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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 12:37 GMT
How Muslim women adapted after riots
By Suvojit Bagchi
BBC News, Godhra, Gujarat

Godhra street
These women were left to fend for themselves

Twenty three-year-old Firoza Sheikh has recently been elected to the local municipality in Saonli, a small town in the Godhra district of Gujarat.

Though it is not uncommon for women to fight elections at every level in India, what is unusual is Ms Sheikh's background - she spent the first 18 years of her life in the confines of a conservative Muslim household.

"I never did anything, just a brief nursing course," she says.

But that was before the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.

After 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed when their train was allegedly attacked by a Muslim mob, Gujarat witnessed some of the worst communal riots since India's independence.

At least a 1,000 people - mostly Muslims were killed in the riots. The Hindu-dominated state authorities were accused of being complicit in attacks on Muslims.

In the aftermath of the riots, most Muslim men either went into hiding or were arrested and the womenfolk were left to fend for themselves.

"The riots left us with no option but to step out of the house," Ms Sheikh says.

Rewarded

She started working in a temporary shelter for riot victims and spent most of her time counselling children who had lost their parents.

After the riots ended and the shelter was closed down, she took up the issue of displaced women.

For her work, Ms Sheikh has been rewarded with various scholarships and the biggest boost came last year, when she was elected to the local municipality.

The devastating effects on Gujarat's Muslim community of the riots have been well documented.

But the riots have also had a "positive impact" on Muslims, feels Muslim intellectual JS Bandukwala, one of the most powerful voices against communal riots in India.

Firoza Sheikh
Firoza Sheikh has given up the veil

"Never before have I witnessed Muslim women coming forward in such large numbers to work," he says.

So what motivated these women to come out of their veil and speak up?

Zakia Jowher of NGO Action Aid says they were "compelled" by circumstances.

In Godhra, for example, the women had to fight the legal battles on behalf of their men as most of them were arrested under the controversial former Indian anti-terror law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota).

'Second life'

"They had to visit courts and police stations and they became conscious of their rights. This made them a lot smarter," says Ahmedabad-based lawyer Mukul Sinha, who represents the riot victims.

Now women are also turning up in large numbers for rallies and are getting involved in social activities.

Latifa Yusuf Giteli is one such person who started, what she calls, her "second life" as a social activist after the riots and now runs a school with 150 students in Satpul in Godhra, a predominantly Muslim colony.

The United Economic Forum Public School, where tuition is in English and Gujarati, has already acquired a reputation for good quality education.

"We have decided not to teach anything remotely religious in the school," says Ms Giteli.

Khatun Sultana Khan
Khan has to beg to feed her grandchildren

And the parents approve.

"I received religious education and that was not very helpful," says one student's father, auto-rickshaw driver Mohammad Iqbal Khan.

But Ms Giteli says she may not be able to run the school for long because of lack of funding.

The average monthly income of a Muslim household in Godhra is about 1,500 rupees ($35) and very few parents are able to pay any money to the school.

"If we ask the parents for money, they will stop sending their children to school," Ms Giteli says.

'Disturbing'

Ms Giteli and her friend Sharifa Razzak are household names in Godhra.

Some of the riot victims told the BBC the women not only helped them get the required medical treatment but also facilitated rehabilitation in some cases.

But Ms Giteli's social work "disturbs" her daughter Rizwana who feels her mother's work has isolated them in the community.

"My father was picked up in 2004 by the administration and detained for a year. No one helped us then," she says.

Sharifa Razzak says, "We are under constant surveillance due to our work among Muslim women and association with NGOs."

High on the agenda of the two women at present is fundraising.

Rizwana with her mother, Latifa Giteli
Rizwana finds her mother's work 'disturbing'

"The fund is for the family members of those men who have been in detention for five years under Pota," says Ms Razzak.

Rahmatnagar Colony is one of the poorest Muslim slums with dilapidated mud houses, roads, dirty unswept roads, open drains and heaps of trash.

Here, children play with dogs over mounds of garbage.

Eleven of the 87 men arrested under Pota are from this colony.

One woman, Khatun Sultana Khan, says all three of her sons were arrested under Pota.

"I don't have any other option than to beg to feed my grandchildren," she says.

Ms Razzak says it is the plight of these families which has forced them to step out of their homes and work among them.

"Our children want us to leave Godhra - but if we do, who is going to support these families?" she asks.

In the absence of men, the womenfolk are now also having to think about finding work or starting small businesses to support their families and many Muslim women across Gujarat are now applying for micro-credit from NGOs.

I attended a meeting of Gujarat-based NGO Anandi in Falanagar Colony. Many such small women's networks have been formed across the state to help women.

Held back

"Initially they are given a small loan to start a small business. They use that money to buy some thing, part of which they consume and the rest they sell to repay the loan," says a volunteer.

And more women are joining as micro-financing is catching on.

But many Muslim women in Godhra say they are being held back by none other than their husbands.

"My husband does not want me to go out of the house and interact with other men, this is irritating," says Shamima Sheikh of Falanagar Colony.

Her husband has recently relented "but still creates problems occasionally".

Shamima's husband and other male members of the colony refuse to speak on the issue.

The riots may have brought about some positive changes in the Muslim women of Godhra, but the men folk, it seems, are yet to catch up.


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