‘Sozni Queen’: Illiterate Aisha’s journey to artistic mastery

A young Pashto woman faced parent’s wrath after she chose needle over books. Then she got entangled in a financially-unsound marriage and struggled hard to keep her kitchen flames going until her needle artistry came to her rescue and help her to emerge as the master artist.

Nestling on a hillock at Ganderbal’s Wat-Lar area, Bibi Aisha—the fair, sleek, tall Pashto woman—in her late 20s has become a reckoning example of the woman power. The countryside girl with no formal education in business has emerged as the main employer in her tribe besides creating a different niche for herself in the world of handicrafts.

Aisha was 16 when she married Ashraf Khan. Her family was disappointed because her husband was not financially sound. In the early days of her marriage, she lived in a joint family having dozen odd members. Marrying by choice made her realize that life ahead would not be a piece of cake. She had no parental support. And unlike her graduate sisters, she was a letter-less woman. All this brought her a battalion of sorrows.

Before marriage, however, her life was different. She would chase the craft of Sozni to her heart’s content.

“I used to skip studies, spending time watching my brother’s art,” Aisha says. “My parents used to scold me, but I kept on peeping onto my brother’s work.”

Her parents made every attempt to send her to school. But once exhausted, they gave up on her. It was then her brother who admitted her as his student and started teaching her the art of “Sozni”—one of the premier Kashmir Arts.

To begin with, Aisha didn’t learn the art to make money. It was a pure passion. She wanted to learn it by heart.

But after her marriage triggered financial woes, the couple supported each other with the belief that the hardships would further strengthen their relationship. It was more of a proverbial solace, but supporting each other in reality with hardly anything to thrive on brought miseries.

Amid the misery and dream of a better life, Aisha turned her passion into business.

She began working under a local crafts master along with her brother. In between, to flip her life, she enrolled herself in a craft program, helping her buying her own material and exploring market in 2011.

Then came a time when she was no longer dependent on the local master. A sense of empowerment had widened her scope and now, she wanted to earn and invest more.

After getting insights about the market, including its Do’s and Don’ts’, she decided to help the helpless.

Aisha began training the female workers of her village and began distributing work among them. Akin to her, all her 50 odd trained workers are illiterates.

“Even if a female is illiterate,” she says, “she can still earn and be independent. I knew what hardships meant and I want to help with whatever little I have. That’s why I have started giving training to other girls.”

As an artist, Aisha is regarded high for her “finest craft hand”. Her works are considered to be the most excellent. Even her colleagues say that none among them can come close to Aisha’s clean artistry.

“We all have learned from her and we wonder if ever we can be masters like her,” says one of her workers. “She has mastered the art to such an extent that one cannot differentiate between the front and back of her work. Indeed, she is the queen of Sozni works.”

Aisha has now become the first woman employer in her area and that in her Pashto tribe, where women usually remain confined to their household chorus.

“Today, I can buy anything that my family need,” says Aisha, beaming with confidence. “I’m no longer dependent on anyone, not even on my husband. By god’s grace, I even provide financial assistance to my father.”

Despite the prosperous change, she hasn’t forgotten those days when she used to skip lunch and dinner just to save every penny for her family.

“But now,” she rues, “I realize that those struggling days were better!”

Earlier people used to come and extend their support to her and her husband. “But now,” she says, “the same people come and tell her husband: ‘It isn’t good to give woman so much liberty. Don’t send her outside. Keep an eye on her.’ ”

Aisha constantly exchanges eye contact with her husband and smiles while narrating this. A sense of discomfort between them is quite evident because of those public talks. But Aisha wants her husband to trust her the way he did earlier.

As a mother blessed with two daughters, Aisha wants to make sure that they get best of whatever they want. Her younger daughter is in 10th standard. She is more interested in sports and has already bagged many awards at interschool and district level. “I want my children to study,” she says, “because I don’t want them to feel that unease that I felt as an illiterate.”

Infact, being an illiterate cost her an award recently during a ceremony outside Kashmir. She couldn’t communicate with her evaluator, who gave it to someone else from Maharashtra instead. That however hardly bothers her. She has learned to deal with things as they come with firm belief on her abilities. The same belief has worked wonders for her.

Lately in Delhi where she went to attend some festival, she received a call from her daughters, telling her, ‘when are you coming home, we have to submit the school fees?’ As she told them to collect it from their father, they refused, saying, ‘No, we will wait till you return.’

The answer made her emotional and reminded her of those struggling days when she used to put her daughters down on bed and give them toys to play till they fell asleep — while she would be burning midnight oil for their sake.

“What my daughters said was a proud moment for me,” she says, welling up. “It gave me a real sense of achievement and fulfillment.”

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