Children of the Chinar: Special series on young women achievers from Kashmir, Syed Hanaz

In the fourth interview of our series on young, exciting women achievers from Kashmir, Global Order's Aayushi Sharma spoke to Syed Hanaz, who has created Kashmir's most exciting and influential business networking platform for women.



Aayushi Sharma: So I would like to begin by asking you about the journey of your organization. How did this come about?


Syed Hanaz: Okay. So basically Aayushi what happened, I graduated in 2018 itself it was in June I completed my engineering. I was in Pune at that time and I completed my B.Tech [Bachelors in Technology] from Bhartiya Vidyapeeth College of Engineering. I was very active on social media those days, you know, being involved in multiple fitness groups, groups related to women, but nothing was made for Kashmir. Like, nothing related to Kashmir was over there. And I have been a good observer of things, be it on social media and especially anything that is related to women. It just catches my attention a lot. So, I remember I was just randomly sitting and I was going through these groups online. I noticed they didn't include any Kashmiri groups or anything. It was just mostly from any other state in India or maybe from abroad or some fitness groups where they were training people. So then this idea struck my mind and I thought, why don't I start something like this in Kashmir? Before just starting this, I actually went through social media to find out if there is something like that already existing. And I felt that if something is already existing like that, then I would not start it. But I couldn't find anything as such. So when I just did my research and I spent a good amount of time in finding something, I couldn't find something, and I realized that this is something that we Kashmiri women need, this communication for connecting with each other. I was checking that these online platforms were really helping us a lot. Long back I remember, Facebook or Instagram, any such social media was just for personal use. And I didn't know you could connect with people for a purpose. But I just realized that gradually with time, there is a lot a person can do from social media. I just got this insight back in my college days, that if we use social media properly, you can actually connect with a lot, many people, and you can form a small world over there, and you can actually, in real life, implement it. Back then we did not use social media for a purpose. So this particular idea came into my mind that I just wanted to take this initiative where women would help each other and they would connect with each other. One of the reasons for also starting Yakjut was I have seen a lot of friends and relatives of mine very close to me who were doing their businesses. Like, you know, not many people in Kashmir have the capital amount that they can just maybe rent out an apartment, rent out a shop.So I started Yakjut in January, 2019. And I remember many things were happening, you know, there was a communication blackout for us. I realized that we needed something like this for a common man to connect. We needed something that would just connect us together. Women who don't have the initial startup capital amount to establish their businesses. Not everyone was supported by their families or in laws after marriage to establish a business ,to go out for work. It's not that easy in Kashmir. It hasn't been that easy ever for us. So I wanted at least for social media to become a platform where an individual could get a large audience without actually requesting, you know, like if any person opens a boutique or any person opens a makeup page, we request people to follow us. But I wanted some platform to be created where every member, whether there was a new person who was coming into a business, or whether there was already an existing one, would just get a target audience of potential customers. I wanted these new entrepreneurs to come up and they get an equal reach of the audience, and then their work should decide whether they want to carry out their business or not. The second thing in my mind was that I really wanted people to help people come out of the social problems, which people keep hidden under the carpet. Issues like domestic violence and abuse in the society. We live in a society where our image really matters to us a lot. And I think that is how things operate here. We really don't care if we are happy or not, but we'll think about the 10 people who are living around us. Is it going to impact them? How is our image going to be? We think more about the image than our real existence. So my purpose was, I knew that I had been closely observing a lot, many friends of mine, relatives of mine, it's so common in society. You just come to know that women are suffering, people are suffering. And just because speaking about them is a taboo, but people going through the same in reality, that is not considered to be a problem, but when you discuss it, it becomes a problem.So my idea was that these issues should come out and we should be able to help women by forming a small knit where at least they would get a free space. They should feel very safe on social media platforms. I wanted a purpose driven group for me and for society. I wanted something to be there for women where they could connect with each other, Where could they could speak to each other. So these were two reasons that boosted me. They actually were my main reason to create Yakjut.


AS: Right. So, thank you so much. You have actually touched upon a lot of important and grave issues that are existing in our society. I have a few questions about that. So basically what I gather is that Yakjut started with social media. Has that transcended into an actual physical community? Or is it just confined to social media?


SH: See Yakjut it's not anywhere present physically, but this social media presence has actually helped me in implementing the purpose in real life, right? It is a social media group, but at the same time, this social media group has helped women to actually use it in their daily lives. It has given them a practical implementation be it in terms of their businesses, be it visiting a doctor, be it having an online consultations or online classes. It has touched every aspect of our daily life from earning to sitting at home and asking for a recommendation or connecting quickly with a doctor on call or getting a mental health treatment.


Mental Health problems are considered to be a problematic thing. There was this particular thing where women would be tagged or they would be labeled if they just reached out to a doctor.So what Yakjut did was help people to communicate internally and then helped with practical implementation. When we had communication blackouts a lot, many issues were there. At that time, we needed some space where people could get on-call help.


For example - somebody needs a medicine as they cannot go out because of curfew, then they post through Yakjut and somebody living nearby responds saying "Hey, I live two houses down the lane. You can just come and collect or I'll drop it". So if you see it has penetrated into our society at a very deeper level that it has not just restricted to something which is for online fun and all. It has gone deeper. So this is not a physical form, but definitely this is something that has actual physical implementation and they are actually carrying it into their daily lives.


AS:Yes. I believe it is a perfect example of the power of social media, right? So I will ask you about what the Yakjut community looks like now. How many members do you have?


SH:I remember the very first day, I didn't know if I start something, will people understand what I'm doing? I was very doubtful because this was something one of a kind. I remember well, the moment I started it I just reached out to a few friends who shared it. Surprisingly, on the very first day we had 500 members, all women. Today we have around 44,000 women. We are a community connecting all Kashmiri women across the globe. Women from different religious backgrounds, different communities are welcome. So we have formed a community where people are globally connected to us. All Kashmir, women living in different parts of the world, irrespective of their cast, creed and religion, no barriers.


AS: So why do you think that the focus was on just the Kashmir women, and why do you think that was the need according to you?


SH: So I have studied in Delhi and in Pune, and I have observed the women over there. I observed that the other states don't have as many barriers as we have in Kashmir. By barriers I mean the political factors and the factors related to our weather, everything is shut down in winters and it's so difficult for us to carry out normal life. Schools get closed for three months completely. So I realized that if I talk to any woman outside, they still have better opportunities when it comes to work. Whereas in Srinagar, there's a lot of unemployment. One of the reasons why I thought about Kashmir only was I knew that there was a lot of unemployment over here. We don't have many sectors where women can work. Women are either just working in the banking sector or can become a doctor or maybe a private school teacher. So because of this reason, I wanted that even if women are not going out to work, at least at their homes within one click, they should be able to do something online. So this is the reason my focus was only on Kashmir itself.


AS: Right. That makes sense. So would you, uh, qualify Yakjut as a virtual self-help group for women?


SH: Of course it is. If you talk about virtual helping, I would say definitely because there isn't any aspect, which we haven't touched in Yakjut. We provide lawyers over there. If anyone needs a lawyer for any X, Y, Z issue, they get a lawyer on call over there. Then they can further connect if somebody is facing any problems like domestic problems or abuses. They get an on-call help over there without their identity also being leaked. It's a very close knit community, and people are taking care of each other's privacy also. There is a particular team assigned to Yakjut where women are giving their voluntary support to the group. We are a team of 12 to 13 members, and they are all moderators in the group. Few are working in different states. Then there are a few people who handle it at night also, those who are in America or in Canada. So they're helping not only during the daytime, but if someone needs help at night, we have a team assigned to it who are helping.


AS: Right. So I'll touch upon the aspect of moderators later on as well. Something that struck me was that you did talk about the different kinds of services that you provide through Yakjut as a community. Also earlier you had mentioned that there are Kashmiri women from all over the world who have been a part of Yakjut. So I want you to talk a little bit more about the diversity in the group. How diverse is the Yakjut group in terms of the community that the women belong to, in terms of their professions and the services they provide?


SH: I would say, the first step, which I always have ensured, was that there shouldn't be any barrier. Barriers in terms of religious barriers, in terms of caste barriers, in terms of any aspect, which can just stop one woman from connecting with the other. There's nothing like that. If you are a Kashmiri woman, you are in the group. If you're connected to Kashmir in some way or the other you are welcomed in the group. If you are a non Kashmiri married to someone in Kashmir, you are welcomed in the group. So, apart from these things, there's no barrier in terms of workforce. So we have doctors, we have people from political backgrounds, we have psychologists , we have engineers, we have web designers. I think there is hardly any profession, which we haven't touched. As I said, we are a community of 44,000 members. So each member has its own service to provide. So everyone is connected over there. There's no limitation to it. It's very diverse.


AS: Right. So in that way, it actually is a pretty unique initiative. Tell me a bit more about the moderating group of volunteers you mentioned earlier.


SH: Okay. So I am the founder of the group. Then apart from me , we have some members who actually are moderating the group. They are doing the voluntary work, and they are just handling the group in the sense that whenever there are any posts, whenever there are any, guidance for people to join the group, they're handing the group apart from me because it's a huge group, and it's not easy for one person to approve thousands of postings. We also follow a particular calendar of different activities. One day is assigned to businesses, other days assigned to some other activity, like online consulting with a doctor or a psychologist's session over there on mental health, sessions on PCOD and so on. Third day might be a session for people who like poetry. They come and share their poetry over there. Then there is also a section which is assigned to arts for arts and crafts activities. A lot of content is there that has to be approved or declined according to the rules of the group. So my team is helping me in carrying out this group smoothly and helping to moderate the group. We are 12 people and I want to give them credit for managing the group. They are, uh, actively, you know, helping us, uh, giving recommendations.


AS: So I think we have touched a lot about what Yakjut does and also you just now mentioned about the kinds of sessions that you have. That struck out to me a little bit. So I wanna ask you personally, what was the one session that was really something that was special for you?


SH: Okay. I think we have been giving a lot, many sessions. There's one aspect which I really like about Yakjut and that is we provide training to young girls who are getting into a business and entrepreneurship but who don't have a capital amount to learn the skill as well as set up their businesses. So our first case was where we helped a girl who wanted to become a baker, but she couldn't do any training over here because in Srinagar we don't have many big baking firms where people can learn baking as a skill set. Most of the people who have learned baking, they go outside to other places. So what we did was we found a person who was a very trained breaker over here. We have sponsors in Yakjut who sponsor these kinds of training. So the first training, which we did was provide training to this girl with the help of the baker. I think that actually touched me a lot because that girl, she just wanted to be a baker and because of financial problems at home she couldn't do that as well as she couldn't set up a lot of things have to be bought when you have to become a baker, your otg and your other hand equipments. So Yakjut sponsors helped the girl first to actually get that training for I think two to three months and then she started her baking industry where we helped her with setting up her baking apparatus and devices,whatever she needed for that. So that is how it was done. So we provide these free training sessions to people who are actually in need. I mean, we are starting with something related to makeup training. So we actually had a word with a renowned artist over here who will be training a few girls for the same. We won't charge them or they won't charge them anything, and they're getting free services from them for their training and also in setting up their initial businesses.


AS: That's, that's brilliant actually. So, I was also interested to know that you said when you started initially you suddenly got around 500 members. I mean, that's a huge number for a new initiative to start. I'm actually really interested to know how thathappened. How did you manage to gather even 500 women on the very first day?


SH: I remember I just created a group very randomly and I just didn't know that this would actually happen. I believe whenever you start an initiative, it has to be something which is needed by the audience and if it's needed by the audience, half of your work is done. I think what we did with Yakjut was so needed in our society.One example I'll quote, there was a baker shop over here, which is very famous, so everyone used to go there but then there were a few new entrepreneurs who were bakers or few makeup artists who are just coming into the industry and they are just requesting for people to follow them up on Instagram and all. But when they found that at Yakjut , we didn't have to request anyone and you're getting connected. So that is what attracted them. So I think that particular thing helped me to gain followers quickly because I felt it was a need for people.


AS: Right. So I actually wanted to ask you by the name Yakjut, How did this come about?


SH: So I wanted an identity to my group and I discussed it with my father and he gave me a few names. My idea was I want to unite all people irrespective of having any political views, religious views or anything. So I named it Yakjut which literally means unity and that was my father's idea.


AS: So that actually brings me to my last question for you actually. How do you think that the conflict that has been happening for years in Kashmir has affected the community in Yakjut?


SH: To be honest with you I just want to say that I started this group in 2019 and now we are in 2022. So I would just say that initially there were a lot of apprehensions about us. We were asked who created this group and why it was created. They didn't even know me at that time. I was just a college graduate. That trust building takes time. Trust isn't something that people just feel easily. But one thing I think has helped me in dealing with all the initial hiccups is that we have kept it barrier free. I mean, we are very strict with our rules. It's no religion, no politics. I wanted to keep this group for all women and help them in building connections, whether it's in terms of business education or anything, let it be for that.


AS: So on that note I would ask you one last thing. Do you have any messages for the people reading your story, what would you like to say to them?


SH: I think over the years I have learned one thing and that is we are paying too much attention to things which aren't even in our control. I would say that every individual should just focus on finding a purpose in their own life. If we start improving our own life, if we start focusing on our own self, our progress, our health, our mental health, our growth we will grow as a society. Our problem is that we focus more on the other person than our own self. And that is where the problem occurs. So I want people to understand the power of your own self. If you start focusing on your own self, your health, your mental health, your growth, who you communicate with, who you keep in touch with, I think a lot of problems will solve themselves. So personal growth, finding a purpose in life for your own self is more important. That is what I want to say.

AS: Thank you very much Hanaz. I have really enjoyed speaking with you. So, anything you want to ask or say before we end this?


SH: I would just say that I want to give credits to my moderator, my team.


AS: Please do tell me the names of the people you want to give credits to.


SH: Yes, so there is Samina Masoodi, she is based out of the US and moderates the group from there and has inspired many kashmiri women with her brilliance, guiding people on growth and development. Her column, Samina's column on career development, domestic issues, guiding and mentoring young entrepreneurs has helped Kashmiri women globally. Then, Nazrana Ashiq, she runs a channel on YouTube 'Zoon Daeb' relishing kashmiri cuisine especially and moderates the group from Mumbai and has inspired many women to take vlogging as a career. Shabila Hamid moderates the group from Canada. Tamana Imran, she is an entrepreneur running a boutique and inspires women to pick lifestyle and dressing as a career from home itself. Then we have Aksa, Maroofa, Nafhat, Sabreen, Sabrina and Zoya who have been helping me in moderating and coordinating the activities in Yakjut.


AS: Thank you very much Hanaz. Congratulations to you and your team for building such a unique platform for connecting Kashmiri women from all walks of life.


SH: Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Thank you for helping us reach out to more people.


AS: Yes, hopefully we will also help you grow your community further. Thank you very much once again and good luck with Yakjut!


SH: Thank you!


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