Change-makers of Kashmir’s Café Culture

This is a story of two girls creating their own spaces in Kashmir’s growing food chain.

By Sheikh Mehvish

AT noon when footfall grows inside a popular eatery in Srinagar, a young manager marshals her troops and ensures strict order in the house.

As a tough taskmaster, the female supervisor puts food on every table without letting her costumer whine about the late delivery.

But despite this customer-friendly conduct, the woman administrator’s presence itself turns eyeballs around.

While boys working in restaurants is a usual thing in Kashmir, the presence of girl staffers is still a surprising sight for many.

But Saika, 23, is challenging as well as changing this notion with her resolve.

She’s among the new-age change-makers working at restaurants as part-timers amid the growing café culture in Kashmir.

Cognizant of her community’s cultural sensitivities, Saika tries to deal with public perceptions with her amicable professional conduct at Pizza Hut in Citywalk Shopping Mall, Srinagar.

“I always wanted to do something on my own and got the idea of doing a part-time job,” Saika says. “That’s how I ended up at Pizza Hut as a shift leader a year ago.”

Her decision was supported by her parents and friends, boosting her to create a niche in the male-dominated line of work.

“I’m happy that I chose to work here,” says Saika. “My colleagues, especially males, always try to make me feel comfortable and I never felt like I’m working in a male-oriented space.”

Amid the café boom in Kashmir’s recent past, Parsa’s Food founded by Javed Parsa was the first restaurant that came up with the idea of recruiting girls back in 2018.

Basically, Javid says, it was a small effort to create work opportunities for young women sitting idle and having no support system.

“Since most of these women don’t come out for work,” he says, “so I thought to play my small role. But then it wasn’t easy.”

There were people, Javid says, who would come to his restaurant and tell her female worker that it’s not the right place for her to work.

“But I do believe that things will fall in place sooner or later,” he hopes. “Acceptance comes in the society as long as your initiative or idea is not damaging anyone.”

To be harbingers of that change, Javid says, more people need to create spaces for women in their ventures, “so that unmarried and underprivileged girls should also get opportunities to support their families”.

Working at Parsa’s Sara City Centre since August 2021, Iqra Nazir, 22, wants to follow her employer’s shoes.

“The moment I learned about girls working at Parsa’s, I didn’t think twice and applied,” Iqra says.

“At the end of the day, he has been my inspiration. And I remember how he shared his struggling days with me, where people would laugh at him for ‘selling biryani’ in the name of opening a chain of restaurants.”

Javid even suggested Iqra to shrug off naysayers.

“And he had a point,” she says.

“Had he himself listened to them, he wouldn’t have been here today. So, yes, these small encouraging talks boosted my morale for doing this with more resolve.”

Iqra is quite assertive about how her workplace is filled with comfort in contrast to the generally hyped apprehensions society tries to install in young girls like her.

“Out of 10 people I meet in restaurant, only one person might question my profession,” she says.

“But largely, one can see people and their point of view changing which is a good thing for us as a society. Having said that, I was always assured that I hadn’t done anything wrong by choosing this field. People treat me with respect wherever I go and that motivates me to work hard every day.”

Today, as Saika’s and Iqra’s tribe is growing, the duo believes that women should aspire for new goals and fields in life with the support of their families and friends.

“We should never let people dictate our choices,” Saika says.

“What matters is your happiness you derive from doing right thing with resilience and resolve.”

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