In the heart of Sindh’s Sanghar city, in Gul Shah Market near Rehmat Shah Chowk, surrounded by hundreds of shops run by men, Naseem Akhtar’s Kiran Boutique and General Store is the talk of the town.
Known as Aunty Naseem and in her mid-forties, Akhtar has been independently running her business for the last six years. Two of her daughters are married, and she lives with her husband, a university-going daughter and three sons in a village named Chak 41 near Workshop, a small town around 30 kilometres north of Sanghar city.
She wakes up early in the morning to reach Sanghar city by bus. “I close around 8pm and go back to the village on a motorcycle with a relative,” says Akhtar in between attending to customers. “It’s not a free ride, I pay him Rs5,000 on a monthly basis.”
Originally from Lahore, Akhtar was 14 when she got married to Nisar Ahmed, a milkman, and moved to district Sanghar. Since it was difficult for her husband to meet the expenses of six children, Akhtar decided to begin working as well.
“Initially, most of my relatives and villagers opposed the idea, as they found 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 staring at me,” says Akhtar. “But my husband stood beside me.”
Discouragement and opposition was followed by Ahmed being threatened. “My community warned me that if I allow my wife to go to the city to run a business, they would boycott us,” he says.
“I ignored them and some villagers parted ways with us, while others still taunt me or my sons when they see us out in the village, with comments such as ‘Here are people who could not keep their women inside the house.’”
In 2016, Ahmed sold an ancestral plot for 300,000 rupees, borrowed some money from a friend and gave all of it to Akhtar to set up her business. “The rest is history,” says Akhtar smiling. “I have paid off all the debts and, currently, I have invested around Rs1.5 million in my shop selling items for women and children.”
Akhtar started off by selling ready-made clothes for kids and some general store items. But she soon realised that there was a great demand for women’s items, especially items that women customers prefer to buy from a woman instead of a man, because women can communicate with each other without hesitation or reserve. “I also share my experiences about using a certain item and they like that,” says Akhtar.
Farhana Parveen, a local beautician and one of Naseem’s regular customers, says that Sanghar is not a big city like Mirpurkhas, Hyderabad or Karachi and people are a bit conservative about women going shopping.
“Since Aunty Naseem has opened her shop, our families are more relaxed because they know we will go to her for shopping and, as we will be dealing with a woman, they have no issues,” she explains.
Women may love Akhtar’s shop but the male shopkeepers in the market would rather see her get disheartened and pack up her business.
“I get around 150 to 200 customers at my shop daily, and it makes them jealous,” says Akhtar. “A few days ago, a shopkeeper sent some goons to my shop late in the day who threatened me. They broke a glass door and misbehaved with some customers. But I braved it out and registered a complaint at the nearby police station.”
Apparently, this was not the first incident, as the male shopkeepers sometimes cut off her electricity connection, dump garbage outside her shop and put glue in the storefront locks. “I am not one to get scared of their idiotic tactics,” says Akhtar.
Zafar Hayat, a lawyer at the Sanghar Bar Association who helped Akhtar in registering a case previously against a troublesome shopkeeper, feels that Akhtar is setting an extraordinary example to inspire and encourage women to come forward and set up businesses in small cities such as Sanghar.
“When she came to me with a complaint against a male shopkeeper, I was astounded by her courage and immediately decided to take up her case free of cost,” says Hayat. “She finally sent the culprit behind bars.”
Despite having studied in school only till class five, Akhtar manages book-keeping for her shop accurately, while her daughter Kiran helps her to manage financial records and accounts.
Acknowledging that being tech-savvy is important, Akhtar got herself a mobile phone and her daughter Kiran helped her to learn to take orders from customers or post photos of the newly arrived stuff at the shop.
“I am on more than 10 different WhatsApp groups of women customers all over the district for selling and marketing my stuff,” says Akhtar. “I also use it for getting stuff from the markets in Karachi and Hyderabad.”
During the worst days of the pandemic, Akhtar ran her business through her phone. “A day before the lockdown, I moved some high-selling items to my house,” she says. “When women placed orders, I sent off my son to deliver stuff to women all over Sanghar.”
According to Imran Qazi, a Sanghar based human rights activist, places like Sanghar are still strongholds of the patriarchal social system, where women are not allowed to step out of the house without the permission of their male family members. But with their support, he says, women can break the barriers and prove that 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 at university, her two sons are in college and the elder one assists in his father’s business, she is nursing a dream to establish shelter homes across Sindh for homeless and socially victimised women and children.
“I am saving money from my income to one day materialise my dream,” says Akhtar. “As soon as Kiran gets married, I will chase my dream harder,” she adds with a chuckle before going to assist a customer.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, September 25, 2022