By Shariyat Fatima
NEW DELHI: “I have never feared anything and have always been determined to take up any challenge and see myself through it”, says Srinagar’s Rifat Jan, while sharing her journey of managing and running the only female run bat-making unit in the state.
Jan was initially reluctant to run this business, given how she already had the full responsibility of her household and family on her hands — as most women in Kashmir generally do; it is not uncommon for the financial spending of day-to-day and bigger occasions to be entrusted to the women of the house. However, following her father-in-law’s demise and their dire financial circumstances, the strong-willed woman had no other choice than to restart the unit that her father-in-law had originally set up in the 1970s.
Over the years, since having taken up this venture, the business only grew under Jan’s dedicated direction, evidenced by the new manufacturing units that were set up in Awantipore, Anantnag and Pampore. The business caters to demand from states all over the country, particularly Mumbai and Chennai.
This is just one example of such strong will that is a hallmark of women in the Indian Union Terittory of Jammu & Kashmir. It is true that Kashmiri women live in a patriarchal society, with the changes in the global and national social fabric being reflected in the UT to a very minimal level. They have continued to be tied to their gender roles, and with the stark affairs of the state, remained in the clutches of oppressive home lives and the repercussions of the unrest in the valley region.
Large numbers of women in the region often face harsh circumstances of a merciless life, having to raise children singlehandedly and running households with no prior arrangement of getting a steady income. Despite the limitations, women in the state do not shy away from dreaming big, nor do they hesitate to face, and subsequently overcome, all possible obstacles that stand in their way of achieving said dreams.
While illiteracy is one of the biggest hurdles for women achieving their dreams in the Union Territory, institutions such as the Crafts Development Institute at Srinagar provide skilled training in declining regional and highly coveted arts, such as Namda(a traditional carpet created with rolled and pressed wool).
At a time when misinformation and negative news coverage remains rampant, it becomes important to also view Kashmir through the lens of human growth — beyond the politics and security aspects, and into the stories of positive reinforcement.
Business ventures and entrepreneurship are key electives that women in Kashmir have been focusing on for the past few years. In the past decade, an expanding number of Kashmiri women have picked work or business ventures as their underlying strides toward a career. Gender economics, in a state that has seen slow social development, has emerged as a turning point.
The bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory with its legislature was heavily driven by the lack of economic progress in the region; amidst political uncertainties, real-time development in the region has long suffered.
For example, economic growth in the state has long been erratic, with state gross domestic product (GDP) fluctuating between -3.2 percent to 17.7 percent over a span of two years. However, post bifurcation, total export from the UT stood at $188.18 million in 2019-20 while financial year 2021 saw exports at $159.64 million.
Women like Arifa have also seen benefits, succeeding in making their dreams a reality and also doing noteworthy work to pave the way for other women and artisans to have a better life and livelihood. What started as a desire of being a self-starter for Arifa grew into a popular business which further allowed her to extend employment to 12 women out of a total of 25 workers, while training countless others over the years.
At present, Kashmir’s cottage handicrafts industry provides direct and gainful employment to around 340,000 artisans overall. Recognizing the difficulties women and artisans go through, female entrepreneurs who ‘make’ it also focus on establishing an all-women cooperative with the shareholders being the artisans so the profits could circle back to the group putting in all the hard work.
Amidst all the chaos of the region, and the unprecedented living circumstances brought on by the global pandemic, the women of this region have not backed down from chipping in to the best of their ability, to be of aid to the community.
Putting aside any and all self-interests, women entrepreneurs have made their mark in all walks of life, from women-owned dairy businesses limiting their products to the essentials needed by people, to fashion designers turned into manufacturers of face-masks and protective kits.
Being an agrarian state, 65-70% of Jammu and Kashmir’s population depends upon agriculture, either directly or indirectly. Given the most common means of making a livelihood, Kashmiri women have also turned to agricultural endeavors to fulfill their ambitions of independence and self-sustenance.
From Nusrat Jahan Ara, who quit her government job to start her flourishing cut-flower business nearly two decades ago, to Fareeda Bano, who started her own silk worm unit and gives employment to 10 other women; these entrepreneurs have turned their lives around, and helped others do the same.
In this regard, as a UT, the Indian government’s direct focus on the region’s economic growth has seen the recent launch of an INR 200 crore cluster development fund of Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI); a Jammu and Kashmir Bank scheme for INR 500,000 financial assistance to girls between 18 to 35 years of age to start their own businesses; and a Punjab National Bank (PNB) scheme for meeting credit requirements of upto INR2 crores for the hotel and tourism industry which includes small-scale travel agencies.
In April 2021, the government of Jammu & Kashmir signed 456 memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with various firms for a potential investment worth INR23,152 crore ($3.17 billion); the benefits of these are poised to greatly support small businesses and start-ups in the region which are being increasingly dominated by women.
The grit that women have shown in the face of adversity has also been aided by efforts of the local government, as was the case for Fareeda. Commendably so, the government of the Union Territory has also been actively involved in catering to the interests of female entrepreneurs, and in the process of empowering and uplifting them.
Various government schemes such as UMEED, SAATH and HAUSLA have also gone a long way in providing support to women who want to step into the entrepreneurial field. Over 50,000 self-help groups — with the aim of helping rural women — exist in the region, and have been associated with over 450,000 women.
“Let not fear overpower your aspirations. Fear is only in the mind. You only need courage to take that first step. Once you do take that first step, the path will unfold before you.”
Coming from a woman who has already beaten the odds, these words ring true for all those who already have, or hope to make a better future. The stories of these women are oft overshadowed by the conflict of the region, however, it’s essential to give them the recognition they deserve in order to further their growth.
(Shariyat Fatima is a freelance writer based out of India. She is pursuing a masters in psychology and can be reached at email@example.com.)