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Lone woman at male altar

A 35-year-old mother of two has become Calcutta’s first woman Muslim marriage registrar, her achievement made doubly sweet by the acknowledgement that she was better qualified for the post than all the male candidates.

Safia Banu, a graduate in Bengali, had faced opposition from what she calls the “male lobby” when she applied for a vacancy in Narkeldanga in 2009. But she was determined not to give up without a fight.

“I told them: you can disqualify me if I don’t fulfil the requirements but don’t make my gender an excuse to discriminate against me,” Safia, whose husband Abdul Hai Paik is also a Muslim marriage registrar, told Metro.

The resident of Deedar Bux Lane, off Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, made the cut through a regular appointment process in which she was treated on a par with the other candidates, all of them male.

“I found her the most deserving candidate and referred her to the judicial department for approval,” said Sudhakar Sahu, a former district registrar of South 24-Parganas.

Safia doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer, she just wants people to accept that women like her can do a job just as well as men, if not better.

“A few years ago, a Muslim woman as a marriage registrar would have been unimaginable….I decided to try and become one because there was not a single woman in the profession here. One does not require enormous physical strength to become a registrar, so why should it be a male fief?” Safia said.

Now that she has become one, how does she intend making a mark? “I think being in this position I can empower a lot of women by counselling and advising them,” Safia said.

In Bengal, few Muslim women head community institutions. Shabnam Ara Begum of Nandigram has been a Muslim marriage registrar for eight years but her appointment wasn’t like Safia’s.

“Shabnam’s father was the Muslim marriage registrar in Nandigram. When he passed away, Shabnam requested that she be allowed to take over, based on her experience of assisting her father for three years. But Safia Banu is not substituting her father or husband, she has been appointed on merit,” said Abdul Daiyan Khan, the president of the West Bengal Government Muslim Marriage Registrar and Kazi Welfare Association.

Women from the community, especially, are celebrating Safia’s appointment.

“She will inspire many other women to get an education and come out of the shadow of men. A woman marriage registrar will provide a comfort level to a girl who is either getting married or has filed for divorce. Women will also find it easier to confide in her,” said Syyeda Mehnaz Warsi, a doctor and founder president of Prem-e-Asha, an NGO that works for the uplift of Muslim girls.

The Bengal Mohammedan Marriage and Divorces Registration Act, 1876, gives Safia the right to solemnise and register Muslim marriages, arbitrate on divorce cases and assist a court of law on various Islamic matters, including property disputes.

But impending responsibility hasn’t dimmed Safia’s enthusiasm for the smaller joys of life. She is still game for shopping at New Market “any time of day or evening” and enjoys eating out at Chinatown. At home, her two daughters — students of classes I and III at Calcutta Girls’ High School — take up most of her time.

If there’s one thing that will remind her of where she has reached by swimming against the tide, it is the nameplate outside her Narkeldanga office proclaiming “Safia Banu, Muslim marriage registrar”.