Women of steel

TOUGH STAND

Women of steel

Twelve years ago, Jameela Nishat, a middle-aged woman from the Indian city of pearls, gave up a secure Central government job to improve the lot of voiceless Muslim women and of those belonging to the Scheduled Caste and backward classes.

A post-graduate in English literature from Hyderabad’s prestigious Osmania University, Jameela grew up imbibing the best from the world of art and literature but helplessly observed that women in her community had no say in decision making. “Take my own case. I wanted to paint but I was not allowed to paint as family elders would say that sending a woman to an art school entailed drawing a nude model and they found that revolting,” says Jameela, who remembers artist M F Husain frequenting their home in her childhood.

Jameela’s father, Sayed Bin Mohammed, a portrait artist who headed the department of painting in the Jawaharlal Nehru Technology University (JNTU) in Hyderabad, was a close friend of M F Husain. Jameela has vivid childhood memories of the artist spreading out a canvas or a chart paper on the floor in her house in Vijay Nagar, then sitting on it and painting. She was barely six or seven at that time.

Challenging patriarchy
Today, Jameela herself is in the news. She was recently honoured by a group of women’s organisations — Sangat, Jagori, Asmita and Kriti — to mark 100 years of International Women’s Day for her courageous work in promoting communal harmony and challenging patriarchy, among other contributions.

The compromised lives of Muslim women and the insecurity that members of the minority community faced after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition were reasons compelling enough to galvanise Jameela into action. “I was born in Sultan Shahi in the old city but raised in the new city. I always thought I was living in cosmopolitan surroundings but 1992 created a polarisation. That was the first time I realised my religious identity. We began to be reminded of our religion on a day-to-day basis and interactions between members of the two communities ceased to be anything but free and easy.”
In 1997, Jameela decided to go to the city of her birth to make a small beginning aimed at narrowing the wide gap between the two communities. “I worked for five years with Asmita in Hyderabad and then registered my own organisation — Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association — in 2002.  In Iqbal’s poetry, ‘Shaheen’ is a bird that flies very high in the sky. Our main office is in Sultan Shahi. We also have branches in poverty-stricken Hasan Nagar in Ranga Reddy district; and One Town in Mehboob Nagar district,” she says.

Over the years, Jameela has empowered young girls to assert their rights and resist injustice. On Women’s Day this year, they even staged an unusual public demonstration: The girls, along with Jameela, held hands and ringed Hyderabad’s most famous monument, the Charminar, in support of women’s rights. 

Fighting oppression
With a sense of pride, Jameela narrates the success stories of Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association. “When I began work in Sultan Shahi, beating women was equated with masculinity. The girls have begun to question the stifling system. One of them, a 17-year-old from Hasan Nagar in the old city who was being offered in muttah marriage last summer to a 65-year-old sheikh of Qatar, helped us in an undercover operation. One of our field workers posed as her mother. This operation, carried out with the help of the hidden cameras of a private news channel, compelled the police to arrest the sheikh.”

Jameela recalls how the girl was under tremendous pressure from her mother to give in to the family’s wishes and marry the man. “Her mother would try to convince her by saying that the marriage would serve to improve their lifestyle. She has now married a man of her choice. Baba Nagar is an area notorious for such fixed-term matrimonial alliances. We found that in 100 households, 33 girls had been given away to old Arabs in muttah marriages. This is an organised racket in Hyderabad, where even the police is reluctant to help. Married wealthy sheikhs from Gulf nations come to the city and stay in hotels. They contact middlemen, who then fix a safe place to introduce them to girls from poor families. In most cases, the middlemen take half the mehr (bride price) given at the time of the nikah.” 

 In another case two years ago, Jameela’s NGO helped a young girl from Jhirra, a slum area in Hyderabad. The young victim had been given a talaaq (divorce) over the phone by her husband just a month after their marriage. Jameela narrates the story: “We questioned the talaaq. The man got a fatwa (ruling from a cleric) from Jame-Nizamia, a local madrasa, which we challenged. He had no choice but to take his wife back home.”
This social activist hopes to empower the dalit women to enable them to have an equal say in all matters. “There is a biradri system in many dalit communities, where women have no say in decision making. They also have no education,” explains Jameela.
Today, she looks back with a sense of fulfilment. And why not? She has succeeded in building a cadre of young women who fight discrimination and oppression within the family and community.
Some of Jameela’s concerns are cultural. The neglect of the Urdu language in Hyderabad, is one of them.

“There seems to be a deliberate effort to sideline Urdu. It is indeed unfortunate that this rich language is now looked upon exclusively as a language of Muslims. The Urdu Academy in Hyderabad, open to everybody, has now been relocated to the Haj House,” bemoans Jameela, who has published three collections of poetry: Lava (2000), Lamhe ki Aank (2002) and Lams Ki Saughat. She has also edited Inkesshaf, an anthology of work by women writers in the Deccan. Lamhe Ki Aank has been translated into English by contemporary English poet, Hoshang Merchant.

Jameela’s husband, Rehman, a retired deputy registrar of JNTU, and her two sons, Suhel and Ubaid, have all along encouraged her to work in territories that few would dare to enter. They obviously recognise her grit. It was this extraordinary courage and determination that enabled her to resist opposition to her work from men of her own community.

Jameela distinctly remembers a certain day in 2002 when a group of 25 men came to her centre after the Friday prayers and began accusing her of liberating women. “The arguments lasted three hours but, by the end of it, I succeeded in convincing them to make a retreat,” she says with quiet pride.

Women’s Feature Service

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