It took her 16 years to encourage her husband to earn for the family. The failure has led her to separate and to further decide the management of better lives for her four children. In this struggle, Halima emerged as an exceptional social entrepreneur who now helps nine other to live a dignified life, reports Humira Tabassum and Sumiya Ramzan
Sitting amongst the coloured yarn balls, neatly placed in square cabins behind her, Halima Akhtar, 47, attends her customers while her fingers continuously mingle with different colours around a knitting hook in zigzag direction.
A resident of Kandipora area in Bijbehara, Akhtar is known for designing intricate designs in woollen clothing. She is the source of income for her own family and has inspired at least nine other women to be the support of their family.
Crocheting the colourful designs was never her choice. It happened by chance. In her childhood, Akhtar wished to be a law officer but her destiny had other plans for her. When she was just nine, her mother passed away and the responsibility of her family came to her shoulders as she was the eldest of the three siblings. Hardly able to stick with the routine schooling schedule, she finally decided to drop out in tenth class.
As she narrates her struggle to survive her business her fingers continue weaving and eyes gleam with joy and accomplishment.
Married on May 21, 1991, Akhtar’s another desire that her husband, Sikandar will take care of her family was shattered. “My father decided that I should get married and Sikandar was supposed to live with us at my father’s house. But he was unemployed. He never supported me economically so my life changed forever,” Akhtar said.
After spending many years in poverty Akhtar used to encourage her husband to work and earn. He always had an alibi: ‘I do not have any money to start a business’.
Tired of a long wait, one day Akhtar shared her problems with her friend who helped her financially.
“She generously gave me a credit of Rs 50,000 on the promise that I will share with her a profit of Rs 5000 a year.” This aggravated her condition as she did not get enough support from Sikander. The money was lost.
Struggling to pay her friend back, Akhtar decided to take a loan from a local bank of Rs 70,000. Out of this amount she first returned Rs 55,000 to her friend and then handed over the rest of the amount to her husband who, by then, had decided to invest in furniture work. To her dismay, the capital was also lost.
“It seemed as if poverty was my destiny,” Akhter remembers those crises ridden days. “I did not want my children to suffer because of the carelessness of their father.” After living with him for 16 years, she, one day decided to separate in 2007. “We are not divorced, we live separately.”
Desperate to manage her two daughters and two sons, she started thinking about her course of action. While working in her kitchen, one day she had that eureka moment: she decided to get into crocheting that lacked any investment.
The first ear to hear the idea was her friend who funded her yarn purchase with aRs 1000 loan. By early 2010, Akhtar would crochet products and personally visit shops to sell them. There was no looking back.
It was time-consuming – meeting every client personally. “Let me admit, I was looked down as if I was doing some wrong,” Akhtar said. “Maybe it was because it lacked social sanction for a woman to work and run her family.”
In the last less than a decade, Akhtar has literally resurrected her home: Aabida, 23, is now married; Zahida, 21, is currently pursuing her masters in Urdu at the University of Kashmir; both her sons Shahid, 20, and Basit, 19, are enrolled in the school. Shahid, now a class twelfth student, extends some help in marketing her weaved products.
Initially, Akhtar said her two daughters helped her to keep orders ready in time. They used to look after the household as Akhtar remained busy in crocheting products. She still gets nostalgic when she recalls her first income of Rs 1500. As some of her products were rendered obsolete for lack of customers, she even had second thoughts.
The twist came when she started using a social networking application WhatsApp. “This application came up with quick feedback and when I noticed people liking my products it was a huge morale booster,” Akhtar giggled.
Now, most of her clients are permanent customers who repeatedly shop for different things from her. She used to take orders through WhatsApp but for delivery she visits her customers to have a quick feedback, which has become USP of her business.
Now, Akhtar’s client base is not limited to shop owners in south Kashmir only. She has some of her clients in Hazratbal in Srinagar as well.
The new job and the new resolve came with its own fortunes. After a decade in business, Akhtar owns a car which helps her in attending her clients better. In 2013 she went to perform Hajj along with her father.
What makes Akhtar’s works exceptionally different is that she has not limited her art to herself only. Her brand name Heman is source of livelihood to nine other people also. She presently owns two centres: in Bijbehara and Pulwama.
Rifat is one of her employee. She was very passionate about the art so she joined Akhtar’s centre at Pulwama. She was knowing the art but asserted she lacked confidence and expertise. Joining Akhtar’s centre helped her in learning advanced art. She was later married and now she rarely gets time to work.
However, her namesake Rifat Jan replaced her in the centre. She also was struggling to run her family. “I belong to a very poor family and had no source of income,” Rifat said. “So I thought to be the support of my parents and I started learning this art.”
The art of crocheting at Heman is not limited to females alone. Two boys, Bilal Ahmad Sheikh, who dropped out after twelfth standard and Shabir Ahmad, a matriculate, have also learnt the art and have become sources of income to their families.
Akthar has three brother machines, used to make sweaters, at her Pulwama centre and one at Bijbehara centre. She also has one flat machine, used for designing at Bijbehara centre which she asserted is difficult to handle so is managed by Bilal.
Presently, Akhtar said her work earns her Rs 10000 to 15000 a month in addition to the working capital requirements. She hopes that one day she would launch a larger platform where she could train more girls to enable them be financially independent.
(Humira Tabassum and Sumiya Ramzan are interns at Kashmir Life)