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regular-article-logo Sunday, 16 June 2024

How Jamia helped a scholar raise her daughter

Suhra fought with her family and patriarchal society at large to pursue higher education, overcoming many hurdles

Nehal Ahmed Published 27.02.23, 03:14 AM
Suhra with her daughter

Suhra with her daughter Picture by Abdul Shafeeque KP

Jamia Millia Islamia, one of the heritage universities of our country, last year celebrated its 102nd foundation day. Gerda Philipsborn was a founding member of Jamia who fled from Germany when the Nazis came to power. Her biggest contribution to the university was to take care of young children. To commemorate her, Jamia named its daycare centre after her.

Comparing Suhra Hasan to Gerda Philipsborn may be a stretch, but Suhra somewhere touches the motive of Gerda’s foundational ideas. She hails from a village in Kerala, from a family that was expected to marry her off before the age of 20. She fought with her family and a patriarchal society at large to pursue higher education, overcoming many hurdles.

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She does not call them hurdles, though, but serendipity. However, for a Muslim girl reaching college and university was a dream, mainly because of compromised economic conditions and societal and religious pressure.

What is tougher? Being a woman in our society, being married, being a mother, being a PhD scholar? Suhra is everything: a married woman, a mother, a scholar who recently finished her PhD at my university, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Mother scholar

Suhra joined Jamia for her PhD in 2015. She met her future husband on campus and got married in 2017, giving birth to a daughter in 2019. Usually, couples practise family planning according to comfort, affordability, etc, but Suhra planned everything around her PhD schedule.

She planned to be pregnant after fieldwork in Kerala because that needed a lot of travelling. Transcribing the fieldwork can be done sitting at home, and Suhra mentally prepared herself to go through her pregnancy during this phase because there would be less need to go out.

But nothing went to plan, and she had to take her daughter to fieldwork in unknown places in Kerala, meeting new people and exploring other dimensions of research work. “Nothing went according to plan; everything happened simultaneously,” Suhra says.

She had become pregnant in her third year of PhD, and had to visit the university to make use of the library. It was a bit awkward for her initially because this was something new on the campus. The BA students, in particular, would stare at her.

But it all turned out beautifully — people started giving her extra support, which encouraged her to be on campus during her pregnancy. Even the security guards gave her tips on how to take care of herself and what to eat during this time. She returned to her home in Kerala in the ninth month of pregnancy and took six months of maternity leave.

She returned to campus when her daughter was five months old. She did not have anyone to help her raise the child. She and her husband raised her while doing their PhD work.

The recent trailer of Anjali Menon’s film Wonder Woman has the line that “it takes a village to raise a child”, but in Suhra’s case it took a university to raise a child. “My pregnancy, my baby, my husband never become a hurdle to my PhD,” Suhra says.

Supervisor

For a PhD scholar, choosing a good supervisor is most important. Suhra got a very good supervisor who helped her with everything.

“Pregnancy is not a disease; it is something very beautiful. You are giving birth to a human, so rather than feel awkward, make good use of this time because once you give birth, you won’t have much time to study,” she advised Suhra.

Suhra lived up to the advice and made good use of her time on campus, where friends helped her with food and reminded her to take her walks and drink juice, etc.

Her husband, also being a scholar, had a busy schedule and his meetings collided with Suhra’s. So her supervisor made a comfortable space for the baby in her cabin where she brought toys and stationery. So, along with supervising her students on research, she also babysat.

Gender roles

Suhra’s husband managed to be a part of the baby’s care. But Suhra believed that in the initial stages, a baby needs its mother more than anything else, and considered herself the primary parent to some degree. But in the past one year, during her PhD submission, her husband became the primary parent. He played with the baby outside the library while Suhra studied late. She would step out of the library in time to feed her.

Talking about her husband’s support, she says: “I know we should not glorify the parenting responsibilities he has taken but considering the patriarchal set-up we are raised in, and the conditioning we have received, his role as a primary parent is immense while my presence was limited to nights.”

Umm-e-Alaa

Umm-e-Alaa is Suhra’s Instagram handle. Alaa is her daughter’s name, and Umme-Alaa means “daughter of Alaa”. Her daughter has given her a new identity: on campus, people know her daughter more than Suhra.

Suhra’s friends keep saying stuff like “Alaa’s first walk was in Jamia”. Suhra says: “For us, Jamia is a university but for her, it is home.”

The child is familiar with all the places on campus because she has friends everywhere. Suhra writes messages on social media about her work on campus and asks people to babysit. Many come and spend time with Alaa, and that is how she (Alaa) became friends with so many people from different regions of the country.

Alaa loves the place. She has her own accreditation to departments and libraries. Jamia has a statue of Mirza Ghalib with a book in hand. Alaa calls him “Uppappa (grandfather) with the book”, her mother’s department “Ummichi’s Mam’s House”, and her father’s department “Vaappachi’s Mam’s House”.

Suhra has given her a childhood without compartmentalised relationships. For Alaa, the whole university is family, and when she goes back home she is unable to understand the concepts of “our family” and “their family”.

“Often people ask me whether it is having a child that took me longer to do my PhD. But I would say pregnancy and childbirth have been instrumental to facilitating my research,” Suhra says.

“I was in the field for data collection during my pregnancy and resumed fieldwork when Alaa was three months old. My daughter’s presence acted as a research tool that made rapport-building with families of prisoners easier. The motherhood identity acted as a cushion, and I was met with empathy by those families.”

At last, when I ask about her PhD journey, Suhra says: “My thesis is also her thesis.”

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