Rohingya women in Delhi have a very different existence from their male counterparts Neha Dixit

In a brief impulsive moment, Ismat hurried Yusuf to the rusted red hand pump next to the open drain bordering the fields. Then within seconds, there was a moment of epiphany. They rushed back to the shanty. Unlike Maungdaw in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Delhi winters are extreme.

The Rohingya Muslims are “the Worlds’ Most Persecuted Minority,” according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. This stateless Muslim people may constitute up to seven percent of the total Burmese population of nearly 60 million. The Myanmar government continues to deny the Rohingya any legal status or rights, insisting that they are “Bengalis” illegally in the country. Bangladesh, however, does not claim them.

In the last four years, in an effort to “purify” the nation, the Buddhist supremacists in Myanmar have been committing rape, arson, murder and land confiscation on a massive scale. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas struggle to survive in “concentration camps.” They are denied freedom of movement, marriage, jobs and schooling.  At least an equal number of refugees have fled to an unknown fate. Unknown numbers of people have drowned or been captured by traffickers to toil as slaves. Some found second-class residency in Malaysia, Thailand Bangladesh, India living at a risk of another expulsion. Till date an estimated 140,000 Rohingyas have been displaced from Myanmar.  

Different socio economic factors that have brought close to 36,000 Rohingyas Muslims to India. Ismat is one of them. As she poured the hot water in a recycled paint bucket on the indoor mud stove, Amina  yelled from the shanty next door, “ Why are you lighting fire third time in the day? I am choking.”

The Rohingya ghetto, just opposite a Hindu crematorium, borders Jamia Nagar. It was set up three years ago on a 185 Square meter patch of land owned by the Zakat Foundation, a Muslim Charity organisation, when the Rohingya were fleeing from Myanmar to different South Asian countries. All 46 shanties, on this small plot, in next to each other had makeshift walls of bamboo, scrap wood and metal sheets. A double layer of tarpaulin and woolen blankets made for the roof.

Since their arrival, Rohingya men have transitioned from being farmers and boatmen to auto rickshaw drivers, construction workers, daily wagers in Delhi. They have learnt the local lingo, developed a taste for bread and kebabs instead of craving for rice and fish every day. They leave home early and come back late. In the last three years, the married women have stepped out of the ghetto is when UNHCR organized a trip for the women to see the Red Fort in Delhi. It is the women who have built these shanties, Burmese style, with high triangle roofs, adding series of steps in between for storage or to sleep when the water for the nearby drain swells up in the ghetto. Last monsoons, two children, three months and five months old, died due to snake bite. They have made their kitchen inside the shanty because an outdoor kitchen would mean cooking in a burqa. Divided into four narrow rows, smoke from any shanty makes sure to traverse through the entire row to weave them seamlessly in their incessant misery.   

Jamia Nagar is one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India’s national capital Delhi. Located in Okhla, a suburban colony in South Delhi distict, it borders Noida, an industrial city in the state of Uttar Pradesh.  ‘Jamia’, an Urdu word can be loosely translated as ‘University’.  In October 1920, when India was still under British rule, several teachers of the Aligarh Muslim University, an ancient minority university, responded to the veteran freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi’s call to boycott pro colonial educational institutes and set up the Jamia Milia Islamia University. It initially operated out of Aligarh and then from Karol Bagh, a residential cum commercial centre in Central Delhi , before it’s foundation stone was finally laid here in Okhla village in 1935.  Slowly settlement grew around the University. Okhla, then a non descript village, bordering the Yamuna river, became a hub of students and teachers. Soon after Indian Independence from the British colonial rule, in 1952, the government established 12 estates across the country to encourage small scale industries. Okhla Industrial Estate was one of them and now a major production and trade centre in the capital. Over the years, the population in the area has grown because of its closeness to both the industrial estate and the University.  In the last two decades, since Hindu right wing nationalist forces brought down an ancient mosque in the Ayodhya, a town in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the Muslim ghettos across India have become denser and bigger. It is in this area, in September 2008, two young Muslim boys, allegedly with links to terror outfit, Indian Mujahideen, were killed in an encounter. The event shook the country raising outrage from various Human Rights organizations questioning the veracity of the encounter. Since then, even here, the Muslims from within India do not enjoy an unprejudiced existence.  

Ismat did not respond to Amina and quietly returned to the hand pump with a naked Yusuf. The pump is shared between the Rohingya settlement and the Muzaffarnagar settlement across the road. In 2013, a spate of communal violence in the North Indian districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli left over 60 people dead and over a 1,00,000 people displaced, most of them Muslims. Situated just two and a hours from Delhi, a number of families fled here. Out of those, twenty families have settled across the road here in Jamia Nagar. As Shabnam, pumped water in three plastic containers, her young seven year old daughter, Humaira, picked the refilled ones to carry them to her shanty. She tumbled as she picked the second one. Ismat rushed to pick her up as she started crying. She told her in Rohingya, her native language, “Dont cry. It is fine. Go and change clothes.” Humaira couldn’t understand a word.

The only Hindi phrase that the Rohingya women in the ghetto have learnt is “Thoda-thoda”, little-little. On the contrary, the men, almost all have learnt functional Hindustani, a mix of Hindi and Urdu and a bit of English. “They go out to work so they need to. We don’t,” says Ismat.   

Shabnam picked up Humaira, the water containers and left. After pumping in some cold water into the bucket to make it the right temperature to bathe Yusuf, she pulled his little body, lower than the hand pump, towards herself. As the cold breeze blew into his face and the mugs of water poured on his body, he shriveled down like a wet puppy. His shivers gave a symphonic rhythm to his yelps. To calm him down, Ismat took out an old loofah that she had found in the discards of a scrap shop close by. Yusuf would break into giggle each time it touched his body. Ismat liked using it because it would cause less pain to his half swollen face and his boil peppered body.

All young children had boils in the ghetto. The doctor from Zakat Foundation of India said the boils were because of the contaminated water from the pump which was pumping the sewer water from the ground. All hand pumps painted in read in colour have been deemed unfit by the government for use. “This is why the bucket turns yellow in just four days,” Ismat points out.
Jamia Nagar, came up virtually on the Yamuna riverbed. In the last three decades, since the rise of communal politics in India, a growing insecurity has led to a surge of Muslim settlements in the area. Neighbourhoods catering different class backgrounds have come up. Apartments for middle class families, intellectuals, employees of the university are sought after. There are studio apartments and two room sets for students whose rent depends on the width of the narrow alleys of Jamia Nagar. And then, there are low income group housing, unregularised colonies, slums. Growing population has led to a thriving business centres. A number of hole in the wall eating joints have emerged due to paucity of space and yet locals throng here for the delectable kebabs, fried chicken and Mughlai food. Inspite of this, there has hardly been an attempt to create an infrastructure. There is a perennial shortage of water and electricity. Since the water supply from the government-run Delhi Jal Board is abysmal, people are forced to extract water from the river through a bore-well. A lack of proper drainage system  leads to the mixing of the sewer and ground water. As a result, the ground water that Shabnam and Ismat pump from the hand pump has an unpalatable yellow hue and highly turbid.

The doctor had also diagnosed that Yusuf has brain tumour which needs to be operated. But she will not go ahead with it. She knew that the swelling was because of ‘bad sightings’ on Yusuf, ‘the prettiest of all children’.

Water, what could she say about it?

In 2008, she was 16 when she moved from her village Khanda Para to Bohmu Para in Maungdaw in Myanmar. The Burmese government took an entire year to allow her marriage with her second cousin Mohd Ayub, like they do for all Rohingyas. Her father and her uncle, pooled in money to pay a huge additional marriage tax for her community. She does not remember the amount. The only two things that excited her were a brand new mango colour Thami that she was given to wear for her wedding day and the chance to see the hundred year old railway tunnel that connects the Maungdaw town to Buthidaung district amidst the May Yu Mountains.

“Do you know what a Thami is?” she asks. An old woman, seemingly in her fifties, matted silver hair and teeth stained crimson with betel nut,  sunning a few metres from the pump turned around to tell me, “Thami is a like a skirt. Easy to lift and urinate anywhere. Not like this one-tying and untying the drawstring all the time,” she said pointing to the salwar, a loose pair of pants worn by a number of South Asian women.

They all break into laughter.

Ayub was a skilled boatman. The incessant storms in the Bay of Bengal could never stop him from fishing or ferrying people in the sea or the Kaladan river, the fifth largest river in the world to remain unfragmented by dams in its catchment. He was five years elder to her and as a child, she had always heard of him as someone who would not play and stay engrossed in books. She couldn’t complete school because the Burmese government wouldn’t let Rohingya children get higher education in schools in Rakhine.

For a 21 year old, he had silver hair in lots, a long crooked nose, small eyes-all on a big muscular body, acquired by years of rowing boat on the sea. “He said that he was most happy that I didn’t look like a Kalar,” the fair skinned Ismat told me. ‘Kalar’ is a hate speech term used for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar referring to their dark skin. The red rashes on Ayub’s legs made an zig zag pattern against his dark brown skin. The water was getting more polluted with India and Myanmar trying to connect seaports of both the countries through the Kaladan Multi Nodal Transit Transport System.  On her wedding night Ayub asked her the relevance of water in their lives. Ismat reminisced with a smile, “I was a child then. I said, ‘What?’ You are a fisherman and your father, a farmer. How will you earn if there is no water?”

Ayub then told her that according to Quran, ‘the Almighty made from water every living thing’ but at the same time, it is Him who gives sweet water to the people, and that He can just as easily withhold it.’

“Yamuna in Delhi and Kaladan in Maungdaw are the same now. Toxic, polluted killers. Kaladan marked Ayub and Yamuna has marked Yusuf,” she says pointing to the river bank on the other side of the main road whose stench is a perennial reality in Jamia Nagar, Shaheen Bagh and the neighbouring areas.  Yamuna, the river that provides 70 percent of the city’s water is now amongst the most polluted rivers in the world. Close to 850 gallons of industrial waste and sewage in dumped in it every day and only half of it gets treated through sewage treatment plants.

The same year as Ismat got married, an Indian oil company Essar started exploring natural gas option in Sittwe and Maungdaw area in the state. The area falls under what is called L Block, an oil exploration circle. As part of an agreement signed in 2005, Essar along with state run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise was to do drilling test wells in the area. In the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Essar has been accused by the local tribal population for several years for mining their natural resources, land grabbing and displacing them. Over 2 million acres have been seized from minorities in Burma for such projects by India and China. Ayub’s small patch of land was also taken away and they were relocated to a camp.

In the next four years, due to Essar’s explorations for oil in the Maungdaw area, more and more exclusive zones were created that denied access to local fishermen like Ayub without providing an alternative or compensation.

Amina was also her neighbor back in her village. In 2012, Amina’s husband, Khalid was picked up by the military one day to work as a porter and carry their ammunition and other belongings to the hills to fight ‘arsu’ terrorists. Amina was a few months pregnant then. Forced labour by the military in Myanmar is a common practice. In 2005, the International Labour Organisation governing body stated that “…no adequate moves have been taken by the Burmese Military Regime (the ‘Government’ of Myanmar) to reduce forced labour in Burma/Myanmar.”

For the next four months, Amina couldn’t trace Khalid. It is around then on May 28, 2012, news spread that three Rohingya Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman in Rakhine state. There was major backlash against the Rohingyas.

The riots first broke out in Ismat’s village, Bohmu. Houses in 14 villages were burnt down that night. The violence continued for a few months which finally led to the destruction of close to 2,500 houses and displacement of over 30,000 people who initially stayed in 37 camps across the Rakhine state.

After sticking around in the rescue camps set up by the Burmese government which completely restricted their movement ,Ismat, Ayub and many from their village decided to flee. Amina joined them, hopeless that she will find her husband again. Many  ]women travelling without men have formed their own support networks and stuck to them. They first fled to Teknaf, a border town of Bangladesh opposite Maungdaw, 8 km away and then on overcrowded boats to Malaysia or further south, despite the dangers posed by rough seas. After spending two days in the boat, the boat was hot by cyclone and it capsized. “Ayub dissolved in what the Quran said he was made of,” Ismat says with a staright face. He and 12 others could never be found again. Ismat and Amina returned to Teknaf only to take the route of the land along with other villagers to enter India through West Bengal.  

The bath is over and Yusuf is smiling now. Ismat is applying mustard oil to his body to moisturize her skin. As she tells these details, Amina joins in along with her three year old malnourished daughter, Noor Shahida, who looks like a one year old. “There is some milk in my shanty. Feed her that,” Ismat tells Amina.

Shabnam comes to the pump again, this time with a pile of clothes to wash. “Muslims in their village were also attacked, no. Else why would they come here in a city where neither there is clean water or air!” she asked. “We were so far away yet such similar stories!”

The site where the pump is situated is the only part which receives any sunlight. “Thank God that is at the backside, else women would have not even deserved that,” says Amina.  

When Shabnam hears the translation she says, “When we lived in a relief camp in Shamli after the riots, the clergy there too told us that the Muslims were affected in the violence because the women did not cover their faces properly. Allah got upset and punished us.” Another woman, Seema, from Shabnam’s camp joins in, “That’s true. They said that we did not offer namaz five times a day and watched television, that’s why our women were raped. At least no one tells us that in this city.”  

Ismat and Amina exchange glances as Rukhsat, a teenaged Rohingya girl who has picked up the local Hindustani language, repeats what Seema says in Rohingya. In the last four years of battling poverty, displacement and trauma, the women are still not allowed to go out to work. “We don’t practice the custom of working women in our community,” says Saleem, Ismat’s neighbour. They had not heard that in Rakhine. The women have found safety in this new country but lost their freedom to radicalized faith.  Confined to the ghetto and the most vulnerable of the lot, they have no means to secure square meals for themselves and their children except depending on the benevolence of the same community that restricts her from earning a living by working outside.
Widows like them with no male earning member in the family are completely dependent on the neighbourhood community to provide them meals and things of necessity. People from the neighbouring areas donate money as charity on Eid and during Ramzan. “We save it for the rest of the year. I want to work. May be start selling banboo chicken soup, a Rakhine speciality here. But our Islamic donors say women are keepers of tradition wherever we go. If I defy them, who knows, they will not let us stay here,” Amina says. She gives free hair cut to all children and does odd jobs within the ghetto for daily meals. As Ismat says, “When Aung Saan Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, she could hope that one days she will be out. Women like us have none.”  

With the growing religious polarisation in South Asia, a rising militant Buddhism in Myanmar and the rabid, fundamentalist Hindutva nationalism in India, a biding sense of insecurity has gained a foothold in Islam. The most direct repercussion of it is a tightened noose on women’s sexuality and autonomy.  “But no matter what said and done at least Afsa can go to school here. Rohingyas were just not allowed to do that in Rakhine,” Manera says.
Jamia Nagar has several primary schools, a number of them privately run. Rukhsat, Afsa and many young girls have started attending school. “We have to start from the scratch because whatever little we learnt back home was in our local language. I want to learn everything in English now. What if we have to move from India to some other country,” says Rukhsat in her teenage. She wants to be a teacher but her marriage has already been arranged within the ghetto. “Our community is under so much threat. Girls are allowed only to marry within the community. Though the men can marry outside,” says Haroon.

Another  young girl, Tasmeeda, 16, fled Myanmar with her family when she was six. After a few years in Bangladesh, the family became one of the first Rohingya settlers in Delhi eight years back. While Rohingya children are not given admission in Indian school, papers were fudged and she managed to learn Hindi and the complexities of the local Indian customs in her surroundings.
“In our village, back home, the houses are constructed like this only,” she tells.
“How do you know? You were very young when you left” I ask.  
“I have heard from people.”
Tasmeeda is one of the most outspoken girls in the ghetto. Each time a journalist, an activist, a team from a human rights agency visits she is sought to represent the women’s side or to translate what they are saying.  She reads and informs that the Indian government is providing stipend to refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan and Iran but not them.  Crisis has emboldened her to keep a tab on not just her own refugee status but also the political developments in Myanmar. She is the window for women like Ismat and Amina to the outside world. “But if India does not provide her people a citizenship, we will have to flee again,” she says in a matter of fact tone.

Zohra Khatoon, in her late 60s, walks up to the pump nods as Tasmeeda says this. She worked as a farm labourer all her life in Rakhine. Her husband passed away when her daughter was one. All the years of raising her up were tough. When she finally married off her daughter, she thought she could now take it easy.  That’s when the violence started in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and neighbouring districts in Rakhine in Myanmar. She fled with her daughter, her two granddaughters and the son in law. There are many old women like her, confined to the ghettos, ill equipped to work, unfamiliar to the new land and the language and too fatigued by age to renegotiate living conditions in their surroundings. The new country and place of habitation does not provide the comfort of familiarity or the power of financial and social independence. “I am praying for my death,” she says.  But Tasmeeda recently told her that the local Muslim graveyard still does not allow burial of Rohingya bodies.

In the alien city landscapes, the red pump has become a cushion, a community of women who have been uprooted from their rural landscapes due to communal politics. It is located at the edge of Jamia nagar and a forested area. With a number of slums around, no sewer line and no toilets, the area is used for a large number of people to relieve themselves. Local eateries and meat shops also dump the leftover food, animal carcass here. This draws a large number of stray dogs, pigs, mosquitoes and germs.

“Why doesn’t the government clean it?” Zohra asks.
Tasmeeda replies, “What were you thinking? India is heaven. They come to Muslim areas only in elections.”

The rise of the Hindu nationalism in India, has led to a sectarian divide amongst the Hindu majority of roughly 84 percent and the Muslim minority of 13 percent. According to studies, Muslims in India are most socio economic backward community in India. With the rise of conservative politics, there have been institutionalised policies that ignore their development and progress. The Muslim ghettos are often at the receiving end of this exclusion.

Manera Begum, a woman in her mid thirties, escorted by her six year old daughter Afsa, walks up. Over the years, Manera has completely lost her sight. She also grew up in the Buthidaung district of Rakhine state in Myanmar. Her father, Zafar Ahmed owned a shop in a village and volunteered for Aung San Sui Kyi’s National League of Democracy. When the party was elected to power in the 1990 General elections which the Army nullified and refused to hand over the power, Aung San Sui Kyi was put on house arrest for the next several years. It is then the military started a witch hunt of several such supporters of NLD.  On one such night, Zaheer and his elder son, Haroon were tipped off that the military is on their way to arrest them. The two fled, unaware that the family members will not be spared. That night, the militia killed Zaheer’s uncle, raped his cousin Ashiya, burnt her alive and wounded Manera and her younger brother Taufeeq so brutally that their eyesight faded away in the next few years. Zaroon and Zaheer had to stay in Bangladesh for five years before they could finally come back to rescue their family. After 12 years in Bangladesh, Zaheer decided to get all his family to India. “We were not allowed to go outside the refugee camp there.”

The sectarian divide throughout South Asian communities has had the biggest impact by dividing  the poor to compete against each other for survival.
In the last two years, since the Rohingya settlement and Muzaffarnagar settlement have existed next to each other, there has been an incessant aid contest between the two. When the UNHCR or other international charity organizations help the Rohingyas, the others resent. And when the local politicians appear once in a while and provide the Muzaffarnagar refugees some goodies, it is vice versa.  

Amina says, “That’s because they have votes.”  Manera quietly listening to the conversations says, “Our Party has now come to power in Myanmar. Do you know Aung San Sui Kyi? She has come to power but she has to be in power for four five years. May be then she will change the law and accept Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar. We will wait till then.”

Ismat makes a clucking sound. She says, “It is nothing. Like Ayub said, Allah has withheld that sweet water from the Rohingya women.”

Published by Cityscapes magazine in July, 2017

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