"I am not afraid of dying"
The enchanting Kashmir valley may not be the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of popular influencers.
Yet, against all odds – and often against the wishes of their families – a group of resilient women are using the power of social media to forge their careers as models, designers and photographers.
In the tug-of-war between India and Pakistan, 97% of Kashmir’s population is made up of Muslim residents.
Certain conventions and ideologies reign supreme in this environment, so one would hardly anticipate the emergence of aspiring models or internet personalities.
Yet, since 2018, a remarkable transformation has taken root, with approximately 30 women venturing into professional modelling, mainly via Instagram.
Their endeavours, far from being mere vanity projects, have played a pivotal role in stimulating business for local clothing brands, cosmetics companies, and makeup artists.
These women have not only embraced the limelight but also learned to endure criticism and even hatred with unwavering resolve.
They come from diverse backgrounds and social strata, becoming part of a united community that wants to carve out a niche in the world and make it big.
One of these individuals is photographer Amir Mir.
Mir, once an insurance broker, made the audacious leap into full-time fashion photography, and today, he reaps daily rewards that eclipse his former monthly earnings.
In a bustling month, he embarks on around 15 projects, nearly 10 of which are dedicated to local brands – a testament to the booming fashion scene in Kashmir.
Yet, the path to fame is far from unimpeded.
These influencers often find themselves at odds with agitated parents, protective siblings, or disapproving boyfriends.
In the eyes of society, this realm remains a controversial pursuit.
Despite the challenges, some fashion shows have graced Kashmiri streets, with the support of the government.
However, in March 2021, dozens of women denounced that a fashion show was a “shameful act”.
But, girls have come out to defend this industry and the choices of the influencers who are now breaking taboos in Kashmir.
One of these is human resource specialist Sumehra Farooq.
She was pushed to try modelling by her husband and now uses her Instagram as a private, yet professional, portfolio.
The lock on her profile was done to shield herself from online trolling. But, the improvement in her mental health has made it a worthwhile trade-off.
Instagram has not only provided a platform for models but has also simplified the process of establishing and operating businesses in Kashmir. Sumehra wisely remarks:
“It’s a fragile industry, but there is no harm in taking a risk if you know the outcome is going to be huge.”
Let’s dive further into the influencers, similar to Sumehra, who are not shying away from reinventing the wheel for women in Kashmir.
Mehak Bakhsh, hailing from Srinagar, is a makeup artist whose journey into the world of cosmetics began at a tender age.
Her fascination with makeup dates back to her childhood, and in 2021, she took her first professional steps as a makeup artist.
Since then, Mehak has established herself as a versatile professional, catering to a diverse clientele spanning weddings, fashion shoots, and corporate gatherings.
Mehak believes that makeup should serve as an enhancement of a woman’s inherent beauty rather than a shroud to conceal it.
Her signature style is characterised by its natural and elegant aesthetics, ranging from the enchanting allure of bridal makeup to the captivating world of special effects.
Aged 27, Mehak readily acknowledges the transformative power of Instagram in her professional journey.
Within a matter of weeks after creating her profile, she found herself collaborating with renowned influencers and attracting a diverse set of customers.
Since then, she has grown her following to over 2000.
However, Instagram’s influence extends beyond mere visibility; it serves as a platform for showcasing her artistic talents, which is rarely seen in South Asia.
Bakhsh proudly displays her range, which includes mesmerising transformations into iconic characters like Heath Ledger’s Joker.
While face painting enjoys recognition in other regions, it was a largely untapped art form in Kashmir.
Mehak candidly admits:
“The make-up industry in Kashmir is really different.”
“We didn’t know a lot more could be done with it, but Instagram gave a different perspective.”
While Instagram has been a boon for these emerging businesses, it has also rendered them vulnerable to disruptions.
India, holding the dubious distinction of leading the world in internet shutdowns, has frequently enforced these measures in Kashmir, particularly during times of political uncertainty.
Notably, in 2019, Kashmir experienced a seven-month-long internet shutdown, marking it as one of the lengthiest such instances in the history of democratic nations.
But, this is not stopping Mehak from influencing others to enter this industry and breaking down stereotypes around beauty expectations.
In addition to local brands, makeup artists, and photographers, salons in Kashmir also enlist the services of models.
This is precisely how Samreen Khan, then a 19-year-old, secured her opportunity in 2020, thanks to a franchise of an Indian salon chain operating in Srinagar.
But, there was trouble straight away. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, she admitted:
“The salon couldn’t display their work because the brides didn’t agree to their pictures being put online because of societal taboos.
“[My family] were all inquiring if I had got married.”
Just one mere photoshoot led to Samreen being the centre of gossip in her family. But, the backlash was also widespread in the community. She says:
“I receive a lot of lewd offers from people in Kashmir [alongside] abusive comments.
“People don’t understand this line of work and the society is not supportive.”
This is exactly the type of perceptions Samreen and her fellow influencers are trying to change.
According to the model, these societal restrictions originate from outdated misconceptions about women participating in the fashion and glamour sectors.
These misconceptions were perpetuated by Indian television and preyed upon male insecurities and fantasies, as she says:
“There is a concept that you need to do certain things to become a model, air hostess or actress.
“The myths have poisoned people’s minds.”
Whilst Samreen continues to follow her passion for modelling and do it beautifully, she reveals the challenges she’s faced within her household:
“My mother is happy that I am able to earn, but it pinches her when relatives call [and complain] about it.
“That upsets her.
“I have had to hear that nobody will marry me.
“To that, I tell my mother I will find someone who is my type. Still, marriage is the last thing on my to-do list. I have to be independent first.”
Regardless of the type of abuse she gets from her supposed loved ones, it hasn’t impacted the strides Samreen is making – her 10,500+ followers are evidence of that.
More importantly, she’s happy with her own hard-earned money and the growing number of Instagram models in Kashmir:
“It’s a good thing to earn for yourself from a young age.
“I feel content with my hard-earned money, to earn for and spend on myself.”
As the supply of models increases alongside the demand in Kashmir, Samreen Khan highlights the pressing need for a more robust professional infrastructure.
In instances where local modelling agencies are absent, some individuals volunteer to model for free, which, in turn, undermines those who seek compensation for their services.
Perhaps one of the most sought-after influencers and models in Kashmir is Muskaan Akhoon.
With over 12,500 followers, Muskaan has already found local fame and is often recognised in public as part of this growing community.
But, Muskaan admits that this notoriety is down to her hard work:
“Nobody taught me how to pose, even on the first shoot.
“If a model is confident and motivated, they can pose and maintain facial expressions on their own. I have worked hard.”
Muskaan charges around 20,205 Rs (£57) for a day, but as a university student, this is quite reasonable.
The young personality does around 15 shoots per month, meaning her income is much higher than the average monthly salary.
However, Muskaan would be earning much higher like western influencers if platforms like TikTok hadn’t been banned.
This is where Muskaan first shot to fame, gaining over 40,000 followers before the border clashes in Ladakh in 2020.
She transferred her content over to Instagram, and Muskaan began receiving collaboration offers from local clothing brands seeking models to showcase their apparel.
Her inaugural photo shoot became a viral sensation, opening the doors to more paid opportunities.
The influencer’s profile has become a trailblazer in inviting more women to explore this career.
Speaking on her journey so far, Muskaan hasn’t lost sight of her true aims within this business:
“I am glad I have been able to help sustain my family, while also funding my education.”
“But I am told that my male cousins are not able to find a [marriage] match because I am bringing disgrace to the family.”
She remains unfazed by these comments as she believes a woman’s place is not just to be a wife.
25-year-old Sehreen has over 18,000 followers on Instagram.
Predominantly specialising in traditional Kashmiri clothing, Sehreen is more than a model.
She is a self-proclaimed “business promoter, fashion influencer, video creator, and blogger”.
She’s also a body-positive advocate and even has “fat but fire” and “chubby” in her profile bio.
It’s no secret that the South Asian community can be quite negative towards ‘bigger’ individuals.
Therefore, Sehreen’s work in promoting inclusivity and strutting her stuff unapologetically is working wonders for people who “look like her”.
Her pictures are also broadening the scope for fashion brands and photographers in Kashmir due to the popularity of such images.
It’s relatable for a lot of women and shows the community that fashion isn’t a one-size-fits-all but rather a career where anyone can thrive.
But, Sehreen’s following didn’t come overnight.
With over 400 posts, she has remained consistent and loves representing Kashmir on the big stage, which probably adds to her appeal.
Aksa Khan is a proud patriotic model who is empowering women with her unfazed attitude towards societal views of what women “should” be doing.
The 21-year-old has stated that any hate or backlash women receive, especially in Kashmir, is what modern celebrities have to deal with.
That’s not to say Aksa believes her status is that of Bollywood legends, but in the world of South Asian influencers, she’s certainly on the map.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post, she explains:
“The best way is to ignore it and move forward.
“My mother supports me and that is enough for me.”
However, within the same article, there were references to how difficult it is for women to be taken seriously, especially by male photographers.
Sometimes, young women get exploited for their appearances or following. In many instances, models are made to work in hot conditions, without food or even a place to sit.
Some employers are also known to withhold money or give images as their payment. Aksa states:
“The irony is some of the young girls fall for it, they are happy just posting good quality pictures over their social media accounts.”
But, it is this type of toxic environment and entitlement that Aksa and the other influencers are trying to eradicate.
By showcasing how to be more independent as a Kashmiri model, more girls are able to control their careers.
With over 24,000 followers on Instagram, Aksa has done campaigns for many clothing and makeup brands.
Her most significant project to date is her advert for a hotel in Gulmarg, which is a popular winter sports destination in Kashmir.
Shalla Munazah is a law graduate, having received her degree at the prestigious University of Kashmir.
She is many things, such as a video creator, host, rugby player, advocate and brand ambassador for clothing brand Palavv.
Shalla commenced her journey by organising events in Srinagar, which greatly upset her parents.
A few years ago, when she expressed her desire to take on the role of anchor for one of these events, her father reacted by delivering a harsh slap, and she was subsequently grounded.
South Asian parents can certainly turn a blind eye to careers that aren’t the “norm”.
There is the stereotype that a lot of South Asian kids are pushed towards ‘safe careers’ like doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.
And, whilst Shalla has a law degree, it’s not where her passion lies.
Therefore, a lot of her work is advocating for a more diverse and inclusive space within multiple industries, not just conventional ones.
Speaking on her journey so far, she says:
“It is hard to make our parents realise that what we are doing out there is not evil, even if that’s how it’s portrayed by society.
“I did not stop though. I kept looking for work and finally landed a gig in a music video that gave me the recognition I needed.”
Her most significant project to date was modelling for a London-based company.
She emphasises that this global expansion has helped her parents understand her choices, stating:
“I assume they are proud of me now.”
Even though her parents are coming around, Shalla illustrates that women like her are in competition with predators of the industry. She explains:
“Some men feel they can [make advances] because if a woman decides to model, she might be available for other things as well.”
The women report frequent phone calls during the night, inappropriate text messages, and unwelcome physical advances.
But, influencers remain positive that this will change and it’s a matter of patience and leading by example.
With an Instagram following of over 36,000, Mehvish is making great strides in the fashion world.
The engineering graduate wants to be referred to as a “fashion entrepreneur, rather than a fashion model”.
Her social media is full of day-to-day, lifestyle and clothing images.
However, she is also the founder of Splash by River – a Kashmir-based bridal brand.
Running for more than half a decade, Splash has become one of the most popular brands in the region.
This is the foundation that Mehvish used to build her own following.
Of course, every business starts off small. Mehvish found herself modelling her own designs as there were no models to hire at the time. She reveals:
“No women in Kashmir were ready for this, and to get someone from mainland India to model for us would have been a costly affair.
“I decided to model for my own brand and have stuck to it ever since.”
This decision is pioneering for women across the land to pursue their dreams, even if it means doing everything yourself.
In such a fast-paced world, there is a lot of reliance on sourcing third parties to do such things as modelling, brand awareness and marketing.
But Mehvish is an example of how hard work and dedication to one’s idea are all you need. However, this journey has still been troubling.
Mehvish received a threat from an individual who said he was with a militant organisation through a direct message on the internet.
There are a lot of motivated militants in Kashmir who often threaten women if they don’t adhere to certain clothing or lifestyle.
In some cases, threats are plastered across public walls, especially in villages where control is rampant.
But, Mehvish refused to let this hinder her aspirations, stating:
“I deleted the message, blocked the person, and put it behind my back.
“I am not afraid of dying.”
With over 30 years of conflict, Kashmir has faced difficult challenges such as business closures and policing women’s public conduct.
Even in the 2000s when some shops like salons opened up, societal taboos prevailed.
This emphasises why social media is playing such a big part in this new generation of Kashmiris. It’s offering them careers in spaces which were once unthinkable.
These young women are far from typical influencers as they boldly confront and defy oppressive taboos.
Instead, they are opening doors for the fashion and modelling industries to become feasible careers in an area struggling with a staggering unemployment rate that has surged to 46% in recent years.
These influencers are not just inspiring a whole new generation, but they are reinventing the wheel for the future women of Kashmir.