January 28, 2016
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Shaheena Akhtar moves along a line of hand looms, stopping at each one to speak to the men working at them. Each of the 25 men in this workshop makes pashmina shawls. Loose threads clutter the floor, and there is a low hum as the machines work nonstop.
The workshop is part of Shaheen Handicrafts. Akhtar, 32, co-owns and manages the business. Her elder brother, Bashir Ahmad Rather, 38, is her business partner.
The workshop is in a large room built as an extension to Akhtar’s house in Nowshera, a neighborhood in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. Akhtar also employs 54 women in this neighborhood who work from their homes, sewing the shawls and working on looms provided by the company.
Akhtar’s workers make pashmina shawls with wool from the changthangi goats that live in the high mountains of the Ladakh region. She also produces Kani shawls, a traditional Kashmiri shawl with an extra-fine weave that is made using special needles. One Kani shawl can take up to two years to complete and can cost on average 100,000 rupees ($1,507).
Akhtar is part of a trend that has women entering the competitive and financially risky field of entrepreneurial business. Women who work in Kashmir are generally expected to become doctors and teachers, but Akhtar and others are increasingly starting their own companies in the hand loom and handicrafts sector, as well as in clothing and design and beauty parlors.
It’s not easy, Akhtar says.
“Get ready to face the hardships and take risks,” she warns. “Women in Kashmir always think what people around will think about her. Don’t care about such things and work your way toward success.”
Syed Sarwar Kashani, of the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute, a government agency that promotes entrepreneurship, says that women in business are one sign of social changes taking place in Kashmir Valley.
Women are moving away from conventional professions, he says.
“Medicine and teaching are the most preferred jobs for women in Kashmir, but slowly the trend is changing, and women are moving out of these two professions,” Kashani says. “Business is more profitable than these jobs, and women want to be independent now.”
In Kashmir, business is predominantly a male field, he observes.
The institute has provided entrepreneurship training to 6,500 students since 2004, he says. But only 700 have been women. Even so, Kashani has seen a marginal increase in the number of women taking the entrepreneurship training programs in the past two years.
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir
Women who start their own businesses often face criticism.
“Business has always been a man’s job, and if a girl joins it, the journey for her is going to be difficult,” says Showkat Ahmad, 33, who sells Kashmiri handcrafted shawls and suits in Srinagar. “Besides, our society is not so open to accept women working as shopkeepers; many people laugh at them.”
Ahmad scoffs at the idea of women in business.
“They should go into teaching, as it is a 10-to-4 job and is more acceptable, as they leave and come home on time,” he says.
Despite social pressure to avoid entrepreneurship, female business owners are contributing to a growing economy. The gross domestic product of Jammu and Kashmir state during 2012-13 was 755.7 billion rupees ($11.4 billion), an increase of nearly 15 percent on the previous period, according to the “Economic Survey J&K 2013-14.”
The state is primarily agrarian, with around 70 percent of the population directly or indirectly benefiting from agriculture, according to the survey.
In 2014, 222,180 young people, aged 18 to 33, registered themselves as unemployed with district employment exchanges, according to the Department of Employment.
There were 47 jobless people for every 1,000 in Jammu and Kashmir state in 2013-2014, according to the “Report on Employment – Unemployment Survey” by the Ministry of Labor and Employment. The rate for all of India was an estimated 26 unemployed people for every 1,000.
Even as female entrepreneurs boost the economy, they often struggle to make their own way.
“In Kashmir society, people don’t want to be bossed by a woman,” Kashani says.
But finding male employees hasn’t been a problem for Akhtar, who has help from her two brothers in managing business operations.
Akhtar says she started with two male workers and now employs 25 men.
In 2014, the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute carried out an internal survey and found that 75 percent of the people who underwent training later established businesses. About half the number of students who failed to set up their businesses were women.
“We found out the reason was the pressure from the family not to go into such things,” Kashani says. “They were being told not to be a financial burden to their family.”
Akhtar didn’t always want to be an entrepreneur. She completed a bachelor of arts at the Government College for Women, Nawakadal, in Srinagar, and hoped to continue on perhaps to earn a Ph.D., she says.
But her family couldn’t support her studies. Her father owns a general-goods shop in Srinagar, and her eldest brother took in sewing work to supplement the family income. That brother sewed shawls, Akhtar says, and was paid very little. Seven days of embroidery work earned him 800 rupees ($12), Akhtar says.
That’s when she decided to set up her own business making shawls, so that she and her brother could work for themselves, Akhtar says.
Akhtar took a training program for entrepreneurs at the University of Kashmir in 2006. Next, she learned about the shawl-making trade from her brother.
She started her business in 2007 with a loan of 100,000 rupees ($1,507) from the Directorate of Handicrafts, a government agency promoting local crafts, and began weaving shawls herself, along with two workers, in her home.
In 2011, Akhtar took a loan of 850,000 rupees ($12,813) from the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute, and expanded her business from three looms to 11.
“After that, my business started to flourish,” she says.
Mufti Sadia, 24, started her own clothing boutique, named Hangers The Closet, in 2013. The Srinagar store sells fabric as well as traditional Indian attire like salwar kameez, kurtas and skirts. She has a varied customer base, and her clothing sells in the 500 rupees ($7.53) to 6,500 rupees ($98) range.
“My idea was to be independent and not work under anyone,” she says.
Sadia travels to Pakistan and New Delhi to source her fabrics, and designs many of the clothes herself, which are sewn by a tailor she employs. She also employs two salespeople in her shop at Sarah City Centre in Srinagar, a popular shopping complex.
“The men working in the other fabric shops here used to give me such looks and say, ‘Will this girl compete with us now?’” Sadia says. “They used to pass comments such as, ‘You cannot do it,’ and ‘It’s very difficult.’”
Even family members doubted her.
“At the start, it took a lot of time to convince my dad,” Sadia says. “And my relatives were always making comments like, ‘Are you becoming a shopkeeper now?’”
Sadia launched her business with savings from her previous job as a human resources manager at a private technology firm.
“I did not take any help from my parents or my relatives,” Sadia says. “I have done it all by myself.”
Now, she says, other shopkeepers in the mall take her seriously.
“They now consider me as a competitor, which makes me feel that I have really done something,” she says.
Akhtar, who owns the shawl business, hopes to one day export her products and open a showroom in Srinagar.
These days she says young girls seek her to ask about setting up their own businesses or for tips on overcoming opposition from their families.
In 2013, Akhtar was awarded the Exemplary Entrepreneurship Award in handicrafts sector by the Jammu and Kashmir Bank in collaboration with the Directorate of Handicrafts.
“I thank Almighty and my family for all this,” Akhtar says. “Now I can proudly say that I am a successful woman entrepreneur in Kashmir.”
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated interviews from Urdu and Kashmiri.