Kashmir Is Not Just a Boys Club

May 28, 2014 at 11:07 AM ET

SRINGAR, INDIA—Locals call it paradise on earth, and it’s easy to see why. Cradled in the lap of the Himalayas, India’s Kashmir region is full of snow-capped peaks, shimmering lakes and flowering meadows.

Beyond the beautiful scenery, however, life is hard here in this disputed valley home of about 700,000. During the 1990s, India fought a violent war with Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani militants. Since then, residents have been forced to deal with the fallout from that bloody conflict, the trauma and limited job opportunities.

Women, in particular, have been hit hard by the war’s aftermath. Only about 60 percent of Kashmiri women can read, according to some government estimates, and many are widows, having lost their husbands to the conflict. Most work to support their families, but many of the available jobs involve farming and pay a low wage. Few of these women have any sort of say in how to run their households, let alone their villages and cities.

Now, however, a small but determined group of women are slowly climbing the professional ladder in a variety of previously male-dominated fields such as business and government. Perhaps out of necessity—the fighting left so many men dead or unable to work—women have managed to overcome deep-seated prejudices and help rebuild this war torn region.

“It is still a long way to go,” says Mehmood Bhatt, who lectures about history at a local college. “But some doughty women are beginning to showcase their talents.”

Take Shaheena Akhtar, 28, for example. The daughter of a poor day laborer, she grew up in the congested, hardscrabble neighborhood of Nowshera, where strikes and shutdowns enforced by militant groups and separatists are common.

Despite the odds, Akhtar graduated from a college for women in 2004 with a liberal arts degree. She wanted to go to graduate school, but her family was so poor, they needed her to work and help out at home.

Akhtar was disappointed, but undeterred. Juggling a domestic routine and enrolling in entrepreneurial classes, she soon mastered the art of shawl-making. The state government was so impressed by her skills—and her business acumen—that they gave her a grant to start her own pashmina shawl manufacturing business. Now some of her products adorn haute couture display windows in Paris and Rome. And while her family initially scolded her for starting a business she knew next to nothing about, today they’re proud and supportive of her.

Gazala Amin has a similar success story. Like Akhtar, she’s one of the few female entrepreneurs in Kashmir. A medical school graduate, Amin taught human anatomy at a local college. But several years ago, she realized she had a different calling. Today she runs a flourishing medicinal and aromatic plant business, and she recently became the treasurer of the Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a local business lobby.

It wasn’t always possible for women like Amin to climb to such heights. Not only did they have to contend with the endless protests, curfews and killings in Kashmir, but they also had to deal with the assumption that women didn’t need to be educated, independent or have professional goals—especially entrepreneurial ones.

“In the area of business there is definitely a glass ceiling,” says Amin. “It seems that is the story all over the world, where business is a boys club.”

As a new generation grows up in this beautiful but war-torn state, however, that boys club is slowly becoming a thing of the past.