Meet Manjuwara Mullah from Assam’s riverine sandbank who is leading Muslim women to social, financial empowerment

Manjuwara Mullah | Picture by Amrapari

Manjuwara Mullah from the north-eastern state of Assam is a social activist whose initiative Amrapari has changed the lives of many women in the poorest region of Assam. This is her story.

Mahibul Hoque |

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GUWAHATI – As a woman social activist Manjuwara Mullah from Barpeta district’s Rupakuchi village in the north-eastern state of Assam would get anxious when distress phone calls from numerous women from the Char areas would pour in seeking her help to get their male family members back home during the Covid-19 lockdown. She faced twin problems — getting the sole breadwinners of the families back home and ensure income for these people so that the impoverished families can sustain the pandemic as well as the economic hardship.

The people of the riverine sandbanks, known as Char areas in Assam, are one of the poorest in the state, have the highest illiteracy rates, a fewer number of landholders and very limited source of income. This crisis, along with the devastating yearly floods force massive labour migration from Char areas of the state to southern Indian states where they work as daily wagers.

For 36-year-old Mullah facilitating the process of getting the migrant labourers back home was an immensely difficult job, and as the migrant labourers took the uphill task of travelling thousands of kilometres to their homes, she started to focus on the women members of the migrants’ families and how they could be engaged in something that earns them money to fend for their families.

Being an activist and with academic exposure to the workings of non-profit organizations, Mullah incorporated her learnings from the sector to form a collective called Amrapari, which eventually turned into a non-profit organization, intending to employ the organic and traditional knowledge of the women from Char areas to provide them financial independence.

Amrapari, a Bangali as well as Miya (dialect) phrase for “we can”, initiative weaponized the traditional knowledge of the women of stitching Kanthas, an embroidery craft on clothes with multiple usage (used as bed covers or also as summer blankets) and also considered as a traditional and cultural artefact of the Bengali origin Muslims of Assam.

“I have been working with urban as well as rural communities for more than a decade. That’s how I am connected with the people at large. My work involved microfinance for the upliftment of women, citizenship issues, child marriage and women rights in the chars. When I got to know about the ensuing financial hardships of these families with whom I have been connected, I was in a lot of distress,” Mullah said when she narrated the circumstances that led to the foundation of Amrapari initiative.

The Char areas are also grappling with issues of girl-child rights violation, women rights violation apart from women in the family facing the economic burdens as men generally migrate for work to other states.

“Amid the trying times of coronavirus induced hardships, I was thinking about change in the Char areas. Merely supporting the women would not help them in the long term. Until they are financially independent their social condition will not change much,” she said.

The women from Char areas and the community, in general, are traditionally skilled in stitching kanthas. “I facilitated the use of the craft and ancestral knowledge to weave for their independence and empowerment,” she said.

The initiative is currently operating from Rupakuchi village, around 130-kilometers away northwest from state capital Guwahati, and sandwiched between Beki and Chaulkhua river which cause ravaging floods and erosions during the monsoon months.

At least 35 women are working as stakeholders, following a model of cooperative benefit sharing at Amrapari.

Women supported by Amrapari doing stitching work | Photo by Amrapari

Mullah said that during the initial days of the organization, Anjuman Ara Begum, a human rights activist, helped her a lot. “We discussed at lengths with women from villages and they said that they know stitching and were interested in engaging with the traditional craft,” she said.

More than monetary gain
For 24-year-old Nur Nehar from Rupakuchi village, her engagement with Amrapari means she can bear the educational expenses of her two children.

Married in 2009 as a child bride, Nehar used to stitch small fishing nets at her village which would earn her a meagre amount and living on the constant fear of being uprooted from her house by the annual flooding waters from Chaulkhua river, she is now confident that she will be able to earn the months ends by weaving the quilts.

“Though I knew stitching, but I didn’t know the designer works. It was Manjuwara madam who introduced the designs to us,” Nehar told, being happy with the fact that she has earned Rs 15,000 by working with Amrapari.

Moreover, the small initiative has been a ray of hope for many women from remote Muslim villages. Many find respite from the mental trauma that they endured when their husbands had done injustice to them.

A note on the social media page of Amrapari narrates the mental trauma that a woman had to go through. The post reads, “The most painful incident that had happened in my life was when my husband married twice. My mental health was badly affected. But upon working here, I can distract myself and pay the fees of my kids for their education which matters the most,” said one of the members from the group no. 2.”

It has also boosted confidence among many of the participants associated with the organization.

30-year-old Inuara Begum was said, “I would get shy and angry when I first saw my photograph in the posters. But now my photos have become some kind of viral on (social media). The people here and my family encouraged me so much so that I am not shy anymore. This has given me a lot of courage.”

For Umme Sabira Khatun, who is in her mid-twenties and coordinates among the women groups at Amrapari, her imaginations becoming arts on the kanthas is more than satisfactory. “Amrapari has given that platform where I can see my designs turn into appealing arts which I could never have imagined before,” Sabira said.

Mullah said that more than financial aid to the women, Amrapari envisages empowering the women from very remote places. “The experiences shared by the women reflect their own sense of self-identification as well as their independence,” she said.

Promoting their products via social media and e-commerce platforms, the women from Amrapari have been able to tap the market for their traditional kanthas and the women are extending their range of products as well.