Don’t Stereotype Us, Say Azamgarh’s Mothers

By Kulsum Mustafa, Womens Feature Service

The women of Sanjarpur, the Azamgarh village with the terror tag attached to it, no longer laugh, dress up, or celebrate festivals with their earlier gusto. With two village boys, Atif and Sajid, killed, and Saif and Arif arrested in Delhi’s Batala House police encounter on September 29 last year, along with several youth on the police’s ‘wanted’ list, the women have voluntarily given up on these simple joys. They have just one desire – to get justice for their children, restore peace and bring tranquility back into hearts and hearths.

While adversity has devastated them, it has in a way helped these ‘purdahnashi’ (veiled) women – most of them illiterate – to re-discover their inner strength. The spirit to fight back against what they term as “injustice”, “outrage”, an attempt to “malign their community” and, above all, a planned strategy to prevent the progress of their children, is overpowering. And all of them unanimously condemn terror violence.

While their men folk have stepped back, intimidated by the security forces, the local women have emerged as the emotional bedrock for their families. Adopting a two-pronged strategy, they work towards bringing normalcy back into their homes even as they empower themselves with knowledge gained at legal awareness sessions arranged by the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiative (AALI), a Lucknow-based non-government organisation (NGO).

AALI is fighting the criminal cases of the Sanjarpur youth and also empowering the women through their exclusive all-women monthly sessions on law and human rights held in the village. Incidentally, AALI came to Sanjarpur at the initiative of Tariq Saif, a village social activist working for affected families.

Elaborating on their work in Sanjarpur, Shubi Dwividi, Programme Officer, AALI, says, “We advocate and work for issues and concerns of women, especially from minority and deprived communities.” According to her, AALI will always use its strategies to support the Muslim community in Azamgarh to stand up against state oppression and defamation. “We want to ensure that guilt is not established at the cost of the innocent,” she says.

Needless to say this is the need of the hour in this eastern Uttar Pradesh village. “By ensuring that the food is cooked, the house is cleaned and clothes are washed we do try to pretend that everything is fine. But we know this is not enough. We need legal know-how,” says Rahat, an aunt of Arif, a suspected terrorist, currently lodged in a Gujarat prison.

Rahat, a divorcee in her mid-thirties and a victim of domestic violence, has severe hearing impairment and loss of 70 per cent vision, but she will not tolerate injustice of any kind. In fact, she is a front ranker in the legal empowerment initiative.

AALI, which started work here in November 2008, has since made its way into the hearts of these simple women. Through advocacy, it is raising the issue at various levels – as per agreed strategies – and coordinating independent committees to support the targeted families. It is also helping in the formation of defence committees, comprising lawyers and others, to ensure the rule of law, natural justice and adequate defence for them. “Behind veils they are all holed up. They need to open up, speak out. This will reduce the pain,” says Sehba Syed, a former AALI member, who has worked in Sanjarpur. Dwividi agrees, “This is very true. That’s why we are starting mental health camps here soon.” In fact, AALI is all set to open its office in Sanjarpur in July.

A walk through the dusty village lanes only strengthens one’s belief that health camps are absolutely vital for these distraught families. Asks Shamsa, Arif’s eldest sister, “My brother has been framed. He is innocent and he has been made a scapegoat. How could a boy, who could not see a chicken being slaughtered, have had a hand in the blast that killed innocent people?”

His mother, Farzana Begum, is inconsolable, even though she has no more tears to shed. She sits near the window, head bent, cutting vegetables. Even though the black ‘dupatta’ covering her head partially falls over her face it fails to hide the deep circles under her eyes and the lines of sorrow etched on her face. “After the initial few days of inactivity, when she had lost the will to live, ‘Ammi’ (mother) took stock of herself. Now, she does all the household chores like before, but that is just a facade. She keeps looking through the window, from where she last bid ‘khuda hafiz’ (goodbye) to Arif,” says Shamsa.

The scene at slain youngster Atif’s house is even more depressing. An eerie silence hangs over the house. It seems an eternity before the gate is opened. Entry is allowed most reluctantly. “‘Ammi’ is very ill. She has been hospitalised. Only we sisters are at home,” says Tabish, Atif’s sister, quietly.

“Life will never be the same again for us; we can never come to terms with Atif’s death. He was the youngest of five siblings, the darling of the family; so helpful, so nice, even to total strangers. He was always helping anyone who was new to Delhi…” Tabish’s voice breaks off and soon she is sobbing loudly. “We will have to learn to live without him. This is our destiny,” consoles Beenish, Tabish’s eldest sister.

Unfortunately, for the youth here just the mere fact that they hail from Azamgarh is enough to invite suspicion. While the humiliation of being ostracised has chilled their souls, the prospect of a bleak future stares them in the face. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that this is all a bad dream,” says the mother of Yusuf Ali. The software engineer, who worked in NOIDA (near Delhi), is jobless today because his employer and landlord have both shown him the door. His only fault is that he is from Azamgarh.

Mohammed Nasir, a software engineer based in Gurgaon, quit his job and is now back to tilling his paddy fields. Nasir’s frightened parents urged him to come back home after the Batala House incident.

“Azamgarhis are being thrown out of jobs and accommodation on flimsy grounds,” says Tariq, who is fearful that parents here, out of fear and insecurity, may stop sending their wards out for studies and employment or may, like Nasir’s parents, pressurise them to return home. “It took so many years for Muslims here to accept that education is the only way forward for them, the only way of being part of the mainstream, but once again they are forced to change their minds. This is a grave situation,” he says.

But along with a few like-minded youngsters, Tariq has decided to fight this trend. He is motivating women to send their children back to school and seek jobs.

Azamgarh needs to re-imagine itself. It needs to be infused with a fresh zeal for life. The task is difficult, and requires concentrated effort. But women here know that the onus of restoring peace lies on them. It is they who will ensure whether their community remains in the mainstream or get pushed behind. As one woman put it, it’s like walking on live coals. But they also know what they think and do today, will help put the past behind them and build a future for their children.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.