How Kashmiri women have striven for economic freedom

Naqshib Mushtaq, 22, was barely 19 when she landed her first job. She worked as a salesgirl at a local chemist shop for three years until she completed her graduation in the Arts from the University of Kashmir. Once she graduated, she took up a job with a private telecom company. However, Mushtaq's professional ambitions didnot end there. She is planning to enroll for a Masters in Business Administration, which she feels will enable her to fulfill her ultimate dream of setting up her very own business.

"I have been working in order to support my education since my father's income was not sufficient to take care of all the needs of our large family. Thankfully, now I am able to save some money for the family, too," says Mushtaq.

Nargis Sofi, 25, from Srinagar, tries to save as much money as possible so that later she is able to contribute to future expenses. Many Kashmiri families get into debt during marriages, and Nargis wants to avoid such pitfalls. This young woman is currently working in a call centre and is simultaneously pursuing a Master’s degree is Education through distance learning. "Although my family's financial status is what you could call ‘decent’, I never wanted to be a burden on my parents, which is why I decided to start earning on my own. I would like to have saved enough in a few years’ time to be able to pay for future eventualities, like my own wedding," says a confident Nargis.

Mushtaq and Nargis represent the swiftly changing face of the Kashmiri woman, indicative of the steady transformation of the society itself. There was a time when majority of women in the region – educated or not – could not consider making a living for themselves outside their homes. Only women from a small sliver of the educated elite could benefit from the opportunities that came their way, whether in terms of education or employment. But today, many women who are making it into professional arenas could just as easilybe from the lower middle classes, as they would from the topmost quintile.

So what changed? Today, not only are young girls being encouraged to study, but the career opportunities before them have expanded considerably. In addition to jobs in the formal sector, in educational institutions, or in the administration; women have started opting for careers as sales personnel or as call centre operators – jobs that were hitherto dominated by men.

Migrating to other statesfor education or a lucrative job prospecthas also become quite common. Take Ayesha Ahmad for instance, who has been living alone in Delhi for the past five years, far from her home in theBaramullah district of Kashmir. She moved to the national capital so that she could pursue a course in Mass Communications and is now working as a Public Relations Officer in a private firm. In her free time, she takes tuition classes.

"Ever since I’ve come here, I haven't taken a rupee from my father. I have learnt tostruggle and be strong," says the young professional, who lost her mother at the age of four. Ayesha is now aiming to do adoctorate fromthe US.

As women are breaking free from the trajectories set by the traditionally defined roles of domesticity, they are in the processalso changing society. Many women-headed establishments have opened up in the Valley, ranging from boutiques and beauty salons to restaurants. Take Nazish Akram, 30. After completing a Master's degreein English, she found it difficult to land a suitable job, so she decided to set up her own boutique. Says Nazish, “I am glad I made this choice. It has given me a great feeling of independence.”

But not everyone is as fortunate as Nazish. Ambreen Sultan had to face a lot of family displeasure, even condemnation, when she first spoke of starting her own beauty salon. It took her months to convince her parents that she was doing the right thing. "My parents said the beauty business doesnot fit into our culture and tried to dissuade me. But for months on end I was doggedly after them, pleading with them to change their mind. Finally they did”. Ambreen’s salon turned out to be very popular.

Though women still face a lot of opposition and have to think a hundred times before they can follow a career of their choice, there is no doubt that times are indeed changing for the career-oriented women of the Kashmir Valley

(Names of some women have been changed on request.)

(Women's Feature Service)