Kashmir has been in the news more for the trouble fomenting in the Valley than for its achievements. How many times do you recall having read something bright and happy about Kashmir? Yet, women have been silently working in the 26 years of conflict that has affected Kashmir and some of them have taken lead roles in the political and economic arena too. At Firstpost, we profile five young women who have made a difference in the Valley.
Showcasing Kashmiri arts
When Birjees Badroo started her boutique in 2014 in the troubled town of Sopore — once the hub of militancy in the Valley and a bastion of pro-Pakistan Jamat-e-Islami — relatives and friends made fun of her endeavour, saying she won’t survive in a conservative and patriarchal business town of Kashmir for more than three days. They had no doubts about her ability, but were sceptical about the place in which she wanted to operate, where incidentally she still is the only women to set up her unit.
“I could have put up the unit in Srinagar, but I wanted to train and do something for the women of Sopore. I am glad I succeeded,” said Birjees.
Today, Birjees has not just become a household name in north Kashmir, but she has trained more than 100 girls from far flung areas, who in turn have set up boutiques in different places in the Valley. There are 3,000 people working for these boutiques, of which 95 percent are women.
“I am planning to open a school for artisans which will also train young women in fashion design and Kashmiri arts in Sopore,” said Birjees.
A school in the Valley
Sabbah Haji, the ‘Baji’ for her students, has a school in the mountains of Doda in Jammu, 7,500 feet above sea level.
The Haji Public School was set up in 2009 in Breswana, her ancestral village, as there was no school there for two generations.
Leaving a content writing job in Bangalore, Haji decided to do something for her village. After consulting her family, she ventured on something “that would last for a long time.”
Haji decided to start a school in a place where the ratio boys and girls vis a vis education was poor. Not only that, girls were not treated well in comparison to boys.
“When we started, all of our students were typical of village kids across this belt -- scared, nervous, lacking in self-confidence and without any skills to be able to communicate with a stranger,” says Haji. That attitude has changed considerably since. The school, a culmination of Haji’s dream and hard work, has over 360 students and 20 local teachers.
The school attracts a lot of volunteers who come here to teach for a period of three months. They live among the villagers and work to erase negative impressions of outsiders — city people — through their “goodness, selflessness and their hard work in the time they spend in the village.”
The Haji Public School charges a nominal fee of Rs 100 which many in these remote villages cannot’t afford to pay. It also has a number of children on its rolls who were earlier studying in schools in the plains of Jammu.
"We push girls to be fearless, to try everything and compete with boys on an equal footing. There were some mental blocks to ‘allowing' girls to participate in sports and other school activities. We communicated with parents that girls are equal in every sense and they acknowledged that girls and boys were at par. Parents now take much pride in sending their girls for sports,” says Sabbah.
All for a cause
Shehla Rashid Shoora has no confusion about her identity; she sees no difference in being an Indian and a Kashmiri on the JNU campus. In Jantar Mantar, she draws massive crowds with her eloquent speeches.
Comrade Shehla, as she is known on the JNU campus, is a resident of Habba Kadal locality in the downtown area of Srinagar which has remained a centre of political turmoil in Kashmir’s troubled history. She has emerged as a fierce and much adored voice on the JNU campus, after the recent JNU controversy.
Until recently, no one knew her in Srinagar, although, she has already worked for juvenile justice and acid victims, and rescued children in the Valley. But a Whatsapp massage in which she called Afzal Guru a 'police informer’ went viral in Kashmir and she received flak for writing a message on social media about the Valley. Guru, who was hanged for his role in 2001 attack on the Parliament, is seen by a majority of Kashmir as someone who was denied a fair trial.
Shehla is the first Kashmiri to serve as vice president of JNU Students Union and the first Kashmiri woman to be elected in the central panel elections at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was a candidate of the Left-backed All India Students Union (AISA), the engineer-turned-activist who polled 1,387 votes in JNU students elections and trumped BJP youth wing ABVP's Valentina Brahma by 234 votes.
Shehla says she found “too little space in Kashmir for mainstream political activities.”
Rape cases and PIL
Ifrah Butt was barely out of her teens when she started interviewing alleged victims of rape. In 2013, she played an important role in filing a court petition seeking the reopening of the Kunan Poshpora rape case. The petition was admitted as a PIL.
Recently, she collaborated with four other women to come out with a book on a topic which the state refuses to acknowledge.
Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? is a book which chronicles the lives and the daily struggle of alleged rape victims in the twin villages of Kanun and Poshpora in Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir. It was launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. The book tries to reveal the agonies of women from neglected villages and was published by Zuban Books.
The book is written by five women as a chronicle of the tales of rape survivors. This is the only account in which survivors have talked extensively about what happened on that dreadful night of 23 February 1991 when Indian Army soldiers allegedly cordoned off the two villages in Kupwara district and raped 20 to 40 women.
“We were the first group who went to the village. The PIL in the court assured them there were people who cared about them,” Ifrah told Firstpost.
After finishing her Masters in International Relations, Ifrah is planning to write another book on domestic violence and child abuse in Kashmir.
Raising flowers in the Valley
Nusrat Jahan Ara, a resident of Dadoora village in Pulwama district of South Kashmir, is a graduate in computer
science. She worked for Jammu Development Authority briefly but left the job soon. She started a flower growing farm in 2000 with no financial support from anyone, and named it Petals and Ferns.
“In Kashmir, unlike having a parlour or a boutique, if a woman wants to start a business in an area like floriculture or agriculture, she is looked down upon and no one is ready to help you, not even the government,” she says.
After conducting market research, she found there were hardly bouquets of fresh or natural flowers available in the market. Travelling to government departments, business houses and other places, she was surprised to find artificial flowers used as decorations.
“When I started out, there was no commercial floriculture business in the Valley. The government had parks and gardens which they used to maintain. I asked them for help to boost the commercial floriculture business but they refused,” she says.
Nusrat today has turned Petals and Ferns into a successful business with an annual turnover of Rs 2 crore. She owns three flower farms and a retail outlet, and employs around 20 people. Interestingly, she is the first woman president of the 2000-strong J&K Flower Association. Her story is not just a story of success and growth; it is also one of hope for a better future.