Noor, a college student, has sworn off wearing jeans. A week ago, while she and her friends were browsing at a boutique on Zamzama Boulevard, Karachi's elite shopping district, two bearded men entered the store. "They told us to have shame and only leave the house with our heads covered," she says. "Before we could say anything, they added that no one would be able to keep us safe if we didn't obey."
Like Noor, many young women in Karachi are starting to dress more conservatively. In the past month, they have been approached by men and told to cover themselves from head to toe or stay off the streets. City officials, who have been raising alarms about the "Talibanization" of Karachi for almost a year, connect the increased harassment of women with the rise of militancy.
The warnings have caused a panic among upper- and middle-class women who have long enjoyed the liberal environment of Pakistan's most cosmopolitan city, where the fashion industry is thriving, female employment is on the rise, and the literacy rate of 65 percent far exceeds the national average of 46 percent.
While no physical attacks have been reported, some women have been threatened at gunpoint. Others, like prominent activist Attiya Dawood, have had eggs thrown at them while walking through residential parks.
Female students have also been targeted. Private, coed institutions have reportedly received letters signed by the Taliban warning them to close down or segregate their students, or face the consequences, which might include the kidnapping of students. When approached, school administration officials refuse to discuss the situation, with some arguing that it is better for their students' safety to be kept out of the media.
But Ahmed, an Advanced Level student at the city's most prestigious high school, the Karachi Grammar School, confirms that his school received threats. For a party last month it arranged separate entrances for boys and girls for the first time.
"At assembly, they warned the girls to cover themselves up and told us to strictly observe the separate entrances because the Taliban posed a real threat," says Ahmed, who asked that his full name be withheld.
This "fear campaign" against women and girls could be the fallout of a growing militant presence in Karachi. An English-language daily, The Nation, reports that Taliban commanders based in Quetta have relocated to Karachi for fear of possible drone attacks on their stronghold in the northwest. Indeed, on April 13, Badshah Deen, the right-hand man of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, was captured in Karachi's impoverished Sachal area. He confessed to organizing crime, such as theft and kidnapping, to channel funds for militant activities in Pakistan's tribal and northern areas.
"The threats against women are a sign that all those of an extremist bent are coming into their own," says Karachi's deputy mayor, Nasrin Jalil. "People ... feel empowered by recent successes [such as the establishment of Islamic courts] in the northern areas and feel they have a license to approach Karachi's public."
In another sign of the growing threat, some businessmen with young daughters have received letters demanding that they keep their girls – accused of going out in public freely and dressing in Western clothes – in check. In some cases, the letters demand that men pay the Taliban cash to secure their daughters' safety.
That said, it may not be just the Taliban who are targeting women. "The Taliban are the most feared, so any group could be using their name," points out Kamal Siddiqi, a senior editor at The News, the daily that first reported that women were being harassed about their clothing. "But if the purpose is to create a scare and make society more conservative, it's working. Women are covering up and keeping a low profile."
Irfan Bahadur, the district superintendent of Sohrab Goth, a Pashto-speaking locality within Karachi where militants are suspected of seeking shelter, says that heightened militant activity has not been detected. "Many rumors have been spread to cause fear," he says. "But from what I can see on the ground, the situation has not drastically changed in recent weeks."
Still, women's rights groups are launching campaigns against these threats. "We are trying to make women realize that they are victims of a criminal act and that they must speak up and take legal action if approached," explains Kausar Saeed Khan of the Karachi-based Women's Action Forum. The group has asked police to take note of complaints and is petitioning the provincial government to establish a hot line for women who are targeted.
"Women feel like their freedom is being stolen," says Ms. Jalil. "But how can we provide them with assurances if the entire society is endangered?"