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'Change is a slow process'

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Shehnaaz Sheikh, the first woman to challenge Muslim personal law in India, looks back on a life where circumstances forced her to become an agent of change, says Menka Shivdasani

When Shehnaaz Sheikh was 21, the eldest of five children growing up in a conservative mohalla, she was married off to a man much older than herself. Shehnaaz soon discovered that her husband already had a wife and children in Bihar. One night, two years after marriage, her husband gave her triple talaq and threw her out of the house at midnight, saying she was now haram. She had nothing but the nightgown she was wearing; he did not allow her to take any of her clothes because he said he had paid for them. “I couldn’t even take the special shoes that I need to wear because of a deformity in my foot,” she recalls. “Luckily the nightie I had on was one that I had bought myself!”

Today, 35 years later, Shehnaaz looks back on her life and wonders what it was that kept her going. At 24, back in 1983, she was the first to challenge the Muslim personal law; she was all alone at the time. She has spent long hours at railway stations with nowhere to go—“Dadar station was like my maika (parents’ home),” she laughs. She has noted her various ‘shortcomings’—based on taunts that people have thrown her way—and ensured that she has overcome them. One of these involved learning Law. Another led her to stay for two years on the mezzanine floor of a hut, in a room that was too low for her to stand upright, because people said she was just a rich lady who didn’t know what life was like for the women she was trying to influence as an activist. “I made a list of all the things that people said I couldn’t do,” she says. “Then I did them! These people did me a favour.”

Today, the soft-spoken, feisty lady has reinvented herself in every way. A recipient of the Neerja Bhanot Bravery Award, she has been married for 18 years to Jean-Pierre, a Frenchman who is a professor of Islamic, Ancient Greek and Roman History. He converted so that she would marry him; she insisted that if they were together, they would have separate bedrooms!

Shehnaaz is now a Reiki grandmaster, meditation teacher, a counsellor, a French literature graduate and a diploma holder in Buddhist studies from Mumbai University. She has also studied Pali; of course, she has deep knowledge of law and of religious texts, gained during the time she spent rebuilding her life. One of her milestone moments is the fact that a priest has welcomed her to the same mosque in which he had once announced fatwas against her; he apologised for having done so.

In the mid-1980s, I had written about her for this newspaper; now, meeting her after more than three decades I was struck by the serene expression on her face. Nothing about her today suggests what she has been through, except the old flashes of anger and hurt that still blaze in her eyes when she recalls the challenges that she has survived.

Looking back on a lifetime that few people could have endured, Shehnaaz recalls her childhood, growing up in a convent school and her Mithibai College days. “I would ask a lot of questions, particularly about religion, and about why it was a woman’s job to keep having babies. I wanted my own identity but children don’t let you have that,” says Shehnaaz.

Eventually, after five men rejected her because of her foot deformity, she gave in to her parents and agreed to marry a professor of Economics. For two years she tried to make it work, even after discovering that she was the second wife. Then came September 3, 1983, the night he threw her out of the house.

Fortunately for her, the people who lived just below on the ground floor, were more than welcoming. “Somehow, I had a set of clothes and a pair of shoes there,” recalls Shehnaaz. “And I don’t know what instinct it was but I had also kept all my certificates at their place.”

The sense of safety did not last for long. The next morning, her husband threatened the family who had given her shelter, and Shehnaaz, not wishing to create trouble for them, decided to leave. “I told them I would go to my uncle’s house,” she says, “but I actually didn’t know where I would be going”. She ended up at Bombay Central station, because she had a vague idea that from there, she could go anywhere; she soon realised that she had no money for a ticket and moved out of the queue. “I sat close to a group of people. I was trying to be confident, but I was so scared,” she recalls. When she had managed to spend the night there safely, she felt she had crossed the first hurdle.

Eventually she phoned some family friends, a Maharashtrian couple, who offered to come and fetch her. She was determined to be independent and told them she would make it on her own to their home in Dadar; “it was the first time I had ever taken a train”, she says.

“I have lived in many places,” she adds, “but the Universe always takes you to the right spot.” It was here, in Dadar, that she got her first job at `600 a month. A bed in the balcony of a home that had six girls cost `150; she spent `200 for a tiffin that lasted her for two meals; her tea she drank in the office. All her belongings fit into a plastic bag, and she wore one sari and spread the other as a bedsheet.

One day the man she had been married to phoned her office and said her parents were looking for her. “It’s none of your business what I do,” she told him, reminding him that he had divorced her. “Where is the proof of that?” he asked. “His family members also threatened me with acid,” Shehnaaz recalls.

Alarmed that her husband could pretend he had not divorced her whenever he found it convenient, she approached a kazi with the help of her employer. The kazi said that if she wanted a divorce, she would have to forfeit her mehr as well as pay her husband compensation. “I lost my mind crying,” she says. She also discovered that while the Constitution gave equal rights to women, in the case of a conflict under personal law, she would have to challenge its validity. “They will kill you,” her boss warned her, and she responded: “Better to die with dignity”. In December 1983, she filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court; she was the sole petitioner and was just 24.

More than once, Shehnaaz found her life under threat, with mobs at her door. One time, she fled the house she was in, took a bus to Bandra and then a train to Dadar. “The safest place in the world is a station,” she discovered. “Bombay has kept me alive.”

As support for her grew in the city’s vibrant feminist circles of the time, she attended a Women’s Forum meeting, and was intimidated to find that these were all doctors, lawyers and other professionals. For the first time in her life, however, she realised that there were other women who thought like her. “I’m a born feminist!” she realised with wonder, thrilled to discover that there were others who validated her need for independence. Support from people like lawyer Indira Jaisingh gave her confidence, and others, such as Sandhya Gokhale encouraged her to study, read books on personal law. Soon, Shehnaaz was being invited to speak at a host of places, from Nirmala Niketan and SNDT University, and even the Bar Council of India. “I changed as a person. I went out to get a small identity. Instead, I got a big identity,” she says. In 1984, an international network of women living under Islamic law was formed and they supported Shehnaaz’s petition; “there were fatwas against me in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as well,” recalls Shehnaaz.

Around this time, she had also graduated, become a law student, joined the Lawyers’ Collective and become involved with a signature campaign for Shah Bano, the 62-year-old who was thrown out of her husband’s house and who fought for maintenance. In a landmark judgement in April 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Shah Bano but a year later, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi enacted a law in Parliament, and the judgment was overturned.

It was a time of intense activity, and Shehnaaz realised change had to come from within, and could be meaningful only if it went down to the underprivileged of the community. And so, as she got involved in street theatre and her political consciousness grew, with the help of the CPI Women’s Wing, she decided to form Aawaaz-e-Niswaan (Voice of Women), India's first feminist Muslim women’s organisation. Twenty-five divorced women turned up for the first meeting with their

children, and soon, the movement grew. There were demonstrations—one against the police when a woman was detained at night without cause. There were victories too; “we won all cases without going to court,” she says.

This was the time when people started accusing her of not knowing what the women were going through because she lived in comfortable surroundings. So she decided to give up her job at Lawyer’s Collective and between 1989 and 1991, moved into the upper half of a jhopdi, with two families staying in the room below.

Once, during this period, when Shehnaaz was walking down the street, she became aware of thugs following her with ‘talwars’. Some months later, when they organised a morcha that involved a long walk to the Commissioner’s office, Shehnaaz stopped to look back and found a “sea of burka-clad women” walking with her. She then realised they were pouring out of the same street where the goondas had once followed her. “My life is not wasted,” she smiled.

For Shehnaaz, the 1993 riots proved to be a turning point. “Ten years of activism and then there were riots and bomb blasts!” she says, adding: “We were successful without being violent. Violence can never be the answer to violence.”

She took the riots personally, believed herself to be a failure, and had a nervous breakdown. It was then, in September 1993, that she discovered Vipassana and took to meditation; it would change her life. “It is a secular ritual, just breath and sensation,” she realised, “and it felt so good.” When she emerged from her meditative silence, not knowing what life would hold for her next, there was a surprise waiting for her; the film-maker Anand Patwardhan had been calling repeatedly to say that she had won the Neerja Bhanot award—presented to a woman who had been subjected to social injustice, and who had not only faced the situation with grit and determination, but also helped other women in distress. It was a trophy and prize money of Rs 1 lakh; Shehnaaz had just Rs 50 at the time!

Today, as she looks back, Shehnaaz reminds me of all the things that the feminists of her generation fought for. “Women today take 24-hour ladies’ compartments in trains and women’s specials for granted,” she says, “but do you know how much we had to fight for a single compartment in those days?

She adds: “Change is a very slow process, but somewhere I am glad that I have contributed to that change. So many women like me have sacrificed so much. Women today have no idea of that.”

Shehnaaz Sheikh has noted her various ‘shortcomings’—based on taunts people have thrown her way—and ensured that she has overcome them. One of these involved learning law. Another led her to stay for two years on the mezzanine floor of a hut, in a room that was too low for her to stand upright, because people said she was just a a rich lady who didn’t know what life was like for the women she was trying to influence as an activist. “I made a list of all the things people  said I couldn’t do,” she says. “Then I did them! These people did me a favour.”

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