Moral Policing or Security Concern? Why Houseboats in Dal Lake Are a Banned Zone for Kashmiris
A Kashmiri woman's excitement to stay in a houseboat faded into disappointment recently when she was denied entry into a houseboat, which she had booked online, because she was a local woman.
Image for representation.
Srinagar: It was rather a shocking moment for 35-year-old Saheem Wani when she was denied accommodation in a houseboat in the picturesque Dal Lake in Kashmir for being a local woman.
Wani returned to Kashmir in 2018 after working in Australia for 10 years. After a brief stay at her home in Srinagar’s Peerbagh, she started her solo travel. For months she explored the southern and eastern parts of the country. She also travelled to Uttar Pradesh. Next on her wishlist was exploring her hometown Srinagar and staying in a houseboat.
With Zabarwan Hills in the backdrop, houseboats ornate the world-famous Dal Lake and are a huge tourist attraction here. The history of these festooned boats with intricate wooden work dates back to 1880 and were a favourite of the British rulers then.
“There can be nothing more joyful than being an independent woman and travelling around places you always wanted to,” Wani said while talking to News18. As a student in Kashmir, she had travelled a few places with family. But now she wanted to explore more and on her own.
There are over 900 houseboats moored in water bodies of Srinagar and provide a solace in the lap of nature, away from the bustling city life.
But the solace seems to be out of bounds for locals, particularly solo women. It happened last week when Wani decided to stay in a houseboat for four days while her parents would be away to attend a wedding. She booked a room online in a houseboat located near the Nehru Park in Dal lake. On the evening of June 14, she arrived at Dal Lake’s Ghat no 15 where the owner of the houseboat had come to receive her in a shikara—a small wooden boat.
“I was excited,” said Wani, who wanted to explore the Dal. Barring a few times ten years ago, when she had had short shikara rides on the lake with her family, she had never explored it. When she was a child, she had spent a night in the houseboat with her parents.
“I was returning to my place like a tourist,” Wani said. But her excitement waned into disappointment the moment she stepped into the boat and her host realized that she is a Kashmiri.
She was asked if she was a local. “This question came with disappointment and it felt as if something terribly bad had happened,” she recalled. She couldn’t comprehend what it meant and asked the host to take her to the houseboat. But at the houseboat, named King’s Crown, she was denied entry.
In Kashmir, there is an unwritten rule that locals are not allowed to stay in the houseboats.
“I was shocked when the owner of the houseboat told me that they don’t entertain locals,” Wani said, adding that she tried to persuade the houseboat owner by providing her identification cards. That did not suffice.
“The owner of the houseboat told me that I am a woman and they were not sure why I was there,” Wani said. She even called her father who talked to the houseboat owner telling him that she was staying with permission from her parents.
“It was awkward to call my father. It felt as if I was doing some illicit work that he had to be called up,” she said. Despite the phone call she wasn’t allowed to stay.
The online booking for her stay was non-refundable and she had paid in advance. However, she did not come across any rule that restricted the locals from staying in the houseboats.
“I felt harassed. It was a perturbing experience,” she said.
Wani called the police to get the money refunded and left the houseboat with them. As it was evening time, she had nowhere to go. A police officer later booked her another houseboat where she could stay only for one night.
She had video recorded he conversation with the houseboat owner, where he can be heard saying that they don’t entertain locals. She later posted the videos on social media.
The owner of the houseboat was not available to comment on the incident. But spokesperson of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners’ Association admitted that the locals are not allowed.
“Local boys come here and have alcohol. Sometimes unmarried couples also come. We can’t allow that,” said Yaqoob Doonu, spokesperson of Kashmir Houseboats Owners Association.
The unwritten rule that locals are not allowed applies to both men as well as women.
“We can allow local people only if they provide us with marriage documents,” he said.
Doonu also said that local men and women aren’t allowed because of the prevailing situation.
“We don’t know who the person is, nor can we go o frisking them. They can be militants too,” he said.
“I am a grown-up woman and have never faced such a problem in any part of the world. I am shocked by whatever happened,” said Wani. She alleged that police did not file any FIR in the case saying that no physical harassment was involved.
Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) Nehru Park, Nitya Durga told News18 that the matter came to her adding that she can’t reveal the details.
However, she clarified that there are no directions from the police that that bans locals from staying in houseboats.
For Saheem, a solo-travel lover, this is a horrific experience.
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