For Jigri, Nothing Seems Changed in Last 60 Yrs

Srinagar—Be it the burning sun or biting cold, Jigri Begum spends every day on Amira Kadal bridge to sell fish and earn bread for her large family. This has been her routine from last sixty years.

“I was 11-years-old and newly married when my mother-in-law brought me to this bridge and gave me a bucket full of fish to sell. Since then I am here,” said now 70-year-old Jigri. “nothing changed in the last six decades except for governments and regimes. Miseries of fisherwomen only multiplied. Forget about a decent market, we didn’t even get a toilet.”

Jigri is one of the dozens of fisherwomen who make their living by selling fish on Amira Kadal bridge. Although unauthorized, this fish market is the biggest in the Srinagar city. Most of the fisherwomen in the market come from interiors colonies of Dal lake where a fisher community of around 2000 households live in dismal conditions.

Fisherwomen are believed to be the oldest women entrepreneurs of Kashmir. Within the fisher community, there is a complete role reversal for the male and female members of the families. Men go out in the night to catch fish for their women to sell them in the markets next day. It is the women who deal with market and customers and bring money home.

 “If we do not sell, our families will go hungry. Our men have no idea of market. My husband is too old to catch fish now, so he sits at home and I run the family. He can’t help me because he has no idea of the market,” added Jigri.

Due to shrinking and high level of pollution in the water bodies, most of the men belonging to fisher community either do part time menial jobs or stay home. It is the women of the households who continue to carry out their ancestral profession by buying fish from wholesalers. Given the way they break gender stereotypes in the male dominated society, the community of fisherwomen has a lot of cultural, historic and social significance.

“I don’t mind being the man of my house. I can continue to work like this for the rest of my life if only government makes basic facilities available. One market with a toilet isn’t too big a thing to ask for,” Jigri said. “From the last 60 years I have been taking only two meals a day, morning and night, to avoid sitting by the roadside drain or river bank. Authorities think we are fisherwomen and can go and pee anywhere. But we too have respect and shame. I choose starving over relieving myself by the roadside.”

Historically Kashmir has never had an official fish market. Amira Kadal Bridge, that has always been the main market for fisherwomen and their customers is still an illegal encroachment for the authorities. Almost every day municipality officials or policemen rebuke fisherwomen, fling their containers of fish on road or in water, take their belongings, beat and chase them away to clear the bridge.

The community has always been demanding a decent fisher market where they can have access to water and washrooms and more importantly where there is no constant threat of rebuke looming over their heads.

“Our miseries are used and sold during election campaigns. They make fake promises of rehabilitation and restoration of this profession to its old glory. Once new governments form, the first thing they do is to tighten the noose around our necks,” said Jaana Begum, a 65-year-old fisherwoman.

“Isn’t it shameful for anyone that I am an old woman who has spent most of her life on this bridge and raised her family singlehandedly and still my heart is always in my mouth that municipality people will come and throw my things in the river?” asks Jana.

Last winter, Jaana went to use the washroom of Dastgeer Sahab shrine in the vicinity. It had snowed the previous day and Jaana’s bare feet were numb because of cold and frost. She slipped and fractured her hip in the middle of the road, “it was catastrophic for my family. They eat only when I earn. It took me months to recover. My whole family suffered because of the absence of one single toilet,” said Jaana amid tears.

Jaana has been selling fish on the bridge from last 30 years. She raises her three sons and gives them education so that they could find something other than her profession.  She doesn’t talk about the daily humiliation at home, “last week, policemen took my fish away in their vehicle. I ran after it and fainted in the middle of the road. It is when they thought I was dead, they stopped their vehicle and returned my stuff. These people who don’t even let me sit here, will they make a washroom for me?” she asks mockingly.

Jaana warns that the age old profession will die its own death if a registered market with basic facilities like washrooms and water is not made available to fisherwomen, “I will never encourage my future daughter-in-law to come into this profession and sit here with me on the bridge. I am an old woman so I manage but what will a young woman do? She will need washroom for other things also,” adds Jaana referring to monthly cycles.

Right next to Jaana sits 72-year-old Zooni begum. Visibly distressed over the on setting winter and rainfall in the forecast, Zooni talks half-heartedly, “you are asking this old woman where she pees? May god have mercy on us. I pee by the banks of river, my daughter,” said Zooni.

Zooni has a paralytic husband and two unmarried daughters at home. The two older ones have already been married and carry out the same business like their mother. Zooni says she is always worried about them that how would they be managing in absence of washrooms, “almost every day random girls and women come to me looking for a toilet in this busy market, I take them on the river bank and stand guard till they are done. Sometimes pregnant ladies who come to the nearby maternity hospital for checkup ask for toilets and I do the same with them. This society is cruel and insensitive towards its women.”

There were around 11,500 registered fishermen in Jammu and Kashmir state till 2012. A handful of schemes that exist for them are either only on papers or are too far from the reach for this illiterate and downtrodden class.

Few years ago, the community was offered shops in the nearby Batamaloo market which they declined given the nature of their profession that could be carried out only in the vicinity of water, “the fish will go stale and stink in the absence of water. Nobody will buy from us if we sell them in a shop. All we are asking for is a market with water and toilet so that we continue to earn few hundred rupees a day and live with dignity,” said Shakeela bano, another fisherwoman.

So far, successive governments and regimes seem to have failed in recognizing this community of women who not only stand witness to history, but form an important part of it. However, despite all the hardships, fisherwoman continue to retain their individuality, character and significance.

Back to her business, Jigri sees off one of her regular customers with her toothless smile. A fresh 500-rupee note goes carefully in her pocket.

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