On Aug. 4, 30-year-old Kashmiri crochet artist Umaira Khayoom was busy responding to customers on her Instagram page, World Craft Kashmir, as rumors swirled that the Indian government was planning to clamp down on communication lines in the troubled region. By the time she woke up the next day, telephone and internet networks had been shut down, and strict restrictions on movement had been put in place.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood and revoked a special status that allowed the region to frame and implement its own laws on most social issues. Modi’s administration claimed its move was aimed in part at helping Kashmiri women gain equality — the region’s earlier property laws, for instance, were discriminatory. But its internet crackdown is instead demolishing a rare economic opportunity that had emerged for thousands of Kashmiri women like Khayoom.
Women in the conflict-scarred conservative region have in recent years used the internet to launch small-scale businesses, mostly from the comfort of their homes. They’ve relied on social media to promote their products — usually Kashmiri crafts and textiles — and take orders from customers. Sheikh Ashiq, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, estimates there are at least 4,000 female-led internet-based businesses in the Kashmir valley.
I feel like I cannot dare to dream anymore.
Umaira Khayoom, Kashmiri crochet artist and Instagram entrepreneur
But the longest-ever internet blackout in a democracy — more than 165 days running now — has meant that these businesses haven’t been able to operate since Aug. 5. On Jan. 15, the government opened up broadband services at hospitals and other essential services, and 2G mobile data in some parts of Kashmir. But a complete ban on social media remains.
That digital blockade — justified by the government citing security concerns — is taking back not just their financial independence, but also the sense of dignity and honor their entrepreneurship offered, many of the businesswomen say. And the impact extends beyond them to the women they had employed who now can’t work. Ashiq estimates about 100,000 internet-based jobs have been lost since the clampdown.
“Internet to these young women was like air and water to you and me,” says Ashiq. “It is a lost opportunity. We are disempowering women — not empowering them.”
It was from the internet, in fact, that Khayoom says she learned to crochet while she was teaching at a private school. As those around her started praising her work, she created an Instagram page in 2015 with a friend, Binish Basheer. As she found strangers seeking out her work, she turned her hobby into a business. She and Basheer didn’t want to work for anyone else, she says. “We wanted something of our own. We wanted to be self-empowered.”
For sure, Kashmir is
no stranger to internet disruptions — it has witnessed at least 180 such
instances since 2012, including one in 2016 that lasted a few months. But even
that was shorter than the region’s current period without internet, and Khayoom’s
business was smaller at the time.
Gradually, more orders started coming in — mostly for her customized handmade crochet jewelry. By July 2019, she had hired 12 other women, as her business drew 45,000 followers on Instagram, with 70 percent of her customer base being other Kashmiris. She was delivering around a thousand orders a month and was earning more than $2,000 monthly — in a state where the annual per capita income is $1,300.
Meanwhile, two young male entrepreneurs, Sami Ullah and Abid Rashid, launched Kashmir’s first home-grown logistics company, FastBeetle, in 2018. Ullah says the idea for the company emerged from a desire to help internet businesses, especially those led by women struggling to procure raw materials and deliver products to customers. That helped entrepreneurs like Khayoom expand their market.
But because of the clampdown, Ullah also is now on the verge of shutting down his business. FastBeetle’s exit would serve as a blow to other aspiring entrepreneurs for whom the firm’s success made it a role model. It would also make it even harder for female businesses in a society where they face additional barriers and that lacks a robust private sector. Already, Khayoom missed out on the peak season for her business — July–October, the wedding season. “When we start again, if we do, then it will be from scratch — again,” she says.
It’s the same for 20-year-old portrait artist Sana Mir, who hasn’t seen her Instagram flashing notifications for more than five months. She was 18 when she was first flooded with requests for portraits from people who had seen her work on her Instagram account, SketchySana. She started charging Rs. 1,000 ($15) for an A4-size drawing. “The best part of the process was seeing their reactions,” she says.
Khayoom laughs when reminded of the Modi government’s claims of empowering women. “I created jobs and hired women — that’s empowerment,” she says. “Instagram was the only source of income for our team.” She says people have suggested to her that she move outside Kashmir and continue her work. But she isn’t willing to do that. “Why should I move outside Kashmir? It is my place, and I’m not going anywhere,” she says.
She also questions how the internet clampdown squares with the rationale for ending Kashmir’s special status — that all parts of India should have the same set of laws and rights. “How come [the] internet is different for us and Indians?” she asks. “I feel like I cannot dare to dream anymore.”
Earlier this month,
India’s Supreme Court called the continued restrictions on the internet in
Kashmir an “abuse of power.” But it hasn’t ordered the government to end that
For young women
like Mir, life without the internet has also meant the disruption of a key
source of learning. Unlike earlier — when her 10K followers on Instagram could
approach and admire her — the only work she gets now is from close friends.
“I was growing on the internet and learned new things — saw other artists,” she says. “They snatched our basic rights and powers. … How does that empower me?”