Through lush green meadows and rice fields that extend as far as the eye can see, through forested terrains and roads that wind through hills, lies the unit of Shehjar group – its beautiful compound spread hawked across the picturesque landscape of Inderhama. Their mantra is simple – “Empower the Womenfolk” and they leave no stone unturned in making this dream come alive. It was in the year 2007 that they started off with this facility, in a place where the only sound to be heard is the gushing of a nearby stream and the melodies of the songbird and one that acts as a home to many orphans and develops the skills of women from the remotest corners of Kashmir Valley, employing them and making them independent – those who break the age old stereotypes and proudly sustain themselves and their families.
As I enter the Shehjar facility, I am greeted by a surprisingly homely atmosphere and cheerful faces of women from various corners of the Valley. It is here that I meet Tahira, a young and vibrant lady barely 26 years of age who takes me through the entire setup, elucidating each process and task that takes place. From her I gather that volunteers from Shehjar travel to far flung villages, knock door to door and mobilize women to earn their own money, to develop skills which will empower them beyond measure, just like they did with Tahira.
“They approached me when I was 22 years of age, at a time when my family was facing a lot of problems and these problems had taken a toll on my health. I was depressed and would prefer solitude all the time. Their coming was like angels knocking at my doorstep. I and many other women were then trained in various skills – cooking, baking, food processing, cutting, tailoring and embroideries. These trainings made me feel better about myself. As the days passed, I felt more and more confident. I befriended people who became as good as family. It was then that my supervisor sent me to Ahemadabad where I got acquainted with the intricacies of baking breads and cookies, ways of natural preservation of foods and a whole lot more. After this session, I was given facilities to utilize my learning from Ahemadabad and turned into a mini-entrepreneur and today I can actually process spices, initially I could do it in a traditional “Nyaem” (a large sized mortar and pestle) and now I can do the same in a semi automated grinder. I can make pickles and cookies and sell them at my own will. I feel privileged and empowered. It has been 4 years since I started working with Shehjar and what I have loved here is not just how empowered I feel but It is also a place where I have re-lived my childhood and the best days of my life”, shares Tahira who is now accompanied by her group of shy friends – Irfana and Tahira nabi and her middle aged colleague Hajira Begum, who joined the Shehjar facility years at the time of its inception.
As I bid farewell to Tahira and her friends, I now have to enter their craft facility of Shehjar, where I am about to come across the most powerful initiative to uplift women across ethnicities.
The craft section is spacious and brightly lit. A total of 8 women are seated comfortably across the room, embroidering some stoles and ethnic dupattas and chatting animatedly. The looks on their faces and the cheerful mirth which surrounds them makes me feel like one of them. They make me comfortable as I take a seat in between two wonderful ladies – Sabiha and Sharifa, who coincidentally turn out to be sisters. They live far away in Malabagh and commute to work every day with utmost determination. Sabiha tells me that she has been working with Shehjar for the past 4 years. She was trained and groomed here. What fascinates her is the fact that her contribution not only empowers her, but also a number of other women located in remote villages of Jharkhand, who hand weave the fabrics over which she embroiders. “The fabric over which we embroider is unique. It is hand woven by womenfolk in Jharkhand who then pass it on to us. I embroider it in traditional Kashmiri Embroideries like Aari, Sozni or even moti work. My mentors here in Shehjar have given me an idea of which color combinations to use and what are the contemporary designs which people prefer these days. I add to that a hint of our tradition and the resulting pieces – whether they are kurtis, dupattas, stole or boxes delight my customers. This not only benefits me, but also the women who are weaving this underlying fabric meticulously. The bar of boundaries is erased. I never thought of leaving the facility of Shehjar because of the homely ambience which they created for us”, she says.
It is women like Tahira and Sabiha, who come under the umbrella of Shehjar and bring about a positive change in their future. Today, Shehjar employs approximately 50 skilled women and provides them facilities to sustain themselves independently and reclaim their identity which has been lost in the folds of societal stereotypes over a period of time.