation from tradition and introduces a new Middle Eastern dress code, because hijab in specific is not ethic to Kashmir,” said Farooq Renzu Shah, a prominent author and Chairman of the Kashmir Society International.

“Kashmir has never been against women covering their head, but then such neo-traditions like the hijab shouldn’t be for women alone. In that case, similar norms like sporting a beard should be applicable for men as well, because only then the phenomenon of equality in Islam can be appreciated,” he said.

Islamic scholars, meanwhile, linked the wedding invitation order on women-specific dress codes with the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Since July 2016, when Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the poster boy for the new-age militancy, was killed by government forces, the Kashmir valley has been mired in unrest.

According to the Home Ministry’s annual report, civilian deaths in the state rose 167% from 2017-18, while the number of militants killed rose by 42%.

“Indian agencies are hatching such conspiracies to keep the Muslim community busy in internal bickering,” said Mufti Nasir Ul Islam, the Grand Mufti Designate at the sole Shariat Court in the state and an expert in Islamic jurisprudence.

“Hijab is a part of Islamic culture, but Islam does not believe in compulsion, it believes in conviction … In fact, Mullahism [governance or rule by Islamic religious leaders] has misinterpreted Islam and Muslims. And for a conflict zone like Kashmir, such controversial acts are the handiwork of Indian agencies to keep Ummah [the community] engaged in controversies,” Mufti Nasir told Asia Times.

Women should be made aware of the importance of hijab, so they wear it voluntarily, instead of observing it by force, Mufti Nasir added.

Extravagance and expenditure

Despite the dress code, weddings in the state continue to be celebrated, largely with extravagance. The lavish expenditure on weddings is often seen as a major cause behind delayed marriages, as many bridegrooms often find it hard to manage their resources and pay for a big feast.

In 2017, the state government introduced guest controls, putting a cap on the number of guests and dishes to be served. But the controls are openly defied and the state’s Human Rights Commission has questioned the government order.

The introduction of a dress code for women at weddings, on the other hand, is new to the valley.

In the 1990s, at the onset of militancy, Dukhtaran-e-Millat, the all-women separatist outfit headed by Syeda Asiya Andrabi, issued an order telling women to wear a burqa or a traditional veil. It also forced beauty parlors to shut down. The Dukhtaran’s firebrand cadres threw water at anyone who defied the order.

Although women initially followed Dukhtaran’s order, a more open lifestyle became possible as the militancy declined in subsequent years. Beauty parlors also reopened. But the latest dress code order for weddings has again put the focus on the state’s conservative outlook.

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