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Rehana’s Fight

By V.B.Rawat

17 January, 2005

Rehana Khan, a 37 years old social activist in the Gangoh block of Saharanpur district in Uttar-Pradesh, face one of the toughest battle of her life. Her social battles against orthodoxy were not less then what has been the battle for her own rights in a family governed by married brothers and sisters. Saharanpur, is one of the most fertile land in Western Uttar-Pradesh where the dominating communities comes from the backward Gujjar community equally strong in Hindus and Muslim religion. The region is also known for Ms Mayawati who became chief minister and opted for a little known Harora constituency of the Uttar-Pradesh assembly. Dalits in Sahranpur became quite aggressive but soon have to face the brunt of powerful backward as well as Muslim community. Despite all good things, Saharanpur has a share of shocking news including violence on Dalits as well as women. Purdah system is still prevalent in this border district of Uttar-Pradesh, which on the one side is bordering with Hardwar and Dehradun and other side Harayana’s Yamunanagar district. Though women do a lot of work and particularly those from the marginalized sections, the upper backward caste women remain in purdah.

Rehana was born in 1967 to a policeman father who was an Inspector in the Uttar-Pradesh police. The family was quite liberal in practice and ideas though stick to Islamic traditions. She graduated from Meerut University and found a job in Delhi police. Her three brothers and four sisters were married and running their own families while her father stayed with her mother. Rehana would go to take care of her father. The family had 31 bighas of land in Thota Fatehpur, Gangoh. In 1993 her father died of a severe heart attack and that changed the entire life of Rehana. A shocked mother needed someone close to her heart to console and take care of. Though she was living with her eldest son and his wife, the mother and other sisters forced Rehana to leave her job in Delhi and shift back to Gangoh to look after her mother as well as their ancestral property, which was lying useless, as every one among the brothers and sisters were busy in their own work.

Growing in a small conservative town of Gangoh with her head high after the demise of her father was a difficult task for Rehana. A society where women’s are not considered beyond rearing child and looking after them, Rehana, though still conservative in all terms, never really became a woman of too much isolated from others. Though she still have deeper faith in Islam, read Quran and observe Namaz, yet nothing could prohibit her to work in a very secular environ. She would go the villages, meet women, educate them about their basic rights and even teach them how to cook, go to hospitals, meet the bank clerks or police officials. These small things mattered a lot.

And in just over five years when she also worked on the field for her livelihood, as she was not really working anywhere in any NGO or other so called Social revolutionary organizations. She had by then and created a space for herself, which would find very few equals in the area. She would go on bullock cart to reach the villages and then switched to tractor. She would drive the tractor and do all the related work herself to make her ancestral land a success. Her brothers and sisters were not very keen on this property in the village till Rehana by dent of her hard work made herself a successful farmer. Her brothers were not equipped enough to go and do things. Rehana has been a very promising mind and she advised her brother in the village to opt for family planning in lieu of which the government was offering some land. Both her brother and his wife decided for it and were allotted 6 bighas of land, each, in their name.

Rehana’s social activities were making her popular in the region while she was also being targeted. Being an unmarried woman and that too from a minority community was a tough task. Her mother wanted her to marry but Rehana decided against it. She wanted to devote her time to the villagers and is happy in serving the people. May be there are other reasons which she does not want to discuss with us, yet her spirit to work for the women of her community is unquestionable. A happy Rehana got a boost sooner when the Sub District Magistrate of Gangoh Tehsil decided to honor her in 2001 with about 9-1/2 bigha of land for plantation in a village. This was a lease granted to her for 30 years so that she can plant the area and make it environment friendly and increase environmental awareness among the village folks. Some people of the village, obviously, unable to digest such a revolting step of awarding some land to a Muslim woman, objected and went to the SDM against the same, who refused to budge. The villager contested her claim on the ground that she was not the member of Madhaupur Panchayat, Thola, Fatehpur,Gangoh. Later, the politicians of the villages decided to make the case more curious by asking a self styled Dalit to file case against Rehana at the higher authorities. Remember, the land she was given did not belong to any one but a village land but the landed mafia of the village brought a Dalit into picture who is already a land grabber of the area and is alleged to have sold a large number of its track to many people. The powerful Thakurs and Muslims joined hand with a few Dalit leaders and decided that they must oppose this land be given for plantation to an ‘outsider’, but the fact is that they were opposed in their common interest, to deny land to a woman. Interestingly, Rehana had contested from this village as a member of Village Panchayat and withdrew in favor of a local youth. She says, how could I have contested the elections without being a member of the village.

Rehana’s pain is not what she found that none of the villagers came for her rescue. Her pain is more visible then ever when she cried at a programme organized by Social Development Foundation and honored her for her strong convictions and fight for her own right. She found that all those ‘brothers’ who used to be with her and make tall claims about women’s empowerment disappeared fearing community retaliation. None of them would come to go along with her to the police station and block offices. In fact, she was once mercilessly beaten by the goons of the village and when she tried to contact the police officer, he asked her to visit him ‘ late’ in the evening at his house. Tragically, this police officer was a Dalit. So one must also remember from these facts that mere caste and religious identities do not make a person great and honest. A social activist who used to work with her complained that she is too ‘individualistic’ and does not seek ‘their’ cooperation. Most of them left her in lurch thus making themselves available to ‘other’ bigger forums. She was used for their own purposes of ‘social’ work while they enjoyed a ‘little’ interaction with their ‘national’ and ‘ international’ human rights masters. Rehana was also a member of an organization claiming to work for the landless on right to food but none of them had time to see whether she should be supported or not. Some of the big wigs who still use her name for their programmes in the name of a ‘minority’ woman, said usual that ‘ we don’t take up the individual cases’. They don’t take up the individual cases by denying their own activist a space for fight, by persistently keeping away from the individual issue where your support is more vital and focused.

Rehana has now started working for the poor village girls belonging to Muslim community. It was village Badi Majri where a majority of villagers belong to Gujjar community who might have economic resources and big land holding but culturally still living in pre-medieval society. Women are illiterate and even not wanted to be outside their house. It was a village where more than 19 children died during the rains earlier in June-July 2004 due to strange fever but mostly due to dirt and filth. The unhygienic conditions make the children prone to such diseases. Rehana is now changing the village. She started a sewing center for the village girls and involved them in other social activities including educating them in English, Hindi and Urdu as well as bringing them to the national mainstream. Some of them have now started participation in workshops outside their homes, which was a near impossibility.

The girls are stronger enough to venture out now. Rehana also helped her own niece and nephews to study and go for professional courses even when her elder brother is a simple mechanic. With her persistence for education, her niece scored over 80% marks in 12th standard this year. She is a Sanskrit veteran and could recite Sanskrit verses more than any other Hindu boy of her town.

But all this had never pained Rehana that much which she has now feeling from her own family, a feeling of alienation by her own family who threw her out. Her mother, for whom she left her well fetched job in Delhi, now want her to stay inside the house, though not necessarily wear burqua. The brother and sister in law feel uncomfortable with her because of her social commitments and every-time she comes back there is a tense peace at home. The mother who wanted to give one portion of the ancestral property of her house to Rehana now keeps quiet. Her father had left a will in which he wished that his daughter be given equal share in his property because it is she who served him the most. Rehana knows well that her mother does not want her to share the property with her brothers. She often says, “why does she want property. For whom? “ Once when I visited their house, the mother’s often request to me was to curtail Rehana’s movement and ask her to remain inside the house. “ Jamana kharab hai’, she would say. Rehana does all her work at home and knows well that the ‘Bhaiya-bhabhi’ don’t want her to remain there though their children would like her to be yet she is determined to fight. She still feel that why does my mother not realize that I need a private space for myself. May be I will start a hostel for the girls of my community who are unwanted in the family. I wish my mother had realized my sentiments for working for the poor. These rewards give me recognition. It gives me satisfaction to work for the people.

Rehana’s struggle for her dignity and right continue even as the government brings an amendments to the Hindu Succession Law, the Hindu fanatics will be up in arm soon if cases like Rehana are not resolved properly. It is time for the Muslims also to go for an aggressive social engineering so that any effort to communalise the situation is foiled. Rehana and the women like her need social security as on their commitment rest the work of the rural women who are looking for some one to hear their concern, problems and issues. It is time to repay the small but important work of one of the unknown woman who is fighting a battle of her dignity and right. It is a right to have a space for herself, a right to privacy and a right to live independently. Hopefully, we will realize it soon before it blows the society.











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