Heritage in Effort

Kashmir Magazine


Suhail Rather

In the heart of Alim (Education), Adab (Etiquettes) and Aab (Water), a young tribal woman named Shahida Khanam has taken a remarkable stand to preserve the rich cultural heritage of her Gujjar community in Bandipora.
Born and raised in the serene village of Halwadi, Aragam, in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, Shahida's journey from a determined teenager to a culture guardian is nothing short of inspirational.
Shahida's passion for uplifting the women of her community began when she was just 20. However, it wasn't until she participated in a local tribal program in Bhopal in 2016 that her vision truly crystallized.
"At Bhopal, I saw my community people in different attires although it should have been the same. But it wasn't. My community people were in different dresses, and nobody was actually representing the tribal community. It was then that I got the idea of mobilizing my Gujjar community and giving them a name and address," she recalls.
Now 26 and a graduate, Shahida is spearheading the Gujjar movement in her village. She has not only uplifted the women in her community but has also established the Noor Centre of Fashion Designing and Crafts. This center has trained around 80 female candidates in various skills, enabling them to earn a livelihood while preserving their cultural heritage.
"At Noor Centre, the girls of the Gujjar community are trained to make traditional dresses, caps, jewelry, attires, charkha, shanak, dandhiyan, and other traditional items. In the first lot, around 50 passouts are currently earning a good living from their homes," Shahida proudly states.
The Gujjar women have historically been masters of needlework, excelling in stitching, jewelry making, and embroidery. However, Shahida noticed a worrying trend: the younger generation showed little interest in these rich traditions. This decline in cultural engagement motivated her to take significant steps to preserve and revitalize these ancient practices.
"In today’s digital era, where old traditions are slowly fading with the advent of modern technologies, it is crucial to revive and preserve these cultural practices. Therefore, in addition to providing training in stitching, jewelry making, and embroidery, I also worked towards collecting and displaying old tribal cultural artifacts in a museum," she explains.

A Museum of Memories

Shahida has set up a museum to showcase the rich heritage of the Gujjar community. The museum displays over 30 traditional items, including full dresses, jewelry, traditional food items, carpets, chairs, ornaments, coins, dresses, and earthen utensils. Her efforts provide an idea to her commitment to preserving the cultural identity of the Gujjar people, who are primarily known for their pastoral and nomadic lifestyle.
The culturally diverse Jammu and Kashmir hosts various ethnic communities such as Kashmiris, Gujjars, Bakerwals, Paharis, and Dogras, each possessing unique attire and traditions. For centuries, the Gujjar community has called this land home, imprinting their distinctiveness onto the local identity.
"I made a decision to work for my tribal community and be their voice, aiming to bring positive change and security to their lives. In many tribal communities, women are often not allowed to work, so it was important for me to challenge these stereotypes and raise awareness about gender equality," Shahida asserts.
With the support of her family, particularly her father, Shahida has been able to overcome numerous challenges.
"My father has been a constant source of support and hope throughout my journey. His support has been essential, particularly considering the challenges faced by tribal women in pursuing their dreams and working outside their communities," she says.
He helped me in collecting and displaying old tribal cultural artifacts in the museum.
Shahida's efforts have not gone unnoticed. School and college students frequently visit her museum to work on their assignments and projects related to the tribal community, traditional dresses, and other cultural artifacts. These visits not only help students with their studies but also raise awareness about the importance of cultural preservation.
"School students do visit the museum and work on their projects, assignments related to the tribal community, dresses, and other things. They find it helpful, and we also tell them stories related to the same," Shahida notes.
Despite the lack of recognition from the government or district administration, Shahida remains hopeful. She wants to promote the museum under the aegis of cultural tourism and has appealed to the local administration for assistance. Her ultimate goal is to represent her community at national and international levels, ensuring that the tradition and culture of the Gujjar people reach new heights.
Shahida's journey has inspired many within her community. After her initiative, locals have started to follow traditional practices once again and feel proud to don their traditional dresses.
"I can say my dream, which I dreamt in Bhopal, is coming true. If not the whole community, a major section of the Gujjar community is now spearheading the movement at an individual level. Besides earning, they are promoting the culture," she adds.
Her work has had a ripple effect, spreading hope through the valleys of Kashmir. People have begun to realize that preserving their past does not hinder progress but rather enhances it.
"With each step taken towards preserving Kashmir’s heritage, a ripple of hope spreads through the valleys. People have begun to realize that the preservation of their past doesn’t hinder progress but rather enhances it. It is the preservation of culture that adds depth and character to a society, a reminder of where it came from and a compass for where it can go," Shahida muses.
One of the trainees at her center, Raziya, expresses her gratitude: "At this center, we acquire diverse skills that not only create employment prospects for underprivileged young women like us but also help in safeguarding our cultural heritage. We genuinely cherish the learning experience here."
Raziya said that every household in the tribal community is witnessing a change and a success story.
"We are no longer dependent. The 'Noor center' has given us a ray of hope to live a better life," she added.
Shahida's story is a powerful reminder of the impact one individual can have on their community. In a male-dominated society, she has faced numerous challenges and criticisms.
"In a male-dominated society, it is always difficult for women. I also faced those difficulties. Earlier people used to criticize my initiative."
"However, the criticism and negative comments fueled my determination to work even harder for my community, disregarding societal barriers," she says.
As Shahida continues her efforts to preserve the cultural heritage of the Gujjar community, she remains focused on her mission.
"My work is not complete yet, as I continue to collect more items from our tribal community with the help of local people. I am grateful for and indebted to my family, especially my father, who provided me with a hall for setting up a museum and a room for training the women folk," she concludes.
Shahida Khanam's dedication and perseverance are paving the way for a brighter future for the Gujjar community.
Her efforts not only preserve the past but also empower the present, ensuring that the rich cultural heritage of the Gujjar people continues to thrive for generations to come.