India: Superwoman Wields Meitei Magic

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Several faded old ‘chunnis’ (stoles) stitched together partition 35-year-old Najma’s office from her kitchen in the bamboo-walled room, adjoining her dilapidated mud house. Posters and old cloth banners on domestic violence, child rights, gender and conflict vie for attention with a huge poster of activist Irom Chanu Sharmila arguing for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958.

“See my home,” she urges. As I walk in, the smell of fresh cow dung and mud hits my nostrils. “I was coating the floor with mud and cow dung when your call came,” she apologises.

“There are so many things we need – food, mattresses, bed, mosquito nets… I’ve been running around, asking everybody for help. Some donated those old clothes, I’ve to wash them,” she says, pointing to the untidy pile in the room.

The two beds in the one-room hut had only a few blankets serving as mattresses. A heavily pregnant woman was stretched out on one of them, a protective arm cradling an emaciated child to her breast. “This is Samina. Her husband drove her and her two-year-old son out of the house,” explains Najma.

Phundreimayum Najma herself is no stranger to gender discrimination and domestic violence. As a young girl born into a ‘pangan’ (Meitei Muslim) family in a Santhel village in Imphal West district – about 30 kilometres from the capital – she has had to fight tooth and nail for education and the freedom to work for the women in her orthodox community.

“There was no ‘madrassa’ (Islamic school) for girls in our village at that time. As the only girl in my class, I endured taunts and sexually offensive words and gestures from classmates and teachers. All my brothers received higher education. Though I was the only one among my sisters to pass my matric (class 10), all my parents could talk about was my marriage,” she recalls.

In an act of defiant desperation, Najma, at 17, eloped with a man whom she had met only twice. But she walked out of the marriage six months later. “I wasn’t exactly what you call beautiful. Apart from that I didn’t bring a handsome dowry. These were negative factors for my mother-in-law, who tried every trick to ensure that I didn’t talk to my husband during the day or share his bed at night. …I wasn’t to talk to the neighbours, and if I spent some time reading or writing, I was accused of writing letters to other men,” she narrates impassively.

“My parents thought I was making up stories. Even if they believed me they thought I would soon settle down,” Najma says.

After the divorce, Najma started teaching some housewives and children in her locality. She also initiated the ‘cheng marup’ or rice thrift fund to ensure economic independence for the women in her community. “Everyday the women in the group would take out one handful of rice from the quantity to be cooked. These were collected and kept in my house, and twice a month, whoever’s turn came, she would get the entire amount,” she said, adding with a smile, “The men started talking. I was a bad woman, a divorcee, encouraging others to steal. But we persisted and the ‘marup’ ran its full course.”

However, it was only after her second marriage, this time to Ayub Khan of Santhel Makha Leikai, and the birth of two children, that Najma started working more actively as a gender activist. “I know how it feels to be unwanted. And I know how dire the consequences can be – my youngest sister, Mumtaj, died heartbroken – separated from her beloved due to societal norms and individual hatred, and forcibly married off to another, who only beat her and sold off her belongings. I felt there must be more girls like her, and I must save them,” she adds.

In 2001, she attended a workshop on gender. “Listening to the resource person, Mangsatabam Sobita of the Women Action for Development (WAD), an NGO based in Imphal, I realised that what she was terming as gender discrimination is what I had been experiencing all along. She has been an inspiration and an adviser since then,” says Najma.

From establishing self help groups (SHGs) of women selling vegetables and rearing cows to generating income independent of their husbands, to fighting domestic violence and gender discrimination cases, to opening a shelter home for destitute ‘pangan’ women – the first of its kind in Manipur – Najma’s journey has been fraught with obstacles and struggle.

“At first, the menfolk and the ‘maulvis’ (Muslim clerics) started whispering amongst themselves, ‘Najma is leading all the ‘pangan’ women to do Meira Paibi work like the Meitei women’. They would ask my family about my whereabouts if I stayed overnight for workshops,” she narrates.

But even as the struggle grew harder, more women were approaching Najma for help. Matters came to a head when, in early 2006, the ‘maulvis’ used the local public address system to announce that all women SHGs in the village were banned on religious grounds. “‘Najma is making the women go outside the home, they will all become ‘barbaad’ (ruined)’ – this is what they said,” she reminisces.

When she continued working, Najma and her family were ostracised. “We were not to use the community ponds or buy from the local shops. I thought it was a huge joke, but one day when my youngest son came crying saying that the shopkeepers had refused to sell sweets to him, I realised what I was up against. My son kept crying and I cried with him,” she recalls.

Determined to defy the ban, Najma went ahead and took water from the pond of the ‘maulvis’. In retribution, her husband was threatened with death if he didn’t stop her from working. Ayub stood by her this time and was beaten up twice.

The matter was settled in June 2006, only after a meeting of the ‘maulvis’ in the presence of the Jamiatul Ulama, Manipur, and representatives of the United Manipur Muslim Women Development Organisation (UMMWDO) and the All Manipur Muslim Students’ Organisation (AMMSO) at Babupara. It was decreed that Najma wasn’t doing anything wrong by working for the betterment of women and that all accusations against her were false.

“One maulvi approached me the other day and asked me to take in his daughter into our SHG work,” she smiles in triumph.

In her office, the Organisation for Social Development (OSD) located at Santhel, Najma welcomes all those who need her help. “We must have fought about 100 cases till now, most of them with the help of WAD,” she says.

At present, her shelter home has two inmates – Samina, 21, and a high school student, Thoibi (name changed), who was duped by her tuition teacher into sexual relations with promises of marriage and then deserted. Samina’s parents-in-law had subjected her to enormous harassment, even to the extent of getting her to abort two pregnancies. Her husband, a rickshaw driver, had stood by her for some years, but joined in the harassment later on. Samina, who didn’t want to face the humiliation of returning to her parental home, turned to Najma for help.

Though women in Manipur across communities have a relatively higher status when compared to other parts of India, patriarchal traditions as well as prolonged conflict in the state have spawned widespread crimes against women, especially domestic violence, rape, molestation and even murder.

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)

By Anjulika Thingam Samom