Sehzi was busy with chores that fateful afternoon last October when she received a phone call from her husband that changed her world forever. “Azeem’s father called to tell me that our son has got hurt. Later, I got to know that he is not alive. He was gone,” says Sehzi as she breaks down. Since the death of her eight-year-old son, she has been mostly bedridden and inconsolable.
Sehzi lives in Rithat village of Haryana’s Nuh district. Though just 57 km from the industrial and cyber hub of Gurugram, Nuh was declared the ‘most backward district of India’ by Niti Aayog last year. Also, in recent years, the Muslim-dominated district has seen most deaths on account of mob lynchings. Rakbar Khan, Junaid Khan and Pehlu Khan were all from Nuh.
Like them, Azeem also became a victim of mob lynching. He was studying at a madrasa in Delhi’s Begumpur area when a group of older boys from the nearby Valmiki Colony came and beat him up. “I was told he will study well there,” says Sehzi, adding her two other sons also study in the same madrasa.
However, after this incident, she has decided to bring them back. Asked if she blames the present government for her son’s death, Sehzi just says the police have been an accomplice. “Police have been paid. They advise the boys to not be at home through the day and come only in the night,” she says.
In the months preceding the upcoming general elections, women in Nuh have very little to say about the state of governance or how it affects them. They express their grievances in very few words, but they are all sure to vote, if not for their own sake, then for the sake of their men.
The issues that plague her
In April 2017, a video showing Pehlu Khan being beaten to death by a group of cow vigilantes went viral. Khan’s wife Jaibhuna, who was at her home in Jaisinghpur village at that time, came to know of her husband’s killing when one of her neighbours showed her the video on WhatsApp. Khan, a dairy farmer, was on his way to Alwar with his cows when he was attacked. Interestingly, Khan like most other Muslims in Nuh who are identified as Meo, have a special relationship with the cow, an animal on which they are dependent to a large extent for their livelihood.
“We rear cows, they provide us with milk. That is how we make a livelihood,” says Jaibhuna, adding that cows are not only cheaper in comparison to buffaloes, but also give more milk. After the death of her husband, however, Jaibhuna has not made any attempt to keep a cow or even a buffalo. “If it happened with him, it can happen with me also,” she says.
“We are not happy with the BJP government. So many cases have happened, Junaid, my husband, Rakbar Khan all have been killed,” she says.
Asked how these incidents have affected the women of the region, she says, “Not once did anyone approach me to ask what happened. The government did not even try to find out how all this happened.”
But the issue of the cow and the accompanying losses – of their men and livelihood – is just one of the several problems that women here face. Rising costs of commodities, water shortage, problems of electricity, poverty and lack of proper infrastructure are the other sources of hardships for them. “The new government should make proper roads for us,” says Islami of Punhana village as her son prompts her to say that “everything has become so expensive”.
Sairah from Punhana says “water and electricity are major issues” and the “government is not doing anything”. “If things are so expensive then women have to suffer,” says 25-year-old Shabnam who lives in Jaisinghpur village.
Significantly, asked if the Supreme Court banning triple talaq is a favourable decision, the women were blank and expressed ignorance about the issue. “Triple talaq is an issue that the government has raised to distract people. Triple talaq is not an issue here at all. Perhaps you will find one or two among thousands who have faced this problem,” says Abid Hussain who is a teacher and social activist.
“If we are to speak of Muslim women then there are other issues as well. Pehlu Khan’s wife has lost her husband in mob lynching. So the court should examine that case properly as well,” says social activist Mohammad Qasim.
How she votes
Thirty-year-old Samina of Punhana village votes in every election and is sure to vote in the upcoming one as well. Asked what her expectations are from whoever comes to power, she says, “Kuch achha kar de.” “My husband or some other member of the house tells me which symbol to press in the machine and I put my vote accordingly,” she says.
In the staunchly patriarchal socio-economic landscape of Nuh, it is hard to come across a single woman who will not exercise her franchise. Statistics from the Election Commission show that in the 2014 Assembly elections in Haryana, approximately 80 per cent of women electors in Nuh had cast their vote. Despite the high percentage of voter turnout among women in Nuh, it is hard to say if her voice is being heard at all. Almost always it is the male head of the family who decides and directs the women on her vote.
“Last time during voting I was sick. Azeem’s abba took me to the booth and spoke to the police. He told them that I was sick and he pressed the button on my behalf,” says Sehzi. “I will do as Azeem’s abba asks me to do,” she adds.
“It is not as if women are pressured to vote in any way. They vote out of choice. However, it is a fact that they generally vote the way their family or the male head of the family decides,” says Qasim. “Since this region is so backward, women are not yet aware of issues that affect them,” he adds.
“This is a patriarchal society. Most women vote follow their husband or the male guardian. However, there are some women who think and vote independently,” says 25-year-old Muhammad Shoaib, a college student.
Among the various pointers of backwardness in Nuh, illiteracy is perhaps the most determining factor. As per Niti Aayog’s survey, only 23.3 per cent of the female population in Nuh were literate as of 2015. While women are aware of the problem of illiteracy in the area, men agree that one of the biggest factors contributing to lack of decision-making among women is the absence of adequate education.
Shahida, a 17-year-old in Rithat village, has studied till Class V. While she has not yet reached the voting age, she is already married and mother of a two-year-old. Asked if she wants to vote after turning 18, she stays quiet for a while before saying, “jaise bhi kahenge waise kar dungi. Apne vaste nahi karungi (I will do as I am told, will not vote for my own sake.).”