Kargil, Sep 28: Recently, Kargil – one of the two districts of Ladakh, was in the news as the elections were round the corner. And, as soon as the elected candidates took oath, it vanished from the media- again
Even during the elections, no due coverage was given to the issues concerning the people of this isolated region- their challenges, demands and achievements were all missing from the news. How, despite the extreme weather conditions, tough geography and few resources, the Kargil community is surviving. And, when the struggle is seen through the lens of gender, the achievements become even more interesting.
Draped in colourful Hijabs, seemingly delicate yet confident enough to speak their mind, are the members of ‘Kargil Town Women Welfare Committee’ – an all women non-profit organisation working towards empowerment – socially as well as financially. An effort of this magnitude, often taken for granted in a metropolitan city requires a different kind of courage altogether in a region as remote and conservative as Kargil.
This cold desert was virtually unknown to the rest of India until the famed Kargil War in 1999. Struggling to reconcile with the losses inflicted during the war, Kargil became a mark on the Indian map. With its newly established link with the rest of the country, Kargil began to abandon its traditional conservative notions and witnessed men and women welcoming change with open arms. A society where educating girls was an alien concept until the late eighties, changed with women venturing into every possible arena.
Financial empowerment of women gained major significance amongst educated and uneducated women alike. While some plunged into government services, others resorted to individual entrepreneurship, women welfare committees and NGOs. A huge number of women committees/societies and NGOs proliferated in the post war Kargil which aimed at employing women and making them financially secure.
Founded in 2009, ‘Kargil Town Women Welfare Committee’ was one such. The brainchild of twenty four year old Chanchik town-based Parveen Akhtar hailing from a well educated family in rural Pashkum, the Committee was started to offer cloistered homemakers and young dropouts wage earning opportunities.
Over the years, the members of this committee have helped sanitize the town by opening roadside latrines, improving drainage systems and guarding and fencing the riverbank; and even helping install a transformer in the town. With its office centred in one of the member’s house, this committee also makes a range of jute bags and other products which is sent to the Mata Vaishno Devi Trust and other states, generating some income for its members.
Working relentlessly for the same purpose is Fiza Bano who runs the ‘Tribal Women Welfare Association’ which includes carpet making and wool cleansing, in addition to tailoring and knitting. Started with just five members and a small quantity of wool worth a mere Rs 500, her NGO is now a proud income source for nearly 100 women members. “I have seen women using mud instead of soap to do the dishes,” laments Fiza. Conditions of such financially challenged women and inspiring stories from daily TV soaps prompted Fiza to undertake this noble task.
These women with their recipes for positive changes present a cheerful picture of Kargil. However, given the unpromising attitude of those in power, this picture seems to get foggier by the day. In a world patterned by assumptions and values of patriarchal culture, it’s an exceptionally challenging task for a woman to run an NGO, bearing the weight of hope of many. Despite the government having provided myriad schemes, grants-in-aid for NGOs and particularly for women, these schemes have remained locked up .
Parveen Akhter, who keeps herself updated with these schemes and policies online, claims that the departments responsible for executing these schemes refuse to even disclose them to her committee members. An application sent by her committee members to fetch them some wage earning tasks is disregarded in favour of a male committee member, clearly subscribing to the cliched gender dichotomies. Before undertaking the sanitation task in town, the Municipal Corporation had been approached “precisely ten times,” recalls Parveen.
Shamima Firdause, a J and K legislative member, during her 2011 visit to Kargil, sought to lend a helping hand to these women by garnering for them some developmental contracts from the Council and earning them some financial assistance. However, the only response she got for her noble proposal was a tactless, chauvinistic “Can women really break stones like men!” remark from a senior male official. The next two years were no different.
Only recently, another woman legislator was blatantly directed to “not” take up womens’ issues in their meetings. And sadly, this directive was received from one of the highest administrative offices in town, headed, not surprisingly, by a male member. Episodes like these bear testimony to the fact that women in Kargil still have a giant leap to take before they can wholly undo the patriarchal knots their society is enmeshed in.
Crores of funds that the Council receives, tribal funds and border funds are all sent out to male societies leaving these women with scarce resources at their disposal. While the handicraft sector claims to have granted Share Capital Assistance and schemes under Formation of Handicraft Industrial Corporation, these women have a different story to share. They believe that the Handicraft and Handloom sectors’ schemes are confined exclusively to their respective department workers.
While these offices are flooded with funds from both the state and the centre, Fiza Bano still awaits to get her projects approved; it is pending with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs office for three years now. Their call for an All India Handicraft Office in the town and a Committee Hall for women remains unattended to, while Leh and Kashmir get feted with the same. To top it all these women have to encounter societal criticism owing to the conventional, orthodox mindset. “Bomo butsa ka sowa rgyala min” alluding to women’s lower status in the household.
“Bomo butsa” is the phrase commonly used in Kargil to refer to and reinforce the girl/boy, inferior/superior binary. A woman strolling in the market more than the “required” times or travelling for official purpose is looked down upon as someone who has defied all moral sanctity. Religious groups paying patronage to the governing bodies tend to ostracise women’s issues, relegating them to a marginal and secondary status in keeping with their age old conventions.
With the executive councils, ministers, administrative officers and religious groups impinging on their progress, Kargil’s cheerful picture emerges as a likely mirage. Blitzed with constant criticism from the orthodox minds of society and the disappointing “gender insensitive” outlook of the higher authorities, the efforts made by these women-led NGOs appear to garner nothing but an endless treadmill. And it won’t take long to render these women voiceless again in the deafening din of the patriarchal crescendo! By Gizala Shabnam (ANI)