An Interview with Noorjahan Siddiqui
By Abu Saleh
Transcription of the Interview:
Abu Saleh: Please tell us something about your early days; background, childhood etc.
Noorjahan Siddiqui: I am from Maharashtra, Ahmednagar. My childhood was wonderful and I studied there till SSC (10th class). I got married at the age of sixteen into a Qazi family (those who perform marriages). They were my paternal relatives from Gulbarga, Karnataka and used to follow a very strict purdah system, contrary to the environment at my place, which was very open and free. Hence, I was married into a completely opposite family and place, too. They were farmers and the main source of livelihood came from what they grew in their fields. I could never accept these things. Apart from farming, my husband did not to do any other work. I was married in 1972 and in the same year there was a drought, which continued for three years. Contrary to the free childhood that I spent wonderfully well in my parents’ house, I faced many problems at my in-law’s place. My grandfather was a warrant officer and I studied in a co-education system. I became a mother within a year of my marriage. I found that it would be difficult to get by as my husband did not to do any other job. I thought we should do something on our own but my in-laws were against it. Two to three years passed like this and we couldn’t do anything. Later, I decided to return to my father’s place in Maharashtra but we didn’t get much support there as well. Some of our friends lived in Hyderabad and we decided to move to Hyderabad for good in search of work. That was 1976. We stayed in a rented house. My second child, a daughter, was born by that time. My husband started working. According to the situation, I decided to change myself.
AS: Ok, how did you get involved into social activism? Any incident or event that inspired or moved you to take this path?
NS: There was not much in the family and my children were very young. We needed money. So, I decided to work and began to teach in a school and gave tuitions, too. It was in 1978. I was hospitalized for the delivery of my third child. Around this time, an incident occurred in Hyderabad. Rameeza Bee, an ordinary woman, was raped brutally. I was in the Muslim Hospital and she was brought to the same hospital for treatment. This incident fanned riots and communal violence in Hyderabad. I wanted to meet her and requested a sister in the hospital to take me to her. She refused initially but, then, relented, on condition that I could only see her and not speak to her. I was from Maharashtra, where women moved freely. In Hyderabad, there was a strict purdah system. I wondered why such an incident happened here despite all the segregation between men and women. I always thought that if a woman is raped, she must be very beautiful. I thought that must be the reason why the policemen raped her. To my surprise, when I saw her I found her to be of small stature and very lean. I began to compare Maharashtra and this place. Despite the strict purdah system, this woman had to undergo this trauma. This incident moved me a lot.
AS: Well, as a Muslim woman, did you find any opposition from family and society, when you decided to become an activist?
NS: I did not face any problem from my parents but I faced obstacle from my in-laws. So far no woman worked in their family and it was really difficult for them to accept a daughter-in-law working outside the house. Moreover, instead of working in Gulbarga I was working in Hyderabad. People from there used to come and say to my husband: ‘Why do you send her out to work? A wife should be content with whatever a husband provides. If he provides even half a roti, she should be happy with that.’ I used to reply, ‘When I can have biryani, why should I have half roti.’ I used to tell them that if I stayed within the bounds of decency, why should there be a problem with my work. If I did anything wrong then they could point it out. I always faced problem from my in-laws and husband. My in-laws used to say bad things when my pictures appeared in newspapers. They felt that it damaged the reputation of the family (khandaan). I explained to my husband that I was working for myself and not for the family. I was not doing anything wrong and more than his family’s respect, my parents’ respect was dear to me. For me, my parents came first and, then, the in-laws.
AS: What were the commitments and vision with which you started the journey and how far you think you have achieved your goals?
NS: Actually in the initial days, I was not completely aware of the atmosphere in Hyderabad. I felt uncomfortable regarding the purdah system and restrictions on women. I started my career as a teacher and, afterwards, I got a job in the non-formal education sector, where I worked hard. I worked more or less for thirteen years in the area of adult-literacy. When I was working in the adult-literacy, I was offered different kinds of jobs. I started as a teacher but slowly proceeded to social activism. When I was working in the adult-literacy, a major riot took place in the 1990s after the demolition of Babri Masjid. In front of my house, a person was murdered when there was a curfew. Several were injured too; few were lying in the road. The police and the military did not allow anybody to come out of their home. I do not know from where I found the courage but I opened the door of my house and came out to help injured. I took one injured woman and her two children to Osmania Hospital, where she died. I helped the family to get some government compensation and whatever help I could do, I did. I felt happy that I could do something for them. They live in front of my house. When I see them now, I feel good. Because of me, their life could be rebuilt. Today, when I see her daughter I feel happy. She has done a B.A. and a B. Ed. The woman’s son works in a company. At the time of the riots, they were merely two or three.
It was a huge incident of my life and it helped me to create my own identity in the locality. During the riots, the COVA people also started working among the riot affected. I was already known as a social worker in the area. When COVA people came there, the local people brought them to me. They informed about my activism. This is how I joined and began to work in COVA. It gave me an opportunity to work further on creating communal harmony. Before that I taught, worked in the areas of adult-literacy, non-formal education, and many other things. After joining COVA, I left all other jobs. I worked at COVA for sixteen years.
AS: Well, tell us about your work at COVA and, later, at My Choices?
NS: I worked at COVA for sixteen years. There I worked on various issues like girls’ education, communal harmony, and women’s leadership etc. I worked in the rural district areas, too. It provided me a national-level platform, from where I could work on issues like Muslim women’s citizenship. I traveled to different parts of India and met many people. It gave me recognition and visibility. After the Godhra riots in 2002, I went to Gujarat. COVA was a nice experience and platform for me. I was always interested in working for women. At COVA, I worked in the areas of family counseling and women’s leadership. It was a perfect fit for me as I wanted to work on Muslim women’s issues in Hyderabad. However, the work environment at COVA changed and I decided to join My Choices. Because of my specific interest in domestic violence, I joined My Choices and started working here.
AS: How do you find the living standards of Muslim women in the old city of Hyderabad, compared to the new areas of Hyderabad or to any other places you have visited?
NS: When we began our work, the situation was very different as women hardly came out of their houses. The local male leaders dominated the scene and did not allow women to go out. Once we started work and counseling, women gradually started coming out of their houses and began to work. So, the old city today differs from the old city fifteen years back. Today, girls go to college riding two wheelers. Girls are getting an education and doing well, too. However, the major problems here are poverty and lack of education. Also, the domination of one community-based political party makes change difficult. Change is very much needed and it will take little more time.
AS: In general, what kinds of sexual exploitations the women in old city are subjected to? Do you think the reasons are poverty, illiteracy and migration of male family members to other countries and so on?
NS: See, these sexual exploitations exist everywhere, be it at the Banjara Hills area or in the old city. Educated people have their own mechanisms and they manage to suppress these incidents. Such things happen at the old city, too, like a seven year old girl was raped. I have worked on this incident. I have also worked in the area of sham marriages. The sham marriages with Arab men are also a kind of sexual exploitation. The men come from the Arab countries, live here for two-three months, marry local girls, and then leave. One of the reasons behind the sham marriages is poverty. The system has become worse because of dowry system. The poor people are not in a position to afford dowry. Here, even an auto driver demands fifty thousand or more in dowry. But even after that there is no guarantee that he will take care of the girl or keep her happy. Alcoholism, violence against women, wife-beating, and second marriages add to the problem. We cannot bring about change all of a sudden. It happens gradually. In this regard, mothers can contribute a lot by treating their male and female children as equals from their childhood onward, so that they find no difference between genders. When a boy grows up, if he is allowed to impose restrictions on his sister, he will do the same with his wife. So, it is all due to the existing system.
AS: You mentioned about the Arab sham marriages. Do they still exist or the numbers have come down?
NS: Yes, it has come down now. During the 1970s, the Arab people used to come to marry girls genuinely from poverty-stricken families. After marriage they took their wives to their countries. The girls managed to send money to their families and, even, managed to take their brothers there. That helped many of these poor families. Afterwards, the brokers got into it. They started arranging marriages and didn’t check the intentions of the Arab men. They extracted their share of money from these marriages. Some Qazis also got involved. They prepared marriage papers and, simultaneously, prepared divorce papers. These people damaged the system. Hence, instead of taking their wives with them, they started giving divorce only after three or four months. Later, the civil society and the government came forward. The police got involved. Now the numbers of such fake marriages have come down a lot.
AS: In the recent politically sensitive atmosphere in Hyderabad, what kind of challenges do you face while working here and how do you respond to them?
NS: In the 1990s, the communal situation in the old city was worse. Today, yes, it’s there but you won’t find it to that extent. Today, it’s less visible. Earlier, if communal violence occurred in a small area, it spread to the whole city. Now the violence is restricted to the particular place where it breaks out. We can guess that the mindset of the people is changing. It has changed because during curfew, the poor people had to suffer as their children went hungry for a week or so. Today, people realize that if the violence is allowed to continue, it will affect their livelihood. Usually, communal violence takes place because of politics and political agendas. Although people might not violence, if the politicians want it, it will surely happen. Neither a Hindu nor Muslim wants violence. Most people are worried about their livelihood and security. But few get involved and the situation becomes worse. Compared to the previous decade, such incidents of violence have decreased. Today, the violence has taken a different shape. Now the violence is more covert than overt.
AS: What roles do other activist groups, various NGOs and ‘Muslim political parties’ play in this regard?
NS: Every organization has its own vision. Some work for girls, some for schools, and some in the area of communal violence. We work against domestic violence and for a free society. They are working, according to their own mandate. The political parties don’t work in these areas. They have their own agenda. They try to play up the public emotions and sentiments.
AS: Where do you see the old city of Hyderabad after a decade or so? Who do you think can be the agent of change in future?
NS: We all have to work together. As I am working on domestic violence, people who are affected it or the victims of domestic violence come to me. So, I think how to make them feel comfortable in the family again or how to resettle them. But there are a few people who work at the grassroots level. We (My Choices), too, go to schools and colleges and sensitize young people regarding domestic violence. We have to start changing the mindset from that level. There is hope that in the coming years, there will be change. Since changes have come in the case of sham marriages and in the cases of communal rights, there is bound to be a decrease in domestic violence. But for that change to come, the mindset of young generation needs to be changed. Youth should come forward to make the change possible. Instead of mourning that there is violence everywhere, people should work. The young people must learn to respect women as human beings.
AS: How do you balance social activism and your personal life?
NS: At the beginning, I used to face problems because I had to start from home at six in the morning after doing all the domestic work. I had to manage my husband and my little children. People used to come and say bad things. That was a tough time. But I took them positively. Even my husband used to come after me and spy on me. I used to take it positively thinking that someone is there to look after me every time and everywhere. I had to manage my personal and professional life thinking about my family background and need. Today, I am old and I am no longer burdened by family responsibilities.
AS: Do you have any suggestions for the future activists?
NS: I say often that we need to go the grassroots and identify the problems. Only then we can effectively work on problems. Today, our life is highly influenced by the culture that is forced upon us but reality is different here. We must take into account the place, culture, and the practical life of life. We must understand the local contexts of our work for us to be able to move forward.
AS: Thank you ma’m for talking to us and for sharing your experiences and ideas with us. We are indeed thankful to you. We wish you an fruitful journey ahead.
[Noorjahan Siddiqui is a social activist based on Hyderabad, India. For almost 35 years, she is actively involved at the grassroot level activism and has worked on problems plaguing the old city of Hyderabad. She has been a teacher, counsellor, coordinators of social empowerment groups and so on. Earlier she worked at the Confederation of Voluntary Association (COVA). Presently, she works as a senior counsellor at My Choices. She is very active and vocal regarding issues such as rape victims, communal violence and harmony, child marriages, sham marriages, girls’ education, women’s rights, domestic violence, peace-making and so on.]
[Abu Saleh, is a doctoral student in the Center for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.]