India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Three, Part II


India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Three, Part II

Posted on February 13, 2012 by Rabbi Elyse Frishman

Mothers, Wives, Daughters: Child Brides, Domestic Violence, Sex Workers

We drove to a southern suburb – we’d call it almost rural, though densely populated. Young schoolgirls greeted us with flowers and “Happy Valentine’s Day” - (yes, it’s a big deal here)! We walked together while a few practiced their English on us. One young teen laughed and said to me, “Your camera is mind-blowing!” Nice idiom!

Gathering in the village square, adults and youth became a colorful crowd. We were all curious about one another. With us was Ayesha, founder of MBBCDS, dedicated to advocacy for sex workers.

Sex workers? Really? And these are Muslim women. Muslim sex workers?

Meet Shenadj, a woman in her 20’s from the district of West Bengal; (Kolkatta is in Bengal State).

“There was not enough space for me to live in this huge state. My father was in the Indian Navy. My mother died when I was ten months old. I was married into wealthy home, and had two children. Here, though it’s against federal law, sharia law allows a man to divorce his wife for any reason – a poorly cooked dinner… It’s called “divorce 3” because he says, ‘ I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.’

“My husband left me. Because I have no parents, my sister and aunts and uncles said that I should leave my children with them and go find work, but I couldn't abandon them. So my family abandoned me. I educated myself and passed elementary school.

“We live in the region Mushidabad, near Bangladesh. The river overflows and strips the land bare. There’s huge unemployment and no food security. Though the law requires taking care of us, the local government doesn't bother to implement education and food rights because we are Muslim. Men abandon wives because of extreme poverty. So women end up in sex trafficking. There is a viscous cycle: families can’t feed daughters, marry them off young, they bear children, their husbands abandon them, they have to earn a living with no education or skills…”

Meet Shantana, whose name means “peace.” She’s a strong, passionate, intelligent young woman, married at 17. She had been an avid athlete and student; she loved dancing, singing, sports. Her family didn’t approve and married her off. Her in-laws promised her that her life wouldn’t change. But it did.

“I was still a child; I wanted to go to the fields to run and play. They said to me, ‘Are you an Alsation dog that needs to be taken to the field?’ I tried to adjust, only wanting to continue my education. To appease them, I became pregnant, but then I wasn’t allowed in school. So I lied, and went to classes but told them I was visiting my mother. Then my husband’s business failed, and he wouldn’t let me work, but began to torture me, beat me, lock me in my own house. I was a slave. I lived with him for 18 years. Finally, I was able to run away; I got my own place and supported myself with embroidery handiwork. He came after me, found me and beat me. I had to leave everything, which he then destroyed.

“Then I found Ayesha, and became part of a new community. I realized: now I need to help others.  And my son will graduate with an MBA!”

Meet a slender 21 yr old, the daughter of rickshaw driver, married at 13 because her family couldn’t afford to feed her. By age 18, she had 3 children. Her husband’s work wasn’t sufficient. With tears flowing she told us she had to run away.

“I realize he must be suffering and that is why he beats me. He is just angry at his circumstance. My sister is younger and she has it worse: she is tortured, and her mother-in-law has enslaved her since she hasn’t born a child in five years of marriage. She ran back home, and now my parents are stressed because they have to feed her.”

How do women find Ayesha? She went from house to house in different villages, to talk with girls and guide them. Her organization came in to teach marketable skills. Ayesha introduced us to the children she teaches: Saranbiva spoke shyly, “I want to be a teacher.”  “I think I'm 15.” (She has no birth certificate). Nine year Marankan is in 4rth grade and he announced, “I want to be a doctor.”

Ayesha: “Adolescent girls face huge barriers: school is too far to get to, and it’s taught in a different language. There are many dropouts. During monsoon floods, the girls can't leave the village. People earn low wages, so it’s hard for women to find work, and it’s very expensive to educate girls.”

Ayesha’s organization advocates education for girls and ways to support them getting education. In 3 districts, they work with 500 girls and 200 women. The parents of the girls, both mother and father, receive life education.

Ayesha herself was born in a poor, rural village, in a Muslim family. In that area, 95% were uneducated. “My father realized girls needed education for society to improve. He sent us -–his 3 daughters-- outside the village. For this reason, our family became marginalized. No one approved of his educating us.

“In our society, women were not even permitted to go to the hospital for childbirth and often died at home. Husbands didn't want to send wives to male doctors. So my sister became a doctor to work with women. But no man would marry her. So my father insisted we stop our education and our career paths. I had to leave home and my family to continue learning. I became a beneficiary of money from NGOs.

“I began working with a support organization in another area; I discovered even poorer communities. Yet the women still had dignity and self-respect: a thriving personal culture with vibrant music.

“And then I went to the red light district. I found that the sex workers were Muslim! This confused me. With a masters in social work, I began organizing on behalf of tribal and Muslim women. I set up schools for tribal children. I also developed leadership training for Muslim women to help them find their voice. We started self-help groups, and taught women to access money through bank services. One student led a protest group in each village: all women should have the rights to inheritance, property and education! We utilize street theater, and outdoor sports to empower women. We started a local newsletter, teaching women to write and proclaim themselves. We taught them to garden so they could raise their own food.

“Since 2000, we became part of a National Muslim Women's Rights Network.  At first, Bengali feminists didn't come; they saw this only as a Muslim issue. But no longer; now women from 8 districts come to work on issues of education, domestic violence, and personal rights.

“In June, we will hold another meeting on sharia and these three issues. Muslim personal law is not recorded in India’s constitution; there is conflict between Indian rights and Muslim law. But religion shouldn't define our rights.

“Men can have four wives, and divorce you over a bad dinner.

“And though some say sharia can’t be changed, it is when it suits men. The penalty for theft was to cut off one’s right hand; men eliminated this law. They can eliminate the ones that impact women negatively. The Indian constitution must honor our rights.”

I thought about my own life’s journey, the possibilities that opened before me as I entered college; the changing world of American society that opened the door to the rabbinate. Our daughters can do anything. It’s inconceivable to them that doors would close because of gender. Or that fathers or husbands would beat them justifiably. Or that they would be forced to enter the sex trade because they needed to earn a living.

We are so privileged. We stand on the shoulders of those who forged a nation based in the guarantee of civil rights and their implementation. Who will stand on our shoulders?