Earlier this week, several Indian intellectuals and feminists paid homage to Savitribai Phule on her 185th birth anniversary. The contribution of the social reformist towards women’s rights, especially in the field of education, is now being recognised. However, Fatima Sheikh continues to be an elusive figure in Indian history. A diary introduced by Parcham Collective — a voluntary group in Mumbra in Thane district — celebrates Sheikh and several other pioneering Muslim women, who have contributed to society but have remained largely unacknowledged.
“In a political environment when the minorities in India, especially the Muslims, are having to prove their allegiance to the country, we hope this diary will reiterate that we aren’t the ‘other’,” says Sabah Khan, one of the co-founders of Parcham Collective, which attempts to break stereotypes based on religion, class, caste and gender. Active since 2012, they have been working with girls and have been successful in using football among adolescents to reclaim public space for the feminine gender and also bridge the gap between Hindus and the dominant Muslim population of Mumbra.
In the diary, Sheikh, a 2016 organiser, is the first Muslim woman, among six. Savitribai’s classmate from college, she not only taught at her school but also gave the Phule couple shelter when they were ostracised by the society for their work. The other women include Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932), Nazar Sajjad Hyder (1894-1967) and Rashid Jahan (1905-1952), among others. Their stories appear with illustrations and act as separators between the diary pages.
The idea of a diary, says Khan, came up earlier in 2015 during a discussion on Muslim women and their contribution to society. “At a time when education of the Muslim girl child is an issue and girls often drop out of school in Mumbra, we wanted to highlight women as role models who would inspire people,” says Khan.
The Parcham Collective team had been trying to unearth names and information of such women for a long time; the information had been tough to come by. It took them three months of research, tapping feminists such as Uma Chakravarti, and the names started to come up.
So there is Rashid Khan, a gynaecologist and writer, who was an inspiration to writers such as Premchand, Ismat Chughtai and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. A member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Rashid spoke about the oppression Muslim women faced everyday. As for Begum Qudsia Aizaz Rasul (1908-2001), few are aware that the Indian Women’s Hockey Cup is named after her. A politician from a privileged family, her key contributions include fighting for the abolition of the zamindari system and encouraging sports among women.
This is their first diary, but Parcham Collective wants to make it an annual project, using it to talk about subaltern women. They hope to dedicate the 2017 diary to Muslim women across the world in the arena of sports. “While the diary has been welcomed by feminists, we believe the real success of the project will be if common people purchase it and gain from it,” says Khan. Buyers can visit Parcham Collective’s Facebook page and place an order for the diary.