With documents in hand, Farheen Khan walks into the room of the principal of a reputed private school. An entrepreneur by profession, the 23-year-old is looking for a job after quitting her plan to be an entrepreneur.
“To be an entrepreneur in Kashmir is tough,” says Farheen. It wasn't easy for Farheen to convince her family who wanted her to be a banker.
After completing her Master's degree in business administration from Kashmir University, Khan says, “I knew I had to become an entrepreneur. I started uploading photos of clothes, shoes, and bags on Instagram and WhatsApp and soon I developed a clientele and started catering to them. In just one year, I could see my business flourish from 10 customers to 30 in a month.”
But before Khan could think of expanding her business, she had to wind it up because of the closure of the internet service in Kashmir following the scrapping of the state’s special status and its bifurcation into two union territories.
“My business completely relied on the internet. I didn’t have much money to open a store so I was attracting customers on social media. They would place their orders on my social media page and I would deliver the product on their address. Things were working quite well for me,” says Khan. “I have told all my dealers from Mumbai, Delhi to cancel all my orders because I won’t be able to sell the products now.”
With no signs of the restoration of social networking sites in Kashmir, young female entrepreneurs like Khan who rely on such platforms to sell their merchandise are calling it quits before actually starting their career as entrepreneurs.
The Narendra Modi government, however, after the directive of the Supreme Court had started 2G internet services in Kashmir, but the ban on social media remains.
The embargo on social media has come as a blow for the female entrepreneurs who were battling stereotypes in this volatile region, and pursuing their dreams to be entrepreneurs.
Nausheen Rangrez, a student of Arts at the women’s college in Srinagar who is also an entrepreneur and runs a successful Instagram page called ‘Koshur Shoob’, says, “To be an entrepreneur in Kashmir, and especially when you are a student is something which is not acceptable. Your parents want you to be successful and when you try to prove that women can make a career as an entrepreneur as well in Kashmir, you fail because the six-month gag on the internet is enough to convince your parents that online business is not meant for women in Kashmir.”
In 2017, the data compiled by the Stock Exchange Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy had revealed that Jammu and Kashmir had the highest unemployment rate in India at 12.13 percent.
The erstwhile state’s own Economic Survey Report of 2016 states that the unemployment rate in J&K is higher than the average National unemployment rate, with J&K having 24.6 percent population in the age of (18-29 years) unemployed which is far more than All India Unemployment rate of 13.2 percent.
In such times when opportunities are blocked, the culture of women entrepreneurship was growing in Kashmir. From being successful makeup artistes’ to cloth merchants, women were gradually taking to entrepreneurship.
Initially, Rangrez, who lives in the old city in Srinagar, thought the ban on internet will be over in a week. “On August 4, when there was uncertainty in Kashmir that something is likely to happen, I was as usual busy in taking orders from customers. The next day I realised that internet service has been shut.”
After a wait of two months, the 21-year-old started going door to door and approaching clients. "It didn’t work because without phone and internet services, it was difficult to locate the clients. I gave up the idea and started preparing for my exams,” says Rangrez whose family no longer supports her in her initiative.
In 2018, in a significant step to boost women entrepreneurship in Kashmir and provide employment to the young females, the then state government had inaugurated a centre meant for women entrepreneurs in Srinagar. The centre, under various women self-employment schemes, was imparting skills to the unemployed young women and was teaching them how to be financially independent.
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Heena Keen, a makeup artiste from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, calls the situation "frustrating". "As a makeup artist, I promote my business on Instagram through photographs of brides. That's how people find out about me they book me for weddings. But with the suspension of the internet my work has suffered, people no longer book me for their weddings.”
(The author is a Kashmir-based journalist.)