Apart from drawing high-end tourists and world-weary travellers to the cold desert, Leh is equally fascinating visitors and sightseers due to its woman-driven public sphere. The liberated and constructive role of women in the society has to do with the acquiescent culture that Leh proudly wears on its sleeves.
Padma Yangchan, a designer café owner casually mentioned to me, “Leh is a women-friendly place having the lowest crime rate against women.”
I met Padma during my family trip to Leh, where I saw women owning businesses and hotels.
Along with her business partner Jigmet Disket, Padma has started her own designer brand called Namza. It has a designer studio and a café, based on the idea of sustainable agriculture, with a personal kitchen garden of fresh organic farm produce in the café compound itself.
Outside on the streets, I saw women routinely taking lifts from random private vehicles. I was surprised, thinking if private strangers must be trusted like that!
The answer lay in the culture itself.
The lowest crime rate against women, I thought of what Padma had said, no trust deficit probably, sure of one’s safety perhaps.
“Women are given a lot of importance in our society,” the young designer said. “All women here are independent and strong.”
The culture is very open, she continued.
“Stress is laid on women’s education. The fact that women have to leave their parents’ house, in fact, here encourages families to make sure their daughters are independent in marriages and that’s what leads to more focus on women’s independence.”
Marriages aren’t extravagant affairs in Leh, Padma said.
“Hardly Rs 5-6 lakhs go into a marriage and expenses are divided among relatives, so that marriages shouldn’t become a burden.”
Some volunteer to help with food, some clothes, some catering, etc, she continued.
“And that’s how marriages are performed here.”
But how did she start this designer store/café, I asked her.
“I did my graduation from LSR, Delhi University. Then I worked for some time in Mumbai, Delhi, etc in designing. I was associated with many magazines and all. I also did fashion designing in Delhi.”
After working outside, Padma finally took a call to head back home. Her homecoming was driven by a certain cause.
“I thought I should start my own thing because, you know our art, architecture, culture is so rich and it needs proper preservation, documentation, and maintenance,” she explained.
She has dedicated her brand to revive the lost cuisine of Ladakh.
“We grow our own vegetables,” Padma continued. “We serve handcrafted food. And most importantly, we’re preserving the existing cuisine and reviving the lost, undocumented Ladakhi recipes.”
And for that, they’ve been travelling to all the remote places of Ladakh from the last three years. “We’re talking to people and asking them about the recipes,” she said.
Padma and her business partner are also reviving the lost art and clothing.
“Basically, the aim is to let people experience the culture of Ladakh under one roof. The infrastructure, interior designing is more of a twist/fusion of Ladakhi and other cultures.”
But her designing concept is still very new to Ladakh.
“We’re also preserving and modifying the hand weaving techniques, art, silhouettes thereby making it more suitable for both national and international markets.”
Before coming to age, however, she had to start from a scratch. “I belong to a very middle-class family and had to struggle a lot along with my business partner to start Namza,” she said.
Leh being a very rooted society has responded positively to Padma’s venture.
“Here women have got a lot of exposure, as they’ve seen the world,” she said. “If I come back late, there’s food kept for me on the table and the door is left open at night.”
This women-friendly societal conscience was clear throughout my stay in Leh.
The hotel I was staying in, Hotel Shaynam, was owned by a woman. Women were operating petrol pumps and engaged in road construction work. They were everywhere – selling vegetables, running kiosks and regulating traffic.
The increase in the visibility of women has led to the normalization of their ubiquitous presence.
It was a fresh change to see — no one staring at you uncomfortably or ogling at you.
I felt women are not mystified and exoticized in Leh which usually happens due to invisibilizing of women in the public sphere and due to gender segregation.
I met Yangzis and Kaczri, two women from the village Patali, selling apricots in Leh market. Apricots grow at their homes and they come to Leh market to sell them. They also do farming and sell their produce in the market directly without the interference of middlemen.
Leading by example, Ladakh has launched its ‘first all-women travel agency’, Women’s travel company. They provide homes and home food for women travellers at certain halt points.
My Ladakh trip turned out to be a feminist paradise for me. And I was curious to know, what was it about this culture that has the lowest crime rate against women? Why can’t we have it everywhere? Is segregation and invisibilization of women the reason for sexual harassment or other crimes against women?
While reading If Oceans were Ink, Carla Power, the author, says “Barriers and segregation actually seem to heighten one’s awareness of the opposite sex rather than tamp it down. Nothing gets people thinking about sex than gender segregation.”
The answer might be in this assertion.