SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Zahida Begum, 48, is a farmer in Kakapora village in Pulwama district, which is known as the “Rice Bowl” of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Begum has been a farmer since she was a child. She says she had no time to study because of various agricultural responsibilities, and she continued farming after her marriage.
A lot rides on her and other women’s ability to farm.
“I still remember the year when I had to postpone my daughter’s marriage, as the rice fields were withering due to the scarcity of rain,” she says of 2010.
Begum and her family tried watering the paddy cultivation, she says as she easily makes her way through a field of rice plantings in ankle-deep water.
“But it used to get dried up in no time,” she says. “We were not able to earn anything from that cultivation.”
But the largest gap in farming began in 1989, when Begum had to quit her active role in the fields because of ongoing conflict in the Kashmir Valley.
Since 1947, Kashmir has been divided into two territories disputed by India and Pakistan. Conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir erupted in 1989 when a separatist movement called for freedom from Indian rule.
Begum says her entire family used to remain indoors during the peak of the conflict, making farming impossible. During the following years, she and other women in her household didn’t go into their fields for fear of becoming targets.
“Our noninvolvement badly impacted our household,” she says. “But our men preferred our safety over our active engagement in agricultural activities. We were scared to move out due to the vulnerability of getting caught.”
As the presence of soldiers lessens in her district, Begum is optimistic that she will again be able to take up the role of farmer in her family.
“Things have not changed completely,” she says. “But we have again started to accompany our men and to play an active role in agricultural farming, as our valley cannot afford to ignore women anymore.”
This year, when the fields were abundant with golden brown crops during the harvesting season, Begum was out in her 50 kanals, or 6.25 acres, of paddy fields to help her family to reap the crop.
“I started to work in the fields from 9 a.m and continue [un]til 7 p.m and work with our men without any fear,” Begum says. “Compared to [the] ’90s, the situation has improved a lot, so we came out of our cocoon to cut the paddy crop instead of getting laborers.”
Begum beams as she says plenty of rain and a favorable climate have allowed her to irrigate and produce a bumper crop, or a surplus of paddy, this year.
After two decades of danger surrounding conflict in Kashmir, women are returning to farming, and young educated women are joining them. Kashmir’s increased focus on technology and research offers more opportunities for women to take trainings to increase their agricultural yields. As a result,