By Anish Ahluwalia
BBC Hindi service, Srinagar, Sunday, 12 November 2006,
Seventeen years of insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir have left a distinct mark not only on the region's politics, but also on its social and cultural fabric.
And it is most noticeable in a slow, but gradual, change in the life of Kashmiri women as new trends are emerging.
Social scientists in the state capital, Srinagar, say the age at which women are getting married has undergone a significant change.
Until about a decade ago, most Kashmiri families would see their daughters married off before they turned 25.
Now, this has stretched to as late as 35 years.
Syeda Afshana, who writes on women's rights issues, blames it on financial uncertainty as well as political instability.
"Tourism, the main revenue-earner in the region, has significantly declined in the last few years," she says.
"And the government has put a freeze on new recruitment in government departments and people are now only hired on a contractual basis.
"Government jobs here are most coveted and this has created a tremendous financial insecurity in the community."
Also, during the long years of militancy, the Kashmir Valley has lost at least 60,000 people – most of them young men of marriageable age.
"The loss of this particular group has added to the problem as most women now can't find grooms," says Ms Afshana.
A resident of Srinagar's Lal Chowk area tells me he is 42 years old. Two of his sisters, in their late 20s, are yet to be married.
"My father is old so it's now my responsibility to find suitable grooms for my sisters. Until I succeed, I cannot get married myself," he says.
In Kashmir's traditionally conservative Muslim society, a lot of stigma is attached to having an unmarried daughter of marriageable age and most families do not want to talk about it.
But single women in their late 20s and 30s have now become a visible group. In Kashmir University, I met several single women in this age group, pursuing higher studies.
Many young women, speaking on condition of anonymity, say men now prefer to marry working women. And women with permanent jobs have an edge over others in the marriage market too.
As a result, many women are going in for higher education to be able to better qualify for jobs.
But then sometimes highly-educated women in well-paying jobs deliberately delay marriage until they find a suitable match.
"Every woman wants to marry Mr Perfect," says Saima Farhad, editor of Kashmir's only women's magazine, She.
"Her wish list is long – the man should be good looking, highly educated, someone who enjoys high social status and who can provide for her financially," says Ms Farhad.
In the absence of development schemes in the state and the high unemployment rate among Kashmiri men, that is a tall order.
In Kashmiri society where marriages are almost always arranged by parents, women do not have the option of marrying outside the community.
But women are no longer taking the plunge just because their parents ask them to.
Afsana Rashid, a Srinagar-based journalist, says the role of women in Kashmiri society has changed dramatically over the years.
"A large number of men died or disappeared during the insurgency and that has changed the role of women at home. They are forced to assume greater responsibility. They have to assume the role of bread-winners for the family."
Ms Afshana says that's perhaps not a bad thing after all as it gives women a greater say in decision-making.
"Society is changing very fast. Financial and social compulsions have forced women to play a greater role in decision-making both within and outside their homes.
"Their voice is being heard loud and clear and the political system cannot ignore it any more," she says.
And this change is already visible – whether on the streets of Srinagar where it is common for women now to participate in demonstrations or breaking into the traditionally male-dominated political system.
Political leader Mehbooba Mufti and Asiya Andrabi, head of separatist women's organisation Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith), are examples that women's voices in the region are being heard loud and clear.