THE OTHER HALF
From the land of hate
`We have found a lot of happiness here,' said one girl. Happiness? After spending just three days in an overcrowded, hot, dirty city?.... The story of 19 young Muslim women from Gujarat.
ON the surface they looked like any group of college girls. A little conservative, perhaps, compared to their counterparts in Mumbai. But these were not just college girls. You could tell if you looked more closely, if you looked into their eyes, if you noticed the anxiety.
Nineteen young Muslim women from Gujarat with 19 stories to tell. All of them unexceptionally disturbing and tragic. They were invited to visit Mumbai by Aawaz-e-Niswan, a remarkable organisation that works with Muslim women in Mumbai and is now extending its work to women in other cities. The very ordinary, mostly lower middle class Muslim women from this organisation, many of whom have been personally seared by communal riots such as those that tore Mumbai apart in 1992-93, decided to reach out to their sisters in Gujarat after the communal carnage of 2002. They visited some of the worst affected areas; they heard the stories from women who did not know how they would pick up the threads of their lives again. And they decided that they would do something for the younger women, many of whom expressed a determination to continue with their education, to seek professional qualifications and to work and be independent.
For some of the girls from Dahod, Fatehpura, Jalod and Vadodara, even travelling in a train was a novel experience. The five from Fatehpura, a small town bordering Rajasthan, had never seen a film in a cinema theatre. The women from Jalod said there was a theatre in their town, but women never went there. So one of the highpoints of their visit to Mumbai was seeing a film in a theatre. They could not get over the fact that as women they could do this.
Also for the first time, these women travelled around the city by night. Mumbai by night, or any city by night, was something they could not have imagined doing in their wildest dreams. Yet they went around and no one looked at them strangely. They were just some among thousands of men and women who inhabit Mumbai's public spaces till all hours of the night.
"We have found a lot of happiness here," said one girl. Happiness? After spending just three days in an overcrowded, hot, dirty city? "The love we see on the faces here we don't see there," said another. "We never get izzat (respect) anywhere in Gujarat," said another. It was interesting to see how the very anonymity of a big city can mean so much to people who live surrounded by hate.
That hate lurks around every turn, they said. Everyday they see on the streets the perpetrators of the crimes that led to the death and destruction of their community. "Even now if we pass by, they shout at us, use bad language," said a primary school teacher from Godhra. "We can see our things, our furniture, even our clothes, being used by other people," said a student from Fatehpura. She broke down as she spoke of how her house was burnt and looted, forcing her family to run across the border to Rajasthan.
If there is one good thing that has come out of this evil, say many of the girls, it is the increasing emphasis on women's education. "We girls thought that if we had been educated, we could have taken a good job and supported our families," said one. Families with no earning member left did not get anything more than a meagre compensation. This, she said, forced many parents to realise the value of education and professional training.
So what did they want to do once they graduated? Most said they wanted to become teachers. But at least two said they wanted to join the police.
But the down side is that many girls never had a chance to make that choice. With parents worried about the future of their daughters in the immediate aftermath of the violence, many girls were married off to men they had never met at the relief camps. It is unlikely that these young women will have the freedom to travel to Mumbai at the invitation of a women's group, to go to the theatre, to wander around the city at night, to travel in trains and buses.
Life for the Muslim women of Gujarat, as was evident from the way these 19 spoke, consists of "earlier" and "now". "Earlier", they had Hindu friends, went to each other's homes, even celebrated each other's festivals. "Now" this is not possible, they are even afraid to go through Hindu areas and the question of enjoying each other's festivals does not arise. "Even today we are told, Pakistan is yours, go to Pakistan. The Hindus have come back to the city, the Muslims have moved out. India has already been divided but now even our city of Vadodara is divided into India and mini-Pakistan," said Nilofer.
Just a day before we met these women, the Supreme Court had ordered the reopening of over 2,000 cases filed during the communal trouble of 2002 that the local police had closed. A 10-member committee has been set up.
The process is forcing all of us to revisit the horror of those days. The arrest of Police Sub-Inspector R.J. Patil, for instance, who admitted that he had burnt 13 bodies of the victims of what is known as the Ambika Society massacre, without sending specimens for forensic analysis, is only the beginning of more gruesome details that will emerge.
Yet, even this tentative beginning represents hope for many Muslims in Gujarat. Said Nilofer from Vadodara, "Even if these cases are reopened, and regardless of whether there is justice or not, at least in front of society these people will be named." She felt that the arrest of men like Patil was an important gesture for her traumatised community.
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