Eve’s Own Bank

I attempt to decode why this initiative is a positive indicator for women welfare.
Eve’s Own Bank
Representational Pic

Pre-pandemic, a banking associate was involved in cheating of electricity dues at a local branch of Jammu and Kashmir Bank in my hometown. Another employee shielded him, misbehaved, and used foul language with customers. I couldn’t withstand this unethical and unprofessional attitude. I registered my protest constitutionally, asked for penalty and strict action under service rules. The issue was addressed in a matter of minutes. The offender apologized. But I decided to close my account with J&K Bank forever. This premier financial institution has recruited various employees who ridicule customers. This is a bitter truth.

Not so long ago, I learned about the silver lining in this ominous dark cloud. This is India’s only ladies special bank located in uptown locality of erstwhile state’s summer capital. I was curious to know more about this exclusive space manned by and meant for the other-half. My friend drove me to Jawaharnagar. As the car zoomed past certain barricades, I wanted to know her opinion about this segregation.

“Sabreena, don’t you think creating separate spaces for women is against the very idea of inclusive doctrine?” I continued, as I looked away towards calm Jhelum flowing beside. “This is neither escapism nor a discriminatory approach.” She mumbled fewer words. “The beauty of democracy is that it mainstreams the radical. Diversity dies an embarrassing death when women are excluded from the normal frame.” I had a counterpoint. She pressed the brakes of her car. “Come along, observe the difference.” She handed me the car keys.

Men can accompany their female counter-parts, enjoy the ambience but can’t do business with “the other” bank. We were warmly received inside the posh premises. It is an eco-friendly edifice. The staff is workaholic and courteous. Khatamband design and original plants in flowerpots add the charm and aesthetic feeling as we push the glass entrance. Cleanliness, silence and etiquettes of dealing with customers is what impressed me the most. Everything is in order. It feels soft and fresh. The fragrance is palpable.

My photographic memory travelled back to the unpleasant experience I had with my nearest branch unit of the Bank. The trance broke as I was requested to be seated in the waiting lounge fitted with AC. The moment I sat down, a tumbler full of lukewarm water was brought. I felt refreshed. Soon after, Kashmiri Kehwa and crunchy biscuits were presented to a customer. They treat customers as queens.

When exhaustion evaporated, my friend was attended by one of the executives. She narrated the purpose of her arrival-she wanted to know about the maturity amount of Mehendi deposit scheme and its benefits. The particular executive attended and briefed her about the same. This is an open space for socialization. Women come, discuss their financial needs, expenditure patterns, Bear and Bull market trends, Sensex and Nifty, shares and stock market etc. This routine financial literacy camp is being appreciated by all. Does it happen in any other branch of the bank except corporate headquarters?

Kashmir’s banking sector is plagued with problems. ATMs are dry, dirty and defunct mostly. Here, the lady mops the floor thrice a day. Except any technical glitch, the ATM (since its inception) has never gone cashless even in worst times. This is a laudable step. The quantum of growth of this branch is enormous. It has an active complaint redressal mechanism in force. Former First lady Usha Vohra e-inaugurated the branch at SKICC. She had also launched special services and products exclusively designed for women which included Pink Gold and Pink Platinum Saving Schemes, Pink Gold Debit Card and Pink Gold Credit Card. “Sustained and vigorous efforts are required to secure the enhanced participation of women from the rural areas in the organized sector labour force.” She was quoted saying by Business Standard.

Post-partum period for office-goer women is crucial. But don’t worry, kids' corner has been designed here with toys and LCD displaying cartoon networks to entertain the kid. A lady customer can keep her child here, the baby will be taken care of. All the women-centric frames stitched with walls tell us stories of her resilient nature. Women lifting prayerful palms at Khankai Moula to plucking saffron at the Karewa’s of Pampore convey the need and importance of other gender. Quotable quotes from Maya Angelou to Malala Yousuzai tell us that men can’t weave successful stories without women. They complete each other.

Born in a highly patriarchal set-up, I had my own bias. “Are women good financial advisors?” I asked Sabreena the other day. “Women are not spendthrift, Abid. Look at me.” She brushed away my query. I grinned. “Savings help us in uncommon times.” This is how women are counseled here to store the capital in various Fixed Deposit Schemes.

To conceive this idea in Kashmir is incredible. But it is not novel. In 2013 fall, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated India’s first all-women bank- Bharatiya Mahila Bank (BMB), the focus was predominantly on unbanked population who could take up entrepreneurial skills and turn them wonder women. The motive was to help them to contribute in economic activities. But the bank couldn’t live up to the expectations. BMB was merged with State’s largest lender, State Bank of India in 2017.

Ten years ago, Nesrine Malik opined in The Guardian that opening women-only banks is a necessity. “This obviously sounds backward and archaic, but it is not only Arab and Muslim countries that are separating male and female banking services. Banks in west have experimented with women’s branches way back in 1960's.” Three years ago, when the news of FINCA Afghanistan opening its first women-only branch in war-ravaged region hit the airwaves, it stormed the internet. It exclusively serves women-clients, and is staffed by all-women team of financial professionals. It was believed that there will be no risk or vulnerabilities of workplace harassment. Sexual intimidation at workplace is an unpalatable truth. This might be another reason that women have been given separate space for banking.

Back to our Pink Bank, the top floor is reserved for important meetings and functions. There is a separate audio-visual sound proof training room. A customer can use the washroom and pray here unlike any other branch of the bank. There are no lady-specific benefits. The ramp and a lift is specifically made for specially-abled who can tour all the four floors of the bank. The rights of women are properly safeguarded. Ladies calling shots sounds awesome. Just before the onset of 2019 unrest, the thirteen bankers did something exemplary. They went to schools, colleges and hospitals and answered queries of common women. Like how to generate ATM PIN or how to get benefitted from certain women related schemes? Workshops on insurance, financial literacy and well-being of customers is part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But why don’t other branches follow the suit?

In a conservative social-setup, visibility is a major deal, equal treatment is an ideal concept. Having a comfort zone shall be appreciated. Equality is a matter of social hierarchy. This branch is the finest example in our backyard; women challenging the dominant narrative and breaking shackles and stereotypes and leading the change. Equality is only valid in a level-playing field. The field has been created. Now, this model can be replicated. With limited opportunities available, this segregation could be a way forward. It is helping women to be financially independent, manage their finances, etc. It was launched as a model branch on July 01, 2018. The key motive was to take care of the financial health of HNI’s (High Net-worth Individuals). “Only women with high net financial worth were given priority with premium services when this bank was launched. Why this discrimination.” I asked Sabreena as we came out of the bank. “Get into the car.” She politely ordered. “The provision was amended later, now the doors are open for all.”

Since she was “in the driver’s seat”, I obeyed. “Why only one branch in the UT of J&K? There must be a chain of such branches.” I suggested. She smiled as we headed home. “Like good home-makers, Kashmiri women are good managers.”

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