Shaqeela Sajad was sweeping the front porch last week when a masked man dressed in black forced a handkerchief over her nose and attacked her.
“When I opened my eyes in the hospital, I found my braid had been hacked,” said Sajad, 24, who is pregnant with her first child, from her home in Srinagar in India-administered Kashmir.
These unknown “braid-choppers” are creating a new type of terror in the hamlets and towns of the Himalayan Kashmir region, which has witnessed much bloodshed over the past three decades from a territorial conflict between India and Pakistan.
The new fear stems from an assailant, or band of attackers, who are drugging young women and chopping off their braids for reasons no one can explain with certainty. Most women here have braided hair under their head coverings, so all are potential victims and they are fearful.
In the past six weeks, more than 200 “braid-chopping” incidents were reported, according to local police.
The attackers storm homes or take down lone women in markets and alleys before cutting their hair. The tied bundle of hair is usually found at the scene.
This is a highly conservative, Muslim-majority region, where women view cutting their hair or displaying it publicly as dishonorable. Most women cover their heads with scarves. Also, it’s taboo for a man who is not related to touch a woman.
The situation is so alarming that the regional government announced a bounty of $9,000 for information on the braid-choppers. Police currently have no leads.
Protesters say the government is not doing enough. Strikes and protests held Friday across Kashmir resulted in violence after demonstrators pelted stones at Indian troops, who fired back with tear gas and pellets.
“The situation is worrying,” said Syed Naeem Akhtar Andrabi, a provincial lawmaker in the local council. “The probe is on.”
The region’s top police official, Shesh Paul Vaid, said special teams have been dispatched to all the districts to handle the crisis, but police need the victims’ cooperation. But police here are not trusted, and some women have refused to cooperate after hearing that other victims who reported their attacks were simply told they were hallucinating.
The braid terror is causing some women to become depressed. Others say they try to avoid being alone or going out, or they are leaving to stay with relatives.
“I’ve not been able to sleep properly since the attack,” said Nazia Ibrahim, 28, who was attacked Oct. 4 at her home in Srinagar and left to stay with relatives. “I don’t want to be attacked again.”
The braid attacks have raised concerns that they are related to rebels fighting Indian troops since 1989 for independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan.
Some pro-independence leaders accuse the Indian government of orchestrating the braid-chopping to divert attention from the resistance. They say the attacks recall assaults by masked men in the 1990s against residents providing shelter to the rebels.
“When it comes to rebels involved in covert attacks, the state is full of information. But when it comes to the brazen crimes like this, the state feigns ignorance,” said Yasin Malik, a rebel leader.
To fight back, vigilantes have hit the streets, sometimes attacking innocent residents mistaken as braid-choppers.
“Anger is leading to anarchy,” said Junaid Rather, 27, a local journalist who saw an intruder Friday in the garden of his house in Srinagar.
“I thought, ‘It’s a dog,'” he recalled. “When I challenged it, I saw a man in black attire climbing our 13-foot corrugated sheet wall in a blink. Only a trained person can escape like this.”
Sabina Aijaz, 35, was attacked twice. Aijaz was in the kitchen when someone knocked and said “open the door” in a foreign accent.
“But when she tried to look through the iron-grilled window, they sprayed her,” said her husband Aijaz Ahmad Dar. “I was upstairs and when I came downstairs, I saw her lying on the floor unconscious.”
The next morning, two masked men struck again when her husband went out to buy bread. They forced a handkerchief over her face and said, “You annoyed us a lot,” before kicking her down the stairs and cutting her braid.