Turning Up the Volume on Women’s Voices: Hasina Khan, Mumbai Human Rights Defender


Turning Up the Volume on Women’s Voices: Hasina Khan, Mumbai Human Rights Defender

December 11, 2008

Still reeling from last month's vicious attacks, Mumbaikars look to the future. Will communal violence erupt between Hindus and Muslims? Will economic class disparity, now exposed like never before, continue to deteriorate? Will the struggle for women’s rights be eclipsed by the war on terror?

One woman has been addressing these questions for 20 years. Hasina Khan leads Awaaz-e-Niswaan ("Voices of Women"), an organization that empowers women in Mumbai to demand their rights and make their voices heard. Khan is recognized as one of India's most visible, courageous and effective activists for women's rights in general and Muslim rights in particular.

Awaaz-e-Niswaan has flourished despite periods of severe violence against the city's Muslim minority community and the firm opposition of conservative religious authorities. In the wake of the recent siege on Mumbai, which killed approximately 172 and injured 300, Khan is working harder than ever to make sure that no voices are ignored.

A Mumbai Heroine

"I'm a committed person, a political person, a thinking person and sometimes an angry person," says Khan. "I can't sit at home and watch TV. Instead I talk with local people. I want to know: what do you think? What do you see? I speak with young people, with women; on trains, on the streets. I have my ideas, my views, but I want to hear what other people think."

Born to a conservative religious Muslim family, Khan grew up in the slums of Mumbai. She began working at the age of 14 and managed to save money to continue her education, ultimately attending university and becoming a freelance educator. She assumed the leadership of Awaaz-e-Niswan in 1992, and has since spearheaded the organization's tireless activism in pursuit of justice on behalf of Mumbai's women.

Making Women's Voices Loud and Clear

"Yes to Peace, No to War!" This slogan, emblazoned on signs and T-shirts, filled the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on International Human Rights Day (December 10). Awaaz-e-Niswan led the peace rally at Mumbai's main train station; the terminal, a central hub for the city, was attacked by gunmen in the shootings last week and 54 people were killed there.

"We want to show our anger as women, as Muslims," says Khan. "We do not support any violence. We want to raise our voices and say 'Muslims are against terrorism, we are against what happened in Mumbai.' We want the media and the public to be aware that our communities do not support this." Khan and Awaaz have organized a number of protests since the attacks, including a human chain of activists across the city and a coordinated rally of Muslims against violence.

But Awaaz-e-Niswan has been raising women's voices for a long time. The organization, comprised of hundreds of female members, fights discrimination, violence and abuse, especially against Muslim women. It addresses a wide range of issues, from domestic and sexual violence to unfair divorce practices. Locally, Awaaz offers a safe space for survivors of domestic abuse, provides legal support, trauma counseling, educational and vocational training and organizes community protests.

More broadly, Awaaz has played a leading role in exposing and addressing systematic discrimination against India's Muslim minority and dispelling stereotypes of Muslim women.  Although most of Awaaz's members are Muslim, the organization is an inclusive advocate of women's rights and welcomes all women in need.

Mumbai's Muslim religious authorities, known as the ulema, regularly incite opposition to Awaaz-e-Niswaan's activism, and the organization has had to relocate its headquarters on 12 occasions due to safety concerns or the cancellation of its lease. Despite challenges and personal threats, Awaaz successfully runs two centers in Mumbai, which are frequented by women experiencing abuse. In addition, Khan's and Awaaz's advocacy and coalition-building on the national level helped ensure the passage of the Domestic Violence Act, a national law that is intended to protects women from abuse by supplying protection officers, medical assistance, legal aid and emergency shelter to victims of domestic violence.

Awaaz's Future

Given the ongoing demand for women's rights, coupled with heightened Muslim-Hindu tensions since the Mumbai attacks, Awaaz-e-Niswan will continue to play an important role in the struggle for justice in India and is contributing to city-wide unity-building efforts. Khan's leadership has given her junior staff and community members the tools to speak out for themselves, influencing a new generation of empowered women in local communities.

"Awaaz-e-Niswan is a firebrand organization unafraid to take on both community and the state," says Bishakha Datta, a women's rights activist and director of the Mumbai-based organization Point of View. "Hasina started her activism with the political understanding that no one will protect the rights of Indian Muslim women if they don't do it themselves. Today, it's not just Hasina, but many other Muslim women activists of Awaaz-e-Niswan, who have turned tradition on its head in the belief that they too have rights."