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VULNERABLE, BUT UNITED
- Voices from a national convention on Muslim women

When we think of the lives of Muslim women in India, we tend to think only of disadvantage. Of vulnerability. There’s truth in this association, but it’s not the complete truth. This was made quite clear at a recent national convention on Muslim women, organized by the All India Democratic Women’s Association in New Delhi.

Consider two apparently contradictory images. On the one hand, there’s the image of vulnerability — as women and as Muslims — and this vulnerability is compounded when poverty is part of the picture. On the other hand, there’s the image of strength, born out of a determination to get what is their due. These two images could not be separated from each other as the women at the convention spoke about their daily lives — the obstacles they face, their minor triumphs, their passionate demands and hopes.

The theme of vulnerability was almost never out of sight. There were the inevitable references to drinking water, electricity, rations, education and health services. Again, the lack of access or poor access to these amenities was an indicator of multiple levels of disadvantage. It illustrated not only economic vulnerability, but also the discrimination suffered by poor Muslim areas with increasing ghettoization.

Consider, for instance, a few of the stories of these women. Naseem from Delhi, Malka from Lucknow, and Mujiba from Karnataka spoke of work and wages — the long hours, the working conditions, the lack of State support, the cuts taken by middlemen and, most of all, the gap between working hours and wages, and the even bigger gap between what they earn and what their basic needs cost.

Naseem has been working for the last 22 years in the handicrafts industry. Having sat for years in the same posture at work, she has a continuous pain in her back and knees. And what does she earn for this painful work? If she works 8 to 12 hours a day, she earns Rs10 to 15; the best she can do is Rs 30 a day. “In these times of soaring prices,” she says, “our incomes are going down, not up.”

Malka, from Lucknow, has been working for 30 years embroidering — zardosi, kaamdani and chikan. She gets Rs 500 for the saris that she used to make for Rs 2,500-3,000, and she still has to pay for the thread. When Malka’s husband left her, she was determined to show him that she could raise the children by herself. But how is she to do this on the money she makes? How is she to educate them, or do “anything good for them”? “We make others beautiful, but we can’t even feed our children,” she rues. She has a constant pain in her stomach, her eyesight is going, but she cannot stop the zardosi work since she still has two daughters to be married.

Mujiba, a beedi-worker from Karnataka, recounts an equally bleak story. Five people in her family, including children, cut leaves, sort them, and roll the tobacco, so they can try to make a thousand beedis in a day. They get Rs 20 for the whole lot. Mujiba also described the context in which her family’s work has to be seen. They have trouble getting drinking water; they have trouble with housing and health facilities. And they are among the five lakh unregistered workers, which means they do not have BPL cards.

But these are not merely heartrending stories told by pathetic victims. Onstage, Naseem, Malka and Mujiba hold the audience with their articulate description of their living and working conditions. They know their rights. They know they can fight for these rights more effectively if they pool their individual strengths together to construct a collective strength. They know that a collective struggle will give greater meaning to their demands as struggling individual women.

Naseem, for instance, says of female, Muslim, home-based workers: “They have no recognition; they’re working as if they have no legal rights at all… The minimum wage in Delhi is Rs 140 a day, but that’s what most of us poor women make in a month.” Malka adds, “Rs 1.50 per kurta is the rate in chikan work. You tell me — is this enough when a woman and her daughters have slaved all day?” She knows how many people take their cut so that by the time their payment filters down to them, it has dwindled to an insignificant amount. Mujiba too knows that in her part of Karnataka, the beedi-workers get only half the usual rate. And she is aware that when the beedi-workers in Mangalore went on strike, they got an assurance of better rates.

Among the questions raised during the convention were two basic, big, recurring questions. How are we to survive? How are we to raise our children? Some of the women offered answers to these questions. Malka, for instance, says, “There are many women like me in Lucknow. We have to move forward together. We have to make sure we get a fair wage. We have to do this ourselves, and we have to help others in distress too.” Malka’s words should make us hang our heads in shame, but they also make us proud: her words show us what can be achieved when women’s organizations and progressive political groups lend their support to the daily lives and struggles of poor Muslim women. Such support could make these women believe that if they try, they can even “make a hole in the sky”.

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