By Manisha Bandopadhaya
Born in an economically solvent family, Kaneez Syeda, alias Khushi, has made women’s self-reliance her life’s mission. In the past ten to twelve years, she has managed to form thousands of self-help groups (SHGs) in the districts of Murshidabad and Birbhum, West Bengal. Through these groups, women have benefitted under the Swarna Jayanti Rozgaar Yojna. Most of the groups are comprised of Muslim women. Each group has ten women.
Kaneez has formed three thousand such groups, which benefit thirty thousand women in Murshidabad and Birbhum. These women stitch kantha, make puffed rice (moori), and do animal husbandry. Their most profitable occupation turns out to be the making of rice from paddy.
Kaneez has set up a few schools for child laborers as well. All these groups operate under her umbrella organization, Kadua Women’s Development Cooperation.
Kaneez had once told off an Assistant District Magistrate for seeking a bribe.
Kaneez also works as a counselor for women in her area, under Muraroi Police Station. Muslim women come to the center with problems such as multiple marriages, drinking and domestic abuse, trafficking of young girls etc. She personally bore witness in the case of forty divorces (talaaq). In some cases, she managed to get the women the mehr (pre-nuptial contract amount guaranteed to Muslim women, in case of a divorce) of up to one lakh rupees.
She has also managed to procure alimony for women in some other cases. She has rescued many underage girls who were lured to other cities. After rescue, some of these girls have been married to eligible men. The society is liberal enough to accept these girls.
This extremely driven woman had to hear once in her training center: ‘You are a Muslim? You don’t look like one.’ She has experienced betrayals, too. She never received the money from the government, which she was promised for forming the self-help groups. Her file in the government office had simply vanished.
Always busy interacting with high-ranking officials, Kaneez said, ‘My grandmother wore a burkha. My mother, too, used purdah. This didn’t harm them, nor does this harm me. More than the discussions on burkha and purdah, what is important is that we continue doing meaningful work.’
Samina Khatun is not more than fifteen or sixteen. She comes from an extremely poor family that lives in a corner of the village. There are six members in the family. The eldest brother started working as a day-laborer with the father and managed to complete his tenth standard. Later, with the help of a teacher, he completed his twelfth and went on to study at the university.
Samina’s village had no post-primary school, barring a madrassa, which was neglected for various reasons. Samina had to enroll in a school, a kilometer-and-a-half away from her house. Her younger brother and sister continued studying at the local madrassa.
When Samina was in the eighth standard, her marriage was fixed. Her parents couldn’t keep her in the school any longer because of poverty. But she was determined to continue her education.
Samina came to the city with her elder brother. She enrolled herself at the leather designing department of Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, India. While she was at the university for two years, she was involved in the student organization.
Around that time, a thirty seven day cycle-rally was scheduled to travel from Calcutta to Delhi with the demand of Employment for All. Samina was one of the prominent members of the group. There was only one more woman member, a tribal girl from Jharkhand. This experience expanded her horizon. Her family never objected to her work.
Currently, Samina is working as an in-charge of a private child education center. She has recently passed tenth standard from the Open School.
When she had refused to marry and decided to continue studying, her father had objected. One of her motivations behind joining the cycle-rally to Delhi was that it might secure employment for her father. Samina realizes that her father’s objection to her education was because of their grinding poverty. Her younger sister is currently enrolled at the handicraft department in Viswa Bharati University.
Manisha Bandopadhaya was a teacher at Brahmankhanda Basapara Higher Secondary School, Birbhum, at the time of the publication of this booklet. Translated from Bangla by Mosarrap H. Khan.
[This was first published in a Bangla booklet, Muslims in West Bengal: An Overview (2007), edited by, Kumar Rana & Sabbir Ahmed.]
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