Spreading Wings In The Valley

Spreading Wings In The Valley

15 December 2011
Business Line
Bismah Malik

Srinagar: At one of the many offices in Srinagar's Old Civil Secretariat building, a queue of women - some elderly, some young - grows longer by the hour. They are waiting to meet Naheed Soz, Managing Director of the State Women Development Corporation (SWDC), who makes sure she meets nearly every woman who knocks on her office door. Set up as recently as 2005, SWDC aims to promote economic independence among the region's women, especially those hit by the ongoing strife in the Valley. When Naheed took over the job, little did she know it would completely transform her life - both as a person and, especially, as a woman. “If you had 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 managing director and working for women in Kashmir, my priorities and outlook on life have drastically changed. It has made me realise that economic independence of a woman is of utmost significance - not just for her but her entire family,” she says. The women she meets come from varied backgrounds. Many are widows, destitute or orphans, and almost all of them need financial assistance. She has several success stories to narrate too, of once helpless and largely uneducated women becoming self-sufficient entrepreneurs and generating employment in their turn. Right from setting the women on the right professional track to imparting skills and facilitating subsidised loans for enterprises, SWDC is involved all the way. Personal transformation is the key here and Naheed, through her achievements, has herself come to represent the changing face of Kashmiri women. Educated and sought-after This change is visible across generations. There are many bright, articulate and educated women emerging from colleges and universities, and making their presence felt in the workplace. Waseema Shafi, 23, is a network engineer from the Valley who recently passed the highest level of CISCO certifications before becoming a CISCO trainer at an academy in Delhi. Until this lucrative job offer arrived at her doorstep, she had never stepped out of Kashmir. After her Bachelors degree in Technology from Kashmir University, she had taken up additional network engineering courses and passed them with a high rank. This small-town girl who once dreamt of a nine-to-five job now trains IT professionals from leading companies. “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 my taking it up. But soon they realised that my career could get a major fillip if I moved out of Kashmir,” she says. Waseema happened to be the only girl in her batch who took up network engineering, which promised a bright career. She says, “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 this qualification, I chose to try my luck outside the State and luck has been on my side.” Confident tweets For the women of Kashmir, not only do unconventional jobs provide a whole new definition of what it means to be independent, they also enable them to feel far more confident of expressing themselves in public. Shehla Rasheed Shora, an IT engineer and social activist, is popular in cyberspace thanks to her smart and bold tweets that have hundreds of followers on Twitter. She tweets on issues ranging from Srinagar politics to Delhi traffic jams and Bollywood gossip. But what sets her apart from the rest of the tweeples is the change she has been able to make through her tweets. From ensuring a fair trial for inmates of Srinagar jail to raising awareness on the need to protect the world-famous Dal Lake, her tweets reflect her social activism. A recent tweet, for instance, read: “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. During her student days at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, Shehla used to be an active member of a local youth organisation - One Young Kashmir (OYK) - that hosted workshops and awareness campaigns aimed at youth development. She promoted the workshops on Twitter to attract the young crowd active on social networking sites. “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. Free to ride While Shehla kick-starts her day with a tweet, Mehnaz, 19, a student at the Government College for Women, in Srinagar, begins hers by kicking to life her two-wheeler and riding joyously to college. She was one of the first few girls in her college to commute on a two-wheeler two years ago; today many more young girls in the Valley can be seen on the city streets riding scooters. Today, it is difficult to imagine that just a few years ago Kashmiri society was not open to the idea of girls riding two-wheelers. It is girls like Mehnaz who made that first extraordinary leap and helped usher a change in popular attitudes. As Mehnaz puts it, “Earlier, it was just me and a few friends 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 this way!” For many women, something as simple as riding a scooter or pursuing a social campaign on Twitter may not seem a big deal, but in a violence-torn and distressed region like the Kashmir Valley, these little things spell a tryst with independence. © Women's Feature Service


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