An acid attack on two unveiled women in India-administered Kashmir for dressing "immodestly" has sparked fear among the state's female population and triggered a debate about freedom of choice.
Kashmiri women, young and old, walk a busy Srinagar street with their heads covered, 09 August 2001. An overnight acid attack on two young unveiled Muslim women in Indian Kashmir has sparked fears of a campaign to enforce Islamic dress codes in the region.
A hitherto unknown group, Lashkar-e-Jabbar, claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, saying it was the beginning of a campaign to prevent "immodest" dress among Kashmiri women.
"The veil should be a woman's choice, not her compulsion," said Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, head of the influential Kashmiri political-religious group, Jamaat-e-Islami.
"Motivation yields result, force doesn't."
And others in the Muslim-majority state agree.
"There is an urgent need to educate the people to desist from acts signifying a degradation in morality," says Ahsan Untoo, chairman of non-governmental Human Rights Front.
"But it needs a peaceful campaign and not coercion."
Major Muslim groups have dissociated themselves from any campaign aimed at enforcing orthodox Islamic dress codes.
"Our group believes that people should adhere to the principles of Islam, particularly in these hard times," says Abu Marsad, Kashmir-based spokesman of militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba.
"But we will not insist on men to sport a beard or women to use a veil."
However, reports of acid attacks against unveiled women and those wearing "immodest" dresses continued to pour in from different places, in particular southern Kashmir.
Posters have also appeared in various mosques in Kashmir urging people to make their women wear "decent" dresses.
Reports from the southern Pulwama district suggest that the threats have worked, with men growing beards and women starting to use veils.
"Whosoever is enforcing the veil is doing a great service to Islam in Kashmir," said Tanveer Ahmed, a college student.
Shopkeepers in Lal Chowk, the main street in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, say sales of black silk, used for making a veil or long robe, have shown a sharp increase, with a corresponding fall in the sale of see-through clothing.
"Over the past two weeks the demand of veil silk has increased," says one shopkeeper.
And over the past fortnight, young men have been appearing in the mosques to tell people to follow an Islamic way of life.
Even the local imams have joined the campaign.
Friday sermons are directed at what is seen as a "rising immorality" among the Muslims in Kashmir, and need for remedial measures.
"Dresses our women are wearing indicate the day of resurrection is not far away," roared the voice of an imam over loud hailers in Srinagar's Ahle Hadees mosque on Friday.
"For Allah's sake please follow the Islamic dress code and save yourself from falling in hell fire."
Some groups have banned beauty parlours, liquor shops and cinema halls in Kashmir since armed resistance broke-out in 1989.
Izhar Wani writes for AFP.