When Tasmida was six, she never thought she would be the first Rohingya girl in India to appear for Class X board exams. “In Myanmar, Rohingyas are not allowed to study beyond class 10. Authorities withhold class 10 results for us. Government or private jobs are out of question,” she says.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon termed Rohingyas as ‘the world’s most persecuted minority,’. These stateless Muslims may constitute up to seven per cent of the total Burmese population – 60 million. The Myanmar government continues to deny Rohingyas any legal status or rights, insisting that they are ‘Bengalis’ illegally living in Myanmar. Bangladesh also refuses to claim them. So far, an estimated 1,40,000 Rohingyas have been displaced from Myanmar. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, there are around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living as refugees in various parts of India.
Tasmida’s family fled Myanmar in 2002 when one of the earliest bouts of state-sponsored persecution hit Rohingya Muslims. Tasmida’s father was imprisoned for about half a year and his boats and papers were confiscated for selling groceries and fish in the neighbouring villages of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. On her father’s release, the family fled to Bangladesh and made a life living in disguise in a town called Cox’s Bazaar for eight years. It is in a local government school here that she completed her early education, topping her class annually.
In 2012, a fresh bout of anti-Rohingya violence sent hundreds of Rohingya Muslims pouring into Bangladesh for refuge. This influx got the Bangladesh government cracking down on refugees, raiding homes and jailing those found to be Rohingyas. Many refugees are still in jail without legal representation. Tasmida’s family, thus, became double refugees, twice displaced – by Myanmar and Bangladesh. Her family then took a train to Delhi via Kolkata and sought refuge along with 50 other families in a ghetto in Southeast Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj.
Tasmida studied for a few years in a study centre at Kanchan Kunj. When she insisted on attending junior school at the Bosco Refugee Assistance Project in Jangpura, her family disapproved. “In our culture, women do not venture out. My father and I objected to my sister’s wishes,” says Mohammad Salim, Tasmida’s 32-year-old elder brother, who lives with her. It was her other brother Ali Johar, a 24-year-old college student and an activist promoting women’s education among Rohingyas in India, who supported Tasmida and convinced family elders that it is important for “their women to educate themselves inorder to survive in the outside world.”
The family’s reluctance to sending her out alone turned a blessing in disguise for other girls. To accompany her, three more girls from the camp were enrolled in her school. Now, at least 14 Rohingya children, from various camps in Delhi, study at the open school programme called the National Institute of Open Schooling.
Like Tasmida, several women within the camp have started expressing a desire to learn, which appears to be their only ticket to the outside world as well as to gain financial independence.
Though the men earn roughly Rs 350 a day – making money off driving or working as labourers at construction sites, most women in the camp still do not step out to work. They, however, strongly feel the need to work because of the abject poverty that is slowly engulfing them. “Back home, a working member could feed a family of eight but here the earnings do not even suffice for a family of three,” says Tasmida.
A number of them have been relying on hour-long Hindi tuition classes, thrice a week, arranged for by the UNHCR because they have very little contact with the cityscape unlike men at work and children at school.
Ali Johar, who heads the Rohingya Refugee Committee (Delhi) under the UNHCR says, “Rohingya women are hard working but they are used to working as agricultural workers in Myanmar. In Delhi’s urban set up, they have not been able to find the same kind of work opportunities. And the language barrier is also a problem.”
Mizan, 14, who studies in class nine and was one of the three to step out with Tasmida, has inspired her 35-year-old mother, Taslima, to take up literacy classes too. As she scrubs clean a mosquito net by a hand pump, she says she will venture out to work when she masters Hindi like her daughter. “My Hindi is a little weak, I’m taking time picking the language. I don’t feel confident enough to go out into the city and interact. There are no factories nearby and I do not know the roads either,”she says, as she scolds seven-year-old Musana who is crooning the Hindi Bollywood number ‘Achha chalta hun’.
Of late, a number of Rohingya women have taken up small jobs to earn a living. Four women have joined as sanitation workers in a nearby madrassa at a monthly salary of Rs 5,000. Another four have started working as ragpickers and at least five women, including Tasmida’s mother, Amina, run grocery shops along with their husbands.
“Everything we do has to have a maqsad (goal),” concedes Salim, whose wife Fatima Khatoon runs their provisions shop in the evenings, resting Salim for the second half of the day. Members of the community, especially men, objected to Fatima operating the business. Salim, however, says that they did not pay heed because they were doing that to secure their childrens’ future.
The anonymity of these women in the big city has also helped loosen the ties of cultural norms like the hijab. “In Myanmar, all of us had to sport the hijab. Many women don’t wear it here anymore. It’s their choice,” says Sofia, Musana’s middle-aged mother.
Seeking to better their skills, eight women in the ghetto took a two-month sewing course offered by the UN last year. They earn Rs 200 for each finished piece of handbag and wall hanging that they make. Tasmida alone earned Rs 8000 over three months.
Tasmida is now 19. Her face lights up as she dons a sequined hijab and a brick-red head scarf, as she steps out of her one room shack. It is mounted on pillars to raise it above ground-level just like their house structure in Myanmar. “I want to be a doctor because no doctor tended to the Rohingyas back home… I will not get married till I become a doctor,” she says, something unthinkable in a community that is known to marry off their girls at a young age.
This shift towards education and financial independence for women could also be attributed to the fishing community being reduced to fragmented groups of poor slum dwellers in foreign lands, a significant move towards cultural assimilation as also changing conventions for survival.
“If we were educated back there (Myanmar), we could have raised our voices against the atrocities meted to us,” Taslima says, as her daughter Mizan readies herself to follow Tasmida’s footsteps. “Education is most important for the community at the moment.”
Tasmida awaits her board exam results on June 9. This is one of the few freedoms life as a refugee Rohingya women in Delhi awards.
#GenderAnd — Rethinking how we cover gender in mainstream media. Click here to read about our new series. You can also help us find more such stories using #GenderAnd in your conversations. The story was first published on June 1.