I was sitting on the verandah when this woman walked up. She was thin and short with a pleasant expression. "I am Najmi from village Monai Kendra. For the past two years I have been rolling bidis...my mother and I, we both roll bidis."
I was in Katna village, in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. Katna is a typical Bengal village set among verdant paddy fields and abundant tree cover, 50 kms from the district headquarters at Baharampur. At 9 am, the women started coming - carrying babies, holding toddlers, accompanied by old men and women. Seeking justice for the violence they suffer day in and day out.
Najmi had been married to Zahiruddin Shaikh. One day, he just walked out on her after writing talaq on a scrap of paper. But Najmi was unwilling to accept this arbitrary severance; she wanted Shaikh to pay her mehr (gifts/money granted to the bride as part of her wedding contract, and which is meant for her material security), her right (haq). It was not easy to chase him; he crossed the river every day to work in Bangladesh. Better wages across the border draw him and others across the river. Having left Najmi, he has married a woman from Bangladesh.
As I was piecing together Najmi's story, another woman walked through the gate. "Fancy. Yes, that is my name. I lost this eye as a child because of small pox. That was some time ago. But see my back." She removed her sari to reveal the ugly marks on her back. "On March 28, he (her husband) beat me till I had no life left. The police should beat him up just as he beat me."
The third case was of a frail young girl with a very thin, wasted child at her breast. "I am Beauty Bibi. This is my mother Dolly Bibi, and my grandfather Yatim Shaikh. We come from Salkia village. My husband Shiraz got very angry because my daughter wet the bed. 'Now I will not sleep with you; I will sleep with your mother' he said, and the beating started. He suggests that I start going with other men."
What I witnessed in Katna was a dynamic system of women's access to justice. It began in 2002 as the Mahila Ashray project initiated by Shabnam Ahmed, who decided to do something about the slow wheels of the justice system instead of complaining and cursing fate, and who received the cooperation of Rajesh Kumar, the then Superintendent of Police in Murshidabad district.
Shabnam Ahmed and her husband were running an NGO, Street Survivors (SS), in Delhi till about 1999. But when the school set up by SS in Motia Khan (Delhi) was demolished, Shabnam moved to Katna, her birthplace, with the aim of continuing her work (through SS) with women and children there.
Mahila Ashray was started with the objective of reducing the huge backlog of cases involving crimes against women. For two years, Shabnam sat at a desk she was given in the Burwan Police Station, which has a jurisdiction over about 210 villages. With the help of the SHO (Station House Officer) she ran a mini Lok Adalat (people's court) for settling cases of domestic violence, talaq and non-payment of mehr. Through this informal justice delivery system, and through her dedication and hard work, Shabnam gradually developed a high credibility in the area.
Cases began to come in from the neighboring districts of Nadia, Birbhum, and Bardhaman. Today, Shabnam no longer sits in the Burwan Police Station. But her work has created such a deep impact that there is a steady stream of women coming to Shabnam's front verandah. I was witness to the despair in their eyes, which slowly turned to hope as they prepared to leave.
"One has to be larger than life," says Shabnam. "What do I have, what power, what means? Nothing. Perhaps only the courage of my convictions." Later, I learned that when Shaikh (Najmi's husband) did not appear in person, Shabnam went across the border to look for him. She was able to extract a portion of the mehr and a promise of getting the balance.
Initially, sitting in the thana helped her. Now, through the power of moral persuasion, she is able to bring men to the table and force them to settle with their women - either for reconciliation or talaq. In cases of talaq, she uses some more moral pressure and some fear, and makes them pay at least part of the mehr. The police continue to cooperate with Shabnam; and at her behest, they often pick up the culprits. There has been plenty of opposition, and threats too, but Shabnam has gone ahead undaunted. Slowly, the men too have seen the fairness of her judgements.
Having contributed to the delivery of justice, Shabnam does not abandon the abandoned women. The issue for her is - how to make a woman survive after she (with 3 or 4 children) is left to fend for herself. And here begins the story of Katna's kantha (light quilt). The traditional and time-honoured skill of all Bengali women, Muslims and Hindu, is the nakshi (geometrical patterns) kantha and sozni (fine embroidery) kantha - a stitching skill passed on from mother to daughter. The challenge before Shabnam was to engage the women in what they knew best, and to make the effort economically viable.
The women's income-generating project - using their skill in making light quilts - also began in 2002, on the upper floor of Shabnam's house. I saw a cheerful group of women working in a well-ventilated and clean work area. Although the women begin with a layout of their work-piece here, they are free to take their work home later, so that they can attend to their household chores as well. The wages they receive from the project are not great, but better than what spinners earn at nearby Lalbagh. Gradually, Shabnam has been marketing the quilts made by the women in Kolkata and Delhi. And she hopes to explore other avenues too, so that this can become a regular means of livelihood for the women.
Shabnam's work shows how the effort of one public-spirited individual can take women like Najmi and Fancy from victimhood to agency.
Those of us who often lament over the fate of women victims of domestic violence could take an example from Katna. We should ask ourselves whether we care enough to roll up our sleeves and really do something about it?