“Women should not get confined to their home”, Shakila Siddiqi

Although Shakila was staying in Baignawadi for almost past two decades, she was not familiar with her locality till recently. She came here in 1991 after her marriage when she was only fifteen years old and confined her world to her home. Like most women in this community she mostly stayed at home and whenever she went out she would invariably be accompanied by some male family member and would fully cover herself in burkha. Although she shared her situation with majority women in her community she resented it. She would feel - Why the restrictions are always imposed on women alone? Why the women are not treated with respect? Why they can not freely move around like the men do?

Things started changing when she became a member of Mahila Mandal Federation in 2004, where she met like minded women. The Federation gave her an opportunity to interact with other women and build her understanding of women’s issues. She says she shares a special relationship with the Federation and it is a great source of strength for her. Shakila first worked as a counselor and helped to support women facing violence. This work exposed her to a range of violations women have to put up with. She realized that women succumb to violence and discrimination, since they are not aware of their rights. Shakila thought she would probe this further through her fellowship work.

Shakila decided to take up case of Muslim women as she had met a number of deserted women who shared their woes with her. Most of them were victims of whims and fancies of their reckless husbands and were abandoned after an oral talaq. Meher amounts were nominal in most cases and that too was not given in due regard. Keeping these facts in mind Shakila decided to understand “Rights and entitlements of Muslim women” as stipulated by the religious scriptures. She interviewed religious leaders as well as visited organizations working for the rights of Muslim women. Shakila is weak in writing, but she can read Urdu and Marathi very well. Therefore she could study the books provided to her by her mentor Shabana. The initial survey of 500 households was helpful in understanding women’s situation. Along with other information, she also gathered details on Mehar and Iddat amounts given to women.

The religious leaders told her that Meher is the right of Muslim woman. Meher is the amount fixed at the time of marriage, as the bride’s share, which is duly given to her in case of talaq. Sometimes Meher is also given at the time of marriage. Similarly a woman is also entitled to get enough amounts as maintenance for the three months immediately after talaq; after which she can marry again. Although provision of Meher and Iddat amounts is a responsibility of Muslim man, most often it is not fulfilled. Shakila says, “Provision of Meher and Iddat is like a short term support system for women after talaq and therefore the amounts should be reasonably enough and should be given with due respect. However, usually Rs. 786 is fixed as Meher and people feel that this amount can not be altered. Maulavi’s told me that the amounts should change with time and should be related to financial condition of the groom’s family.” After realizing this Shakila successfully intervened in one of the marriage negotiations and convinced the groom’s family to increase the Meher amount from the usual Rs. 786 to Rs. 20,000.

According to Islam marriage is a contract and therefore the religion provides for a written agreement or Nikahnama. This agreement, among other things, states what the responsibilities of the husband are in case he wants to end marriage and what the wife is entitled to get. Shakila was keen to know whether this agreement can also be modified to suit the changing times. She came across model Nikahnamas prepared by muslim women’s organizations, which serves, at least on paper, to recognize rights of the Muslim women.

Now she is closely affiliated with the people in her neighborhood who say that she has changed since past few years; especially after her involvement in Mahila Mandal Federation. Shakila knows this refers to her increased mobility and her burkha-free attire. Shakila admits that fellowship has caused a major transformation in her. She says, “The training and exposure we received during fellowship and the practical work we did in this period has brought in this significant changes within me. I tell people that I am not the same Shakila anymore.” When all the fellows set up stalls to share their work, Shakila presented her change process through photographs. “I displayed my three photos - one with full burkha the way I used to wear earlier, second with partial burkha when I relaxed self imposed restrictions and third photo showed me the way I am now - with no burkha. The first two photos showed veiled Shakila and the third one represents the transformation in me,” shares Shakila. Clearly fellowship work has given her confidence to display the change within her in such an outright manner.

Shakila is aware that what she is doing goes against local convention. But she thinks that these conventions are evolved by human beings with a purpose to confine women and her religion does not profess suppression of women in any sense. Since she has understood what the religion says from a number of experts she is able to properly decipher its meaning to people who try to confront her. Shakila is happy that her husband supports and appreciates her work and therefore she is able to deal with any social criticism.

According to Shakila the crux of leadership is awareness about rights and ability to assert for them. “A leader is the person who is able to fight not only to ensure her own rights but also fight on behalf of other women whose rights get violated,” tells Shakila. She feels that the fellowship has enhanced her attachment towards her work and it has now become an integral part of her life. “Fellowship brought in the realization of a leader within me. A political leader gets the authority for only five years, but our leadership is a lifelong endeavor.”

Presently Shakila works as an area coordinator for five regions and provides training and need based support to 20 registration centers (community level extension of counseling and legal aid center run by CORO) within these regions. She also wants to develop awareness and leadership within the women so that more and more women can come out of their confined world, just like her.