An English writing workshop in progress at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

An English writing workshop in progress at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

Taran Khan, The Wire

For Kausar Ansari, the news of a school denying admission to students from her neighbourhood of Mumbra came as no surprise at all. In the densely populated Muslim majority township that lies on the fringes of Mumbai, such incidents are routine. They are a part of everyday life even for young women like Bushra Jargar, who appeared for an interview with a private bank twice while wearing a burqa . She was rejected both times. “The third time I left it off, and I got the job,” said the commerce student. Ironically, the job was for a tele-marketer. As a lifelong resident of the area, said Kausar, she had learned that “Mumbra is always in the news, and the news is never good.”

The township lies in the shadow of Parsik hills and near the Thane creek, a strip of marshy land that grew into a crowded township after the 1992 riots in Mumbai. Muslim families fled from different parts of the city to find refuge in Mumbra. Over the years the numbers have grown, and Mumbra has become a byword for a stereotypical ghetto. Even at a casual glance, the difference between Mumbra and its neighbouring areas is stark. It is a haphazard sprawl and has fewer civic amenities like electricity and sanitation.

While there are Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours there are also power cuts of between 8-12 hours, and erratic water supply.  Formerly empty streets bristle with plush new apartments, while an illegal building collapsed and killed several families in 2013. Many women in the largely impoverished area are illiterate and forced to marry early. Despite these odds, Kausar is determined to make a change in the lives of people like Bushra, through books and reading.

Kausar is the administrator at the Rehnuma Library Centre, Mumbra’s only reading room that is open exclusively for women. It was established in 2003 by Awaz-e-Niswan (Voice of Women), a feminist collective and organization that works for the rights of Muslim women. During the library’s earliest days, recalled Kausar, “Not a single person would show up. So we started doing the rounds of schools, homes, tuition centers, everywhere we could think of to invite women to our center.” At the end of six months of this hectic propaganda, just when she gave up, the girls started coming in.

Since then, the small two room apartment in a rundown building in the shadow of a large mosque has provided a space for women to read, meet and learn. The shelves are lined with an eclectic collection of Urdu, Hindi and English texts. Feminist Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai and Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal rubs shoulders with translations of Rider Haggard and Jane Austen, while the Indian bestselling writer Chetan Bhagat is as sought after as the complete collection of Harry Potter stories. It is perhaps the only place where the members are free to explore any story they like, without having to ask permissions or give explanations.

In some ways Kausar’s own journey parallels the story of Rehnuma (meaning ‘leader’) and what it hopes to achieve in the neighbourhood. She came to Awaz-e-Niswan while seeking a divorce from an abusive marriage. “I would go to their office in Dongri (in south Mumbai) for legal aid from my home in Mumbra. To escape pressure from my family that was forcing me to remarry and give up my infant son, I asked for help in getting a job,” she recalled. The organization asked her to set up their new centre in Mumbra, as many women came to them from the locality.

An all purpose centre

Students in an afternoon class at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

Students in an afternoon class at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

Initially planned just as a library and reading room, the project grew when Kausar realized that the stories of many of the women who came to the centre echoed her own trials. “So we started offering them legal aid and counseling here, then we began literacy classes when the girls asked for them, then started helping them get into formal education.” Now, the library is the buzzing heart of a number of activities, including popular English speaking and computer courses as well as modules in personality development and legal information. The day I visited was the first session of a summer writing workshop held in collaboration with a journalist- turned- NGO worker. The participants began by writing about each other and their dreams. The blackboard listed out the ambitions of the young women in the room. Choreographer, it said. Teacher. Dancer. Doctor.

“I feel freer here than I do at home,” said Bushra, who has been attending classes at Rehnuma for two years. “Outside, nobody listens to what I think or feel, but here I have made friends who help and comfort me.” The corners of the room are piled with burqas and naqaabs, which are mostly taken off when the girls enter and put back on before they leave. Posters on the wall urge participants to encourage one another. “Dont feel shy, dont interrupt”, says one set of rules.  While the majority of the centre’s users are Muslims, it is an “open, secular space,” said Yasmin Sheikh, who works in the Thane branch of Awaz-e-Niswan. So secular, she added, that when the girls want to offer their prayers, they go outside the room to do so.

Rizwana Shahid Ali had come for the first time to Rehnuma that day, after hearing about it from a neighbour. Rizwana dreams of being a lawyer, but had to drop out of school after her class 8thexams because of financial problems. She wanted to learn English so she could prepare for the LLB exams, but everywhere she looked, the courses were too expensive. Even if she could afford them, she wouldn’t get permission from her father to study in a place with boys present. But her family, like the family of many others, agreed to enroll her at Rehnuma as it was only for girls.

“We realized early on that if we wanted to change things for the girls, we had to reach out to their families,” said Kausar. The outreach had the unexpected benefit of inspiring older women, like Salma Pinjari, to join in the classes with their daughters. “When I saw the programmes going on here, I asked if I could enrol,” she said. Salma had left school in 5th standard, when her parents pulled her out as “all I did was masti (play).” She hadn’t regretted the step until she had her own children and felt left out of their lives at school. “Now I feel if I am educated and speak English like the rest of my family, saamne wala (others) will talk to me with more respect.” She comes regularly for classes accompanied by her neighbour Farheen Khan, also a homemaker, and young Muskan, the daughter of a friend. While they get their share of taunts and barbed comments from extended family, they are satisfied with the support of their husbands. “They say its better than sitting at home all day, so do what makes you happy,” said Farheen.

For many of the girls who come to Rehnuma, the library is second chance at getting some sort of an education. A quick round of questions around the room reveals the struggle many face to access formal schooling. Young Shabana (not her real name), for instance, was forced to leave school after her mother died and the house needed looking after. Tabassum Qureishy dropped out after class 8 when her father said she “had studied enough”.

Some, like Saira Khan, fought against family pressure and paid her own way through school using a scholarship from Rehnuma. And some like Zeba Ansari were still stuck at home, hoping to be allowed back, or to argue their way back to school, while attending classes at Rehnuma to keep in touch with their dreams. “We try to help them get back their confidence that is lost after years away from the classroom,” said Kausar. “We also try to help them get admissions in formal schools and good colleges.” Among her greatest sources of pride are the girls she motivated to study at a prestigious college in Mumbai, helping them through the “hi-fi classes and topics” that followed. Now, she says, “they are working and making money, not facing pressures to be married.”

Such changes are apparent through Kausar’s own life. When she started work at the library, she said, “Just looking at so many books made me feel uneasy. I was so out of the zone of reading that when someone said she would recite a sher for me, I thought she was joking. ‘Sher to dikhaya jata hai, sunaya thodi jaati hai‘, I told her.  (‘You see a sher, not hear it’ – a pun on the Urdu word that means couplet, and also a lion) She started dipping into the Urdu and Hindi books on her shelves when girls started asking her about them before checking them out. But it was participating in the creative writing courses that were run at the library that kindled her need to pick up her studies again. “Even then it was an uphill journey. I bought the books and enrolled for exams, but lost my nerve and didn’t continue. A few years later, she finally found the courage to enroll for a degree from a local college and has continued ever since, encouraging others to do the same.” “I tell them, if someone like me can get an education, anyone can,” says Kausar.

Popular during exams

Participants in the creative writing workshop at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

Participants in the creative writing workshop at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

The library gets the most footfalls during exam season, when school and college girls come by to use the notes left behind by previous students, consult reference books or just to find the quiet space for revision that does not exist in their small, crowded homes. Other than academic texts, the library is well stocked with popular novels in Urdu and Hindi. Of these, the romances are most in demand, said Faiza Khan, who teaches English at the centre. Other favourites were the Urdu thrillers Jasoosi Duniya, featuring a dapper detective and hair-raising plots.

“Usually the English texts are used by girls in higher classes, or they use the dictionaries or reference books for their assignments,” said Faiza. Some of the books are donated by women from the neighbourhood, but most of them are ordered after requests from the members. Recent demands included the Chetan Bhagat bestseller Half Girlfriend, as well as the translated work of James Hadley Chase. The least popular books, said Faiza, are the Urdu histories, mostly about war and conquests. “The fathers and sometimes the brothers of our members ask for them a lot.”

The library also gets Urdu and English newspapers, which often spark impromptu discussions about current affairs. The news of the school that denied admission to Mumbra residents, for instance, sparked off a flood of similar anecdotes. Sabira Khan recalled how her family rushed her to a hospital in Thane when she was suddenly taken ill, only to be told by a peon that she wasn’t allowed inside in a burqa. “They should understand our problem,” chimed in Shaheen Khan, “Not everyone is allowed to leave their homes without a burqa. Shouldn’t they also try to adjust a bit?” In such every day humiliations and barriers emerges the double-bind faced by many of the girls in the room—they face pressures from within the community, and face discrimination outside it.

Even the organization itself is not free from such problems. While Awaz-e-Niswan owns the premises of the library,  Kausar was forced to rent a place for a few weeks while the rooms were renovated.  “Within a few days the owner was ready to throw us out,” she said.  “She was upset because the girls laughed too much.”  Despite such challenges, Kausar and Faiza are are upbeat about the outcome of their work. “It doesn’t always seem that way, but slowly things are changing,” said Kausar. For herself, the change came after years of struggling against the diktats of her brother, when she moved into a house she bought with her sister.  And for Tarannum Ansari, a baby faced teenager, the difference was apparent when she was molested at a market near her house. For the first time, instead of walking on, she looked her assailant in the eye and punched him in the stomach. “It felt good,” she said. “I felt maybe some of the women who saw me take him on may do the same.”

A notorious place

English classes in progress at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

English classes in progress at Rehnuma. Credit: Taran N Khan

Despite the roseate nature of their dreams and charming sweetness, the girls at Rehnuma are far from naïve or ill informed.  They are aware that in the eyes of the world outside, Mumbra is a notorious place, stereotyped as being a hub of terrorists. “If people at the local train station find out we are waiting for a train to Mumbra, they move away from us,” said Sabira.  They are also aware that Mumbra isn’t good to girls. But neither is the world outside. When the talk turns to Ishrat Jahan, the local teenager who financially supported her family and attended a “good college”, and was eventually killed as an alleged terrorist in an “encounter” with the Gujarat police in 2004, their natural exuberance is stilled. After what happened to her, they said, it became harder to go out, it became proof of the fall that came with ambitions and dreams.

“See”, they were told by community members, “that’s how you end up if you go out to work, or study.” So when I asked if they would move out of Mumbra if they could, the answer was a unanimous “No”. Perhaps motivated by a sense of affection for their homes, or perhaps by the same instinct that had created the township after 1992, an awareness of the security the ghetto provides. “There was trouble around the Babri Mosque judgment a few years ago,” said Shaheen. “My brother who lives in Andheri (a suburb of Mumbai) said all the Muslim shops and mosques were closed. He was scared, but we were fine.” Saira added that she felt safe returning home “even at 2am”, and then laughed. “Imagine, people think Mumbra is scary, I feel scared in Mumbai.”

Just a few minutes ride on the local train out of Mumbra, Mumbai shines with new homes and “good colleges”, arches of flyovers and bright buildings made of glass. It seems so close, full of promise, so open and inviting. But for the girls at Rehnuma, it could just as well be a mirage, a city closed to them in sharp-edged, tiny ways. So in the small dark rooms of their library, they wait out power cuts and spend their 2-hour sessions tracing words on paper, laboriously writing and rewriting the tails and loops of unfamiliar English letters, or of Urdu sentences. For them, for Kausar, this is the real journey to be made. “Being around books can change the mahaul(atmosphere),” she said.  “It can change things in imperceptible ways. You start to see yourself in the stories from all over the world, and you start to wonder if your tale can have a different end.”

Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist.