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The Commander Heights of Kargil's economy

"We travel to Jammu and Srinagar, Ludhiana and Delhi, to buy products to sell,? Abida Khanam says. The women, prefer to do the shopping during the off-season winters, when they get a break from the harsh cold of Kargil. (Source:ruralindiaonline.org) Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Aug 04, 2017, 06.47 AM (IST) Stanzin Saldon

When walking down the main market road in Kargil, a narrow winding lane branches off, with small shops on either side. Colourful scarves and dupattas flutter on display outside each shop here – and inside is a varied collection of salwar kameez sets, sweaters, accessories, footwear, kids' garments and other items.

This is Commander Market, so called, locals say because the land the shops stand on is owned by a ‘commander’. The shopkeepers here are all Shia women.

Kargil is located close to the border in Ladakh and flanked by the Himalayas. It was an important southern node in the Central Asian silk route trade until 1947 when borders were drawn between India and Pakistan. The town’s population of around 16,000 (Census 2011) mainly comprises Muslims, along with some Buddhists and a few Sikh families. They have, over the generations, seen three wars, the last of them in 1999.

The first shop run by a woman came up at Commander Market – it got that name later – nearly three decades ago. The shop owner faced severe opposition and vilification, the present shop owners says, which is why they don’t want her to be named. Over time though, inspired by her determination and success, 2-3 more women rented spaces at the same location. Now, there are around 30 shops at this market, all but three of them run by women.

From scarcely any women in public places in Kargil until even a decade ago, Commander Market is now an uncelebrated landmark. The younger shopkeepers here attribute the change to an increase in female literacy (from around 42 per cent in 2001 to 56 per cent in 2011). Plus, the older shopkeepers say, their economic independence drew more women to the market – some out of a compulsion to earn, some inspired by their predecessors. Kargil, they say, has now accepted this change.

When I visited Commander Market for this photo essay, a few women avoided the camera, some were concerned about their photographs being published, and some did not want their full names to be used. But most of them were happy and proud to share their stories. 

A busy Saturday afternoon at Commander Market during the month of Ramadan. (Source: www.ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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Abida Khanam (right), says “I’m doing a BA through distance education because I want to be financially independent as well. This shop is my aunt’s. Shahida and I assist her. I get paid Rs. 7-8,000 a month by my aunt. (Source:ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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"We travel to Jammu and Srinagar, Ludhiana and Delhi, to buy products to sell,” Abida Khanam says. The women, prefer to do the shopping during the off-season winters, when they get a break from the harsh cold of Kargil. (Source:ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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“I feel proud to be one of the few men in this market,” Mansoor says, “and happy to be helping my aging parents earn a living for the family.” (Source: ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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Sarah (left), 32, is excited about her new venture as a businesswoman, and plans to run the shop with the help of her younger sister. (Source:ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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Bano, shying away from the camera, says, “I’m feeling tired and am waiting for the time of iftaar to break my fast.” (Source: ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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"This [demonstrating the scarf by wrapping it around her neck] is a woollen ‘infinity loop’ and it’s very trendy. It’s popular among foreign tourists who happen to be in Kargil,” says Haji Akhtar, 38. (Source: ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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Kaneez Fatima, 25, helps her mother, one of the first women to set up a shop in this market over two decades ago. (Source: ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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Fatima has been running this shop for almost six years. Her husband Mohammad Isa, sitting by her side, supported her in starting this small business. (Source: ruralindiaonline.org) (Others)

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“Achey (sister), why don't you take our picture as well?” ask some young boys who are visiting a shop. (Others)

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This article was originally published on 27/ 07/ 2017 on the People's Archive of Rural India.

 

Stanzin Saldon

Stanzin Saldon is a 2017 PARI Fellow from Leh, Ladakh. She was a W.J. Clinton Fellow ( 2015-16) of the American India Foundation.

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