When walking down the main market road in Kargil, a narrow winding lane branches off, with small shops on either side. Colourful scarves and dupattas flutter on display outside each shop here – and inside is a varied collection of salwar kameez sets, sweaters, accessories, footwear, kids' garments and other items.
This is Commander Market, so called, locals say, because the land the shops stand on is owned by a ‘commander’. The shopkeepers here are all Shia women.
Kargil is located close to the border in Ladakh, and flanked by the Himalayas. It was an important southern node in the Central Asian silk route trade until 1947, when borders were drawn between India and Pakistan. The town’s population of around 16,000 (Census 2011) mainly comprises Muslims, along with some Buddhists and a few Sikh families. They have, over the generations, seen three wars, the last of them in 1999.
The first shop run by a woman came up at Commander Market – it got that name later – nearly three decades ago. The shop owner faced severe opposition and vilification, the present shop owners says, which is why they don’t want her to be named. Over time though, inspired by her determination and success, 2-3 more women rented spaces at the same location. Now, there are around 30 shops at this market, all but three of them run by women.
From scarcely any women in public places in Kargil until even a decade ago, Commander Market is now an uncelebrated landmark. The younger shopkeepers here attribute the change to an increase in female literacy (from around 42 per cent in 2001 to 56 per cent in 2011). Plus, the older shopkeepers say, their economic independence drew more women to the market – some out of a compulsion to earn, some inspired by their predecessors. Kargil, they say, has now accepted this change.
When I visited Commander Market for this photo essay, a few women avoided the camera, some were concerned about their photographs being published, and some did not want their full names to be used. But most of them were happy and proud to share their stories.