From the margins

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

The AIDWAs convention calls on the government to do its duty by Indias Muslim women.

in New Delhi

THERE were stories of exploitation and neglect, first-hand accounts of mindless violence, and resentment at government apathy and injustice at the hands of community elders. And, of course, there were the familiar stories of police harassment after every terror attack. Over 800 Muslim women from across the country attended the All India Democratic Womens Associations (AIDWA) national convention of Muslim women on August 27 in New Delhi. Their testimonies defied stereotypes of the passive victim as they spoke of neglect by government agencies, of their appalling living and working conditions and of the experience of living in a patriarchal society that is insensitive to their concerns.

The conventions charter of demands sought recognition for Indias Muslim women as equal citizens with adequate access to education, health care and employment and asserted that their welfare was the concern of not just the community but the government as well. AIDWA president Subhashini Ali said that while Muslim women felt insecure in the context of rising communal violence, there was also an increasing awareness of their entitlements as citizens.

Among the delegates were elected women representatives, home-based workers, self-help group (SHG) workers, victims of riots and of dowry harassment, and women who had had to deal with police harassment after terror strikes. There were, too, women who had been the victims of decisions made by their own community leaders.

Shakeela, whose seven-year-old son was shot in the head by the Gujarat Police in 2002, broke down as she spoke. Mujibibi, 35, from Davangere in Karnataka, had worked for 20 years as a beedi roller, and very little in her life had changed in these 20 years. She rolls out about 1,100 beedis along with the others in her family in a day, makes Rs.45 for more than 12 hours of work, and enjoys no benefit under the special statute for beedi workers. In Harapanalli taluka, her hometown, scores of Muslim families are engaged in beedi-making. She often gets a burning sensation in her face, eyes and chest, an occupational hazard associated with tobacco. I have to do it, otherwise how will I survive? I do not want my children to go through the same thing, so I have to work, she said.

Ishrat, from Kanpur, broke down several times while narrating her story. Her husband, a former textile worker, was jobless. Like many other poor Muslim women, she lives in a cramped two-room tenement. Municipal workers, she complained, never visited Muslim areas.

Increasing poverty levels among Muslims in the country have led Muslim women to explore avenues to supplement family incomes. However, it is home-based work that most of them are forced to take up. This unorganised employment makes such women dependent on middlemen and a chain of employers. Naseem, a resident of Old Delhi, has worked as a handicraft worker for 22 years. In every other household in her neighbourhood, there are women trying to make a living out of zardozi work and by making envelopes, rachis, bindis and even machine parts. She herself works eight to 10 hours a day. There are women who have been working for 35 years, and now they earn about Rs.300 a month, she said. (The minimum daily wage in Delhi is Rs.140.) Malka, a zardozi worker from Lucknow, said she was unable to afford an education for her daughters because of the dwindling returns of the trade. The chikan kurta sells for thousands of rupees, but we get next to nothing, she said.

In Tripura, things were slightly better as Muslim women had formed SHGs. Rehana said that of the 20,000 SHGs in the State, 17,000 were run by women from the Scheduled Tribe, Scheduled Caste and Muslim communities.

Among the elected representatives who attended the convention were Mahira Khatun and Sarwar Jahan, both elected members of the Kolkata Municipal Council. Sameena Afroz is the chairperson of the Khammam Municipal Corporation in Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 20 per cent of the population in the Khammam Municipality area is Muslim. Ever since she became the chairperson, more and more Muslim women have been coming out with their problems, according to Sameena. I fight with my government to give more funds for my municipality. I have succeeded in getting health cards and BPL [below poverty line] cards for the poor, she said.

Naseem from Jaipur was angry about the way the police harassed Muslims after the blasts in May. She said that the police barged into homes demanding to be shown identity cards of young people. If we give them the green notes, then there isnt any problem. If we do not, then we are labelled as Bangladeshis who should be deported, she alleged. She received applause from the audience when she asserted: As Hindustanis, we have every right to live in any part of the country just like anyone else.

Kaifi from Delhi was a dowry victim who had realised that her liberation lay in financial independence. She broke down while narrating how she lost her nine-month-old daughter to pneumonia. She died in my arms. I did not have a single paisa to get her treated. My in-laws refused to help me because I had given birth to a daughter, she said. Determined not to look back, she trained as a beautician and has decided to devote her life to helping other Muslim women in distress.

Najma from a village in Bhadrak, Orissa, described how she stood up to community elders who insisted that she was divorced after her husband pronounced the triple talaq one night in a drunken state, only to retract it the next morning. Finally, she secured a court order that restored the couples right to live together. Qamar from Hyderabad, an AIDWA activist, had spent a week in jail following an agitation for housing rights. We were told that stepping into a police station or a court was a gunaah [crime], but if we have to do that for our rights, let us do it, she said.

The convention came up with a charter of demands that asked for a sub-plan for the socio-economic, educational, health and other development of the Muslim community in India. It demanded a 15 per cent allocation of the annual budget under various Ministries for the community and sought an equitable allocation under the sub-plan for specific schemes for Muslim women. The charter demanded recognition and support for Muslim minority educational institutions, facilities for the formal education of Muslim girls and women, and upgrading of madrassas, following the West Bengal model, to provide modern education and vocational training. There were also demands for more health centres and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) centres to cater to the needs of the community.

The charter demanded that 15 per cent of bank loans should be provided to Muslims in priority sectors as well as commercial and business sectors. It asked for easy credit to SHGs, craftswomen and women involved in petty trade and commerce and sought training centres at the district level to nurture skills in the unorganised sector. The charter also called for the enactment of the Bill giving 33 per cent reservation to women in the legislatures. It sought reservation for Dalit Muslims and adequate representation for Dalit Muslim women. It called for justice to riot victims.

Brinda Karat, Member of Parliament, said that while the condition of women in India was generally bad, that of Dalit and Muslim women was worse. It is strange that a country that is ready to spend on imported nuclear reactors should have no money for meeting the minimum needs of poor women, she said. The convention was a call for change, with the broad understanding that the issues confronting women in general could not be dealt with if specific problems that women of the more marginalised sections faced were not focussed upon.

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