July 8, 2009 / 6:43 AM / 10 years ago

Kashmiri women lift veil, eye career in the skies

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters Life!) - Far from the violence and unrest that have marred the capital of disputed Kashmir, a group of young women swap their burqas for smart suits and stilettos and dream of a career in the skies.

A displaced woman wearing a burqa waits in line with others at a repatriation centre in Peshawar, located in the North West Frontier Province on April 30, 2009. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

The inauguration of an international airport in Srinagar in February gave youngsters in Kashmir’s main city an alternative to traditional careers in medicine and teaching, and the valley’s first aviation academy is now grooming them for the skies.

“When this institute opened, we got really excited,” said Samiya Ayub, a trainee cabin crew at Viinzs Aviation Training Institute, which is located a short drive outside Srinagar.

“We now have the opportunity to show the world that we can also become something in life,” she told Reuters Television.

The year-long training in grooming, English and French languages, ticketing and catering is no different from that offered by hundreds of similar institutes that mushroomed across India on the back of an aviation boom in a fast growing economy.

But in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have been killed since discontent against Indian rule turned into a rebellion in 1989, the institute is, to many, a god-send.

With protests and violence almost a daily occurrence in Srinagar, the institute chose to maintain a low-profile, picking an out-of-town location so the women, who often come in wearing burqas, are safe.

The older generation also took some convincing.

“Initially I was apprehensive and reluctant because I was worried she would go away from me,” said Ayub’s mother Mehfuza.

“But then I realized that if she does some professional course or training, it will make her life better.”

In the early 1990s, Islamist militants began imposing their own strict version of Islam, shooting at women who did not cover themselves in a burqa, and flinging acid in their faces.

Now, the militants’ hold over daily life in the valley has eased, with violence ebbing since India and Pakistan, which both lay claim to the region and rule it in parts, began a peace process in 2004.

A single cinema has reopened, traditional theater and music are being revived and young Kashmiri women are abandoning their veils and considering careers like aviation.

Shahida Bazaz, an instructor, said youngsters like Ayub were keen to make up for lost time and hold out hope for better times.

“The present generation realizes that we must go forward, we must go out of this valley, and see for ourselves what opportunities are available and take them with both hands.”

Writing by Rina Chandran; Editing by Miral Fahmy

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