You don’t need to be physically strong to fight for the cause of women. All you need is to raise your voice to stop atrocities against women, says Nargis Bahaar who has been fighting for the rights of women since 1998. She has resolved at least 3,000 domestic violence cases apart from rescuing girls from being trafficked. She has been waging a battle on multiple fronts.
Nargis believes that the mindset of the people towards the girl child is yet to change even as the world has seen a lot of changes in terms of scientific inventions and technological advancement. Issues like rape, domestic violence, killing of female foetus and bride burning are what made her take up the cause of women, she adds.
Born in a Muslim household, it was not easy for Nargis to fight for the rights of women. Recalling the initial days of her journey, she says, “It was extremely difficult for me to fight for women who were tortured by their in-laws and husbands. However, an incident in 1998 forced me to raise my voice. A woman named Malati (name changed), a neighbour, had been tortured by her in-laws for no reason. On the fateful day in 1998, her in-laws beat her up badly for cooking more curry than was required. The assault caused her death. The day before her death I had talked to her. She told me how she was beaten by the in-laws in her husband’s absence. Shocked at her death, I reached her place instantly. I was even more shocked to see her in-laws trying to bury the body. I called a few other women of our locality and informed the police about the incident. When Malati’s in-laws said she died due to snakebite, I told the police the truth. I also staged a sit-in in front of the police station as I sensed that the matter was being covered up. I demanded that the police search for injury marks on Malati’s body. Left with no option, the police investigated the matter and confirmed that she was beaten to death by her in-laws. Since that day, I have been doing my bit for women facing abuse besides taking up other causes.”
In another incident, Nargis rescued a Class IX girl from being trafficked by a Bangladeshi man. The man was all set to fly to his country after buying the schoolgirl from her parents for Rs 20,000. Nargis lodged a complaint with the police demanding the man’s arrest. However, the police let him go allegedly taking a bribe from him. Nargis gheraoed the police station with the help of other women forcing the police to arrest the man. Similarly, she helped the police arrest a man accused of polygamy. “Though he was married and had a child with his first wife, the man got married again and settled in America. After his wife informed me about it, I helped her to file a complaint against him. Later, he was arrested and forced to give alimony to his wife. There are several instances when I rescued women from being sold and trafficked by middlemen,” she says.
Nargis has also spearheaded an anti-liquor campaign in nearby villages. Inspired by her, a group of women ran several campaigns against the brewing and sale of liquor. They mobilised women from the villages and held meetings. They picketed country liquor shops to stop sales. “Many times, we were resisted by tipsy men, but we went ahead with our mission. We formed an organisation and managed to close down all toddy shops,” Nargis says.
Nargis has been instrumental in forming 50 self-help groups (SHG) to empower women. She says, “It has always been a challenge for rural women to become a part of the decision-making exercise. In general, women’s empowerment is always considered a challenge to men’s traditional power and rights over women. This situation is much more acute among the weaker and marginalised sections. That’s why I formed the Bohu Maa Mahila Samiti to inculcate the habit of savings and establishing credit discipline among rural women and to organise poor rural women into groups. It aims to build their capital through regular savings and enable access to loans. In this way, these poor women can achieve social and economic security. The SHGs’ members make agarbati and cultivate mushrooms among other things. I treat them as my family members. Whenever they are in trouble, they seek my suggestions to resolve issues.”
Nargis has been felicitated by the vigilance department for unearthing misappropriation of funds to the tune of Rs 6 crore used in ‘sattu’ making. The state government had asked a few SHGs to prepare ‘sattu’ to distribute among pregnant women and children. After finding that low quality ‘sattu’ was being distributed among the beneficiaries, Nargis filed a complaint with the district collector. She also learnt that many fake beneficiaries were enrolled. After her complaint was found to have substance, the Child Development Project Officer was suspended for dereliction of duty.
Recollecting another incident, Nargis says, “A girl from my village was married to a mentally retarded boy who was settled in Madhya Pradesh. The boy’s condition was not revealed by his parents during the marriage. His father tried to start an illicit relationship with the girl. When he failed, he along with some acquaintances tried to kill her by making her drink medicine before dumping her on the railway tracks. However, the girl survived and contacted her family members after regaining consciousness. I filed a complaint with the Kakatpur police following which her father-in-law was arrested. He was later released after he gave Rs 5 lakh and land to the victim. I later solemnised her marriage again and she is now leading a happy life.”
“All I want to say is that to be born a girl in a male dominated society can be the worst thing. From the day a baby girl is born, she starts facing discrimination from a male-dominated society till her death. Besides, why does society not treat a daughter and daughter-in-law equally? A daughter-in-law is expected to wake up early and go to bed late in the night. She is expected to do all household chores despite being an employed person. When we stop distinguishing between daughters and daughters-in-law, atrocities and crime against women will come down automatically. I have been jailed many times for fighting for the cause of women. A few unscrupulous elements tried to kidnap my son Manwar Ali. However, they kidnapped Ali’s friend mistaking him for my son,” says Nargis, who credits her success to her husband and children.
RASHMI REKHA DAS, OP