MUMBAI: It’s a powerful film, ‘Tiryaaq’, which literally means an antidote. It’s a narrative that is meant to reach out to regular people and the patriarchal powers of polity, clergy and family with the intention of not just unravelling the insidious functioning of caste patriarchy and religious fundamentalism but also training the spotlight on the lives and struggles of countless Muslim women who are confined within the contours of ‘nation’, ‘community’ and ‘family’.

Conceptualised by activist and Ashoka Fellow Hasina Khan, this is a story told by grassroots Muslim women associated with Bebaak Collective, a group of 15 organisations that work in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, among other states, and engage on issues like education, violence, communalism, employability, rehabilitation, advocacy and health.

“Over a period of three years, we held sustained interactions with members of these organisations. We talked about the work being done with women, shared experiences, discussed ways in which we could build a collective perspective and strategised for enhancing networking and campaigning capabilities,” reveals Khan. The film has emerged from these engagements and is an honest attempt “to bring to the fore, the personal and political journeys of Muslim women and the inter-linkages between the two”.

The women candidly share on camera their life stories with the viewers – talking about how they managed to redefine their family structures, their relationships, the community dynamics, and most importantly, their identities. Simultaneously, the film also uncovers women’s interactions with the State and the repercussions of its repressive politics.

Talking about the purpose behind making the film, Khan says, “Within the women’s movement, the voices of women from the minority and marginalised groups have remained subordinated. This has been particularly true of Muslim women who have been stereotyped in popular imagination. Even the issues that are discussed are largely a reaction to some incident or event like the issuing of a fatwa or the pronouncement of the triple talaq. So the film is an endeavour to project the independent voice of Muslim women who do not belong to upper class and /or urban backgrounds; women who have participated and broadened the horizons of women’s movement.”

Activists from different organisations under the Bebaak Collective take turns to flag some of the key concerns that the women of their community face, which also find space in the film in some way or another. Khairun Nishad of the Ahmedabad-based Parvaaz points out that reforming the personal laws must be a priority because it’s necessary to achieve gender justice. She says, “We have anyway been encountering bias and resistance from within the family and outside. In fact, considering the socio-political climate prevalent these days, now more than ever Muslim woman are at risk of being targeted. Bettering the laws will definitely strengthen their position.”

Reshma from Sahiyar, a Vadodara organisation, vociferously states, “We have three demands – we want social security, our citizenship rights and equality under the law. The implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee in all the states will make a difference. Systemic apathy has really made things hard for the Muslim population. In slums across Gujarat, they are routinely targeted although it may not be as bad as 2002. Destruction of property, too, is not uncommon. Moreover, civic amenities are virtually non existent or in a shambles in most Muslim localities. When it comes to women’s interactions with the authorities, the lesser said the better. Even filing an FIR in case of a domestic dispute is not easy.”

For Azma Aziz of Muhim, which works with Muslim girls and school dropouts in Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh, advocating for better educational opportunities for young girls is quite obviously foremost on her agenda. As do Shadaab Jahaan of Astitva in Saharanpur as well as Nazma Iqbal of Pehchan Samajik Sanstha in Uttarakhand. These committed activists are convinced that education, employment and mobility are crucial to Muslim women realising their true potential.

‘Tiryaaq’, in a sense, gives an outlet to all these “aspirations”. At the same time, it transforms into a platform where the women openly reflect on the problems that afflict their everyday lives – be it the lack of basic facilities, especially in terms of proper schools, Primary Health Centres (PHCs), ration shops and Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) centres in Muslim neighbhourhoods in cities and the rural hamlets, or the social discrimination they are routinely subjected to.

In the film, 12-year-old Rehnuma, who lives in Farrukhabad, which is a mere four kilometers from the high-profile Gandhi constituency of Amethi, relates a chilling tale of discrimination. At a local school in the city, which has an 80 per cent Muslim population, children like her, she says, are treated as “dirty people”. “Our mid-day meal is thrown into our plate from a ‘safe’ distance by the cook, who is a non-Muslim. Even the teacher flings our books at us and teaches from far,” she reveals, questioning innocently, “Hum ko chhoote kyon nahi hain? Kyon kehte hain ki Muslim gande hote hain (Why don’t they come close to us? Why do they say that Muslims are dirty?)”

Apart from accounts of rabid prejudices, there are also anecdotes about empowerment. One such comes from Abida, a woman hailing from Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s state capital. She recalls the time when she couldn’t even imagine stepping out of her home without the ‘burqa’ (veil). Then she linked up with a women’s organisation where she gained awareness regarding her rights and realised the value of freedom. Once she made up her mind to do away with ‘burqa’ she got down to the tough task of convincing her conservative family members. It took some time but Abida has successfully given up the veil.

Insightful, poignant, informative and enthusing, ‘Tiryaaq’ is all this and more. And it has become an inspiring narrative thanks to the work that Khan and the Bebaak Collective have put in. Shikha Pandey, a post-graduate Social Communications Media diploma holder and the editor of the film, says, “We shot the film with 10 organisations working in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. At the end of the entire schedule we had one terabyte of raw footage to work with, which included individual stories, accounts about the formation of the collectives/organisations, as well as focus group discussions that had been conducted between community members and field workers. Each conversation raised different issues stemming from their work and the immediate socio-political environment.”

When she started editing the footage Pandey reveals that she consciously tried to keep a few things in mind, “The idea was to highlight the immediate concerns of the women while keeping in mind the larger picture - the long-term struggles of the community. Besides, we wanted to see if we could establish parallels across geography and chronology from the narratives.”

Who has been credited with directing this film? According to Pandey, it’s a group effort. She elaborates, “Everyone concerned with the project has brought pieces of themselves and their politics to it. Basically, the director is one whose vision drives the team to achieve the final goal, but when the vision is collective and is the product of team effort then such a credit terminology is pretty redundant. As far as the ownership of the film is concerned, it belongs to all the groups that are part of Bebaak Collective; it belongs to each woman who has shared her struggles and her dreams.” Incidentally, ‘Tiryaaq’ has an element of animation as well, which has been used to “connect the dots between the various themes and opinions”.

Jahaan and Iqbal conclude, “‘Tiryaaq’ is our way of reaching out to people and enabling them to take a closer look at the world of Muslim women. There is a great need to deliberate on our lived realities, and this is our first step.”

(Women's Feature Service)