The bustling city of Lucknow buzzes around her, even as she seems calm, centred. Nasreen is feeling quite at home, reflecting the tehzeeb characteristic of the city she lives in, but she has come a long way to be in a place that today speaks of quiet achievement.
Currently working at the Sadbhavna Trust, an NGO based out of Lucknow that works on issues related to women’s empowerment, AIDS awareness, and prevention of atrocities against women, it was not too many moons ago that she was going through what countless women do in our deeply patriarchal culture – feeling trapped in a marriage.
It was in 1999 that Nasreen got married, very young, while still in her First Year of B.A., and right after her first year anniversary, Nasreen and her husband split. Her in-laws were not supportive of her decision to work, and her husband gave in to social pressure. She recounts, “I was often pestered about my work timings. When I would return home in the evening, I was asked where I had been, what I had been doing, why was it that I left home so early and returned so late.”
Facing up to terrible treatment on a daily basis did not confine itself within the four walls of her home though – of course not. “Not only did I have to field these questions from everyone at home, my mother-in-law and my husband, people in our neighbourhood too somehow felt as if they were entitled to ask these questions about my work schedule.”
The taunts and half-baked rumours that working women are wont to encounter frequently, even in so-called urban spaces, expose the deep-set hypocrisies embedded in our cultural fabric, in which we might wax eloquent about working women and desperately need the economic aid it brings, but still hold them to different societal standards of ‘propriety’.
Basically, we grudge the woman for what she brings to the table.
To add to the problems, Nasreen’s husband was unemployed, which led her to take on a business that could supplement the monthly salary. “I started selling milk to compensate and support my family,” she shares. But then one day, after the police arrested her husband – apparently there had been too many mis-dealings – her business, that had just started to take off, shut down. “His arrest had an adverse effect on it.”
Pushed to a wall, something always breaks or gives, and Nasreen chose to quit her marriage. She tells us that she took about a month to compose her thoughts, and then decided to leave with her dignity and a chance at happiness.
This milestone decision also became the turning point of Nasreen’s life, ushering in a new chapter. Nasreen began an active quest for a new life that would redefine her identity, self-image, and most importantly, help her regain her confidence in herself and a chance at a happy life. She took to teaching initially to pay the bills, putting her Bachelor’s degree to use, taking tuitions for children.
Simultaneously, she also picked up sewing, and organized a “side-business” of tailoring that started with basic repair work and moved on to stitching of outfits.
“Somehow I managed to pull together enough money to run my household, and pay for my children’s education,” she says, smiling, looking back at the time with equal parts trepidation and joy.
Coming across the Sadbhavna Trust was a happy co-incidence. Somebody told her about it as a place that she should learn about because it worked in counselling as well, as an option to help her deal with the scars of a past life. Initially unsure, Nasreen went in and chanced upon something that held a deeper allure for her – a job vacancy. She was getting a bit tired of her two-job existence, and the charm of getting out of the house and domestic duties during the day was too strong.
After a few rounds of interviews and conversations, Nasreen was taken onboard as the Information Center Co-ordinator at the Sadbhavna Trust, where she works today.
We meet her at her office and at home, her face at once a picture of contentment and marked with the signs of a struggle that moulded her, but failed to break her.
Nasreen now sets herself up as an example for other women who come into the Trust and who she meets, in an attempt to be a ray of hope for them too.
As we leave, she taps on her desktop telling us how she learnt to use it and work it – something that once seemed so foreign and terrified her. We don’t miss the pride in her voice – it is unmistakable.