Translated by J Devika
[This is an earlier version of the translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, published by Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, refer the book]
Haleema Beevi (1920-2000) was born in Adoor in Tiruvitamkoor. She and her sister were sent to school, quite against the normal practice for Muslim girls, and she studied up to the fifth class, braving stone throwing hooligans and other such deterrents. Married at the age of sixteen, she was encouraged in her public activities by her husband, who was close to prominent Muslim reformers of the time like Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulavi. She ran a magazine for women, the Muslim Vanita in the late 1930s, which later appeared under the name Vanita. In the 1940s, she started another publication, the Bharatachandrika, which was quite successful as a weekly, but ran into serious financial problems when it was converted into a daily. She left journalism in 1947, to make a brief attempt again in 1970, with a magazine titled Adhunika Vanita, which, however, proved unsuccessful. She ran a press at Tiruvalla, and during the period of persecution under Dewan C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer’s dictatorial regime, she learnt printing, composing and binding to print leaflets and other material for the protesters. She was a member of the Municipal Board of Tiruvalla, the first Muslim woman to become a Municipal Councillor, the president of the Tiruvalla Muslim Women’s Association, and an active member of the Muslim Majlis. Interest in her life and work has finally grown stronger with a new generation of young Muslim women in Kerala taking an active interest in gender identity and the possibilities in the faith for gender equality. A new biography of her is forthcoming.
Photo: Haleema Beevi
Courtesy: Noorjahan and Noora.
(Welcome speech at Muslim Women’s Conference of the Tiruvitamkoor Muslim Women’s Association, Tiruvalla, 15 Edavam (May-June) 1938. Muslim Vanita 1(4) M. E. 1113 Mithunam (June-July 1937-38): 103-7)
Peace be upon you!
Today, we have here the prospect of experiencing the blessed beauty of a unique beatitude, of the priceless bonds of sisterhood. That we, who have been consigned to the depths of ignorance, who have been subsumed, immobilised, under the waves of darkness in the kitchen of unfreedom, who are not free to move out of inner-quarters, or reflect on the various strands of opinion, who live lives as slaves of the worst sort, have been able to organise a conference like this, that is precisely the essence of that great beauty.
It is a terrible realisation for us that if histories sought to describe groups of people who have not even been touched by civilisation in this 20th century, in which enlightenment has reached its zenith, the first place would be occupied by Muslim women. Few words will suffice to show that the demoniac age of decline has left us most degraded, when we see that we are unable to step into a moral path of life for the good of one’s nation, one’s community and one’s own siblings.
How can a community become cultured, when women – yes — women, who are the very source and essence of all the advancements of the world, have become shallow and insignificant, and bear the ill fame of being weak? The nation is not for man alone. Woman has the right to share equally in all the duties that fall upon Man as an individual; this can never be obscured. Sacred Islam does not bar our freedom, refinement or education. Born in a time when the world had acquiesced to opinions such as “women do not have souls; no freedom; no hope of salvation; no rights in the family” etc., in a country in which the birth of a female infant was such ignominy to the family that it was buried alive, what did Rasool Kareem (may his name be honoured) do?
How did the Blessed One save womankind, which had been treated worse than domestic animals? Women are men’s sisters. The fruit of goodness and badness in both are the same. They too have souls. How marvellous were the changes wrought in the world by such worthy teachings! Today, there are few communities that have esteemed womankind, as has Sacred Islam. Rasool Karim’s declaration that heaven lies at the feet of one’s mother does us proud. When this is the reality, how pathetic is our present condition! In a community in which women languish behind the bars of unfreedom, men can never enjoy the beautiful fruits of their labours. If the world– which ought to become ever more resplendent with the radiance of the intellects of future citizens– must remain in obeisance of young people and infants fit only to be burdens upon the face of the earth, it will naturally become wan and dull.
You cannot afford to forget the fact that ‘the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world’. If we are to have erudite and cultured citizens, then those qualities must be dissolved in the very breast-milk that they are fed. Surely, it is mothers who must raise them up to be citizens. When we see that the truth is that no other women are under such bondage as are women of our community, we feel ashamed about the culture of the Muslims. We should not allow ourselves to subsist on others’ labours any more, our womanliness devastated, and remain in chains, restricted, to disfigure our community and our brothers. It is but the truth that a woman can work much more effectively for the betterment of the community, than a man can. Our brothers may take very long to grasp this truth. When we come forward with unblemished ideals and competence in activity, they will honour us, strewing flowers in our path.
These sorts of thoughts now arise in us precisely because many of us, for whom the knowledge of letters was considered forbidden and criminal, have now attained education. It is a relief that today, the misunderstanding that education will lead women astray has largely waned. Education has helped us to expand our ideas, express our opinions, and pronounce them. I do not forget that the large-heartedness inherent in the great power of education is what has brought together all of us, who have never before stepped out, to take part in this assembly, braving fear and shame. As an enlightened group, our worthy plans of action cannot be realised by merely attending schools. We have the right to make explicit our needs and our rights. Never forget that if Man struggles to bear the burden of life, Woman is bound to bear the burden of the family. For all of Man’s labours to culminate in success, women’s sympathetic blessings are necessary. What are we to do in our lives? How may we attain (those goals)? We have several sisters who are blessed with learning and purity of ideals. It is essential that we must make the opportunity to interact closely with them, and emulate them. There is no other event that would fulfil this need better than a conference. I would like to humbly state that I have come forward to organise this conference to bolster the sense of self-respect that we, who have been suffering since long, and are depressed in many ways, ought to possess.
I do feel that the profound desire to form an All-Tiruvitamkoor Muslim Women’s Association is rather too much. But as far as we are concerned, it is imperative. Iam not sure that very many will come forward to support such a venture, even we scour the whole of Tiruvitamkoor. It is also quite difficult to bring them all together in practical terms. However, a common organisation has become necessary for us. I would plead that women’s associations must be formed in every taluk, every kara (a local geographical sub-division). Our goal will be fulfilled if we have one sensible sister working in each area.
Conjoining such unions, it will not be difficult to organise an All-Tiruvitamkoor, or even a National Conference, without much effort. Without such an association, it will be difficult to disclose the worthiness of the Muslim women of Tiruvitamkoor. I do believe that the sisters gathered here today will not forget that their highest duty is to form associations in their localities, to refine the minds of their sisters.
Honourable sisters, as the major event in the formation of this association, I request you to never to show reluctance in sending our little girls, who are the crowning jewels of the family, to schools. Our truthful religion and our blessed Rasool Kareem (May his name be honoured) have never regarded women as a lower race. The first Divine Message received by our Prophet bears witness to this. Do contemplate on the mystery of the injunction in the Sacred Quran, “ to read in the name of your God, who has taught you to write with a pen”.
The major path in education is learning to read and write. Remember the Prophet’s words about the duties of a father:“ teach the child to write; give it a good name; conduct its marriage at the right age”. It is clear from all this that religion has not barred education. Our association is not merely for education alone. Familiarising our girls with hygiene, childcare, domestic management and literary pursuits for spiritual pleasure and self-refinement, petitioning the government about our depressed condition in education and employment and other such things figure among our goals. It is true that only the infant who cries aloud is put to the breast. However, these are times, when there seems be no time to feed even if one cries. We will get nothing unless we cry incessantly, and secure our needs by demanding them. The government, being engrossed in many things, cannot be expected to give us special consideration. All of us who have passed exams must put in applications for jobs. I do not intend to put forth a plan for representation, or claim. Our country shines from the rising of our blood too. It is also our duty to serve it. We too must pray for, work for, the welfare of our Maharajah. It is a great honour for us to accept employment in our country. I argue that we women must take up employment to foster our sense of self-respect. The government must also make some special arrangements for us. Our well-beloved Maharajah, who is great and noble, his minister, who is ever vigilant of the well-being of the country and other lovers of the country, will only be happy about it. For the time being, the government will have to regard our willingness and capability to be the equivalent of certificates and degrees.
Since there is not even the glimmer of a general awakening amongst Muslim women in this country, the onus of generating patriotism and loyalty is upon enlightened sisters. We are in urgent need of an association the activities of which will be so vital that the community will be aglow in the radiance of the compassion that teems in each of us, and of the bonds of our sisterhood. You have assembled here today in full recognition of this fact, shattering the strong walls of orthodoxy, walking fearlessly through the avenues of convention, wearing the crown of thorns of sacrifice. This sister of yours is powerless to express the gratitude that rises up for you from the very bottom of her heart, yet even as I admit this, I extend a hearty welcome to all of you.