Kashmir – The empowerment diaries

Posted: January 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

Do you know how it feels to stay cooped up inside your room for five months with shattered window panes reminding you of the constant presence of violence? Nousheen Baba, 21 Science student, Government College for Women, Nawakadal   | Photo Credit: V. V. KRISHNAN

It is one step at a time for these Kashmiri women as they break away from traditional strangleholds and dare to dream differently, reports Peerzada Ashiq

Srinagar’s sprawling Eidgah ground is teeming with people. Despite the onset of Chillai Kalan, the harsh 40-day winter spell, there is a hubbub. Some are playing cricket, the rest looking on. Soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in mobile bunkers stand guard on the boundary wall; fingers locked on the trigger which, at the hint of any trouble, can spray pellets or tear gas. Three newly dug graves in the ‘Martyrs Graveyard’ bear testimony to the violent and troubled times of 2016.

Just metres away from the graveyard, Nousheen Baba and her sister Iqra Baba recall how they could not hold themselves back from watching the funeral procession of 12-year-old Junaid Ahmad on October 9. Security forces allegedly emptied an entire pellet cartridge from close range at Ahmad and the Valley exploded in anger and sadness at the loss of a young life. “Do you know how it feels to stay cooped up inside your room for five months with shattered window panes reminding you of the constant presence of violence,” asks Nousheen, a second-year science student of Government College for Women, Nawakadal and aspiring chartered accountant. The windows of the Baba household bore the brunt of the clashes which erupted between security forces and protesters.

But Nousheen is eager to put the painful year behind her and even manages a shy smile. As a warren of houses in the highly congested Narwara locality in downtown Srinagar greets the eye, a tiny silhouette in a shiny grey cover makes its presence felt in the small courtyard of the Babas. Beneath the cover is the family’s first motor-driven two-wheeler. Courtesy Iqra, a Bachelor of Commerce student at the same college her elder sister goes to, who was rewarded by the State government for securing 85 per cent marks in her Class XII exam. “It’s our first scooter in the family. We are all learning to drive it,” says Iqra’s father Mushtaq Baba, a weaver. The Scooty is Nousheen’s constant companion too ever since Iqra brought it home nearly two months ago. From college to market, to visiting her friends, it is her lifeline to a future she dreams about.

Dreams on wheels

In the first phase of the two-wheeler scheme, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti handed over the keys to 450 scooters to graduation-level students of Government College for Women, Nawakadal and Government Women’s College, Baramulla on November 6. Only meritorious students whose family income is under Rs.4 lakh per annum are eligible for the scheme, which is being extended to all degree colleges of the State. In Jammu, 300 scooters were handed over to eligible students.

Mufti sees the Scooty as a game changer in improving the education of girl children who come from economically weaker sections. “I have lived a common man’s life and gone to college on a bus. I know the difficulties women face while using public transport. You feel it is safe sitting next to an old man, till he starts nudging you in the elbow; the unwelcome attention can be harrowing for any woman,” says Mufti, explaining the rationale behind her scheme. She recalls a young woman she spotted riding a scooter in Srinagar earlier this year while on her way to the State Assembly. “This girl was short and slim but it was her confidence that was striking. The idea took shape right there. We took the decision to bear 50 per cent of the cost of the bike,” she says.

The government has dovetailed many Central schemes meant for women empowerment to provide these scooters. “I wish I had one and could ride it freely. A girl who owns a Scooty now will never have to request her brother or father to go places. The two-wheelers give women a sense of control of things,” says the Chief Minister, adding, “Women are the first casualty of violence. Investments must be made to empower women.”

Iqra, for one, feels empowered, never mind the taunts of the local boys as she drives past: “The two-wheeler has earned me azadi (freedom) enough to go to tuitions late in the evening.” Five km away from the Baba household, Nargis Rasool, the eldest of four sisters and a brother, borrowed money to avail the Scooty scheme. “My father treats me like my brother’s equal now since I started driving the Scooty. It is like taking part in a revolution. Though many elders did object to my driving saying ‘how can a girl ride a Scooty on the street?’, my parents supported me,” says Nargis, a final-year Arts student of Government College for Women, Maulana Azad Road. Her 90-plus percentage in the Class XII exam helped this civil services aspirant to bring the first-ever vehicle to the Rasool household, a family of shawl weavers. Nargis has become an inspiration for the extended family, including six female cousins. “Their parents are now forcing them to study hard to secure a Scooty on merit,” she says.

I am rooted in Kashmiri art and culture. I want wages and artworks of women to shift to a competitive level. Arifa Jan, 31 Owner, carpet manufacturing unit   | Photo Credit: V. V. KRISHNAN

Reviving an old craft

Namda, a carpet made through the process of felting by hand, needs both muscle and money. For Arifa Jan, 31, who completed in 2010 her Craft Management Entrepreneurs’ Leadership Programme from the Craft Development Institute, Srinagar, the challenge was to turn around the fortune of this dying craft at a time when exports of the once-world-famous Kashmiri carpet had plummeted. According to a government survey, the total production of handicrafts rose to Rs.1,614.59 crore by 2008 against Rs.200 crore in 1990-91 but Namda exports had gone down 97 per cent and amounted to less than Rs.40 lakh annually.

“The use of cancer-causing dyes and poor cotton mix pushed Namda to the verge of extinction,” says Arifa. She infused science and healthy processes back into the craft to make it market-friendly. In 2010, she had to brave prolonged curfew spells to reach her unit to weave the first-ever assignment of 300 Namdas, meant for an exhibition in New Delhi by Dastkar, an NGO working with craftspeople across India.

“Eight-five per cent of my Namdas were sold. I still remember the taunts of a German buyer who kept saying we were producing fake Namdas,” says Arifa, who credits an unknown buyer from Delhi for her first brush with success. The buyer later turned out to be Gulshan Nanda of the Crafts Council of India. Nanda reposed faith in Arifa and the money flowed. “Ms. Nanda would come to me and ask serious questions about the craft,” says Arifa.

In 2013, the Crafts Council of India selected Arifa for a trip to Kyrgyzstan to study their processes of carpet-making. Back home, she scouted for an Australian merino sheep hybrid that was introduced in the Valley in the 1960s. “Its wool is what goes into exquisite Namdas,” she says.

For the first time, Arifa introduced pre-processes to weed out hazardous particulates from the wool and ensured no cancer-causing dyes make their way into it. “Even artisans who’d make chain stitches on the carpet used to complain of chest pain earlier due to the use of synthetic ingredients,” she says.

The daughter of a retired State Road Transport Corporation employee, Arifa is now eyeing business opportunities in the U.S. even as her stable has expanded to 27 artisans, 17 of them women. “I am rooted in Kashmiri art and culture. I want wages and artworks of women to shift to a competitive level. Artisans have suffered a lot in Kashmir — we have to bring them on a par with sellers,” she says.

A girl from Kashmir, counting one lakh rupees and all the men around looking in awe at her… A strange feeling seeped in. Shaeena Akhtar, 31 Owner of a shawl loom   | Photo Credit: V. V. KRISHNAN

Weaving a new formula

It’s 4.30 p.m. The rolling wooden bobbins with multi-coloured fine threads and the neatly thrown over-and-under shuttles meant for woofs and warps are showing no signs of the day’s tiredness. Bollywood music from the 1980s breaks the monotony of the shuttles at work. It’s the first loom in Kashmir where a woman is at the helm, and an attempt is underway to replicate the famous floating garden on Dal lake, Char Chinari, as a design relief from traditional motifs in Kani shawls, a fine handwoven mix of pashmina and shahtoosh wools. “We have developed a new formula for shawls. No one can steal it. It’s original and a major departure from the past. My work drives my clients to my loom — I have requests pending from many exporters,” says Shaheena Akhtar, 31. Like Arifa, Shaheena, a resident of Srinagar’s Nowshera area, too comes from a humble weavers’ family, but in just five years, she is being credited with giving a new identity to the Kani shawl, picking up the State’s Best Entrepreneur award along the way three years ago.

Shaheena’s journey to finding acceptability in markets in Italy, Germany and Dubai has been anything but easy. “Not everyone treats you as a daughter or a sister when you start something like a shawl business. My character was questioned because I used to meet officials. I struggled to have bank guarantors because my father was just a small-time weaver. It was not easy to raise money,” she recalls.

Following a training stint at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute, Pampore, in 2011, Shaheena was able to start with an initial investment of Rs.8 lakh. In a year she counted her first one lakh rupees in earnings. “My father had never counted Rs.1 lakh at a time. I am good at counting money. But that Rs.1 lakh was something I could not count for a while. A girl from Kashmir, counting money, and all the men around looking in awe. A strange feeling seeped in,” she recalls. As business grew, she enlisted her brothers’ help. “Of the 18 workers at the loom, 12 are relatives. I am proud that in such a short span I have a turnover of Rs.1 crore,” she says.

Roh-i-Kashmir (Soul of Kashmir), Shaheena’s company, has tie-ups with six major exporters for the 60-70 shawls her loom produces annually. “My thrust is quality. My shawl sells for Rs.4.5 lakh in the international market for its intricate and exquisite work. It takes more than nine months and two labourers to finish one intricately woven Kani shawl,” Shaheena adds.

Every time I watch a fisherwoman of Srinagar, I can see her making her own rules as she negotiates her space and life. Roohi Nazki, around 40 Owner, Chai Jai   | Photo Credit: V. V. KRISHNAN

An English tea room in Srinagar

Historically, Kashmir has drawn its taste buds from Central Asia, including the famous kahwah (a traditional green tea preparation) and multi-cuisinewazwan. Roohi Nazki, a former employee with Tata Interactive Systems, is trying to get Kashmiris hooked on something very different: the tea room. It’s been worth the effort, if increasing footfalls at her small joint, Chai Jai — modelled after tea rooms in England — are anything to go by.

It was a solo holiday trip to England in 2013 that changed Roohi’s life and introduced her to the niceties of tea rooms. In the Cotswolds villages of south-central England she saw mirror images of the Kashmir Valley. Moving back to the Valley after living in Mumbai for 22 years, Roohi’s parents initially persuaded her to stay on in a corporate job, but she just knew what she wanted to do next.

As one walks down the British-era manicured embankment of the Jhelum river in Srinagar’s Polo View area, Roohi’s ‘little England’, complete with castle-room interiors and cobblestone floors, is hard to miss in the age-old Mahatta Building.

Launched in July this year, Roohi is reviving teas from bygone times like Daam Tyooth (a herbal tea), Bunafshan tea (flower tea), Qadri tea (a herbal tea with sugar mix), Nettle tea and Gulkand kahwah (mix of saffron and sun-dried rose petals). “I have 28 varieties as of now and I am working on a collection of 200 varieties,” she says.

Small steps to giant strides

While it is too early to see these women as enduring successes, having a woman Chief Minister at the helm seems to have given a fresh impetus to a more inclusive society in a State which has primarily been in the news this year for its mind-numbing violence. A slew of measures initiated by Chief Minister Mufti — including reservation of 10 per cent land in industrial estates for women entrepreneurs, the Ladli Beti scheme aimed at the economically poor, an all-woman entrepreneurs’ market, all-woman buses and all-woman police stations — are aimed at women.

The opposition National Conference spokesperson Sarah Hayat Shah acknowledges that every step towards empowerment of women is always appreciable, but simultaneously points out the troubled ground reality in Kashmir where even young girls have been killed or blinded in the wave of protests since July. “I am afraid the scooters may not be able to heal the wounds,” she says.

Ultimately, beyond the overhang of violence, a lot of the contestations with patriarchy are essentially atomic. “Every time I watch a fisherwoman of Srinagar, I can see her making her own rules as she negotiates her space and life,” says Roohi, now in her 40s.

Just like she fights her own little everyday battles, such as taking trolls — who were ‘outraged’ at her bringing a feel of Christmas to Chai Jai with cakes and candies from Mumbai — off her Twitter feed, one resolute click at a time.



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