Grass roots endeavors in Patna
Mahjabeen Sarwar is a lady with a difference. She was born and brought up and now lives with her husband and family in Patna, the capital of Bihar, a state typically associated with lawlessness and a general apathy towards the plight of the poor. The daughter of Abdul Hameed, a head clerk at Patna's G.P.O., Mahjabeen studied at the Madrasa Sulaimania in Patna city, and eventually acquired a Fazil degree, equivalent to a conventional master of arts.
In November 2006, she was conferred the Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Stree Shakti Puraskar for her outstanding work in the area of woman empowerment in the year 2002. She was actually singled out for fighting for justice for exploited women. Mahjabeen thus made a record by becoming the first Muslim woman receive this award. Read on for more on how she feels about this recognition, why she was given the award and whether she has faced any difficulties along the way.
Interview for IndianMuslims.info was conducted by Aftab Abedin and Charu Bahri.
IMI: Tell us about Safeenah, the organization you established to formally do social work?
Mahjabeen: I conduct various social endeavors under the banner of an organization I founded with my husband, Ghulam Sarwar Azad's assistance; Safeenah, an acronym for Society for Awareness, Family welfare, Education, Economic upliftment, Nationality and Health. While my social endeavors started in 1984-5, well before Safeenah was established in 2002, we realized the need for a formal organization to ease the process of obtaining contributions for our work and hence, partnered seven other core committee members to establish this platform.
IMI: Does the name Safeenah mean anything special?
Mahjabeen: It certainly does. I do social work because it gives me happiness, and a feeling of fulfillment. I aim to deliver what people need, for instance, if a woman is hungry, employment to continuously satisfy her hunger, or if a child desires an education, the means to study. Safeenah is an Urdu word denoting a boat. You could say my slogan is "besaharon ko manzil tak pahunchana" reach the helpless to their desired destination. I achieve this via Safeenah - my platform, my boat.
IMI: That is a very beautiful thought, but how did you start out on this path?
Mahjabeen: Around 1984, when I was newly wed and had no children, I used to feel quite lonely as my husband kept very busy. In those days, he was associated with the Communist Party of India, although he has since discontinued his membership. Sometimes, when he returned from work, I would complain about his long working hours. On one such occasion, when I said I had nothing to do, he looked at me and said he'd think over it and tell me what to do in the morning.
The next morning, he pointed to some children playing on the street and asked me to teach them. I then spoke to the children, and asked them if they would like to study. They were ever so keen, but they said "if we study, how will we earn a living?" All these children worked in a nearby factory. Apparently, it wasn't going to be so easy.
I visited the factory, spoke to the owner, and requested him to give the children two hours free to study. He agreed, but I realized I also needed their parents' consent. The parents took some convincing. I emphasized the need for education, to ensure that their children would never be taken for a ride by unscrupulous persons. Eventually, they agreed, and I started something new!
Mehjabeen Sarwar with her husband Ghulam Sarwar Azad.
IMI: The Shah Bano case occurred soon after you had started social work, how did that affect you?
Mahjabeen: I was immensely affected by the Shah Bano case. [To recapitulate for those who do not know the intricacies of the case, in 1978, 62-year old Shah Bano, a Muslim woman from Indore, was divorced by her husband. Subsequently, she approached the court for assistance to secure maintenance from her husband, as she had no means to maintain herself or her children. After seven years, in 1985, her case had reached the Supreme Court, which upheld that a certain amount would be paid to her as maintenance by her estranged husband. Soon after this judgment, many Muslims protested the judgment, saying the apex court could not intervene in matters that should rightly be determined by the Muslim Personal Law. The then ruling party, the Congress Party, pacified these sentiments and agreed to back off. Needless to say Shah Bano was forgotten amid the uproar and political games that were played out. ]
I spoke out at the time, saying that no religion awards a woman as much respect as Islam. Hence, to treat a woman and a wife as a toy, and divorce her merely because she is aged, is absolutely wrong. I emphasized that women must be valued, just as our religion advocates. The backlash of my words was terrific. I cannot describe how much flak I faced and what difficulties we went through. You could say our home was almost bombed. We eventually had to relocate to a new locality - Sultanganj.
IMI: Tell us more about your current activities.
Mahjabeen: I can describe some of our activities as follows:
Ghareloo Dai Sangh is an association that brings maid servants, servants and street children on one platform. It advocates their legal rights and tries to improve their working conditions and wages. We organize seminars, symposiums, corner meetings and rallies to spread awareness of constitutional rights.
We work as a link between government authorities and poor people, and aim to increase their awareness of the number of government plans available for their benefit - such as the family welfare scheme, maternity scheme, janashree bima yojna (insurance scheme) and anna purna yojna (food distribution at subsidized cost scheme for poor people). Many underprivileged people do not know that they can buy rice and wheat at subsidized costs and also avail of some free distribution. Our aim is to help them improve their lot by availing of government schemes intended for their benefit.
We refer family problems or disputes to the Islami Shariat or/and civil court.
We also organize medical camps for the poor, vaccination and check-up camps for children and pregnant women and AIDS awareness camps.
Besides, Safeenah runs 32 basic educational centres.
IMI: Why do you have a special interest in helping handicapped people?
Mahjabeen: I perceive the handicapped as the "really" underprivileged people. I strive to organize the payment of "handicapped pensions" to these persons under government schemes. We run a Madrasa for disabled Muslim girls called Safeenatul-Banat at Khajakhad in Patna. Moreover, we have a special door to door educational program for mentally retarded children. Titled "Teacher at the door", this program recognizes that such children need special attention.
IMI: Are the people you help mostly underprivileged Muslims?
Mahjabeen: I serve all the poor, all the destitute, all the handicapped, irrespective of their religion or caste. My nature does not allow me to segregate people on such bases. My father and my husband have both been very good influences on me - they have never advocated narrow, communal thinking. In fact, we have children of various religions studying at our Madrasas.
IMI: What are your thoughts about educating women?
Mahjabeen: This subject is very dear to me. Women need some formal education or vocational training to be able to stand on their own feet. I feel very sad when I see women maltreated by their husbands or suffering due to their family's economic circumstances. Our training centre offers women and girls courses in fashion design, tailoring, applique work, zari work, embroidery, typing, etc. We teach women simple banking procedures and explain how to go about availing bank loans.
I was once approached by a Dalit woman named Savita. Her husband had a hand-cart but earned very little. She was close to committing suicide. I explained to her that suicide was not the way out and, that as she had to live for her children and herself, she needed to learn a skill to earn a living.
Savita learnt a trade and eventually got settled. I encourage women to learn a skill and set up home businesses. So often, they employ other women to assist them and end up as proprietors of small scale industries. This makes me very happy.
IMI: What, according to you, are the main problems of Indian Muslims?
Mahjabeen: The main problem of Indian Muslims is education. For me, no education translates as, no progress. I believe education is the means for economic equality and is especially a savior for women, enabling them to be financially independent and contribute to their family' welfare. However, when it comes to education, it must be modern. Just as we emphasize the study of all subjects, not only religious studies, but English, Hindi, mathematics, science, geography, history etc in our Madrasas, so Muslim parents must ensure that their children get a modern education wherever they study.
IMI: What are the biggest challenges you have faced, in the course of your work?
The more we do, the more I realize there is so much more to be done. We are always short of funds. I reach very few wards in Patna's municipality. I would like to reach more people. Our activities are currently entirely funded by donations we collect ourselves. We would definitely expand our program if more funds were available.
Dealing with government authorities is also difficult. Being seen as Muslim and poor sometimes works as a hindrance in getting things done. I have also faced red tapism in some government offices.
On the home front, convincing my children that I was doing something right was always difficult. They used to be very skeptical of my work, perhaps because they felt I was sharing my energy with other children. However, ever since I received the award last November, they have not stopped praising my efforts!
For the time being, neither are we! If you would like to help Mahjabeen Sarwar and her husband expand their work, do give them a ring on +91 93343 09626.
[Photos by IndianMuslims.info]