Impact Story

Women in Varanasi Take Charge of their Own Future

Shabnam Begum is challenging patriarchy by helping women from a conservative society push boundaries and claim their right to study, work and to be treated as equal members of society.

The idea that her brothers were allowed to go to school but that she had to stay at home, was Shabnam Begum’s first major brush with inequality. Since that first rebellion, insisting on finishing school, Shabnam has fought for the rights of women just like her. In Uttar Pradesh, a state notorious for treating women as second-rate citizens, Shabnam’s efforts have resulted in women getting rights like clean toilets, drinking water, health care and even property.  

Shabnam was one of 63 Correspondents who joined Khel Badal, VV’s campaign to dismantle patriarchy. The campaign uses community videos to start introspective conversations in communities to detect how patriarchy operates and to then challenge it. Shabnam captured the dynamics of relationships between husbands and wives. The fact that the male subject of her video play-slaps his visibly pregnant wife sparked debates on patriarchy at every discussion club it was screened at across India. It made women and men think about the transgressions of male authority that society has normalised.

Shabnam’s work in the area has earned her a tremendous amount of respect. Other women, want to be like Shabnam – confident, mobile, control their own lives. Attending discussion clubs in the village have brought the women closer to this dream.

“Women, who earlier kept their daughters locked up at home because of the fear of censure, asked me to help them enrol the girls in college again. A few older girls started computer classes while they waited for college to start.  Because of these classes one girl now has a job in Himachal Pradesh and another one in the neighbouring city of Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad). They have started to understand the long-term value of education. They realise that enabling their daughters gives them the chance to work and therefore long-term security.” she explains.

There victory is even more personal for Shabnam as she has overcome tremendous obstacles while finishing her own education. She was pulled out of school in the 8th grade when her mother thought that there was no point in her studying because ultimately Shabnam would be doing housework in another family's home. But Shabnam's father was supportive, and she made it to an undergraduate course. She stood her ground, insisted on studying even after getting married, and despite pressure from in-laws she finished the course. She was unable to pursue her dream of joining the Indian Administrative Services and dropped out after her first child was born. "I wanted to be really good at it but then I gave up; I couldn’t handle the pressure of being a mother and studying," says Shabnam.

She decided to become a teacher instead, and while working with the Sahbhagi Shiksha Kendra she found her calling as a Community Correspondent with VV in 2013. Her family initially balked at the idea of a woman from their family becoming a journalist. It took recognition from other communities about the value of Shabnam’s work for the family to take her seriously.

In Varanasi’s Udaipur village too, the sense of change in the women’s outlook is palpable. The girls have started taking action to resolve their own problems as well as those of others. For example, a widow in the neighbouring village was being taunted for working and earning. When she stopped, many women from Shabnam's discussion club motivated her to carry on working.

“The women seem to have also started conversations with men in the family, and therefore playing a bigger role in making decisions. Similarly, they are starting to treat their daughters-in-law as equals,” she says.

On the other hand Shabnam points out that while many women want to study, the practicalities make it impossible. In Varanasi she says that primary and middle schools are easily accessible but high schools and colleges are about 15-20 km away. Shabnam's own college was 30 km away, and it meant that she often had to skip college. “The idea that only educated people can achieve something with their lives is changing,” she says. Women who haven’t had a chance to study, have also started working in small-scale factories in the area. Some, who had received sewing machines from a well-wisher, have started a training centre for other women, and hold free classes.

“Seeing such change gives me hope that in the near future, girls and women will rise up and will be equal stakeholders in every aspect of life,” says Shabnam.

Article by Kayonaaz Kalyanwala

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