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Quest for change in a Muslim ghetto

Sep 27, 2009

Mehbullahpur locality in the city of Lucknow in northern India has a population of about 50,000, comprising largely poor Muslims. Shakila Begum, with her team of 10 volunteers, is trying to bring change in their lives.

Lucknow: From the quiet confines of the university library where she worked, to the mud-laden environs of her 'adopted' slum of Mehbullahpur, has been a challenging journey for 35-year-old Shakila Begum.

Hundreds of poor families live in the Mehbullahpur slum, a mere eight kilometres from the heart of Lucknow city, the upmarket locality of Hazratganj. Shakila gave up her secure job at Lucknow University so that she could help Muslim women here understand their rights.

Now a fellow with Jagori, a women's training and resource centre, Shakila has so far enrolled around 200 slum children in schools; organised women in self-financing income-generating groups; and imparted information on health and gender equality to them. She has, in fact, steered the community away from poverty and the unkind stereotypes that are projected about it, by helping these women understand their rights.

It was the resolve to transform the lives of Mehbullahpur's women that Shakila gave up her job and set up Aagaze Insaaf (initiating justice). But how was she to break the ice and win their confidence, she had wondered, when she first walked through the area and saw the plight of the hungry, malnourished children teeming around.

"It was the resolve to transform the lives of Mehbullahpur's women that Shakila gave up her job and set up Aagaze Insaaf"

Pushed to the margins

Sidelined, ignored, pushed to the fringes, women of such Muslim ghettoes are generally labelled as 'dirty and illiterate'. They constantly encounter blatant societal discrimination or subtle rebuffs in their daily lives. Their community is even denied the free government civic amenities that are its due, largely because it does not know its rights.

The indifferent treatment meted out to the community, at large, and to poor minority women, in particular, by civic service providers has ensured that slums like Mehbullahpur remain in a time warp, denied any vestige of progress. Making things worse is the prevalence of domestic violence, over-bearing or ignorant husbands, cruel, unthinking in-laws and a controlling clergy.

Greatly disturbed by these harsh realities, Shakila, a social activist with an M.Phil in Sociology and an MA in Women Studies from Lucknow University, focused her attention on disseminating education, specifically for the benefit of women and children.

Adopting Mehbullahpur with a population of about 50,000, Shakila and her team of 10 volunteers –comprising students and professionals – were soon to realise how significant their contribution was to be. Mehbullahpur was bereft of water supply, electricity, and even a health centre.

In addition, the residents neither had ration cards nor voter identity cards. In short, unlike the slum dwellers of Bharatnagar, a neighboring shanty only four kilometres away, which is replete with basic civic amenities, the residents of Mehbullahpur residents were living without any basic support systems. It was as if they did not exist in the eyes of the state.

Eight months ago, determined to end this untenable situation, Shakila and her team spent some initial days simply visiting the area, chatting to the women and listening to their problems. The next step was to begin making a difference to their lives by teaching their children who had never been to school.

They reached out to the little ones by giving them sweets, toys and games, while imparting easy-to-comprehend lessons in basic hygiene and health. The commitment and sincerity of Shakila and her team resulted in many women, mothers in particular, opening up to them. This made it easy for the former librarian to introduce the concept of legal rights to the women.

Learning to fight against the system

"It generated instant interest. They were eager to learn how to fight against the system that had pushed them off the rights list," recalls Shakila, sitting in her small office in Jankipuram, a settlement colony on the outskirts of Lucknow.

The powerless women were eager to learn of their rights and seek information on the Sharia (religious laws) and their civic entitlements. Shakila's legal sessions were attended with great enthusiasm.

"The powerless women were eager to learn of their rights and seek information on the Sharia (religious laws) and their civic entitlements"

Over time, she found that the gullible women of Mehbullahpur were often exploited by the clergy in the name of religion. Braving the subsequent opposition from the clergy and husbands – during which the women from the slums stood up for her – Shakila introduced lessons on social ills like triple divorce and domestic violence.

States Shakila: "It is not that Muslim women do not want to practise family planning measures. It is just that they are often misled by the clerics into believing that they are anti-Islamic. We tried to encourage them into leading healthier, more fulfilling lives."

Addressing another pressing problem, Shakila decided to respond to the need for the economic empowerment amongst the women. Through her interaction with the women she realised that they were branded as 'beef eaters' and found it impossible to get employment even as menial domestic workers in traditional Hindu households.

Making things worse was the fact that the entire community had come under a patina of suspicion following a spate of terrorist attacks in the state and elsewhere.

Self-Help Groups

Knowing that economic empowerment was the first step towards independence, Shakila set out to organise the women into 10 Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of 20 members each.

Each group member contributed Rs 5 (US$1=Rs 48.6) per week and one amongst them was entrusted with the job of collecting money and keeping accounts. Each group formulated its own rules.

The only rule common to all the groups was that no interest was to be charged on the money, as Islam did not permit the use of interest. The women opened small business ventures from the pooled kitty and along the way learnt how to open and operate bank and post office accounts. Shakila's Aagaze Insaaf linked many SHGs to banks.

"Today, many Mehbullahpur women have their own small businesses, like tea and bangle stalls, vegetable kiosks and the like," smiles Shakila, as she describes how 100 women of the slum have now experienced economic empowerment. Rehana Begum, 38, is one such resident.

"Today, many Mehbullahpur women have their own small businesses, like tea and bangle stalls, vegetable kiosks and the like"

Rehana had never stepped out of her home and the responsibility of an ailing husband and four children was making life very tough. But the eight months of counselling by Aagaze Insaaf have totally transformed her.

Today, she has set up a bangles business and sends her children to study at a nearby school. "I could not have asked for anything better. God has sent these people as messiahs," she says.

Kalimulnisa adds: "Turning the local mosque into a part-time school has greatly benefited the people of this area." She comes to study at the school along with her children.

Shakila says proudly: "She not only studies herself and brings her children to study, she tries to teach whatever she has learnt to the other women. She is a great motivating factor for women here."

Shakila's efforts are definitely making a big difference in the quality of life in many desperately poor Muslim households. Hers has been a venture of awakening and teaching. And for the women whose lives she has touched, there is no looking back now.

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