In August this year, a wave of mysterious attacks targeting women swept through northern India.
Unknown attackers seemed to appear from nowhere, chop off women’s hair and then disappear without a trace.
The creepy phenomenon has now surfaced in Kashmir, where a bitter, decades-long conflict between Indian authorities and local separatists is raging.
As Bismillah Geelani reports the unusual attacks have prompted widespread protests, night vigils and accusations that Indian agencies to blame.
In Kashmir’s Southern Anantnag Distric, dozens of women crowd around 38-year old Dilshada Begum at her house.
Neighbors try to console the sobbing woman, as her mother wails and curses an unknown enemy who hurt her daughter.
“I sent my son to the market to buy bread and I went to the kitchen to make some tea,” Dilshada recounted, still in shock.
“I was standing in the kitchen and suddenly someone put a cloth over my mouth and grabbed my hair. I thought it was my son playing a prank, I wanted to tell him not to do it but before I could finish the sentence I fell unconscious,” she said.
When she woke up she found half of her ponytail hacked off and lying on the floor beside her.
In the same district, 17-year old Shameema had a narrow escape.
She saw an attacker just in time and put up a brave fight.
“I was going for a walk after dinner but as soon as I stepped out someone put his hand on my mouth and pressed it hard. I really resisted and tried to free myself but he dragged me down. I looked up and saw his eyes and then I bit his hand,” she recalled.
More than 60 women have had their hair chopped off in similar attacks across Kashmir in less than a month.
Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region and according to Islamic belief Muslim women are supposed to cover their hair.
The practice is considered to be a symbol of modesty and dignity. So these attacks are being seen as an attempt to shame and dishonor women.
Local residents have responded with widespread protests, and they’re threatening authorities with dire consequences if the culprits are not exposed and brought to justice immediately.
“This isn’t about any political issue,” protester Tabassum told me in Srinagar. “It’s about our honour which is being blatantly violated in a pre-meditated way. Our hair isn’t just our beauty; it is a part of our body and our being,” she appealed.
“We are born with it and we go to the grave with it. Cutting our hair is like disrobing us, and it cannot be tolerated. If this doesn’t stop there will be unrest like never before.”
Hair chopping incidents initially started in the northern state of Haryana and soon spread across the entire northern part of India. Hundreds of cases were reported in several states, including the national capital New Delhi.
Outside of Kashmir, none of the victims have seen their attackers. Most say they experienced a severe headache before losing their hair. Some say they saw a flash of light, or a man wearing bright clothes, or even a cat transform into a man.
Police investigations and medical examinations have argued these claims are baseless.In Kashmir however, things are different.
The bitter, long-running conflict between Indian authorities and local separatists casts its shadow over every event, and the mysterious hair cutting attacks are no exception.
Local residents widely believe that the Indian army and intelligence agencies are involved.
Many of the affected women say they have seen the attackers, and some even claim they were in army uniform.
Kashmir is the world’s most densely militarised region and many Kashmiris, including mainstream politicians find it difficult to accept that such brazen attacks could happen without at least tacit approval from Indian authorities.
“We have to look at what is actually happening on the ground,” explained Mustafa Kamal, leader of opposition party, The National Conference.
“In one incident the assailants have been chased and people have seen them taking refuge in an army camp. In another incident again the attacker was chased, the army came to his rescue and they fired gun shots in the air.”
He continued, “now these are events that have been widely reported in the media, it’s clear that the government agencies are involved. And let’s not forget that you have a soldier in Kashmir at every step. It is just not possible without their support.”
The authorities however disagree.
Muneer Khan, the Inspector General of Kashmir Police says they are doing their best to get to the bottom of the matter as soon as possible.
“All our resources, manpower, and time is now focused only on tracing these case,” he stated. “Our anti-militancy operations and intelligence gathering related to them have suffered because of these cases.”
But the police investigation hasn’t met any success so far and the hair chopping attacks continue unabated.
In the meantime, public fear and fury is only growing.