Feminist Mina Agarwala

SYEDA HAMEED recalls the contribution of Mina Agarwala in the women’s movement in Assam

Mina Agarwala died in Tezpur Assam on July 24 2014 in early hours of the morning. She was 90 years, an age not many reach. But her death leaves a void in our increasingly troubled world which today needs millions of Mina’s to place us back on the track of humaneness.

I met her first in 2002 when I went to Tezpur on behalf of Muslim Women’s Forum. As the founding chairperson of the Forum I wanted a Public Hearing on Status of Muslim Women to be arranged in Assam. Tezpur Mahila Samiti offered to host the event. My objective of coming to Tezpur was to assess the condition of Muslim Women as a follow-up to the National Commission for Women report Voice of the Voiceless Status of Muslim Women in India. The report had been written by me and after having surveyed the ground reality, came up with several important recommendations for implementation by the Government. Assam, having the highest percentage of Muslims, was a crucial state in this regard. Mina Agarwala became the moving spirit behind this endeavor.

The first thing that struck me when I entered the Tezpur Mahila Samiti Campus was the statue of Chandraprabha Saikiani who was the driving force behind district level mahila samities. As I drew closer I was stunned with what I saw.  A banner stretched next to the statue carried lines of my great grandfather Maulana Altaf Husain Hali. Hali (meaning contemporary) was the first feminist poet of India and the first poet of Urdu who used poetry as vehicle of reform. His lines which were the anthem of Muslim Women’s Forum were written on the banner of Tezpur Mahila Samiti. Mina Agarwala understood the importance of these lines and by giving them pride of place gave people exposure to another language.

Ai maaon behnon betiyon

Duniya ki zeenat tum se hai

Mulkon ki basti ho tum hi

Qomon ko izzat tum se hai

[O mothers sisters daughters

You are honour of the world

You are the source of generations

Greatness of Nations (Chup ki Daad: Homage to the Silent) 1905]

The Forum was titled Giving Voiceless a Voice. Participants came from different places such as Nagaon, Darrang, Dhekiajuli, Kallabor, Pasmile Dolabari. When our turn came, I spoke of the post 9/11 scenario and the challenge before the Muslim community. Mina Agarwala in her gentle but firm manner cautioned the gathering against the forces of fundamentalism, communalism and superstition. She spoke of the work of the Samiti in tackling problems of Triple Talaq, dowry, non payment of Mehr and maintenance. Muslim women came to share their grief and find relief at the doorstep of this amazing woman. One woman told me that Mina Baideo used to distribute whatever prize money she received to support these causes. If there was any fund available she would channelize it into forming women’s groups at the village level for giving collective voice to individual privations.

I listened to the voices of many women that morning, Sultana Salima Hazarika, Shahida Begum, Saleha Khatoon, Farida Begum, Gulbadan Begum. I was amazed at the level of awareness among these women, all trained by Mina Baideo. I also realized how little anything had changed since I came to this very place in 1999 as Member NCW. My three-year evaluation visit revealed that the government had not taken any measure in response to our recommendations. Muslim women of this area, like their sisters in other parts of the country, had not moved an inch in any sphere. I felt a sense of gloom but Mina Agarwala never showed despair; she was made of better stuff. She who had learnt her feminist grammar at the stoic school of her mother-in-law, remained positive. She gave a careful hearing to the women and found whatever means were available to redress their grief.

Her last few days in this world were marked with the worst crises, especially for Muslims, whether in India, West Asia, South Asia, or the world. If she was conscious she would have certainly felt pained at the human predicament of Muslims across the globe; Killing of babies in Gaza and issuance of Fatwas against women by the so called Jihadis of Islam in West Asia, atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Closer home, were killings in Saharanpur, Moradabad and Lucknow. Mina Baideo was a woman whose sympathies were not confined by geography, religion, caste or class. Her understanding of secularism and social justice was what the makers of the Constitution had dreamed. She probably was tired of living in a world where intolerance and violence hit its peak, symbolized by the latest incident of thrusting food in the mouth of a fasting person.

Mina Agarwala died in the venerable month of Ramadan. Thousands of women who her life had touched went into mourning. Many of them were fasting Muslim women. One of them is me. Today I remember her during my Roza as well as when I observe my Iftar. Her life was living example that all of us are integral to the identity of India. The obscene gestures of a few should not provoke us to fall apart. Mina’s life is a lesson which we can ignore only at our peril. I am reminded of the poet Dr Iqbal’s lines in paying my last tribute to the all seeing Mina Agarwala.

Hazaron saal nargis apni be noori pe roti hai

Badi mushkil se hota hai chaman mein deedawar paida

 [A thousand years the narcissus weeps at its blindness

With great pain is born in the garden one who can see].

Syeda Hameed

Syeda Hameed

Syeda Hameed is former Member, Planning Commission, India.