Category Archives: social issues

Law college violence – the ground reality

law collegeThe recent clash between groups of students at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College has brought campus politics under a shadow of disapproval. Facts that have emerged thus far reveal that caste-based political mobilisation was taking place inside the campus for a long time.

Ahead of the Thevar Jayanthi celebrations on October 30, students belonging to the Mukkulathor Student’s Forum, youth wing of the Thevar Peravai, had put up posters inside the campus to publicise the event. That they had omitted ‘Dr.Ambedkar’ from the name of the college in the posters is said to have angered Dalit students and triggered the clash on November 12.

However, such violence stemming from politics on campus is not new and the institution has remained a hotbed of political activity for several years now. In 2002, a similar violence involving students occurred in the Law College hostel and a commission of inquiry, led by retired Madras High Court judge K. S. Bakthavatsalam was appointed by the State government. Back then, the police action in response to student violence had come under criticism.

Students Federation of India (SFI) member R.Thirumoorthy, a third-year B.A. B.L. student, said developments taking place in mainstream politics got reflected in politics within the campus, invariably.

He said, “To most college students and professors, the November 12 violence did not come as a surprise at all because we knew it would happen one day or the other,” he said.

Students aspiring for a career in politics are known to make their way into the college. S. Prasanna, now an active member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam youth wing, said he perfected the craft of politics as a student at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College. He said he participated in several public meetings and protests and was able to deepen his understanding of the party’s ideology.

Prasanna, who passed out from college this year, was also quite frank about the deviant student culture there. “I remember a classmate of mine saying that a law college student could happily break signals and be sure he would be let off by the traffic police.” He said the students feared none and misused their newfound independence. He also spoke about how right from the first year of college, students were branded on the basis of their caste. “Most students keep to their own caste groups and rarely mingle with those from other communities,” he said.

What makes things worse is the poor academic atmosphere on the campus, said advocate Sudha Ramalingam. “Students passing out of the college hardly have any proper legal training and many of the interns working at my office do not even know basic things such as filing a brief for a court case,” she said. She said the college should have extra-curricular activities to give a cultural outlet to students. “They also need good role models in professors and seniors, which is not the case now,” she said.

Geetha Ramaseshan, lawyer and social activist, agrees that there is a lack of inspirational movements and leadership for young people to look up to. “One way of dealing with this is going inwards to look at identities based on caste or religion,” she says. Hence, identity politics is closely linked to the current economic situation, she adds.

Human rights activist A. Marx, who retired recently from Presidency College, said while compiling a fact-finding report on the recent violence, he found that lawyers themselves were divided on caste lines and politically affiliated. “So it is obvious that students find it convenient to align themselves with groups to which they naturally belong,” he said.

From his nearly 40 years’ experience in government colleges, he said none of them was free from political interference. “Political parties openly patronise and finance student leaders in colleges,” he said. Even professors and other staff were appointed and transferred in these colleges at the behest of powerful politicians.

Also, the class and caste composition of the student community determined the nature of politics on campus, he said. “Students of elite professional institutions who are assured of jobs while passing out are bound to behave differently from students who struggle to make it to college, in the first place, and are uncertain about their future because their institution cannot guarantee them one,” he observed.


Sudha Ramalingam, advocate and human rights activist:

As a student of Law College I participated in the anti-emergency movement supporting the Janata Party in the 70’s. It initiated me into civil liberties activism. So, I will not say that student politics should be banned. But it should not be done at the cost of academics. It is good for students to be politically aware but it should not lead to deviant behaviour. Politicians too should stop exploiting young, vulnerable students for political gains. The last thing we want is students turning victims at the hands of political power mongers.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Nov 24, 2008)


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Voice of silence

TWENTY-TWO years ago, six young Indian women living in the United States – Radha Sharma Hegde, Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipal, Vibha Jha, Shamita Das Dasgupta and Kavery Dutta – founded Manavi to support victims of domestic violence. They were jolted into action after the story of Amita Vadlamudi, a battered Indian immigrant woman who killed her husband unable to tolerate his abuse, brought the issue of violence within homes out in the open.

When Manavi was born in 1985, it became the first South Asian women’s organisation seeking to address this issue in the U.S. Based in New Jersey, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation (NGO) handles the cases of an average of 300 women victims of domestic violence annually.

shamitaFrontline caught up with Shamita Das Dasgupta recently while she was on a visit to India. Quoting from a study, she described the disturbing pattern of domestic violence in the nearly two-million-strong Indian immigrant community in the U.S. The study, conducted among 160 highly educated South Asian women by A. Raj and J. Silverman and published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association in 2002 showed that 40.8 per cent of the respondents had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners; 36.9 per cent of this number reported that the victimisation happened one year before the study. However, only 3.1 per cent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. The study says this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 per cent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.

Excerpts from Shamita Das Dasgupta’s conversation with Frontline:

When I started working among women victims of violence in the U.S. independently some 30 years ago, there was almost no one working in this area. The main reason for violence is the gender discrepancy of power. Most immigrants seem to carry with them their native cultural prejudices…they attempt to keep their dominance through violence. Also, among immigrant women there is this extraordinary tendency to keep the marriage intact regardless of the cost. Women tolerate violence. The social customs that approve endurance perpetuate the violence.

From hostility to awareness

When we started work in 1985, we got so many calls from so many battered women that it surprised us. Initially, we faced only hostility from the community and disbelief from the victims, as if there was no hope. But now women’s awareness of laws is improving and with help in hand more and more women are reporting such instances of violence to the police or to NGOs. The awareness generation done by Manavi and other similar organisations has proved useful. We must acknowledge, however, that there are still those among the Indian diaspora who are not aware of their rights. When it comes to women standing up to violence, community responses such as “this is not necessary” and “why wash dirty linen in public?” are common. But over the years, these responses have dwindled. At Manavi, we conduct visible community events such as marches and campaigns to generate awareness. Our organisation has also been featured in newspapers such as The New York Times and in radio talk shows. Our success has inspired several members of the South Asian diaspora to take up the cause of battered women. But we have come a long way.

Next year [in 2008], Manavi will conduct its third National Conference, urging South Asian Women to rise up against violence. Our short-stay home, Ashraya, provides shelter to battered women, whom we later refer to government homes if they need help.

Role of the American state

The U.S. government has played an important role in assisting NGOs to tackle the issue. During the 1970s, there was a significant women’s movement in the U.S. which held the state responsible for the welfare of women. A model under the Coordinated Community Response was developed to bring together state agencies and NGOs. NGOs get grants to run shelter networks. The Violence Against Women Act, 1994, has addressed the issue of domestic violence adequately. Also there are common torture and harassment laws that address issues of abuse. Many American States have adopted practices such as mandatory arrests and no-drop prosecution to ensure that victims of violence get justice.

Speedy justice

Speedy justice is a remarkable feature of U.S. courts. For instance, an Order for Protection can be issued overnight to victims to prevent violent or threatening acts – including stalking – harassment, and contact or communication from the abusive spouse. It can be either a criminal or a civil order. However, no verification is necessary under Federal law to issue an Order of Protection. Federal law requires that all valid Orders for Protection of any jurisdiction be enforced to protect victims wherever violation has occurred. Immediate action is taken by the police when protection orders are violated. Initiation of criminal procedure and arrest is quick. Though the police are trained to handle cases of domestic violence sensitively, much more remains to be done in this field as the problem is widespread. Also, there are issues such as contradictory legal systems, conflicts related to cultural issues such as stree-dhan – dowry and mehr – distrust of law enforcement, racism and xenophobia; language issues and perceptions of credibility pose problems.

Cultural assumptions

Immigrants hang on to their culture in a very strong way because of the constant fear of losing their identity in a foreign land – even to the extent that they hang on to an imaginary culture… These cultural notions often get distorted. For instance, several women I have dealt with assume that Indian culture accepts violence against women, which I think is a tremendous distortion. I ask the victims: Why ignore the empowering aspects of our culture? We urge these women to wake up and ask who benefits from perceived cultural notions?

I remember the case of this particular young woman from India who had two children and was physically abused and starved in her in-laws’ place in the U.S. When she came to us she couldn’t even speak proper English. We helped her to separate from her husband. She found herself a job in a hotel and was determined to bring up her children on her own. Today she is independent, drives a car and her children are doing well too. It is this resilience and courage of women that encourages us to keep going.

Today, thanks to the support system made available to battered women, several of them are able to stay aboard and find a job. We help them find these jobs, provide training, if need be. And most of them manage to survive on their own. Several women seek divorce from abusive husbands and carry on with their lives with dignity. But the problem of domestic violence is very much there and I feel the struggle has to go on.

(Originally published in Frontline, issue dated Dec 22-Jan4, 2008 as part of the Cover Story on ‘Violence against Women’)


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Rescuing children – the ChildLine success story

The success of ChildLine – 1098, the helpline providing emergency rescue services for children in distress is evident in the number of cases it handles every day.

Welfare Committee chairperson P. Manorama told The Hindu that due to the active child rescue operation co-ordinated by the helpline, between 60 and 80 new cases of children in need of care and protection are reported in a month.

“This is the highest number of cases reported from any Indian city. It has become possible because various government agencies have come together in an effort to rescue children from abusive situations,” she said. “More members of the public must come forward to report cases of children in distress,” she said.



Cases of child labour and runaway children are relatively higher in the city, she said. Recently two 16-year-old girls were found employed as servants in a ladies hostel in Velachery and rescued by members of ChildLine. ChildLine India senior programme coordinator R. Sahayaraj said the team members received a tip-off from a social worker and found the two girls working in the kitchen of the hostel after investigation.

“Once their age was established as below 18, we produced them before the Child Welfare Committee and warned the hostel not to employ children there any longer,” he said. However, different definitions of a ‘child’ in different laws pose challenges to the rescue workers.

While the Child Labour (Regulation & Prohibition) Act says children less than 14 years should not be employed in hazardous occupations which include domestic work, the Juvenile Justice Act defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child.

These conflicting definitions have allowed for a large number of children between the age of 14 and 18 to be employed and the employer going unpunished,” said Chandra Thanikachalam of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, one of the three NGOs coordinating the ChildLine.

Area of concern

Another area of concern has been a large number of children selling items such as ear buds, towels and water packets at traffic signals and other crowded public areas in the city.

“To put an end to this, greater participation is needed from members of the public,” Ms. Thanikachalam added.

The most important contribution of ChildLine has, indeed, been towards ensuring compulsory primary education of children.

“When the same child is found begging more than once, we do not return them to their parents. We enrol them in the juvenile homes to ensure that the child studies and is not forced into an abusive situation again,” she said.

Recalling an incident, Ms.Manorama of the CWC said, “A few months ago when The Hindu front-paged a report of child rag-pickers in Perungudi, officials of ChildLine and Labour Department faced much resistance in their efforts to rehabilitate them.

“The rescued children and their parents were initially hostile towards any kind of intervention. But today those children are in school and they are studying well,” she said. That is the kind of change we want to bring about, she summed up.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Jun 29, 2009)

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Manual scavenging in Chennai Central station

Though manual scavenging has been banned by law since 1993, men and women continue to manually remove human waste lying on the tracks and inside train toilets at the Chennai Central railway station.

Railway authorities produce a list of sophisticated cleaning machines they have purchased to prove how they have done away with manual scavenging. But, not a single sanitary worker could be spotted using any of them.manual scavenging

Most of them were seen removing excreta on the tracks with brooms and metal plates. Health officers maintain that workers only used water jets to clear excreta and directed them into nearby channels which emptied into the drains. But this arrangement was not found working efficiently.

Sanitary workers told The Hindu hose pipes supplying water meant for cleaning often leaked and the force generated was not sufficient. In the end, they have to only use brooms and metal plates for scraping the dirt off the tracks.

Even the channels conducting waste into the drains are not well-dug and water mixed with excreta stagnates in them. The workers have to drag their brooms along the channels to clear them.

For now, the Chennai Central has about 30 sanitary workers employed on a contractual basis in Zone I (platform 1-6). Zone II (platforms 7-12) is cleaned by close to 40 railway employees. Of this, only two persons are engaged for removing excreta piled on a single track, says a senior sanitary worker. This is an enormous task, considering the tracks are 600 m long.

None of the sanitary workers are provided gloves, gum boots or masks while cleaning. They say they are not even provided a soap to bathe with after work.

Many of them suffer from skin allergies and other occupational hazards. Also, sanitary workers on contract get exploited for labour. For a 12-hour shift they are paid a measly Rs. 40 a day.

Lack of adequate public sanitation facilities is to be blamed for this state of affairs. For a station that sees nearly two lakh visitors a day, the Chennai Central has only two pay-and-use toilet complexes for public use.

Railway authorities point out that there are more toilets available in the waiting rooms on the first floor. But then again, the station has no sign boards to tell visitors where they are.

And anyways, why would someone pay to answer nature’s call when toilets inside trains waiting on platforms are available for use? The public blissfully ignore notice boards that discourage them from doing so.

A sanitary worker told The Hindu that Charminar Express, which pulls into the Chennai Central by around 8 am, serves as a free toilet for several early morning office-goers. “It takes us an hour to clean up the mounds of waste from its toilets,” he says.

The Railway authorities responsible for sanitation blame “beggars, urchins and those who roam aimlessly inside the station” for dirtying train toilets and tracks. But, the sanitary workers say that a large number of passengers boarding trains in the morning use train toilets.

The authorities blame the contractors for the plight of sanitary workers saying they are ill-equipped for the job. However, sources say the problem lies with issuing low value tenders for sanitary work as professional contractors would not come forward in such cases.

N. Penchalaiah, general secretary of All India Safai Mazdoor Congress said, “I am tired of pleading the authorities to find a workable solution for the sanitation problem. As long as there is someone to do the dirty job for them, they don’t care.”

(Originally published in The Hindu dated May 22, 2008)

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Abandoned woman found lying near garbage pile

stellaHer name is Stella. Found lying on a pavement on Blacker’s Road, off Anna Salai, on Wednesday morning, this 80 year old was almost unconscious. Holding on to a small jute bag and a walking stick in her wrinkled hands, Stella was a picture of plight. And she stank. Flies swarmed around her as there was a pile of garbage close to her head. A few metres away from where she laid, a portion of the wall served as a public urinal. A man was seen jumping over her to reach the urinal.

Bystanders, including autorickshaw drivers at a stand and a parking lot attendant, said she had been spotted on the pavement here several times. Upon probing, Stella said in her toothless babble: “I fell down last night while picking garbage here.” She pointed to a bruise on her right elbow. Since no one came forward to help her up, she continued to lie there. Finally dialling ‘108’ brought the ambulance and Stella was shifted to the Government General Hospital.

For the hospital attendants, though, Stella was yet another of the many “unknown patients” who get dumped here on an everyday basis. GH Resident Medical Officer A.Muthurajan said sometimes people admitted old patients and never returned to take them back.

S. Santhosh, a social worker at the Elder Helpline ‘1253’ said that in a month they received at least 50 cases of old men and women lying abandoned in street corners, bus stops or railway stations. “There may be many more such cases that go unreported,” he said. The city has 52 free old age homes, some government-run and others managed by NGOs, to cater to such persons. “But, these homes would admit them only if they were found to be destitute,” he said.

Geriatrician V.S.Natarajan, who previously headed the geriatric ward at the Government General Hospital, observed that most old persons found unconscious or abandoned on the streets suffered from a multitude of health problems such as lack of nutrition and starvation, skin infection, chest infection, dehydration and mobility problems.

D.D.A. Prabhakaran of non-governmental organisation Little Drops urged the public to be proactive and report cases of old people found lying abandoned on the streets. “The least we can do is to pick up the phone and dial 1253,” he said.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, Jan 01, 2009)

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An Act of Faith

At Thandeeshwaram, a tiny village in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Sharifa Khanam is building her dreams brick by brick. The 42-year-old social worker has initiated the construction of a mosque here for Muslim women as a symbol of their struggle for equal rights in a male-dominated society.


The first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999, Sharifa found her calling in women’s rights activism when she attended an All-India Women’s Conference in Patna in 1988. “It was a turning point in my life. I realised it was possible for women to act together to negotiate a space for themselves in society,” she said.

In 1991, she set up STEPS Women’s Development Organisation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in Pudukottai with the help of the then District Collector Sheela Rani Chunkath. STEPS started functioning near the Pudukottai bus stand as a community welfare centre for women, but eventually it began to handle cases on behalf of battered women. In 2003, Sharifa began to organise a monthly jamaat, or congregation, for Muslim women under the banner of Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. This was meant to provide Muslim women a space for expressing themselves. And since a jamaat is traditionally attached to a mosque, Sharifa decided to erect a separate mosque for women. The mosque when complete will be fully managed by women, but will keep its door open for men, she said.

The women’s jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional “jamaat system” which by and large controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known as the pallivaasal jamaat. This group, besides managing the affairs of the mosque, would gather outside the mosque and arbitrate over community disputes. “The jamaat is more or less like a caste panchayat – functioning at the behest of powerful men,” said writer and gender rights activist V. Geetha, who has sided with Sharifa and her movement for the last two decades.

Sharifa says because the traditional jamaat has no woman representative, no one hears the woman’s version during a dispute. Often in cases like dowry harassment or domestic violence, she said, the male jamaat members refused to come to the women’s rescue.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (commission) collected annually from the community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals on occasions of birth, death and marriage. Individuals and whole families could be declared outcast if they failed to pay up the commissions. According to Sharifa, jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they failed to obey their decrees.

The women’s jamaat handles cases of marital disputes relating to dowry, divorce or domestic violence. Most women approaching Sharifa are those who have apparently been denied justice by the traditional jamaat. There are cases where women are given talaq through e-mails and telegrams and the jamaat would do nothing to condemn the man, said Sharifa. Petitions coming in occasionally from people of other communities and even men are not turned down here.

Sharifa said in the last 15 years she has handled about 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Jamaat members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” said Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for “counselling” a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help with a Muslim family in Chennai, Vennila was raped by her employer. The police dragged the investigation on and when repeated petitions to the police were ignored, Sharifa and other members of the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the Superintendent of Police and saw to it that the culprit was brought to book.

The jamaat members are Amazonians in the real sense of the word. The 30,000 Muslim women who form her support base in Tamil Nadu today are an empowered lot. In the last 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in ten districts across Tamil Nadu – Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur.

Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to the Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in Muslim communities – ex parte divorces (talaq), polygamy and dowry demands during weddings.

At a women’s jamaat meeting held at the Pudukottai office of STEPS on March 26, this reporter met 60 participants who had come from all over Tamil Nadu despite the sudden rain. With their heads covered with dupatta or clad in burqas, the women gathered in a tiny hall and began the jamaat with a rendition of the Quran. Prayers done, the first topic to be discussed was the model nikahnama released recently by the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board in Lucknow. Most jamaat members felt that the new nikahnama had nothing new to offer as such and only reiterated the rights of women, such as the right to demand khula (divorce), which has been guaranteed in the Quran already. But they welcomed the move as a positive development.

Next, the jamaat heard the case of a Boushiya Begum from a nearby village who was allegedly harassed by her husband for dowry during their three years of marriage. This despite 35 sovereigns of gold and a vehicle being reportedly given as dowry to the groom at the time of the wedding.

At the Women’s jamaat, Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, reading out from the holy book. She helps other members to interpret the verses.

Boushiya’s brother Zakir Hussain told the jamaat that her husband “did not like her looks” and was demanding Rs.1 lakh to keep her. He said he had sought help from the Karambakudi jamaat, which presided over their wedding, but they refused to intervene saying it was “their family matter and they must solve it on their own”. The Karambakudi police did arrest Boushiya’s husband, but only on charges of simple hurt and criminal intimidation. No case was filed under the Dowry Prohibiton Act.

Boushiya pleaded for help as her husband had been released on bail and was threatening to separate their two-year-old son from her. Sharifa promised to take up the case with the police. This case sparked off a discussion among the women on the prevalence of dowry in Muslim communities.

Taj Begum, a jamaat member from Singampunari in Sivaganga district, said that traditional jamaats were getting a share of money from the “un-Islamic” practice. As per Islamic tradition, it is bride who is entitled to mehar (gift from the groom) and not the groom to dowry, she said. She said Muslim grooms demanded dowry ten times that of mehar offered to the girl. “And these exchanges are seldom recorded in the marriage contract or nikahnama though the rule says so,” she said.

The women’s jamaat is also demanding that women be allowed to pray in mosques, which they say is a Quranic right. Though some mosques have separate enclosures for women to pray, conservatism is keeping women from congregating in mosques for prayers. Subaitha Begum, a jamaat member from the fishing community in Tuticorin, narrated how she initiated a mosque inclusion movement for Muslim women in Thracepuram last September. On February 22, she assembled 300 women in a separate hall near the mosque for Friday prayers. She said she even managed to garner the support of a few Muslim men in the area who let their wives participate in the mass prayer meet.

“The local jamaat was furious with me for encouraging women to participate in the mass prayer. On jumma day, they even announced over mike from the mosque that Muslim women from ‘respectable families’ ought not to side with me,” said Subaitha. “But after the separate prayer meet for women was held successfully the Thracepuram mosque is considering giving space for women to pray inside the mosque.”

M. Janakam, district co-ordinator of the jamaat from Dindigul, said that when she took up the case of a Muslim woman who was being denied divorce by her husband, the traditional jamaat discouraged her saying, “Don’t go to the women’s jamaat, we will solve your problem.” She said it hurt the ego of traditional jamaat members when the women’s jamaat successfully intervened in a case.

Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, pointed out that not all decrees of the traditional jamaat enjoyed religious sanction. “Islam is a progressive religion that guarantees several rights to its women,” she said. “And because the Quran is taught in Arabic, most women do not understand its meaning despite knowing it by heart.” During jamaat meetings, Mehr-un-Nisa helps other women interpret the meaning of Quranic verses.

Quoting from the Quran, she listed the various rights guaranteed to women in it. These include rights to demand a share in ancestral property; demand mehar; seek khula (divorce); choose a husband; approve a groom before marriage; raise children; and speak and participate in community activities. But in practice, the traditional jamaat often denied these rights to women, she said. Mehr-un-Nisa is also compiling a half-yearly journal, Pengal Jamaat, on behalf of STEPS to propagate the message of women’s rights.

The story of Sharifa and the thousands of women who come seeking help at her doorstep is also the story of how Muslim women are marginalised in society. They are faced with the double jeopardy of being “Muslim” and “women”. “In India, political parties woo Muslim voters but when it comes to the welfare of the community, especially its women, they turn their backs,” said Sharifa.

As V. Geetha points out, pitching Muslim women’s issues around personal law has given the impression that issues to do with personal law are pertinent only to the minorities. “We assume that Hindus are default democratic citizens and all others are bound by their religious lives. The flip side of thinking this way is that we do not see Muslims as developmental subjects – as subjects of state policy to do with poverty, employment, malnutrition, housing concerns and so on,” she told Frontline.

Sharifa said such prejudice against Muslims reflected, for instance, in their difficulty to obtain loans. Though the State government had set apart funds for providing loans to the minorities, much of it remained unutilised, she said. To fill this gap, Sharifa is planning to start a jamaat bank, which will provide women with low-interest loans to help them start a small business or such like.

Faced with prejudices both within and outside the community, the emergence of the Muslim women’s jamaat is “one of the most creative things to have happened in Indian feminism,” Geetha said. “The jamaat takes the feminist battle away from these familiar forums to those that are not known to many of us: community lives and organisations. In doing so, it carries the struggle for gender justice to where it is often denied: the family, kin network, the larger community world…,” she added.

But as Frontline gathered the opinions of popular representatives of the Muslim community on the women’s jamaat, it emerged that the movement does not enjoy much support. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) President M.H. Jawaharullah dismissed Sharifa and her women’s jamaat as being a “fringe group thriving on media hype”. “It is unfair for Sharifa and STEPS to take away credit for work that other Muslim organisations are doing as well,” he said, adding that the TMMK too runs a “reconciliation centre” for settling marital disputes between Muslim couples.

His party, now an ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition government in Tamil Nadu, extended full support to the pallivaasal jamaat system because it provides an “alternative forum to settle disputes at a time when the courts and police stations are already overburdened”. He said the pallivaasal jamaat had an important role in making sure “discipline prevailed in society”.

Concerning women’s rights to pray within the mosque, he said while Islam gave equal rights to women to pray besides men, some Ulemas at home were “extra-conscious” about this. “I cannot use the word conservatism, but yes, some Ulemas fear that letting women pray in mosques may lead to untoward incidents,” he said.

Eminent lawyer Bader Sayeed and Member of the Legislative Assembly of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam concurred that the jamaat upheld patriarchal norms of living for Muslim women. Her personal experience in dealing with jamaat leaders during her tenure as Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board had sensitised her to the issue, she said.

She said a few months ago she filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court against members of the jamaat in Ammapettai, Thanjavur, on the charges of excommunicating a Muslim woman and torturing her. The jamaat had not satisfactorily settled a divorce case between the woman and her husband and when she approached the court the jamaat members took offence. They retaliated by treating her like an outcast, said Bader Sayeed. “When her husband died, the jamaat did not send a priest to perform the funeral and it forcefully separated her daughter from her,” she said. “In such cases confrontation is necessary.”

Bader Sayeed said she supported the view that women leaders should be appointed in traditional jamaats. She prefers judicial settlement of Muslim divorces and registration of marriages, and is also for codifying Muslim law so that the judiciary can resolve disputes easily. “But I disapprove of the idea of a separate women’s jamaat as that would mean alienating women from the mainstream,” she said. Her argument was that if Sharifa built a mosque for women, men in the community would only be too happy to exclude women, asking them to go and pray there.

Leading Muslim scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, however, extended full support to the women’s jamaat. He said Islam allowed its followers to interpret the Quran and live their life accordingly. “So, if women wish to build a mosque for themselves, religion gives them the right to do so,” he said. He also sought speedy implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee submitted to the Indian government in 2006 so that socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India could improve.

As of today, Sharifa’s dream mosque stands incomplete – only a few bricks have been put together and the iron rods jutting out of the concrete base rust among wild bushes at the construction site. But Sharifa is hopeful. “I will erect the structure in another two years,” she said.

There has been no dearth of media coverage for the mosque project and in the last four years Sharifa’s work has drawn attention from India and abroad. But as Sharifa points out, “This has brought much appreciation, but little in terms of support.” Global Fund for Women, a United States-based non-profit organisation, offered Sharifa help initially but later shied away from supporting a “Muslim religious cause”.

What Sharifa and her women need now is support, both moral and financial. “I need at least Rs.40 lakh to finish the mosque and a steady flow of funds is necessary to keep the movement alive.” But fund-raising has been difficult. “I have already put in all my money in buying the land for the mosque and setting up a foundation,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is squeeze the poor Muslim women coming to me to donate for the cause.”

“So how are you going to manage to build the mosque for women?” I ask. Sharifa does not answer. She only turns to the women attending the jamaat meeting and says, “The cause of the women’s jamaat and women’s mosque should not die with me. You, my women, must keep it alive.” And the women nod their heads in unison.

(Originally published in Frontline in Apr, 2008)

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A picture of neglect

adi dravida

Every year hundreds of young men and women, belonging to the Adi Dravida community, migrate from the villages and small towns of Tamil Nadu to the city in the hope of getting good education and employment later on. But the condition of the 22 government hostels for them is pathetic.

M. Kala, a student of history at a city college, stays at the government hostel for Adi-Dravida girls in Royapuram, where eight hostels are clubbed in one small building. Kala says around 600 schoolgirls, working women, teacher trainees and college going girls live in the 30-odd rooms there. “We are herded together like cattle, at least 20 women staying in each room,” she says.

Overcrowding is a problem at M. C. Raja Boys Hostel in Saidapet, too, where there are 1,000 students at an accommodation for 400 students. The students say they hail from poor families and cannot afford private accommodation.

Poor infrastructure

Most Adi Dravida hostels have poor infrastructure.

At Royapuram, the water stagnates in the toilets and there is no waste disposal system in place.

A huge pile of garbage greets visitors at the entrance. Because of poor hygiene, hostellers become vulnerable to diseases, says Kala.

At the Saidapet hostel, the terrace serves as an open toilet for students, as they do not use the toilets that are dingy and unclean.

The hostel does not have wash basins, either. Most students use the corridors and open spaces inside the building to dump waste. The stench of decaying food fills the corridors and rats can be seen feeding on them.

With examinations round the corner for many students, the atmosphere is hardly congenial for studying. “We have a library for namesake. But it has remained shut for over a year now,” says Muthu*, a resident of the hostel.

Most hostels do not have back up options during power cuts. “Many students study in the open ground of the nearby Veterinary College as the hostel environment is not suitable for studies”, he adds.

Negotiating for better facilities is difficult for these students.

The girls at Royapuram say that when government officials come to the hostel for inspection, the warden make sure officials never come to know of the poor conditions.

The students living in these hostels also complain about the poor quality of food.

Social activist A. Narayanan recently filed a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission highlighting the poor condition of government hostels.

He says: “Even prisons are better compared to the Adi Dravida hostels here. I know many students who do part-time jobs as waiters or helpers in marriage halls so that they can eat at least one good meal a day. These students deserve better.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Apr 20, 2009)

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