Female Hikers

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Boys have all the fun everywhere, especially in conservative societies. A group is trying to help girls to go on mountain camping and expeditions and there are takers for the initiative, reports Zafar Aafaq

A group of girls on a trip to Harmukh. Image: Shefali Gautam

A group of girls on a trip to Harmukh. Image: Shefali Gautam

Lubna Khan, 23, loves travelling. This summer she completed her post-graduation from Dehradun, where she would often go on an outing with her friends. Now it’s been a month and she is restricted to her Baramulla home except for occasional visits to her relatives. Her male Kashmiri classmates have gone for a couple of picnics by now and are planning a night out. She has never been on a night excursion in all her life.

“I have a wish if I could go camping with my friends to hills,” Khan said, “but I know I can’t”. Her voice is laden with lament. “Sometimes I wish I were a boy.”

While boys enjoy the freedom to go for night-outs for girls like Khan have never got the chance to follow their passions.

This is a huge market and many people are trying to tap this. One of them is

Omar Bazaz, 34, an ace adventurer. When he would share photos from expeditions to lush green meadows and mountains on his Instagram and Facebook, he would get incessant queries from boys and girls alike desiring to go on such trips. Seeing the passion of youth to explore nature beyond Gulmarg and Pahalgam, Bazaz thought to guide them.

“Backpacking culture is a trend, why should Kashmir lag behind when it has all the ingredients to be a hot spot for expeditions.” Bazaz believes.

On the internet, he got in touch with people who share his interests and discussed the idea of guiding the aspiring adventurers. Eventually, in 2018 winter, came up Kashmir Compass, a travel guide agency that provides services to backpackers to explore offbeat Kashmir. The Bazaz initiative, Kashmir Compass started with four other stakeholders – Mohammad Arif, NihalRehman, FasahatAllaq band and ZaidQureshi.

“It is a non-profit initiative,” said Bazaz who runs a café in the centre of LalChowk. “We do it for passion and want to contribute to our society in some way. For living, we have alternatives.” Right now, only Bazaz, Junaid and Nihal run it.

Initially, the agency clientele were mostly from outside Kashmir including foreigners. “From Kashmir, we served only males but we would get requests from girls wanting us to guide them to mountains,” Bazaz said.

As the queries from girls swelled, Bazaz’s team decided to give it a shot. They put out an announcement asking females to sign up for trekking tour Harmukh, a mountain meadow in Gandarbal district. “It generated quite a good response,” Bazaz said. “Girls too have an urge to connect with nature; we just want to show them a way to fulfil that urge.” Their first “all-female” group comprising of five locals and five non-locals went hiking to the meadow in mid-June.

The trip to Harmukh starts from Srinagar. The group travels to Naranag and then trek to Thrangkul, a meadow of seven springs where they spend a couple of days in outdoor activities.

Now Kashmir Compass has put out an announcement on his Instagram page inviting females to sign up for the second camp.“That group will explore the mountains around Gangbal Lake,” Bazaz said.

The agency is assisted by Captivating Kashmir, an Instagram page whose followers run in tens of thousands, to reach to a larger audience. “For advertisements, Instagram is our preferred platform due to its popularity and ability to create visual appeal,” said Nihal, its promoter.

Arranging trekking expeditions and camping trips for girls is altogether a different challenge and Bazaz understands it well. “Every girl in Kashmir has a passion to explore but it is not easy to translate that passion into practice,” Bazaz said. “There are hurdles in place. Our social setup is traditional, we live in a conflict zone, and there are security issues.”

Acknowledging the nature of the situation, Bazaz believes that like other societies, Kashmir is also evolving. “Internet and mobile phone have influenced us in many ways,” he said. “The cultural influences have cultivated new tastes and society has become open to new ideas.” When he sees inspiring instances of women managing shops in male-dominated LalChowk successfully, he believes changes are taking place. “If they can run shops in LalChowk, I believe they can climb mountains as well as.”

So, any girl wishing to be part of the expedition has to get parental consent in black and white. “God forbid, if there is any untoward incident, it can be disastrous for us so we have to take extra care here,” Bazaz said. “We make sure a girl reaches home in the same state she left.”

Farha Khan, 29, was one of the Kashmiri girls in the first group. An MBA from Delhi, Farha runs a clothing store in Lalchowk.  It was the first time that she went out for night camp. She had done many day treks as a preparatory exercise before taking on this expedition. “It was a great experience to be in the lap of nature and away from the worldly hustle and bustle,” Farha said.

To reach these mountains, Farha had to make a lot of efforts to convince her parents to let her spend time away from home beyond the evening. It took a lot of discussions, question-answers and the debate on social set-up.

“I am fortunate to be blessed with parents who have supported me in all my endeavours but even they care about this ‘loagkiakahenge’ syndrome,” admitted Farha.  Having spent a significant part of her life in Delhi and working in a multinational, she returned home to replace her ageing father in managing the family business. She thinks that spending time outside gave her exposure. “I became open to ideas like going to the gym and indulging in outdoor activities otherwise seen forte of males in Kashmir.”

Despite having exposure and willing to move a mile from the set social systems, she is unwilling to spend a night out in the mountains. “I have to live in this society and I respect its sensibilities,” Farha said. “I believe in delving slowly rather than jumping. As a grown-up woman of marriageable age, I have to take care of the worries of my parents. I don’t want to be seen as a rebel.”

Shefali Gautam, a passionate traveller from Delhi was also part of the camp.  She said she was surprised to see Kashmiri girls coming out. “But then, during my journey, I realized that they’re just like me who want to run, fly but don’t want to stop,” Gautam said. People everywhere are the same.

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