By Tripti Nath, Womens Feature Service
Jameela Nishat, a middle-aged woman from the Indian city of pearls, gave up a secure Central government job twelve years ago to improve the status of voiceless Muslim women in India.
Jameela completed her post-graduate degree in English literature from Hyderabad’s prestigious Osmania University. She grew up imbibing the best from the world of art and literature. But she was saddened by the helpless women in her community where thay had no part 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.
Sayed Bin Mohammed, Jameela’s father, is a portrait artist who headed the department of painting in the Jawaharlal Nehru Technology University in Hyderabad. He was a close friend of India’s best known artist, M.F. Husain. In fact Jameela shares Husain’s pain of rejection by his compatriots. She has a vivid childhood memories of the artist spreading out a canvas or a chart paper on the floor in her house in Vijay Nagar.
Jameela is in the news nowadays. She was recently honored by a group of women’s organizations just recently. Organizations suck as Sangat, Jagori, Asmita and Kriti honored Jameela during the 100th International Women’s Day celebration for her courageous work in promoting community service and challenging patriarchy.
The compromised lives of Muslim women and the insecurity that members of the minority community faced after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition were among reasons compelling enough to push Jameela into action.
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 in 1997. She worked for five years with Asmita in Hyderabad and then registered her own organization called the Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association in 2002. In Iqbal’s poetry, “Shaheen” is a bird that flies very high in the sky. Jameela’s main office is in Sultan Shahi. It has branches also in the poverty stricken Hasan Nagar in Ranga Reddy district and in Mehboob Nagar district.
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. They ringed Hyderabad’s most famous monument, the Charminar, in support of women’s rights.
With a sense of pride, Jameela narrated the success stories of Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association. She began her work in Sultan Shahi where beating women was equated with masculinity. The girls begun to question the stifling system.
Jameela recalls how the girl was under tremendous pressure from her mother to give in to their wishes and marry the man. Her mother would try to convince her by saying that the marriage would serve to improve their lifestyle.
We found that in 100 households, 33 girls had been given away to old Arabs in muttah marriages. This is an organized racket in Hyderabad where the police is reluctant to help. Married wealthy sheikhs from Gulf nations come to the city to escape the oppressive heat in their own country 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 of the bride price given during Islamic marriage ceremony.
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 narrated the story where she questioned the request for a divorce. The man got a “fatwa” (ruling from a cleric) from Jame-Nizamia. He had no choice but to take his wife back home.
Jameela is a social activist that hopes to empower the dalit (downtrodden) 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.
Jameela today looks back with a sense of fulfillment. 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. Jameela stressed this rich language is now looked upon exclusively as a language of Muslims.
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 recognized their mother’s 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 remembered that day in 2002 where a group of 25 men came to their center after the Friday prayer. They have accused Jameela of liberating women. The arguments lasted three hours but Jameela succeed in convincing the men for retreat.