Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sehroj : Spirit of freedom and responsiblity

A Muslim woman’s struggle for social change

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

She looked bubbly when I first saw her working with a local NGO in Karvy town of Chitrakoot district. She would eagerly listen to our instructions and talks but the environment with in the organization was not suitable for her. The male gaze and contempt for her could be easily found once you talk to them. Character was the easiest virtue that they would talk. Later, when I went on a Padyatra i.e. footmarch from Shivpur Baithakva, in Koraon block of Allahabad district, she was there for the entire fortnight in May 2002. She had some problem in her toe and yet I could feel the pressure of the organization to join her padyatra. I could understand her predicament being a woman and that too being a Muslim woman in an other-wise feudal NGO where people mean your community and family. Yes, I am talking of a woman named Sehroj Fatima, who worked hard with determination to make a mark for her and her community women in Chitrakoot.

Many years later, she came to Delhi to participate in Indian Social Forum, in November 2006, where I met her and inquired as what she was doing. To my surprise she informed me that she has completed her B.A. and wanted to appear in the M.A. examination. I promised to help her but because of certain delay, she missed that opportunity but she is raring to do that too.

Sehroj was born in a very poor family on October 8th, 1980. Her father was a Munshi with a local lawyer but got involved in gambling. He forgot that to fulfill his fantasies he was putting his family in immense difficulties and problems. He sold off everything that his family needed.

They had about 3 bighas of irrigated agricultural land and about three houses. Unfortunately, this habit of betting and gambling completely destroyed the family. The family was starving and her father was auctioning his land and house. The two houses and land slipped from the family. And the family was not small. They were five sisters and three brothers. There was no food to eat. Sehroj and her mother used to go out and virtually beg from the villagers. They would sleep on the thatched hut on the dry leaves and the empty rice bags. ‘ I was fond of reading’, says Sehroj and always thought of moving ahead despite facing such difficulties. When she was in the fifth standard, her mother decided to withdrew her from the school saying, ‘ daughter should not study too much, hence you will not go to school further.’ “ I felt dark in front of my eyes, but some how my father send me back to school. It is surprising that my father did not create hurdle in my studying,’ says Sehroj. Since Sehroj was going out for work and extrovert, most of the neighborhood felt that she was too ‘liberal’. But she was determined to live a dignified life of her own and her family. She passed her high school. But education afterwards became difficult. Her father had been suffering from various ailments. He was bedridden and poor Sehroj and her mother would go and beg in the village to run the family. Being a beautiful child was a problem. Whenever she went out to beg, the male gaze was always at her. It is awkward but those who have seen the North Indian feudal environment would vouch how offensive it looks when the people just ‘watch’ the women, the young girls.. They stare at them shamelessly as if women are some object. It is shocking that the girls, women have to live in such dangerous environment. It become doubly difficult for the girls who want to live a dignified live and yet need societies help for survival.

When Sehroj was in the intermediate (i.e. 12th standard), her father was bed ridden and the family had not eaten for nearly a week. Sehroj showed some courage and went out to work as labour in the neighboring houses, which were being constructed. She got Rs 40/- for that days work. Now the family realized their ‘potential’. So her three sisters along with her started working with other construction labour. By evening shift she would go to write her exams and passed out. In the meanwhile, her father passed away. There was no ‘male’ at home and the five sisters along with her mother needed caring. She had to go out and the locals would laugh at her, charge her with amorous character as well as humiliate her whenever they got an opportunity. Yet she continued. She started teaching at a school as well as some home tuition. Conflict at home was a routine affair. Now those who used to term her as ‘characterless’ talk of her bravery.

Finally, she got a job with a local ‘ NGO’ or self-styled, community based organization where she was told that she would get Rs 5000/- per month for her work. She used to sign on Rs 4,000/- but actually used to get just Rs 1000/-. But compulsion forced her to work with the organization for nearly five years. One can understand how women are treated in the organizations and how the NGOs have ruined the local self respect movements and using everything to maintain the status quo.

In the year 2000 her brother fixed a marriage for Sehroj. Actually her cousins called her to Mumbai. They fixed a match for her. She did not know about it. Her husband was from Moradabad. When she saw her husband on the Nikah day, she was shocked. She was not interested in the marriage but she was forced, and beaten to accept it. When she went to her husband’s home, she found him four time in age than that of her. ‘He already had 8 children from his previous three marriages, says Sehroj and add that it was a bigger humiliation and embarrassment to see that some his children were more in age than Sehroj. The elder sons were unable to accept her in the family and would beat her. ‘There was no possibility of my working with her. He did not care for me. For him it was another domestic servant to take care of him and his children. He would work for one day and rest for next three days. His children’s were of my age and hence it was more difficult for me to adjust. I returned to my mother’s place which was on the verge of hunger and starvation. It was a difficult choice, says Sehroj. Her husband came to her home and asked her to return. Her mother thought that it was better for Sehroj to go back to her ‘home’. Again she was forced to go to her ‘home’ but this time she took her younger sister along with. Unfortunately, she could not match the expectations of her husband and finally returned with in a fortnight.

My mother and younger sisters needed me’, says Sehroj with a moist eyes. I had seen the poverty and hunger and I was determined that I would not allow my family to live in the same circumstances which I faced in my childhood’, she said.

Sehroj took care of her family. She started looking for job again. It is very difficult to get a job in India’s rural structure. It is more difficult for women and that too from the Muslim community as the rural biases and prejudices are already prevailing in our system.

After some search she got a job in Vanangana, a women’s right organization. It gave a new dynamism to Sehroj’s personality. She understood the oppression of women. Her perception change and she started looking it in greater perspective. The work gave her much needed stability as she started uniting her family. Her younger brother had left the family for good with his own family in Mumbai. Two other younger brothers are too young to understand things. She has got her one sister married and says with pride that I want to educate the others and get them ‘settled’.

Still, she had not divorced. Her husband would come and create problem for her. Finally, on the advise of her colleagues and friends, she filed for a divorce and was given it ex-party as her husband never appeared for the case.

It was difficult once again for her. People would make silly remark about her character. She damned everything and continued her education. She completed her BA privately during this period. Unfortunately, she again came into a wedlock with a person who wanted her to stay inside. ‘ Muslim woman should not go outside the house. They are the ‘ijjat’, honor of the family’, her husband would ask her. Sehroj by now had become a woman committed to the cause. She decided against her husband’s dictate and started living separately near his house. He is still ready to accept her provided she leave the job and remain as an ‘honor’ of the family inside the four walls of the house.

Though Sehroj is working with a women’s organization, she want to do specific work for her village. In the spare time she find, she is educating the Dalit girls and want to give them technical skills and educate them about their rights. She says that women too have a right feel happy and enjoy apart from looking after family and children.

Bundelkhand was immortalized by the poetry of Subhudra Kumari Chauhan on Rani Laxmi Bai. But today’s facts reveal the dirty side of Bundelkhand. Despite farmer’s distress, despite water crisis, in one area, Bundelkhand dominate, and that is violence against women. A walk in the street of Karvi town and you would rarely find women going alone with her head high. Even the women’s organizations that worked and changed perception of a number of women’s in the region find it difficult to work in such a hostile terrain. The civil society organizations, which claim to work for the people, do not allow their women to come out. So it is liberation of others not from with in the families. Identities are used to serve purpose of a particular community and person. Bundelkhand has huge organizations. It is easier for them to get vast track of land in their name while the communities are starving. You have trust from big corporations, from local political bigwigs, from the Goons. You have land, thousands of acres in the name of Mutths, colleges, Gaushalas, trusts and temples, but unfortunately there is nothing for the poor. And among the poor, nobody counts women. It is ironical that we are exposing in India’s heartland of Uttar-Pradesh where land for poor is a luxury but land for all other things is available provided you have political clout, power to pay bribed and bureaucratic connections.

Sehroj has a dream. A dream for women of her community to live better lives. To understand their rights and ask for it. Though, she has been serving her mother from the bottom of her heart, she knows well that her mother would never want her share in the property. She says, it is your duty to serve your husband and if you are divorced or destitute, you should serve the brothers.’ ‘ Sewa main he mewa hai, says her mother. Sehroj feel anguished why women are denied right despite of the fact that Shariat has given so much of rights to women. She is going to educate the women of her community that her religion has given them enough right and that they should ask for it. Whenever, she get time, she teach her sisters and village people. Just about 2 kilometer from karvi town is village Taraunha where Sehroj is trying to live an honorable life. A life, which is still uncertain with so much, pulls and pressure from the society, which does not give individual a choice to live with dignity and freedom. She has faced a lot in her life and is determined to make things better. One only hopes that the personal struggle of Sehroj will not go in vain. Her struggle continues, it need acknowledgement and support from the community as well as all those who believe in triumph of human spirit.

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