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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

GRASSROOTS

Rehana's fight for the struggle of her life

By V. B. Rawat

Rehana Khan, a 37-year-old social activist in the Gangoh block of UP’s Saharanpur district, faces one of the toughest battle of her life. Her social battles against orthodoxy were not less than her fight for her own rights in a family governed by married brothers and sisters. Saharanpur, is one of the most fertile lands in Western Uttar Pradesh where the dominant communities, both Muslim and Hindu, come from the backward Gujjars. The region is also known for Ms Mayawati who became chief minister and opted for a little known Harora constituency. Dalits in Sahranpur became quite aggressive but soon had to face the brunt of powerful backward classes. Despite all the good things, Saharanpur has its share of shocking news including violence against Dalits and women. Purdah system is still prevalent in this border district of Uttar Pradesh, which shares borders with Uttaranchal and Harayana. Though women do a lot of work, particularly those from the marginalized sections, the upper backward caste women remain in purdah.

Rehana

Growing up in a small conservative town with her head held high after the demise of her father was a difficult task for Rehana. A society where women are not considered fit for anything beyond rearing children and looking after them, Rehana, though still conservative in all aspects, never really became a woman like others. Though she had deep faith in Islam, read Quran and observed Namaz, yet nothing could prohibit her to work in a very secular environ. She would go to villages, meet women, educate them about their basic rights and even teach them how to cook, go to hospitals, meet bank clerks or police officials. These small 
things mattered a lot.
 

Rehana was born in 1967 to a policeman father who was an inspector in the UP police. The family was quite liberal in practice and ideas. She graduated from Meerut University and found a job in Delhi police. Her three brothers and four sisters were married and managed their own families while her father stayed with her mother. The family had 31 bighas of land in Thota Fatehpur, Gangoh. In 1993 her father died and that changed Rehana’s entire life. A shocked mother needed someone close to her to console and take care of her. Though she was living with her eldest son and his wife, the mother and other sisters forced Rehana to leave her job in Delhi and shift back to Gangoh to look after her mother as well as their ancestral property, which was lying unused, as every one among the brothers and sisters were busy in their own work.

Growing up in a small conservative town with her head held high after the demise of her father was a difficult task for Rehana. A society where women are not considered fit for anything beyond rearing children and looking after them, Rehana, though still conservative in all aspects, never really became a woman like others. Though she had deep faith in Islam, read Quran and observed Namaz, yet nothing could prohibit her to work in a very secular environ. She would go to villages, meet women, educate them about their basic rights and even teach them how to cook, go to hospitals, meet bank clerks or police officials. These small things mattered a lot. 

Within five years she had created a place for herself, which had no equal in the area. She would go on bullock-cart to reach villages and then switched to tractor. She would drive the tractor and do all the related work herself to make her ancestral land a success story. Her brothers and sisters were not very keen on this property in the village till Rehana by dint of her hard work made herself a successful farmer. Her brothers were not equipped enough to go and do things. Rehana has been a very promising person and she advised her brother in the village to opt for family planning in lieu of which the government was offering some land. Both her brother and his wife decided to go for it and were allotted 6 bighas of land. 

Rehana's social activities were making her popular in the region while she was also being targeted. Being an unmarried woman and that too from a minority community was a tough task. Her mother wanted her to marry but Rehana declined. She wanted to devote her time to the villagers and was happy in serving people. May be there were other reasons which she does not want to discuss, yet her spirit to work for the women of her community is unquestionable. A happy Rehana soon got a boost when the Sub District Magistrate of Gangoh Tehsil decided to honor her in 2001 with about 9-1/2 bigha of land for plantation in a village. This was a lease granted to her for 30 years so that she could cultivate the area and make it environment friendly and increase environmental awareness among the villagers. Some people, obviously, unable to digest such a revolutionary step of awarding some land to a Muslim woman, objected and went to the SDM against the same, who refused to budge. Villagers contested her claim on the ground that she was not a member of the local panchayat. Later, the politicians of the villages decided to make the case more curious by asking a Dalit to file case against Rehana with higher authorities. Remember, the land she was given did not belong to anyone as it was a village land but the landed mafia of the village brought a Dalit into the picture who is already a land grabber of the area and is alleged to have sold a large number of tracts to a number of people. The powerful Thakurs and Muslims joined hands with a few Dalit leaders and decided that they must oppose this land being given for plantation to an 'outsider. The fact is that they were united in their common interest, to deny land to a woman. Interestingly, Rehana had contested from this village as a member of Village Panchayat and withdrew in favor of a local youth. She says, how could I have contested the elections without being a member of the village panchayat? 

Rehana is hurt not because she found that none of the villagers came to her rescue. Her pain was evident when she cried at a programme organized by Social Development Foundation to honor her for her strong convictions and will to fight for her rights. She found that all those 'brothers' who used to be with her and made tall claims about women's empowerment disappeared fearing the community’s retaliation. None of them came forward to go with her to the police station and block offices. In fact, she was once mercilessly beaten by the goons of the village and when she tried to contact the police officer, he asked her to visit him 'late' in the evening at his house. Tragically, this police officer was a Dalit. 

Rehana was also a member of an organization claiming to work for the landless on right to food but none of them had time to find out whether she should be supported or not. Some of the big wigs who still use her name for their programmes in the name of a 'minority' woman usually said that 'we don't take up the individual cases.' They don't take up individual cases by denying their own activist space to fight, by persistently keeping away from the individual issue where their support is more vital and focused. 

Rehana has now started working for the poor village girls belonging to the Muslim community. It was village Badi Majri where a majority of villagers belong to Gujjar community who enjoy economic resources and big land holdings but culturally still live in a pre-Medieval society. Women are illiterate. It was a village where more than 19 children died during the rains in June-July 2004 mostly due to dirt and filth. The unhygienic conditions make children prone to such diseases. Rehana is now changing the village. She started a sewing center for village girls and involved them in other social activities including teaching them in English, Hindi and Urdu and bringing them into the national mainstream. Some of them have now started participating in workshops outside their homes, which was nearly impossibile earlier.

The girls are strong enough to venture out now. Rehana also helped her own niece and nephews to study and go for professional courses even when her elder brother is a simple mechanic. With her persistence with education, her niece scored over 80% marks in the 12th standard this year. She is a Sanskrit scholar and could recite Sanskrit verses more than any other Hindu boy of her town. 

But all this had never hurt Rehana so much, as the pain she feels now due to her own family, a feeling of alienation by her own family who threw her out. Her mother, for whom she left her job in Delhi, now wants her to stay inside the house. The brother and sister-in-law feel uncomfortable with her because of her social commitments and every-time she comes back there is a tense atmosphere at home. The mother who wanted to give one portion of the ancestral property to Rehana now keeps quiet. Her father had left a will in which he wished that his daughter be given equal share in his property because it is she who served him most. Rehana knows well that her mother does not want her to share the property with her brothers. She often says, "why does she want property. For whom?" Once when I visited their house, the mother's frequent request to me was to ask Rehana to curtail her movement and ask her to remain inside the house. "Zamana kharab hai', she would say. Rehana does all her work at home and knows very well that the 'Bhaiya-bhabhi' don't want her to remain there though their children like her, yet she is determined to fight. She often wonders why her mother does not realize that she needs a private space for herself. May be I will start a hostel for the girls of my community who are unwanted in the family. I wish my mother had realized my sentiments for working for the poor. These rewards give me recognition. It gives me satisfaction to work for the people.

Rehana's struggle for her dignity and her rights continue even as the government brings an amendment to the Hindu Succession Law, the Hindu fanatics will be up in arm soon if cases like Rehana are not resolved properly. It is time for Muslims also to go for an aggressive social engineering so that any effort to communalise the situation is foiled. Rehana and women like her need social security for their commitment to the work for the rural women who are looking for someone to hear their concern, problems and issues. It is time to reward the small but important work of one of the unknown women who is fighting a battle for her dignity and rights - a right to have a space for herself, a right to privacy and a right to live with honour.
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