A privilege to serve

Sharifa Khanam
Sharifa Khanam        Courtesy: M. Moorthy, frontline.in

On this special day March 8 that marks 100 years of the international womens struggle for justice and fair play, the Indian Parliament…

On this special day March 8 that marks 100 years of the international womens struggle for justice and fair play, the Indian Parliament is poised to cross an important milestone by passing the Bill that provides for 30 per cent reservation for women in the Central and the state legislatures. Hopefully, for women and for the fair-minded among the unfair sex, it will be celebration time. In that moment of rejoicing, some might suggest raising a toast to the Union ministry of minority affairs (MMA) too. Why? For having recently produced a Scheme for Leadership Development of Minority Women. Caution folks: a closer look will show that this seemingly full-of-promise baby has been crippled at birth. And the blame lies entirely with those who misconceived her.

As with other schemes for minorities in the last few years, the genesis of this one also lies in the report of the high-powered Sachar Committee highlighting the fact that Indian Muslims have been left out of the development trajectory and within this group, Muslim women are doubly disadvantaged. Secular groups and activists say that like Dalit women, Muslim women too are thrice oppressed:  at the bottom of the social hierarchy, worst victims of caste or communal violence, targets of indignities by men from their own community.

Doubly disadvantaged or thrice oppressed, the plight of Muslim women should weigh heavily on the conscience of the custodians of a democracy whose Constitution proclaims justice, equality and non-discrimination irrespective of caste, community, gender. Initially conceived by the ministry of women and child development in 2007-2008, the scheme was transferred to the ministry of minority affairs in 2009. This writer is not aware whether the damage was done right at inception or during rebirth, suitably recast and renamed. Either way, it is for the foster parents now to do the explaining. The objective of the scheme is, you guessed it, lofty: leadership training of women from minority communities, so that they are emboldened and empowered to assume leadership role and assert their rights, so that they learn to stand up and fight. In the remaining three years of the 11th Plan period, beginning with the current year (2009-10), a sum of nearly Rs 50 crore has been allocated to train nearly two lakh women from minority communities.

Secular groups and activists say that like Dalit women,Muslim women too are “thrice oppressed”: at the bottom of the social hierarchy,worst victims of caste or communal violence,targets of indignities by men from their own community.

Sounds terrific, doesnt it? Who will not applaud the MMA for setting aside oodles of cash with the noble intention of partnering with highly motivated, dedicated and committed to the welfare of women NGOs to train women from minority communities to stand up and fight? Sadly though, NGOs will first need to stand up and fight the MMA before they can train others. Heres why:

Included in the list of the stringent criteria for pre-selection of NGOs is the following: The organisation should have been working with a budget of at least one crore rupees per annum during the last three years and must not be a loss making concern. Call it the money-attracts-money syndrome.

Sharifa Khanum (STEPS,Madurai,Tamil Nadu), Jameela Nishat (Shaheen, Hyderabad, AP),Khadija (Saheli, Delhi), Zakia Nizami Nambiar and her colleagues (Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, active in 13 states), Noor Jehan and Khatoon Apa (Huqooq-e-Niswan, Mumbai), Noor Jehan (KHOJ, Mumbai), Flavia Agnes (Majlis, Mumbai), Hasina Khan (Awaaz-e-Niswan, Mumbai), Uzma Nahid (Iqra International Womens Alliance, Mumbai — as a trained aalim, Uzma is a rare breed among Muslim women. The list could be endless, especially if you include the many, many non-Muslim women and men who have been working among Muslim women for years. Suffice to say that each one of them could teach MMA what the words commitment, dedication, motivation really mean. Yet not one of them, believe me, can pass the MMAs one crore test.

Its not just them. Even the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), I suspect, would not qualify for the MMAs generosity. Next, imagine a government scheme for funding RTI work for which Aruna Roy (Mazdoor Kisan  Shakti Sanghatana, Rajasthan) does not qualify, or a scheme for funding legal aid for justice to victims of mass crime for which Teesta Setalvad (Citizens for Justice and Peace, Mumbai, also my partner) does not qualify because of the one crore criteria. And this is not the only hurdle. The babucracy does not acknowledge the existence of people; it only recognises official paper (registration certificate), the older the better.

Which world are you living in, MMA? Tell you what: why not make a resolution on this momentous day? Get out of Shastri Bhavan, step out of your lal-batti ambassador, walk down the narrow lanes of a Muslim mohalla and meet any of the women named above. They will teach you how women are already learning to stand up and fight. And if you have the willingness and the humility to unlearn and relearn, they could also tell you what you can do to help. Just do it, MMA.

(This article was also published in The Indian Express on March 8, 2010)





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