Naseem Akhtar takes care of his clients

In the heart of Sindh’s Sanghar city, in Gul Shah Market near Rehmat Shah Chowk, surrounded by hundreds of male-run shops, Naseem Akhtar’s Kiran boutique and general store is the talk of the town.

Known as Aunty Naseem and in her 40s, Naseem Akhtar has been running her business independently for six years. Two of her daughters are married and she lives with her husband, a college girl and three sons in a village named Chak 41 near Workshop, a small town about 30 kilometers north of Sanghar town.

She gets up early in the morning to reach the town of Sanghar by bus. “I close around 8 p.m. and return to the village on a motorbike with a relative,” explains Akhtar between two appointments with customers. “It’s not a free ride, I pay him 5,000 rupees a month.”

Originally from Lahore, Akhtar was 14 when she married Nisar Ahmed, a milkman, and moved to Sanghar district. Since it was difficult for her husband to meet the expenses of six children, Akhtar decided to start working as well.

In the deeply patriarchal town of Sanghar, a rural woman runs a thriving business and sets an example for other female entrepreneurs to follow…

“Initially, most of my relatives and villagers opposed the idea, as they thought it strange that a rural woman would run a shop in the main market of a city, with crowds of men sitting around , shouting and looking at me,” Akhtar said. . “But my husband was standing next to me.”

Use your mobile to receive customer orders and for marketing

Despondency and opposition were followed by threats to Ahmed. “My community warned me that if I allowed my wife to go into town to run a business, they would boycott us,” he says.

“I ignored them and some villagers separated from us, while others still laugh at me or my sons when they see us in the village, with comments such as ‘Here are people who couldn’t keep their wives inside the house.'”

In 2016, Ahmed sold ancestral land for 300,000 rupees, borrowed money from a friend and gave it all to Akhtar to set up his business. “The rest is history,” Akhtar says smiling. “I have paid off all debts and currently I have invested about 15 lakh [1.5 million] rupees in my shop selling items for women and children.

Akhtar began by selling off-the-shelf children’s clothing and some general store items. But she soon realized that there was a strong demand for women’s items, especially items that female customers would rather buy from a woman than a man, because women can communicate with each other without hesitation or Reserve. “I also share my experiences of using a certain item and they like it,” Akhtar says.

Farhana Parveen, a local beautician and one of Naseem’s regular customers, says Sanghar is not a big city like Mirpurkhas, Hyderabad or Karachi and people are a bit conservative towards women shopping .

“Since Aunty Naseem opened her shop, our families are more relaxed because they know that we will go to her house for shopping and, since we will be dealing with a woman, they will not have any problems,” he explains. she.

The women may like Akhtar’s shop, but the male market traders would rather see her get discouraged and put her things away.

“I get around 150-200 customers in my store every day, and it makes them jealous,” says Akhtar. “A few days ago, a shopkeeper sent thugs to my store at the end of the day who threatened me. They broke a glass door and behaved badly with some customers. But I braved it and filed a complaint at the nearby police station.

The facade of Tatie Naseem’s shop

Apparently, this was not the first incident, as shopkeepers sometimes cut off his electricity, threw trash outside his store and put glue in the locks on the storefront. “I’m not one to be afraid of their silly tactics,” says Akhtar.

Zafar Hayat, a lawyer with the Sanghar Bar Association who helped Akhtar file a case against a troublesome trader, believes Akhtar is setting an extraordinary example to inspire and encourage women to come forward and start businesses in small businesses. towns like Sanghar.

“When she came to me with a complaint against a trader, I was amazed at her courage and immediately decided to take her case for free,” Hayat says. “She finally sent the culprit behind bars.”

Although she only studied in school up to fifth grade, Akhtar accurately manages the bookkeeping of her store, while her daughter Kiran helps her manage the financial records and accounts.

Recognizing the importance of being tech-savvy, Akhtar got herself a cellphone and her daughter Kiran helped her learn how to take orders from customers or post photos of newly arrived items. at the store.

“I join more than 10 different WhatsApp groups of female customers across the district to sell and market my stuff,” says Akhtar. “I also use it to buy produce from Karachi and Hyderabad markets.”

During the worst days of the pandemic, Akhtar ran his business through his phone. “A day before lockdown, I moved some high-selling items into my house,” she says. “When women placed orders, I would send my son to deliver things to women all over the Sanghar.”

According to Imran Qazi, a human rights activist based in Sanghar, places like Sanghar are still bastions of the patriarchal social system, where women are not allowed out of the house without permission from male family members. . But with their support, he says, women can break down barriers and prove they are equal to men.

“Aunty Naseem is Sanghar’s superwoman and a role model for women, especially those who want to become entrepreneurs,” he says.

Now that Akhtar’s youngest daughter, Kiran, is in college, her two sons are in college, and the eldest is helping in her father’s business, she has a dream of creating shelter in Sindh for homeless and socially victimized women and children.

“I am saving money from my income to fulfill my dream one day,” says Akhtar. “As soon as Kiran gets married, I will pursue my dream stronger,” she adds, laughing before going to help a client.

The author is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]. He tweets @mabas_khaskheli.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, September 25, 2022

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