After months of planning, it wasn’t clear whether Awaaz-e-Niswaan’s bicycle rally was going to happen.
More than 70 teenage girls waited near a busy Mumbai intersection, fanning themselves every so often in a vain attempt to stave off the afternoon heat. Aimless young men wandered over to leer at them and pick random fights with passing strangers. The traffic cop, which Awaaz needed to halt the bumper-to-bumper crush of honking cars and motorcycles, was nowhere in sight.
Then a truck pulled up. The girls cheered as Kausar Ansari emerged triumphant and smiling, wiping the sweat from her face: the bikes had arrived. Kausar had spent the previous days negotiating on the phone and running around town, trying to strike a new rental deal after the last one suddenly fell through. Some men in the neighborhood didn’t care for Awaaz’s work, and they’d done what they could to stop the rally—including pressuring local businesses not to rent bikes to the girls. For the men, bikes symbolized a level of independence that women and girls weren’t supposed to have.
But that was the point of the rally: to push back against the limits that extremely conservative leaders wanted to place on girls. Muslim women in Mumbai founded Awaaz 30 years ago to challenge laws in their communities that restricted women’s rights. Today, Awaaz brings Muslim women and girls together to learn how to advocate for themselves in ways both small and large, from convincing parents to allow their daughters into computer classes to pressuring reluctant police officers to investigate domestic violence charges.
For many of the teenage girls, the simple act of attending Awaaz activities is radical. It may be the only chance they have to connect with their peers and the world beyond their front doors.
“If the girls go out with boys—get into relationships with them—then that will hurt their family’s honor,” Kausar said. “When you reach puberty, it’s as if you are trapped in your house. Girls aren’t allowed to talk to boys, and they are stopped from attending school after 10th grade.”
Like many girls she grew up with, Kausar was married off when she was 15. It’s considered the logical next step for many families, who expect girls to do little else with their lives besides bear children and handle household chores. Kausar found her way to Awaaz after years of disrespect and abuse from her husband’s family.
“I did not understand what role I was supposed to play,” Kausar said. “I felt like a maid there, not his wife.”
Awaaz helped Kausar secure a divorce and the freedom that came with it. Since then, she’s been running programs that help teenage girls gain confidence and pursue opportunities—for education, for jobs—that she never had.
At the rally, the traffic cop still hadn’t shown up. Kausar stepped straight into the traffic and directed it herself—without hesitation, as if she’d done it many times before. The cars slowed and veered to one side, and a single lane opened up. The girls perched on their bikes and then rode into the street. Some peered at the traffic with tense brows and wobbled as they began to pedal. Others pulled bandannas up over their noses and traded high-fives.
A girl called out on the loud speaker to keep spirits up as they pressed on and faced the scrutiny of people on the street. “We choose the path of struggle so our life is not wet with the tears of pain!” she shouted. The group went past the mosque, past the vendors looking up from their vegetable carts, past the customers emerging from stores to stare, hands in pockets.
Many of the girls didn’t want to show their faces, for fear of their parents’ anger. Day after day, they had faced pressure to marry young, to focus on housework and becoming a wife—to play by a strict set of rules about what women and girls should be.
But on this day, they shouted in unison and demanded a change. They laughed at the strangeness of the moment they found themselves in: raising their fists in the air, claiming their place on the street.
All photos by Jonathan Torgovnik
Elizabeth Daube is a Senior Communications Officer at AJWS.