By Safia Begum
While doing my field work, I visited an NGO in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad. There I met a group of women working in the NGO. For the sake of privacy, I have not mentioned their names in this piece.
The first lady who spoke to me was impatient to tell me her story. Although I told her the purpose of my visit, she ignored me and narrated at one go: “I have been married for 14 years but for the first 10-12 years, I did not get permission to work. I wanted to tell you about that. Earlier my husband’s perspective was quite different. He said, ‘You should not work; if one goes out of the house to work, one becomes free. Other people will point at me and say, Arrey! I saw your wife roaming about. It will be disrespectful to me because people will assume the household is running on a woman’s income. People will taunt us. Whatever it is, we will adjust but do not talk about going out to work.’ But he has changed his mind now. He says if there is a place I can work without any tension, then I may take it up.”
She laughed and continued to tell me about her job: “I wanted to share with you my happiness about getting permission to work. If I get a good pay and a time-schedule that I can manage, then I will take up the work. As I take care of my family and go out to work, I have to sacrifice some comforts and adjust. Then the salary should be good.” After telling me this, she rushed off to her Arabic class.
Later, we spoke at length about her life. She has five children; three daughters and two sons. Her husband is a tailor but does not have an independent shop. He works in someone else’s shop. They live in a rented house. She assists her husband in his tailoring work. Despite having financial problems, it took her husband a long time to allow her work outside the house. When it comes to work, her only priority is a good pay. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to go out and work. She has completed her SSC. While searching for a job, she feels inhibited by her education, “People who have studied up to graduation are fine. But what about people like me who barely managed to complete tenth standard? People like us are in trouble because though we know how to speak English and are better than illiterate, we are treated like barely literate people. And our pay is more like those of the non-skilled workers.”
I met another lady at the NGO and started talking to her about life. She said gently, “It is a long story and you will have to come back for many days to hear me out.” She sees her life more in terms of work and struggle. She never had any difficulty in obtaining permission for work. Rather, she began work from an early age because of financial constraints in her family. In school, she was looked down upon by her teachers as she was poor in mathematics. Gradually, she understood why they treated her that way. She was not just expected to improve her academics. She was also expected to perform menial work in the school like cleaning the classroom because there was no ayah. She managed to get her teacher’s attention finally. Meanwhile, her father, who used to run a flour mill, fell ill due to alcoholism. At a young age, she had to bear the responsibility of running the mill. When her mother passed away a few years later, she had to take on more responsibility in the family. She said, “I never felt like a woman. Even today I do not feel like a woman.” Now she is happily married and has three daughters. She showed me her husband’s photo and said, “My father is better than my husband but he is a nice man. He never complains about anything and he always supports me. I am happy now.”
On my next visit to the NGO, I met a beautiful lady. Her story is quite different from the rest of them. She has four children. She works as a tailor. Her husband is a painter, who does polish work as well. His work is seasonal. He works for six months and for the next six, he sits at home. When he heard from other men, it was he who asked her to look for work at this NGO. However, her mother-in-law objected to her work. She began telling her son, “If a woman goes out, she will roam around and spend time with other men. Stop your wife from going out to work.” After listening to his mother, he asked her to stop work. The NGO people had to intervene eventually and assure him that it was a safe place, only meant for women workers. And men were not allowed there.
In the month of Ramadan, she was observing fast and stitching the heavy dining-table cover. Since the new academic year has started, she has to pay for her children’s school fees and buy books for them. Her husband asks her to stop the girls’ education as they can’t afford to pay so much money. With a salary of three-thousand-rupees per month, she barely manages to pay for their education. If she becomes a peacemaker, her salary will be doubled. But the peacemaker’s role would entail going out of the office now and then. Since her husband has allowed her just to work inside the NGO, she cannot take up the peacemaker’s work like many other women. After narrating her story, she went back to cutting the tablecloth, before getting ready for the zohar namaz.
Every woman’s life experience is different. As I finished talking to this lady, I met another woman, who stitches and works as a peacemaker, too. This lady just comes and goes according to her own will. Her husband believes in her and does not object to her work. Moreover, she does not have to worry about the domestic work. Her sister-in-law, who has never been to a school or to a madrasa, takes care of home and their child.
To most of these women, the NGO has provided a life line and a new respectability. These women want to work for their children and family. Nonetheless, purdah is very important to them and they do not want to disrupt the norms by going against it. Most of these women were married off very early due to poverty and many of them didn’t have a comfortable childhood. These women are, however, very courageous who have struggled with poverty and adapted themselves to new opportunities. Now they mostly dream of a brighter future for their children.
We hope their children fulfill their mothers’ wishes and achieve something meaningful in life.
Safia Begum is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Folk Culture Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad. She works on the Folklore of Muslim Communities. She is from Hyderabad.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).