By Nigar Ataulla
23 August 2012
A week of searching for “positive” news from the “Muslim World” for the front page of the journal I work for had exhausted me totally, draining me of my energy. There was almost no positive news at all from any part of that world that I could discover! Things seemed to be so dismal that I wondered if I should completely stop writing about the Muslim scenario.
Years of listening to and writing about their troubles, woes and complaints had begun to take their toll on my peace of mind! It was at such a gloomy time that I came to know Sajeeda Begum. Setting off with a dear friend in an auto rickshaw through the potholed, bumpy roads of Bangalore, I reached Aasra, the home for destitute Muslim women managed by Tanzeem-Ul Mohsinath, a charitable trust of which Sajeeda is a core member and General-Secretary. Housed in a double-storey rented bungalow, Aasra struck me as a cheerful, neatly-maintained place. Little girls flitted in and out of the room where I sat waiting for Sajeeda, while old women squatted on chairs sunning themselves. Sajeeda entered and introduced herself, and I felt immediately at ease. Cheerful and simple, she seemed the sort of person one can get along with at the very outset itself. She handed over a bunch of leaflets about Aasra and I skimmed through them.
Aasra is a home which provides food and accommodation for poor, needy and destitute Muslim women, one of the few such places in Karnataka. Sajeeda had taken the initiative to set it up as scores of Muslim women, deserted by their husbands, brothers, or parents, or victimised by domestic violence, dowry oppression, sexual harassment or many other forms of abuse, often have nowhere else to go to. “Aasra helps such women develop self-confidence to confront hassles in their married life. It provides guidance after listening to their problems and, if needed, we give them temporary shelter, with food and some basic skills’ training” Sajeeda explains.
Each case is analysed by experts and counsellors. This free counselling is provided in person or over the phone, through a helpline. Wherever needed, Aasra provides oppressed women police protection and offers legal aid, too. So far, some five hundred such women have received help from Sajeeda and her team. What Sajeeda is doing is, of course, a work of immense courage. How did she get into this, I ask her. “ I hail from a business family. My father was a landlord but he was very charitable towards the poor and needy, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. He helped everybody. That really made a mark on me. He was a major inspiration, though my mother also encouraged me to be socially engaged,” Sajeeda says. Even after she graduated in Arts from the Maharani’s College in Bangalore and got married, Sajeeda continued her social involvement, running tailoring classes for the poor. She had three children, but yet, running a large family didn’t curb her passion of helping the poor. In 1991, Sajeeda and some other socially active Bangalore based Muslim women started the Tanzeemul Mohsinath as an organisation to help poor women and children. In 2004, it was registered as a Trust.
In 2009, Aasra was set up as a home for the helpless Muslim women, under the aegis of the Trust. Prior to setting up Aasra, Sajeeda worked with a well-known Bangalore-based women’s group Vimochana. “Their professionalism was really an inspiration,” she reveals. And that was how she decided to launch a platform for Muslim women to put their problems into the public realm, realising that these women hardly had anyone to voice their anguish and problems. Many Muslim men, including “leaders”, remained indifferent to or silent on their problems, which meant that they needed to speak for and help themselves, Sajeeda says. With mainly her own personal funds, Sajeeda rented out a house in a largely-Muslim locality in Bangalore where Aasra has its premises. Till about mid-2009, she received some funds from the Wakf Foundation, but that soon stopped. Yet, she did not give up and continued Aasra with her money and funds contributed by her kids.
“Today, I get no funds from the bigwigs in the Muslim community. They do not want to help. Maybe because the cause of women for whom I am working is not considered big for them,” Sajeeda notes. “The patriarchal domination in our society is so much that it is a big task for me to change their mind-set. We are conditioned to believe that the father, husband, brother or son has to be the care taker of women and that women must always be dependent on men. That is why I think Muslim women need their own economic and educational independence and space.” Luckily for Sajeeda and her team, Aasra was recently recognised by the state’s Women and Child Welfare Department and so is now eligible for some government support. “It’s not much, though, because I have to handle dozens of new cases each month, including of terrible abuse. It’s a tough job, but I am not going to give up,” says Sajeeda.
“My mission in life is to make a positive difference to the lives of helpless women. I have completely stopped shopping or indulging in extravagant spending. Instead, I prefer to use the money for Aasra and other good purposes. God says that doing your duty towards society and the people is very important. Many Muslims have forgotten this altogether. Most of them focus only on religious rituals but the real meaning of life is to help suffering humanity first,” beams Sajeeda as she puts her arm around a little 10 year-old girl who was sold by her father for a few rupees but was recently rescued by Aasra. Meeting Sajeeda uplifted my spirits. I cared nothing now for desperately searching for “positive” news from the “Muslim World” for the front page of my journal. That half day with her was enough to bring me out of my depression! At least somewhere in some corner of India, one woman was working towards giving Muslim women their right to a dignified life, and there could be nothing more positive than this as far as I was concerned!
Contact Ms. Sajida Begum at Aasra, 121-Ist
Cross, Kariyanapallya, Near
Town Post, Bangalore-560084,
Phone: 98453-83905, 080-25479968.
Nigar Ataulla is the editor of Bangalore-based monthly Islamic Voice.