Stepping out of the darkness and into the light

I, Shahjahan, age 35, am able to tell my story today with such confidence and self-belief in huge part because of CORO’s Mahila Mandal Federation. The life I have now, I owe it all to them.

In search of better prospects, my family moved from our Uttar Pradesh village to Borivali, a suburb of West Mumbai. My father got a job with the municipal bus service and we were able to purchase our own house. One day, my grandfather got very sick, so my father had to leave for our hometown. But his senior officer didn’t sanction his leave which led to a fight between them. My father lost his job and our lives turned upside down. My father became an alcoholic, abusive towards our mother, and our money began to run out. We had to sell our house and move to a slum area in Govandi. As things got worse, my mother started working as a rag picker in the nearby dumping ground, and to help her, I joined in. A close friend of mine from work, Shabbo, got engaged to be married and I was very happy for her to finally be leaving behind this job for a better life. However, after a year I learned that her husband had tortured her to death by hitting her and burning her. This hit me very hard. After seeing Shabbo’s fate and the state of my parents, I decided against marrying anyone. But pressure from my mother and the expectations of society meant I had to get married.

My fate was the same as my mother and Shabbo. My husband turned out to be an alcoholic and abusive. He would deprive me of food if he was angry with me. On top of this, my brother-in-law would often harass me. I tried to avoid his advances, but he would beat me until I gave in. During this time, I had several miscarriages. Once, my husband beat me to the point that I lost the baby. When I could no longer bear this, I sold my anklets and came back to Govandi. For close to a year, I was mentally unstable and my mother took great care of me. After some time, I gave birth to a baby boy. I wanted to keep staying with my mother but she told me, ‘In life, a woman should always stay with her husband. If she chooses not to, then the people will spit on her’. So, I had no option but to go back. I discovered that while I was gone my husband was having affairs with many women. Still, I kept quiet and lived with him, working 12 hours a day to run the household. With my hard-earned money, I bought two houses of my own. My husband sold one to pay of his debts. But he couldn’t sell the second one as it was in my name. Thinking my suffering was written in my destiny, I continued to live this way.
One day, I met Badrunisa Khan in my neighbourhood. She was organising a support group which would be helping women facing Domestic Violence. After finding out about her work and the organisation, I asked if I could join her. She made me a member of the Mahila Mandal Federation and gave me a Federation I Card. The I Card became very important to me. Slowly, she started introducing me at various Mahila Mandal meetings. For the first time, I felt that people started noticing I am a human as well. Budrunisa had given me a new life. I regularly started attending the meetings. I met many women who had faced a similar fate as mine and my pain seemed to fade in front of them. We would discuss our problems openly and along the way we started enjoying each other’s company as well.
When I began coming to the Federation meetings, I was still working at the dumping ground. But after I joined the Federation, I gave up this job because I had no identity or self- esteem as a rag picker. I had a new identity with my Federation membership which was more important than money from a demeaning job. With my new identity came a new confidence that gave me the courage to file a case against my husband and brother-in-law. The Federation stood by me throughout my case against my husband till justice was served to me. They also supported me in the community and gave me the confidence to take such a stance.
As a Muslim woman, I am traditionally expected to be confined within the four walls of a house. In my community, women who talk to unknown men and speak against domestic violence are looked down on and disrespected. Keeping family unity is considered the sole responsibility of the woman. My work has given me the opportunity to challenge these norms. I have bought houses in the names of my children and I am working hard to give them a good education. I want my daughter to stand on her own feet.
Now, I am working as one of CORO’s CRCs (Case Registration Centres) to address domestic violence in 250 households under my care. I look into the cases where women have undergone the same situation as mine. I fight for justice for them against anyone, including men and even religious leaders. CORO’s Mahila Mandal Federation is a platform for right-based work where I can speak my thoughts with confidence. Being a Federation member gives me a new kind of will power to move ahead. Now that I have stepped out of the darkness, I want to bring my sisters into the light with me.