In an era where women like Mary Kom, Indra Nooyi and Mithali Raj are celebrated worldwide for shattering gender stereotypes, there is still a section of women whose dreams are killed and who are silenced even while expressing their feelings.
One such area where girls are deprived of their basic rights, is Kolkata’s Rajabazar. From dowry and child marriage to domestic abuse, issues that are supposedly a thing of the past are still prevalent in Rajabazar.
Born in 1989, Shahina Javed’s story was not much different. Though her parents never consciously treated her and her three brothers any different, the discrimination was there in her face.
Recalling her childhood over a telephonic interview with The Better India, she says,
“While growing up, I saw how my mother served food to my brothers first, how she let them play late in the night and how they received more number of toys. Whenever I questioned such behavior, my parents shut me up.”
Throughout her teenage, she saw her neighbours and friends being subjected to physical torture by the male members of their family. Just when she was getting used to the sorry state of affairs, an incident shook Shahina.
“I saw a man brutally hitting his wife on the road. No one from the colony tried to intervene or even offered the woman any help. I took her to the hospital but she refused to lodge a complaint, fearing the future of her children. That incident gave me several sleepless nights and inspired me to act against the existing situation.”
In 2008, she collaborated with like-minded friends and started Roshni Youth Group.
As anticipated, she faced backlash from her family and people from her community, but Shahina did not give up.
Along with her friends, she attended several conferences on gender equality, to meet people fighting for the same cause. Gradually she developed a network of lawyers, activists, and educationists.
Lack of awareness is the main reason why girls and women cannot fight for themselves. They don’t know their basic rights and as a result, they continue to suffer. Thus, it was very important for me to gather knowledge. Once I was educated, I started conducting awareness workshops.
With time, the number of girls attending the workshops increased. Interestingly, the mothers, who underwent years of suffering, sent their daughters to the sessions.
A couple of city-based organisations also started helping Shahina in her crusade. Since the last ten years, she has invited experts on self-defense, career counselling, higher studies, public speaking and so on.
Besides empowering girls through her organisation, Shahina also presides over the informal Community Panchayat.
The Panchayat core committee often invites me to solve the local problems. This way, the women can speak freely without any fear. Of course, this has angered a few community people on certain occasions, she says.
Two years ago, she founded an all-women soccer team of five girls from the basti. This left the people furious to an extent where she started getting threat calls.
Today, around 40 girls are undergoing training in football. In fact, a player from the men’s team is coaching the girls.
This was not easy at all, says Shahina. She adds, “The men’s soccer team did not allow us to use the ground and parents advised their daughters against playing sports. But when we won a couple of local matches, people came around.”
With help and guidance from Shahina, lives of 200 girls have changed. Girls in the community are now daring to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
23-year-old Mehzabeen, who was once not even allowed to go outside Rajabazar, is a filmmaker now. Sharing her journey with TBI, she says,
I was raised with innumerable restrictions. I was allowed to study but with an objective of finding a good suitor in future. But I had my own dream, I always wanted to be a part of the movie industry. When I approached Shahina, she helped me get training on filmmaking.
Mehzabeen made her first documentary on Rajabazar’s all-women soccer team. For the same, she was invited to Mumbai, her city of dreams, for the Ankur Film Festival. She garnered maximum applause for her film.
Meanwhile, Naheed, now a chauffer at Kolkata’s Park Hotel, is self-sufficient.
“I was a victim of physical and mental torture. It was difficult for me to come out of that zone and move on. But after counselling, I decided to learn driving. A city-based organisation funded my driving course. Today, I am earning enough money that can not only sustain myself but also my family,” Naheed tells TBI.
Amidst the empowerment, courage and the will to risk everything for the betterment of others, Shahina had to go through some tough times. For instance, last year, her NGO was attacked after she and her team stopped a child marriage by informing the police.
“While threat calls have always been consistent, getting attacked by the mob was relatively new for us. Getting scared and not continuing our activities meant our defeat. There was no other alternative but to continue,” says Shahina.
She is currently pursuing Masters in Social Work from Calcutta University.
Shahina has been instrumental in changing the narrative for girls and women in Rajabazar. Her message is simple and straight:
Do not wait for a fairy tale where a Prince Charming will rescue you from the clutches of unjust societal norms. Instead, write your own story and make sure you are the Hero in it.
To know more about Roshni Youth Group, look up their Facebook page here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)