Sakrisariya in Muzaffarpur district is among the many obscure, backward villages in the state of Bihar. This village would have remained unknown had it not been for the accomplishments of 19-year-old Asma Parveen, who catapulted her family and village to fame by being chosen for the prestigious United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) calendar this year.
UNFPA, which promotes women’s empowerment and health, did not choose Asma just because she became the first girl in her community and village to attain a brown belt in karate. It was primarily in recognition of her determination, to overcome social and economic hurdles in pursuit of education, and succeed, despite all odds.
Story of courage
Born into a conservative Muslim family of limited economic means, Asma was allowed to move out of the house only when she accompanied her elder sister to the local madrasa (school imparting Islamic education). Among her six siblings, only the eldest of her four brothers studied up to graduation. Although this should have paved the way for Asma, the family was opposed to her studying beyond five years in the madrasa. In fact, both her father and elder brothers forbade her from stepping out of the house, asking her to concentrate on household work. Little did they know that Asma’s desire to study was so strong that she wouldn’t give up until she found a way to fulfil her dreams.
And find a way she did. She would wake up early in the morning, finish all the chores given to her, and then sneak out to study in the afternoon when her brothers were away. She would make sure that she was back home before her brothers returned from work.
“I had a hunger to study and I decided that I would do whatever it took to be able to learn. I realised that as long as my work at home got done, it would not hurt anyone if I went out to study,” she says.
Fortunately for Asma, Jagjagi, a learning centre for girls run by Mahila Samakhya (MS) in the village, had an extremely enthusiastic teacher or saheli, at the helm of affairs. She encouraged Asma to study and selected her for MS’s Mahila Shikshan Kendra in Muzaffarpur, where she could pursue higher studies and learn vocational skills as well.
According to Rooprani Gupta, district resource person of Mahila Samakhya, Muzaffarpur, girls are chosen for this centre on the basis of their educational abilities as well as potential to become role models and inspire others in their community.
“Asma had all these qualities but it was her dogged determination to study that tilted the balance in her favour. Since we also teach karate, which we believe boosts the girls’ confidence, we thought it would be a good opportunity for Asma to nurture her talents,” says Gupta.
Winning over the opposition
“When I heard that I had been selected for the course, it was a dream come true. But I was afraid that my family would not allow me to go, especially as the kendra is about 23 km from my village. One day, when I found all my brothers in a good mood, I told them about my selection to the kendra. They didn’t agree. When my father heard about it, he too forbade me to go,” recounts Asma.
However, she didn’t lose heart. She sought the help of her teachers to persuade her family. When Poonam Kumari, district programme coordinator of Mahila Samakhya in Muzaffarpur, realised that Asma’s family was reluctant, she invited them to visit the kendra and then take a decision. Asma’s mother visited the place and was convinced that her daughter would be safe.
Asma was so overjoyed that she didn’t shed any tears at the thought of having to stay away from her family for nine months. “I wanted to study so desperately that I never cried. Nor was I ever homesick! I did go home on holidays but I longed to return to the kendra,” she confesses.
Choosing karate over candle-making
Among the various vocational skills training programmes such as Madhubani and screen painting, and candle making, it was karate that attracted her. At the end of the nine-month course at the kendra, Asma became proficient in karate and academics. Even after she passed her Class 12 examination with a second division in 2008, Asma continued to learn karate. Of the eight levels of excellence, Asma has achieved six. At present she is a brown belt with just two more levels to go to become a black belt.
Recognising her talent, Mahila Samakhya drafted her to teach karate and inspire girls studying at various branches of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya. For Asma, who conducted five training sessions, it was also an opportunity to earn money. She received Rs 1,000 for each session. She also received Rs 300 for each training session she conducted for girls studying in schools run under the National Programme for Education of Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL).
Asma was chosen to interact with students of NPEGEL schools as they, too, build community support for girls’ education at the elementary level in educationally backward blocks in the state.
Asma, who deposits her earnings in a bank account, says she learnt the value of saving at the kendra. “I always wanted to be able to support myself and my family. Thanks to karate, I no longer take any money from my brothers for any of my personal expenses. I also contribute to the household. I recently paid my mother’s medical bills when she was unwell,” says Asma.
Earlier this year she was chosen — along with Nirmala Kumari, the only woman deputy superintendent of police in Muzaffarpur — to represent the district at a recent event organised by UNFPA in a girl’s college in Patna to promote gender empowerment.
“This was the first time that I was speaking to such a large audience. But I was not nervous. When some of the girls asked me whether I had lost hope when my family barred me from studying, I told them it was my determination to be educated that gave me confidence to find a solution. It is not difficult to overcome challenges if one is determined,” asserts Asma.
At present, she is preparing to give her examinations as a second year student of History (Honors) at the Mahila Shilp Kala Bhavan College in Muzaffarpur. She plans to become a policewoman like her role model Kiran Bedi.
Till then, Asma hopes to inspire other girls from her village and her community to broaden their horizons. She visits the village Jagjagi centre every Saturday to teach the girls.
Positive changes have happened within the family as well. Her older brother, Shameen (27), who had dropped out of school to support the family, has begun studying again. Younger sister Razda has done Asma proud by following in her footsteps and being selected to be part of Mahila Samakhya’s Shikshan Kendra.
“Hopefully, she too, will be selected for the UNFPA calendar some day,” says Asma with a smile.