Early in the morning, after a simple breakfast of Kahwa (Kashmiri tea) and bread, scores of Kashmiri fisherwomen, or 'Gaad'e Waajni', make their way to the Amirakadal Bridge, the unofficial fish market of Srinagar. A common thought plays on their minds: to quickly sell off the day's catch.
From their makeshift kiosks, these feisty women freely interact with the locals, trying to sell their entire catch in a single sale and spare themselves the agony of having to go door-to-door after the morning market. However, rarely do they end up doing the rounds of the neighborhoods. With what could only be termed as a dazzling display of marketing skills, most of the women succeed to sell their catch in the market.
These Muslim fisherwomen present a rare example of emancipation within their community. In a complete economic role reversal, they are responsible for bringing the money home. While their menfolk stay at home, they go out into the markets and interact with people.
Over time, they have built quite a reputation for themselves in the market. Jigari, 70, a mother of two sons, has been a fish monger for as long as she can remember. She says she began accompanying her mother to the market as a child. "I have customers who blindly trust the quality of my fish. I never cheat my customers," assures Jigari.
However, it takes a lot more than just spirit and clever marketing skills to lead the lives these women do. In the last 21 years, Hamida's routine has not changed. Every day at twilight, she packs the family's fishing boat with food supplies and bedrolls. After feeding her three children and putting them to bed, Hamida, 40, rows the boat from their temporary shelter on the lakeside to a suitable spot where her husband, Mohamed Jabber, spreads out the fishing nets. After that, the couple has a quick bite and squeezes in with the children for the night.
At the crack of dawn, Hamida is up and ready to inspect the overnight catch with her husband. Jabber removes the nets and puts the catch in large tubs. Hamida takes the oars and steers the family home.
While this signals the end of the day's work for Jabbar, for Hamida it is just the beginning. After completing her chores, she rushes off to the city market to sell the catch. On a lucky day, the sale is over in a couple of hours. Otherwise, it is the door-to-door grind with heavy tubs in tow.
Yet, and at the end of a grueling day, all that Hamida has to show for her labor are a few hundred rupees. "It's certainly not a life for everyone. Long hours, hard work and less money are enough to keep most people away. I learnt the trade from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Initially, it was difficult for me to adjust to the idea of dealing with outsiders (in the market) but now it's okay," says Hamida, who was married into a fishing family and hence had to learn the trade from scratch.
Hamida is adamant that her daughter, Salima, 10, does not take up this life. She has made sure to enroll her in a vocational school that teaches shawl weaving to young girls of the community.
Many social and economic limitations have prompted Hamida and other women of the community to discourage their children from learning the traditional livelihood.
For one, the money is not worth all the trouble. There are 2,000 families that depend on fishing at the Dal Lake for their livelihood. A majority lives in dismal conditions in colonies like Mir Mohalla, Kani Kaet and Dhobi along the wasteland in the interiors of lake.
Take the case of Magal. Along with husband Abdul Majida, their son and his family of five - Magal, 55, has lived half her life on four small boats that are only 20 feet long and three-and-a-half-feet wide. While her husband and son take two boats out to fish, her daughter-in-law, Sider, the grandchildren and she stay on the other two, close to the shore. Magal's entire day is spent in selling fish. Yet, she still cannot afford to send her grandchildren to school.
Most fisherwomen can only scrape together a daily income of around Rs 100 to Rs 200 (US$1=Rs 40). After paying for the annual fishing license of Rs 500, there's not much money to spare.
Contributing to the poor income is the fact that the daily catch has been steadily declining as a result of the high pollution levels in the waters of the Dal Lake, and the nearby Nigan and Wullar lakes. Sara, who sells fish door-to-door, elaborates, "Pollution has taken a toll on our daily catch. Earlier, a day's catch used to be around 10 kilograms. Now it is reduced to half - that too on a lucky day."
The absence of an official fish market in Kashmir is another obstacle. "We need a specific place to sell fish in the city. The police and Srinagar Municipal Corporation occasionally chase us away from Amirakadal Bridge. They rebuke us, throw our fish on the road and ask us to leave," complains Jigari.
Adds Sara, "As we are not allowed to sit anywhere, I have to constantly be on my feet to sell the fish. If there are designated fish markets in Jammu and Delhi, why can't there be one here?" she asks.
If despotic authorities, poor living conditions and a meager income were not enough to plague these women, there is also the social stigma. "Even earlier we were looked down upon socially and the practice continues. People don't marry into our community. At a gathering people keep away from us," sighs Jigari.
At least 50 per cent of the youngsters do not want to carry on the family profession. As Jigari observes, "The younger generation is looking for other means of livelihood. They don't want people to look down upon them."
Tariq Bhat, a journalist in Kashmir, has, over the years, observed the unfortunate lives of the fisherwomen. And he is greatly surprised that till now no government body or even Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) have made a move to help them. "Despite the many NGOs and other social groups working with women in Kashmir, sadly, none have bothered to help these women to form self-help groups or educate them about issues of basic health, hygiene and education," he says.
Yet, despite the hardships and social ostracism, the women know that they play the most pivotal and irreplaceable role in their community. If it were not for them there would be no money for survival. The men folk just cannot be persuaded to market the catch - they take the cover of tradition to not do the job. Admits Jabbar, Hamida's husband, "When Hamida falls sick, I have to sell the catch to other women for less."
So, be it summer or winter, these women report to work every day with dedication. Salima, in her mid-30s, says, "Except for Eid or maybe when there's a death or wedding in the family, we seldom take the day off."