In one of Srinagar’s many bureaucratic offices housed in the Old Civil secretariat building, a queue of women – some elderly, some young – grows longer by the hour. All the women are waiting to meet Naheed Soz and every morning Soz makes sure to a hold brief interaction with almost every woman who knocks on the doors of her office. She considers this her prime responsibility as the managing director of the State Women Development Corporation (SWDC).
The SWDC does not have a really long history in Jammu and Kashmir. It was established in 2005 with the aim of providing some sort of economic independence for the women of the region, especially those who were hit by the turmoil that the Valley has witnessed. When Soz took over as SWDC’s managing director, little did she know that her job would transform her life totally, as a person and especially as a woman.
Says Soz, “If you would have met me four years ago, you would have come across a fairly well-educated, and regular government official, who worked to support her family. However, that is not the case today. After being promoted as the SWDC’s managing director and working for the women in Kashmir, my priorities and my outlook on life have drastically changed. My job here has made me realise that economic independence of a woman is of utmost significance – and not just for her but her entire family.”
The women Soz meets come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Many of them are widows, destitute, or orphans and almost all of them need financial assistance. She has innumerable stories of success to relate, instances where women who were once helpless and largely uneducated have now become self-sufficient entrepreneurs who are generating employment in turn.
Right from setting these women on the right professional track, the SWDC has imparted the required skills and provided subsidised loans to them to set up their own enterprises. Personal transformation is the key here and Soz, through her achievements, has herself come to represent the changing face of Kashmiri women.
The change is manifesting itself across generations. There are innumerable bright, articulate and educated women emerging from colleges and universities, and making their presence felt in the workplace. Take Waseema Shafi, 23, the only woman networking engineer from the Valley, who recently passed the highest level of CISCO certifications, and is now a CISCO trainer at an academy in Delhi.
Shafi had never moved out of Kashmir until a lucrative job offer arrived at her doorstep. She completed her Bachelors degree in Technology from Kashmir University, attended additional networking engineering classes in Kashmir and passed all the certifications with high ranks. Soon opportunities came flooding in, and finally there came an offer she could not refuse. From being a small town girl who dreamt of a regular nine-to-five job, Shafi now finds herself training IT industry professionals from big companies based in Delhi.
“In Delhi, I found myself in a whole new world. I had never stayed away from my family. Initially, when this job offer came, my father and others in the family were not that supportive of the idea of my taking it up. But soon they realised that my career could get a major fillip if I moved out of Kashmir,” she says.
The road to success had its share of challenges, but with some persistence Shafi emerged as the only girl in her batch who took up networking engineering, since it promised a bright career. She asserts, “Till date, no female student in Kashmir has appeared in CISCO accredited top certification examinations. Since the Valley did not have a job market for people with these certifications, I chose to try my luck outside the state and luck has been on my side.”
For the women of Kashmir, not only do unconventional jobs provide a whole new definition of what it means to be independent, they now feel far more confident of being able to express themselves in public.
Shehla Rasheed Shora, an IT engineer by profession and a social activist by choice, has become a popular name in the cyber sphere because of her smart and bold tweets that have grabbed the attention of hundreds of followers on Twitter.
Shora tweets on a wide range of issues from Srinagar politics to Delhi jams and Bollywood gossip. But what sets her twitter handle apart from the rest of tweeples is the change she has been able to make through her Twitter presence.
From pursuing the cause of ensuring a fair trial for the inmates of Srinagar jail to raising awareness on the need to protect the world famous Dal Lake, Shora’s social activism is reflected in her tweets. For instance, one of her recent tweets went: “Communal sentiments always fall prey to political opportunists. Education can change that. Among Hindus and among Muslims and all other sects”. It became a rage on Twitter.
Shora recalls her college days at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, when she was an active member of a local youth organisation – One Young Kashmir (OYK) – that hosted various workshops and awareness campaigns in the Valley aimed at youth development. She promoted OYK worshops on Twitter, because of which the young crowd active on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook were drawn to OYK events. Due to her extraordinary communication skills and her huge online popularity, she proved to be an asset for the organisation. “I mostly use Twitter for activism and to stay updated. You get to hear the government version of events, the media coverage and the people’s perspective – all on your own timeline. It is much better than being the fence-sitter that I’ve always been! In a place where the political space for women is non-existent, Twitter is a good start,” she observes.
While Shora kickstarts her day with a tweet, Mehnaz, 19, a student at the Government College for Women in Srinagar, begins hers by kicking her scooty’s to life and beginning a joyous ride from her home to college. Commuting by buses, rickshaws and other public transport in Srinagar, had never appealed to the youngster, who became one of the first girls in her college to commute on a scooty two years ago. Many more young girls in the Valley have joined her on the city streets on their scooters.
Today, it is difficult to imagine that just a few short years ago society was just not open to the idea of girls riding two-wheelers. It is girls like Mehnaz who took that first extraordinary leap and helped usher in a change in popular attitudes. As Mehnaz puts it, “Earlier, it was just me and a few friends of mine who had scooters. Later, as many more college and schoolgirls thought of commuting on their own, they took to riding two-wheelers. Now there are so many of us that nobody can forbid us from commuting in this way!”
For many women, something simple like riding a scooter or pursuing a social campaign on Twitter may not seem a big deal, but for a violence-torn and distressed region like the Kashmir Valley these little things spell a tryst with independence.