Kashmiri women break tradition
More and more young women in the Kashmir Valley are breaking social taboos by stepping out of their homes to work, and economic necessity is just one driving factor.
Girls even in their late teens can now be seen in shops and businesses in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir and the urban hub of a Muslim militancy that shows no signs of ending.
Ask Zaara, 18, a resident of Srinagar. A salesgirl with a cosmetic shop, Zaara has taken up a profession that she or her family would never have imagined even five years ago. She leaves home at 10 a.m. every day and returns at 5 p.m.
Zaara is part of a growing community opting for a career in sales - not just to be financially independent but also to ensure freedom from stifling traditions under which women were not allowed to work.
Today young women in Kashmir can be seen working at petrol pumps, managing cash counters at stores or selling books in shops.
The numbers are few, no doubt, but enough to be taken notice of.
"Gone are the days when being a salesgirl was thought to be taboo. Today it is no longer so. The booming media has brought the outside world to our living rooms, opening windows to new trends," explains Irfana Qadiri, a social scientist and lecturer at the College of Education in Srinagar.
"Shackles have been broken and the girls want to stand on their feet to be financially independent," Qadiri told IANS.
In the Kashmir Valley, the peace process may take long to put an end to the nearly two decades of violence, but society has started marching ahead, though slowly, to keep up with the rest of world.
Today, the overwhelmingly Muslim valley is not what it was during the early 1990s, when militancy erupted.
"My parents know that I am doing nothing wrong. And on top of it, I get personal satisfaction," says Zaara. "After gaining experience I can even start my own business."
Naazia, a 20-year-old, sells books at a store on Residency Road in the heart of Srinagar. She is equally upbeat over her "financial independence".
"I wanted to be a doctor but couldn't. Nevertheless, I am still earning good money. I am happy and feel a lot more independent," says Naazia.
So what is driving Kashmiri girls to go out and earn?
"There can be various reasons," analyses Saima Farhad, a sociology lecturer who also edits "SHE", a quarterly magazine published from Srinagar in English.
"True, financial hardship caused by the violence is the main reason for women in Kashmir to start working," she says.
"But it is not only about making ends meet. The Kashmiri woman is today more conscious of her rights. And the media has to be credited for the massive awareness."
The reasons could be diverse, but the women of Kashmir - once mainly forced to remain behind veils - have started disproving stereotypes. The times are surely changing.