Mechanization of handicrafts apart, hundreds of youngsters, mostly girls, in Kashmir’s periphery are using the art as a decisive tool to help their families come out of social stress and poverty, reports Saima Bashir

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For sections of the people in sprawling Beerwah belt, apparently hovering around the line dividing people on basis of income, the hunt for two-ends-meal is over. Now education of their kids and improvement in standards of their living is a clear priority.

The goal of good living has gradually emerged into a strong family movement in the class of artisans in which even the children are playing a key role. These children not only support their families to earn bread and butter but also help themselves to get educated. Their support has shifted the fulcrum of the struggle in various families.  Sozni (needle embroidery) has come handy to hundreds of girls here.

It would have been difficult for Mohammad Sultan Ganai, a sozni artisan, 65, of Rathsun to afford two eye surgeries had it not been for his daughter Hafiza.

The lone bread earner for his family, Ganai had diminished eyesight because of his needle work for decades while raising a six-member family. But with two eye surgeries in quick succession, he was unable to continue sozni work for long hours. Already battling poverty, the family was on the brinks of collapse as no option for survival was around.

“We are landless and it was difficult for us to arrange the meals of the day. This forced our children to stop going school,” Jana Begum, 57,

Sultan’s wife, said.

“But Hafiza didn’t let us down. She started sozni at the age of 14. She earned for our living and also funded her own education and her siblings.” Feeling blessed, her parents credit her for supporting four her sisters and brother. They have already got her elder sister married.

Well at 26, Hafiza is already a graduate. She has never taken a single penny as school fee from her parents as she earned to fund her education.

Finding it difficult to manage her education and her parents’ family with meagre income, Hafiza taught sozni to her younger siblings. Once she graduated, she became a full-time sozni artisan. “I want my siblings to complete their studies at least,” Hafiza said. “I allow them to work during winter vacations only because it helps them earn their tuition fees.”

Hafiza’s struggle has converted Nadiya, 18, her younger sister now in twelefth standard, into a right-thinking person who understands the significance of effort in changing their socio-economic profile. Her work helped her value the money. “We cannot afford spending on things other than necessities,” Nadiya said, insisting on every single word.

“I am proud they did it own their own,” Ganai said. “She ( Hafiza) even repaid the loan I had taken from sozni agent for my eldest daughter’s marriage. Their hard work saved me from begging.”

But Hafiza is not alone. Iqra nabi (17) is daughter of Ghulam Nabi Dar (42) and Firdousa ( 40).  Eldest in the family, she has one brother and a sister.

Dar’s sozni work fetches him meagre income, insufficient to help him bear family’s expenses. Three years back, Iqra, then 14, realised the importance of savings when her mother needed money for the treatment of Hepatitis B. “She was in coma for 35 days and my father spent every single penny he had saved on her treatment,” Iqra said.

“That helplessness disturbed me and that day I decided to quit school and take care of my family and education of my siblings.”

Iqra remembers how she worked on shawls as her friends and classmates played outside. But there were no options, she admits.

The family has taken a loan of Rs 3 lakh from a shawl agent for Firdousa’ s treatment who had undergone four surgeries in just three years. The family has repaid Rs 1,93,000 on sozni work and still they had to pay balance Rs 1,07,000.

Iqra talked to the agent agreeing that every month she will work on a shawl worth Rs 5000 to 6000 of which she will retain a part for family as restwill go as installment of loan. “My daughter has saved our respect,” Ghulam Nabi said. “It is because of her we never went to anybody to ask for help.”

Iqra is in tenth standard. Last year she could not get through in the examinations because of her household chorus as her mother remained indisposed. Besides, she was too much into sozni. She is planning to apprear in the examinations now.

Farooq Ahmad Parra, 56, has four daughters and a son. Unable to support his family, his daughters Jabeena, Masooda, Shakeela, and Ishrat joined him and it changed the situation. They saved money for their marriage besides funding their studies.

“I hardly earn Rs 150 a day which can not sustain life of a seven member family,” Farooq said.

Jabeena, 25, the eldest of the four, started sozni work when she was a minor, precisely when in third primary. She did her matriculation unlike Jabeena who had to drop out and earn to fund her father’s medicines.

 It was Jabeena  who helped her three sisters to learn the art of sozni. Now all the four have chipped in to educate their only brother.

The girls said their desperation to wear good clothes like their peers and the visible inability of their parents to fulfill their wihes was the main inspiration for them to work.

Masooda, now in twelfth standard wanted to do some professional course in computers. “My father can’t afford that for me,” she said. “So to lessen his burden I have started sozni work. I have saved Rs 6000 in one year.”

Habibullah Parra, 54, has two daughters Humaira and Ishrat, both students of tenth class and two sons Amir and Irfan currently studying in seventh and third primary, respectively. With their mother, they  live in an old house with three rooms. Its floor is rough and unfinished to the extent that it hurts while sleeping. The family could not renovate it after it was seriously damaged in a fire few years back.

Habibulah’s daughters want to have a new house to live in or at least get their old house repaired. This inspiration led the two daughters group with her mother. With needles in their fingers, they are earning for their dream house. They have been sozni artisans since they were in sixth class.

But, sozni fetches them not much. They say agents under-pay them.  They are paid Rs 2000 only for the work which is actually worth Rs 8000  or above, they allege.

But this allegation was not leveled by these two girls. Entire village blame the agents who under-pay the artisans on one hand and selling machine made products to tourists on the other hand. They want some official intervention to prevent such “unscrupulous” agents.

“Had the agents paid us well, we would live better,” Imtiyaz Ahmad, a student, said. “But they paid what they wish,there is no check in place.”

Imtiyaz, 25, is a post graduate. He has been a sozni artisan when he was in fifth primary. He had to learn this skill when his father Ghulam Qadir Ganai, 68, was suffering from various ailments.

“We are nine siblings and I am the eldest of them all and we had to help father and run the household too,” Imtiaz said. “We earned enough for good education and a respectful living.” But Imtiaz said despite being a post-graduate,he is running a vegetable shop. “This is because the agents continue exploiting us,” he said. “Why can not government has a policy, a standard for minimum wages in this sector.”


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