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Breaking stereotypes on untrodden paths

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Women are making their presence felt in fields which were once out of bounds for them. Be it sports, media or fashion, women are rising everywhere. Kashmir too is witnessing such cases where women chose and excelled in fields generally dominated by the males.

HirraAzmat follows three such women who took on the road less travelled and carved their journey while bravely facing the odds.


Cases in point: Unjuman Farooq, Thang-ta player; MehakZubair, Radio Jockey, and Sajida Nain–Fashion Designer.

Unjuman Farooq – Thang-ta player

The line between eve teasing and flirting can be a thin one at times. Many boys who crossed the path of Unjuman Farooq learnt it the hard way after receiving a thrashing from her. Surprised and insulted, they called her a ‘Tomboy’ and jeered at her often but Unjuman, a young sports instructor from Srinagar, was hardly perturbed, and continued to focus on her training in martial arts.

Breaking stereotypes and being an inspiration to many, the 27-year-old Gold Thang-ta champion spoke to The Kashmir Monitor about her phenomenal journey from a conservative society to international sports platforms as a renowned expert of Thang-ta.

Unjuman was born and brought up in the uptown area of Barzulla in Srinagar. She has been associated with Thang-ta for the last 15 years. She is a sole bread earner in a family of two siblings and mother.

Unjuman first came to know about Thang-ta when she was in 6th standard. She stumbled upon a match and instantly fell in love with the sport.
“My father was a football buff and he introduced me to the world of sports. He once introduced me to the game and there was no looking back after it,” she recounts.
Unjuman, however, had to constantly face the annoyance of her community and neighbourhood, who couldn’t come to terms with her wanting something bigger and better for herself. The society shunned her, and her family; dissuading them for allowing Unjuman to train and to follow her dreams. Through all of this, she had the support of the family.

“My father was my back bone and had always supported me to play this game. In our society, women are not supposed to play this game and it took a lot of efforts to convince my mother and others in my family about it,” says Unjuman, who has done her bachelors and masters in Physical Education.

After her father, Unjuman next inspiration has been her coach Ejaz Bhat, Joint Secretary of World Thang-Ta Federation, whom she met in 2002.

“He has been a constant source of inspiration and helped me shape my identity,” says the gold-medalist.

Unjuman braved the ups and downs of life while sticking to her passion for Thang-ta. The protracted illness of her father, the financial instability and finally the emotional vacuum left by his demise, was a hard blow. But as always, she transformed adversity into a challenge to excel.

“I lost my father few years back and being the eldest sibling, the responsibility of running the family came upon me. This was another challenge but I didn’t lose heart and pursued my dreams,” says the martial arts player.

Talking about her practice sessions, Unjuman says: “Winning the gold came after sweating it out for hours in daily practice, sometimes alone in my room behind closed doors or with my friends (at the only indoor sports stadium in Kashmir), was of course a dream come true.”

Combat sports is a trend significantly picking up among young Kashmiri women, who are taking keen interest in learning Taekwondo, Kung Fu, Judo and Thang-Ta.
Thang-Ta, the art of the sword and spear, is the traditional martial art of Manipur in Northeast India. It integrates various external weapons–the sword, spear, dagger, etc.–with the internal practice of physical control through soft movements coordinated with the rhythms of breathing. It is part of the great heroic tradition of Manipur.

The proper name for Thang-ta is HuyenLallong (“method of safe-guarding”). As the name implies, HuyenLallong is more than just the training of fighting skills. It is an elaborate system of physical culture that involves breathing methods, meditations, and rituals.

Out of 15 National Level matches played so far, Unjuman has won 14 gold medals and 2 silvers. She has also played in three Federation Cups at the National Level, where a player is selected to go to the international level.

She participated in her first world cup experience in 2011 and was the first senior girl to win the gold then. She has played an International level, taking three bouts with the United Kingdom, Malaysia and England.

“Most of the times, I was pushed to the wall because of my gender but I never gave up. It’s was my undying passion which eventually became my profession as well,” says the young Thang ta player.

Currently, the player works as a Physical Education instructor at Delhi Public School, Srinagar, where she has been instrumental in training students who have won accolades for the country.

Her students routinely secure medals at state, national and international level. At the recently held Thang ta Championship held at Imphal by HuyalLonglon Thang ta Federation of India, her protégé Hanan won the first gold for the country in a keenly contested competition where athletes from more than 10 countries fought for glory.

“Since 2015, I have been working in DPS. The school staff always supported me especially I am always very thankful to Mr. Vijay Dhar the chairman of DPS Srinagar, he always supported me to fulfil my goals,” says the sports player.

Unjuman, however, rues that the lack of facilities and less job opportunities for the sports persons in the valley. She believes the chronic “lack of resources” has undermined her performance, and that of most other Kashmiri athletes.

“I think to be sustainable we have to have a proper system for athlete selection and training from a young age,” she says.

She lamented, “Government’s plan to identify and groom young talent remains on paper, with most of the projects yet to see the light of the day.”

Unjuman suggests that the government should put in place a mechanism to utilize the experience of veteran players and athletes.

Any parting advice for the young Thang ta players? “Learn the sport well as this will help become an all-rounder in every field,” says Unjuman.

Mehak Zubair – Radio Jockey

The morning is just starting to rouse itself from the freezing night. Tbe radio flickers to life reluctantly as the frequency settles at 98.3 FM – Radio Mirchi. A warm voice greets the listeners with an enthusiastic greeting and promises an entertaining show. It is RJ Mehak aka MehakMirchi – the radio jockey who conducts the morning show on Radio Mirchi – the latest FM station on the block.

Radio Mirchi 98.3 FM, which was launched last year is primarily talk radio, offers listeners an eclectic mix of programming with shows for the all sections of the society.

Mehak, better known by MirchiMehak believes that her job is to talk to people and play music that makes them happy. She started her career as a citizen journalist with a news channel CNN IBN and was the odd one out in the soft-spoken culture of the radio, thanks to her bindass voice and style. Today, she hosts a daily show that focuses on the achievements of people in extraordinary situations.

In the last one year at Radio Mirchi, she has carved a name for herself, hosting the morning show from 8 am to noon six days a week.

Her show, KhushKhabar, is about Kashmir and its people. She says, “It’s the best job in the world, but also challenging. You are on air almost every day — even if the weather is unfavorable or it’s a strike. The lines between your personal and professional lives start blurring,” she says, adding, “Since I do a programme on khushkhabar, it’s difficult to find a good news regularly especially in a conflict zone.”

Her trick to comfort her listeners is a mix of “sensible talk, conversational and colloquial language, the right tone and soothing music.”

The young radio jockey believes that the “hyperlocal connection” is what makes radio special.

“I love talking and talking about what matters and for that radio is an excellent medium. It’s very hyperlocal and is existent everywhere. It helps us raise issues and get feedback from the listeners,” she says.

With the mushrooming of private radio stations in the valley, and females taking up radio jockeying as a profession the host says competition does not bother her.

“Each to his own. Competition has not deterred me from doing my best and connecting well with people, she concludes.

Sajida Nain – Fashion Designer

Kashmir’s fashion scene is fast evolving into an enticing market for designers as well as shopaholics who wish to get their hands on the latest trends in clothes and accessories. With the emerging designer boutiques, the standalone brand stores like Osman & Sajida has pushed the fashion industry of the region to a higher level.

Sajida Nain Watali along with her husband Osman Watali, offer a healthy mix of handsome classics, electric treasures, good quality staples and a few surprises.

“We endeavour to make our store hub of all things beautiful and exciting offering unique blend of themes and ideas,” says the fashion designer, Sajida.

Bringing the Kashmiri heritage into design, the young designer started her label in 2015 in Jammu with their flagship store, while both husband- wife were in college studying law. After showcasing her work in several exhibitions, she came up with the idea of establishing a store in Srinagar.

“ Right from our young age I was quite experimental with my clothes and soon realised that designing clothes is something that I would love to take up as a career,” recalls Sajida.

The young designer, however, was initially skeptical of expanding business in the conflict-ridden valley, for the frequent strikes and curfews posed a big challenge.
“As we are all aware of the unpredictable situation in Kashmir, it took me some time to be fully sure of having a permanent set up in the valley. This was the only challenge I faced as a designer label,” recounts the Fashionista.

The fashion aficionado believes that Valleyites are very fashion conscious and willing to try new things, quite “experimental” as they like to call it.

“My aim is to promote the amalgamation of traditional Kashmiri and contemporary fashion and bring it to our customers,” explains Sajida.

While the brand has carved a niche for themselves in the market, the young designer believes that the budding designers of the valley are well aware of the changing paradigms in the fashion industry.

“It gives us immense joy to see so many people giving wings to their talents especially in the valley. We believe that every designer has his/her own uniqueness,” asserts Sajida.

She adds, “We as a OSMAN & SAJIDA want to put Kashmir on the world map of the fashion world and our designs, be it the cuts or embroideries, reflect the effort and creativity that we put in.”

Any parting advice to young designers just starting out and hoping to make it in the industry? “Don’t give in to pressure. Trust yourself and follow your dreams. There are always roadblocks but hard work and determination will sail you through to your goal,” concludes Sajida with a smile.

(The writer is a journalist at The Kashmir Monitor)