Kashmir's Courageous Fish-wali

Kashmir's Courageous Fish-wali

2 February 2012
Business Line
Bismah Malik

Srinagar: Displaying a unique brand of enterprise in a male-dominated society, she braves several odds in the strife-torn Valley to keep her roadside stall running in Srinagar. Life on a boat… now, does that sound adventurous? Not if you have to brave sub-zero temperatures or eke out a living by selling fish on the roadside in Srinagar, a city that is periodically wracked by violence in the strife-torn Kashmir valley. For the nearly 4,000-odd fisherfolk of Kashmir, making ends meet is an extraordinary feat involving stepping out in danger, not knowing whether they would return to their houseboats safe and sound. Twenty years of insurgency and turmoil in the Valley have destabilised many private businesses, with people giving up their traditional occupations and opting for public-sector jobs. Sectors such as agriculture, tourism and even education suffered huge setback. But, interestingly, the fisheries business saw no such adversity. Not only has the fishery sector made a vital contribution to the Jammu and Kashmir economy, a significant number of people have also joined this trade, making it one of the most successfully run and flourishing in this turbulent State. Braving the odds Needless to say, this success has been achieved against all odds. Surviving grenade blasts, violent encounters, stone pelting, ‘been there, done that' is how one could describe 50-year-old Nayeema, an experienced gaad wajen (fisherwoman), who shouts out to customers on the Amira Kadal bridge pavement - a popular unofficial fish market of Srinagar. Nayeema and her husband, Muhammad Hameed, inherited this trade from their forefathers. They stood by their line of work while others ran for their lives. “I remember the times when selling fish on any roadside meant putting yourself on the deathbed. You never knew whether you would get to see your family after the day's sale. However, people like us have no option but to fight for a living,” Nayeema says. Women to the fore The fishing business in Kashmir has also brought about a role reversal for the male and female members of the family. While the men restrict their work to catching fish during the evening and late-night hours, for the women the work extends into the day-long sale of the catch. At the break of dawn, her boat laden with fresh catch, Nayeema heads out from the lakeside to the city bridge together with her 75-year-old mother-in-law, Shamshad Bano. Shamshad is easily the best, and the most popular, fisherwoman in town when it comes to the tips and tricks of this trade. She is the master trainer for her daughter-in-law as well as the other fisherwomen lining the pavement with their fish baskets. The juniors swear by her marketing skills and customer-friendly approach. She has also overcome several setbacks both within and outside her family. This veteran also has her finger on the pulse of Kashmiri politics, owing it to the strategic location of her fish stall alongside the famous Jhelum river. “I began coming to this bridge when I was barely 15. I used to come with my mother and in-laws.This place is literally the centrestage of all political and apolitical developments. Not only do you learn the trade skills, you also get to know about everything that happens in Kashmir. Our community is perhaps the only one where women work on the roads and there are no societal constraints,” Shamshad says. These unique women entrepreneurs of Kashmir are also identified by their distinctive dressing style known as Gadhanzen (Kashmiri fisherwoman) - embroidered cloaks (phirans), large ear-danglers and headgear. Each morning they arrive at their place of business carrying a basket of fresh catch and accompanied by apprentices, who carry their lunch, hookah, weighing scales and other handy tools. While the older women prefer to sit along the river, the younger ones travel to residential areas in and around Srinagar for door-to-door sales. Soldiering on Like most other trades, Kashmir's fisher folk too battle the ups and downs of doing business in this volatile region. They suffered big losses during the worst years of unrest, when commercial activity came to near-standstill. A majority of the fisher folk have no insurance, nor do they receive any support from the Government. The widespread pollution of water bodies leading to diminished fish count has compounded their woes. But despite all the challenges, this community continues to break several stereotypes in male-dominated Kashmir society, with the women not only driving the family business but taking care of the family too.