SYEDA HAMEED | 30 MAY, 2019
The Gender Bond of Hope
Mohini Giri, Padma Seth , Syeda Hameed
It was the 23 day of Ramadan. My two oldest and dearest friends were sitting across me. Before us there were glasses of pomegranate juice and a plate of dates. At the stroke of nine minutes after seven all three of us broke the 23 roza with dates and juice. Before starting the meal I got up for namaaz. ‘Here, take my dupatta’ I draped the dupatta around my head.
On the floor in the next room was a clean sheet with a green silk prayer mat. I stood there for Maghreb prayer imploring peace for my country and for the world and health of my friends who waited for me in the next room.
Who were they? Two women with a pedigree and a lineage about which I had never thought before today. Both were from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Mohini Giri, Vaidiki Brahmin, her father Vangala Shiva Ram, historian, PhD from Harvard, Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University from Atili, West Godavari. Padma Seth Vaishnavite, her father Anantasayanam Ayyangar, second speaker of the First Lok Sabha, parliamentarian for 39 years, from Chittor.
They, my two lifelong friends had invited me for Iftar which was now laid out. Besides fruit, there were idlis, sambhar, paneer, imli rice, dahi vada and mother dairy’s rabri! After several glasses of water and a strong cup of tea, the spirit of Ramadan steered the conversation.
We talked. No, not about the elections, the victory of NDA, the defeat of Congress, the future of Indian Muslims. We talked about another India. The India of the two families who were hosting Ramadan for a friend who was as much a Muslim as they were Hindus. Our conversation spanned 72 years, from 1947 to 2019.
Padma spoke. ’My father’s house was open to people of all religions. The kitchen produced endless food. Everyone who came, unannounced mostly, sat down for a meal. My grandmother used to ask her son, ‘These people eating here, are they Brahmins?’. Father used to describe all of them- Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Harijans in a single word,. ‘Mother they are Supradeek (highest) Brahmins’. The man had no notion of discrimination on any ground; he was the one who took the first Harijan by hand and led him inside the Tirupati temple’.
‘And the Elections! Father did not spend a single ‘damri’ (I heard this word after a long time). There was one old jeep, a few friends what was the result? Never lost a Lok Sabha for 39 years.’
My friendship with Padma and Mohini goes back to 1997, National Commission of Women. Mohini Giri as Chairperson looked at every case from a single lens. Gender Justice. In her book being Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh was irrelevant. Slogans like ‘Hum do hamarey pachchis’ had not been invented then. Muslims women were never looked askance as victims of a retrograde Islam.
‘Poverty, illiteracy, lack of skills is a deprivation common to all women’ Mohini told me. ‘Muslim women are no different from women of all castes and all religions.
But there is one difference. Lack of data, empirical evidence’. That is why she sent me on a mission across the country to study the status of Muslim Women. After holding 18 Public Hearings from Tezpur to Thiruvanathapuram and from Ahmedabad to Murshidabad my report Voice of the Voiceless Status of Muslim Women in India was released by NCW in 2000.
By the time Mohini and Padma had retired, so it created no stir and was buried in graveyard of government literature. But these indomitable women used every Forum to flag its findings.
It was Mohini Giri who sent Padma Seth and me on a dusty August afternoon to rescue a 19 year old girl Maimun from the clutches of her family who had forcibly snatched her from her husband Idris for the ‘sin’ of marrying within their ‘gotra’.
When we reached Sudaka village in Mewat, Padma and I confronted an angry and unruly mass of villagers. While the men physically stopped our cars, women threw themselves on the road to prevent us. I explained to them that in Islam there was no concept of Gotra or Jaati. ’Dont teach us Islam. We know our religion’ they shouted. Then the voice of the daughter of India’s greatest Speaker’s rose above the din.
‘Now listen to me’ she spoke and they fell quiet. I did not know at the time that the voice was coming from the best Hindu tradition of the Iyengar family. Authority which was born from knowledge and respect for all faiths, practised in her family under the eagle eye of the father.
These two women were fearless in quest of gender justice. Their karmabhoomi was their country, their South Asia, but their vision was the world. Mohini led a Women’s Bus of Peace to Lahore while the fires of Kargil were still smouldering. For her Women and Peace are two ends of the same equation. Those days the words Muslim-Terror-Pakistan were not spoken in the same breath.
This confluence of faiths on that day of Ramadan was not the first time for us. During our frantic tours triggered by violence against women which ranged from Darbhanga in Bihar to Kalahandi in Orissa, to Kupwara in Kashmir to Itanagar in Arunachal, from anywhere to everywhere, our early morning prayers were offered together.
I spread my prayer mat and Mohini hers. In the room we shared, the mantras and ayats were recited together. I imagine they mingled and went up straight to where such devotions of the heart go.
The last 5 days, since May 23 2019, have witnessed violence against Muslims and Dalits on an unprecedented scale. The next five days may throw up other such incidents. In the quiet of our Iftar we felt the pain of the victims of lathis and abuses. We also felt lost in the India that was unfolding before us.
There is a strange resonance between Padma’s father who called all his non-Hindu guests Supradeek and Allama Iqbal who called Bhagwan Ram Imam e Hind. The word we all had learnt early in life was ‘ittefaq’ conciliation. In the words of Maulana Hali
Quom hai ittefaq se abaad/ Mulk hai ittefaq se azaad
Iftar ended, I drove home with a core of warmth in my heart which refused to go away despite… despite. Our lifelong bond signalled hope in these days of hopelessness.