• Sherfun Nisa
  • Publish Date: Dec 8 2017 8:38PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 8 2017 8:38PM

On the trail of a group of empowered women entrepreneurs in Kulgam


Neelofar Akhtar took to knitting sweaters out of boredom. Now, it is her occupation.

“Soon after I got married, we left my in-laws house and went to live separately. I used to sit idle the whole day wandering what to do next. Ultimately, I decided on knitting woollen sweaters for my relatives and friends,” Neelofar says. As her designs and patterns caught the eye, she started getting paid orders – and her business was born. That was six years ago.

The 38-year-old from main town of Kulgam, though, soon realised it was not a profitable business. Knitting by hand is hard, time-consuming work. “It took me over a month to knit one sweater,” she says, “and I got paid Rs 500 for it.”

So, she convinced her husband to buy her a knitting machine, which cost about Rs 28,000. The machine enabled Neelofar to knit five-six sweaters per day, and her business began booming. From her first year’s of profits, she rented a shop in Kulgam’s main market, hired a bunch of apprentices, and starting taking orders from retailers and wholesalers.

“I also started taking in women who wanted to learn knitting so they could earn a living on their own,” Neelofar says, proudly. “I have trained dozens of women, young and old, and many of them have started their own small business units.”

Today, Neelofar deals not only in sweaters but also ponchos, baby dresses, hand gloves, caps, coats, socks and mufflers. “Our baby dresses are in high demand,” she says.

Neelofar and many other women entrepreneurs now receive orders from beyond Kulgam. “People buy our garments in large numbers because they are warm, soft and, most importantly, beautifully knitted,” Neelofar lets in on her trade secret. “We make only the best products.”

Among Neelofar’s former apprentices is Shobby Jan, who specialises in needle net work. The 28-year-old from Chasbal in Kulgam took to knitting about two years ago to learn a livelihood skill and help with her family’s expenses. She now herself trains a bunch of girls in her neighbourhood.

Bilkeesa Akhter from Chawalgam started her own business after just two months training with Neelofar. She had to hurry it through to support her family after her father died in 2015. Bilkeesa Akhter, who is in her late 20s, is the oldest among six siblings. She calls her knitting machine her greatest pillar of support.

“After my father lost his eyesight, he gave me money to buy this knitting machine so I could start working and earning,” Bilkeesa says. “Then, my father died and I became the guardian of my family.”

Most knitting units shut down during the summer but Bilkeesa says she works throughout the year. “It is so I keep my stuff ready for the coming winter.”

Like her mentor, Bilkeesa has been imparting skills, and her empowered worldview, to other girls in her area. Tasneefa Yaqoob, who is studying for a BEd, is one of them. The 26-year-old from Chawalgam area in Kulgam has been apprenticing with Bilkeesa for six months, believes that women should be equipped to earn their own livelihood. She herself would rather do income-earning work on her own than “go wandering for government jobs”.

That is smart thinking, says Bilkeesa, especially in a place such as Kashmir. “If you are working of your home, there is no insecurity,” she explains. “The recent turmoil in Kashmir, for instance, did not hurt our business much. We completed the bulk of our orders.”