By Nigar Ataulla,
The stereotypical image of Muslim women depicts them as frail and fragile, trapped within the four walls of their homes. But Kaneez Fathima and Rafat Seema powerfully fracture such images. They are not only standing firmly on their feet as professional working women, but also fighting boldly for justice for the oppressed sections of society.
Last month, I met Kaneez Fathima and Dr Rafat Seema, two young women from Hyderabad, at a workshop in Bangalore on Muslim women. Kaneez is a librarian by profession and a firebrand civil liberties activist, while Rafat is general secretary of the newly-formed Nisa Research and Resource Centre for Women, with which Kaneez, too, is associated.
Rarely, I must remark, does one encounter Muslims doing constructive grassroots activism, and that is what makes Kaneez and Rafat so different and, of course, so special. The two friends set up their Centre four years ago, and it is now a registered NGO. The Centre has been actively involved in struggles for justice for Muslim youth victimized by the Hyderabad police, including by being illegally detained, tortured severely and implicated in fabricated cases, in the wake of the Makkah Masjid bomb blast in 2007.
“These youth spent months in jail, but after being released from prison, they were jobless and socially boycotted. Nisa helped some of them by providing financial support to establish small businesses,” says Kaneez. Nisa also extended legal and medical aid to the families of 21 youth who were implicated in false cases. “When the youth were picked up by the police, the women at home, be it mothers, wives or sisters were afraid to even speak. I, along with other women activists went to their homes, persuaded them to come out and speak to the media. We held public hearings where the women related their traumas,” Kaneez explains.
Their Centre, Rafat helpfully adds, has facilitated several women, children and youngsters across the state of Andhra Pradesh in accessing government schemes. It has engaged in documentation work, highlighting their issues and problems. It has also initiated programmes to address violence against women through talks, workshops, seminars with youngsters in Hyderabad, especially in the Old City, where poverty and illiteracy are principal reasons for discrimination against women.
Nisa is also involved in a campaign for child rights, through which it highlights the voices and problems of children. “We conduct sensitization programmes for the youth on communal harmony, peace, social justice, civil rights and equity by working with students,” adds Kaneez.
Another area in which Nisa has been involved is provision of relief. During the spell of communal violence in Hyderabad and Secunderabad last year, the Centre distributed ration kits to the poorest of the poor as well as financial aid to poor women, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Currently, Nisa is focusing its efforts among the under-privileged groups who require help, apart from functioning as a research and resource centre engaged in research studies, consultancy, advocacy and policy intervention on women- related issues with the support of NGOs, funding agencies and the corporate sector.
On March 8, this year, to mark International Women’s Day, Rafat and Kaneez launched the quarterly, bilingual (English and Urdu) ‘Nisa Research Magazine’. “The objective of this magazine is to examine women’s problems and create debate based on particular issues, and to draw the attention of women writers and research scholars to such questions. The need of a research magazine on women’s issues in Urdu was felt badly from quite some time, so we have tried to fill this gap. The women on the editorial board are all from the research field and are working on women’s issues. We expect that the magazine will help develop women’s abilities and promote awareness and new skills,” says Kaneez.
“Initially, as a civil liberties rights activist, when I started off, I was all alone. People questioned me, saying, ‘What can you do, you are just a mamooli (ordinary) girl’. I did not lose heart and went ahead with my mission and slowly more women joined me. Everybody is ordinary, but it’s your work that ultimately matters. Pick up courage and go into activism if you really want to see justice in these harrowing times that we live in,” Kaneez advises.
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Nisa Research & Resource Centre for Women
2-3-45/2, Quadribagh, Amberpet, Hyderabad
Andhra Pradesh – 50013