The restive region’s women are increasingly going into business, as conflict kills off employment prospects.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir - On most Fridays Muzamil Bashir can smell the pungent odour of tear gas fired by Indian forces on demonstrators outside Srinagar’s Grand Mosque.
When the smell starts to filter into her small boutique in the Nowhatta area of Srinagar city, Muzamil puts harmala seeds in an incense burner to mask the fumes and returns to her work.
With a measuring tape curled around her shoulders, Bashir carefully irons a piece of fabric, preparing it before it’s made into Shalwar Kameez - a traditional South Asian dress.
Bashir is the first woman in her conservative Muslim family to start her own business and watching her succeed over the past seven years has become a source of pride for them.
After leaving a job in telecommunications because of low pay, Bashir set up her business with an initial investment of just 10,000 rupees ($150).
“I started with a rented space. At the time the conflict was not as bad as it is now,” Bashir told TRT World from her boutique near the city’s Mughal-era Grand Mosque, where Friday prayers are led by separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
The mosque is the site of regular protests against Indian rule, which often turn violent, but despite the difficulties that has not put Bashir off.
“Customers definitely feel fear because of the number of government troops deployed nearby,” she said. “We carry on with our lives despite these struggles.”
Bashir’s example is not rare or unique in Kashmir.
Role of conflict
Despite three decades of conflict and social unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir, women are making strides towards achieving gender equality.
Even in traditional families, women are taking up jobs and starting businesses, practices once unheard of in the conservative region.
In crucial sectors like health and education, women make up nearly 35 percent of the workforce. The progress comes despite the frequent urban gunfights, stone-throwing protests, and prolonged strikes that have blighted the state.
Conflict in Kashmir has strained the region economically; unemployment is high as private investors steer clear due to the instability.
With limited indigenous industries and poor job prospects, many women are opening up their own ventures, such as boutiques, cafes, and technology startups. They say the independence needed to open businesses helps them survive the uncertainties of conflict.
Officials are helping the trend along by supporting entrepreneurial schemes.
The government-run Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) runs a Centre for Women’s Entrepreneurship, which provides counselling, training, and financial assistance women in the region.
In the year since the initiative started, Syed Nazneen, one of those involved with the project said that they have counselled more than 1,000 aspiring entrepreneurs.
“The situation for women in Kashmir is really bad due to financial instability,” Nazneen said, adding that the EDI had trained nearly 200 women in the last year alone and provided seed capital to 621 business units run by women in the region over the past few years.
One of their success stories is Shaheena Akhtar, in her early thirties and the daughter of a coppersmith.
Akhtar took a loan of nearly $12,000 from the government in 2011 to start her company, Shaheen Handicrafts, which makes Kashmir’s delicate Pashmina Kani shawls.
It’s a lucrative trade.
The Kani shawls Akhtar designs range from 5,000 to 400,000 rupees (from $72-$5,700).
Akhtar initially ran the business with her brothers but they left when she got married. Within a year, however, she was divorced, and now runs the business alone.
“Because I was not dependent on anyone financially, I could pick up the pieces of my life after the divorce,” she told TRT World.
Akhtar runs eight shawl weaving looms and employs 25 workers. Depending on the intricacy of the design, a shawl can take from several months to a year to make.
Her items are unique in their design and feature stories drawn out in stitch.
“In eight months, I’ve earned $35,000,” Akhtar said. “In one two-day exhibition, I earned $2,200 in profit alone.”
It’s not just in clothing that Kashmiri women have found a niche.
Insha Rasool, 30, started an organic farm in her home village of Sheikhpora in Bugdam district.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Sciences Bangalore, she got the idea while working as a researcher in South Korea.
Rasool has used her knowledge of science to cultivate crops that usually do not grow in the region.
“I have seven employees and I’ve gotten a good responses from people who prefer organic and exotic vegetables,” she told TRT World.
Gazala Amin, the first female member of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, told TRT World that despite the suffering the conflict had caused, it had given rise to a generation of female entrepreneurs.
“Women suffer silently in the conflict but this conflict has also brought up girls who work really hard,” she said.
“They are doing well in a lot of fields including in education. In business, you will find a lot of girls in a lot of different sectors.”