By Dr. Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam
Image: With the Real Heroines - Left to Right: Mumtaz Shaikh, Bharati Shetty, Qazi Khatoon Shaikh, Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz (BMMA Founder), the author, Qazi Suraiya Shaikh, Qazi Hina Shaikh, Farheen Shaikh.
Finally came the long-awaited meeting with the survivors of the 1992-1993 riots who are among the local pillars of strength for the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). These were the women who truly exemplified the BMMA’s motto, “My Struggle. My Leadership.” Sixty-five-year-old widow Qazi Khatoon Shaikh had witnessed harrowing suffering both personally and that inflicted on close relatives and friends during the riots. Hailing from Naupada in Bandra East that was ravaged during the riots, Khatoon was always a socially pro-active person and the riots egged her on to join active social service almost a quarter century ago. She is one among the batch of first fifteen female Qazis in the country (and one of the three in Mumbai), proud of her calling which enables her to administer Islamic laws and traditions justly and benevolently towards women.
Having raised three boys and four girls who are all socially proactive citizens, Khatoon has been a relentless champion for women’s education and for opposition to patriarchy and all kinds of violence/subjugation directed towards women from within the Muslim community. She is especially vociferous in countering Islamophobia and in combating everyday incidents aimed at creating religious divides. “Women of India, unite against patriarchy and communalism”- is her message to fellow women. Forty-five-year-old Ms. Mumtaz Shaikh belonged to the slums of BKC, Bharat Nagar, Bandra East. Mumtaz had witnessed bone-chilling incidents of violence and arson during the riots. The wife of a construction labourer, she had fought against poverty and marginalization to raised four children who have gone on to become psychologist, pharmacist and IT professionals. After over eighteen years spent in educating and empowering the poorest women of her community, Mumtaz emphasizes, “Every woman must educate and liberate herself, fight for her rights, achieve self-realisation.”
Farheen Shaikh, all of thirty-six, is a young firebrand. The daughter of Qazi Khatoon Shaikh, Farheen readily followed her mother into social work even as a teenager. She plays a leadership role in Udaan and Seher – the youth wings of BMMA that train young boys and girls in gender equality, communal harmony and core life skills. Farheen remembers the scary days of 1992-93 when she witnessed horrible violence on the streets and religious segregation in her school. She remembers how children of both communities were forced to look at each other as monsters. She was one of the few teenagers who made a conscious effort to understand with and mingle with members of the majority community, risking ostracization from the orthodoxy in her own community. She believes that ordinary citizens should reject the diktats of religious and political leaders and mingle freely with each other especially during religious ceremonies and festivals. If politicians can visit all religious places for electoral benefits, why do they stop people of different religions from coming together, asks Farheen. “Fight politicians by using their strategy; befriend Hindus and attack riot-mongers” – is her message to her fellow men and women.
Another inspiring story is that of Qazi Hina Shaikh, one of the first female Qazis. Now in her late forties, Hina had witnessed her husband’s small tailoring shop being burnt to ashes by rioters. They had a narrow escape, but this incident led to long years of terrible poverty for her family. Hina too swam against the current to not only nurture her family but also to lend a helping hand to other needy women. “Wisdom lies in preventing riots; women must support each other,” is what Hina reiterates time and again. Around the same age is Qazi Suraiya Shaikh, the third in the trio of Qazis. Suraiya, a young bride at the time of the riots, hails from Behrampada, one of the worst affected slums. She saw horrible scenes including that of a Muslim woman being burnt alive even as she clutched the Quran. Suraiya and many women like her spent days hiding and starving inside locked rooms to save their lives. One of her sisters died of fright and one of her brothers spent years in an asylum scarred by the trauma of the riots. Suraiya’s eyes filled with tears as she recounted those terrible days but then came a voice full of steely resolve - “Move on; humanity is supreme, not religion; fight prejudice”.
Finally, one more surprise - a Hindu woman who had dedicated her life to supporting Muslim women. Bharati Shetty, in her early forties, hails from Khar. Her husband works as a driver and her two sons work in the informal sector. Bharati too had witnessed the riots, tried to help her Muslim neighbours, and for a long time had been sensitive to the plight of the Muslim woman who had to fight both the conservatism of her own community and the prejudices of the majority community. Bharati went against her community and relatives to involve herself in BMMA work. “I desire to work for the Muslim women who are not only oppressed but also silenced, unlike their Hindu counterparts who can at least speak out,” Bharati told me.
When I had ended those series of interviews with the BMMA, I felt something deep inside me had changed forever. The stories were endless, fathomless, boundless…. They were so inspiring, they had to be shouted out from the roof tops. Yet here they were, these efficient, empathetic, strong women, working in silence, away from the limelight, fighting against all kinds of extremist forces, reaching out to women of all communities who suffered any form of poverty, ignorance, violence, oppression or exploitation. Here they were, never shying away from their beliefs or religion, but on the other hand, using the Quran, to educate, sensitize, empower and liberate women. Here they were, proud Indians, proud Muslims, and above all proud women, waging a successful battle against patriarchy and communalism all over India, with absolute confidence and with a big smile!