Seeking Haleema Beevi : Noorjahan and Noora

Translated by J Devika

[These are excerpts from a forthcoming biography of M Haleema Beevi, by Noorjahan and Noora, M Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitam, Bookafe Publications]

Diary notes


Realising that retrieving those erased from history is extremely strenuous. We are finding that in our journey in search of Haleema Beevi, paths close frequently, or they simply disappear. Today’s trip to Thiruvalla showed us that a person who was once very prominent and relevant to a place may be completely erased from the  history of a place. Haleema Beevi lived there between 1935 and 1946. She was a Municipal Councillor there between 1938 and 1945. We went to the Municipality with a lot of hope thinking that we would obtain information for sure about the first woman Municipal Councillor. We were left deeply disappointed. They had never heard of anyone like that. The Muncipal Secretary looked astonished. Two people who weren’t academics, seeking after a woman long dead. The Secretary tried to help but there was nothing about her in their records, and nothing from those times, either. We tried at the Municipal Library, the presses, prominent locals, older people —  they all replied that they knew nothing of such a woman. That is, Haleema Beevi was not present in the history of Thiruvalla!

That was a journey which brought disappointment and disappointing realizations. One that made us think of how an individual could be wiped off the memory of a place. About social death. People live on in social memory after their bodies die. In places that they worked, lived, intervened, through people and practices as a silent presence, as stories, inspirations, feelings, they live for some more. That life is a real one… the death happens very gradually ….Amal describes this book as a reviving. That is appropriate. To revive a dead person back to history, to people. To make her relevant again. This task of immense responsibility is at once joyful and worrisome …” (pp. 4-5)

“Usually, it is when someone refuses to be confined to life’s straight lines and instead moves above and across them that they become social activists. A woman willing to sweat for society outside her family and close circles comes holding a lamp for all. Her path is lined with stones and thorns and sharp arrows. Haleema Beevi’s life, too, was not different. She who tried to bring light to the society, the community, and women had to tread on a carpet of challenges in life. She fell often. But her life in which she always tried to pick herself up and soldier on is a text-book illustration for anyone who is socially committed.

The answer to the question who Haleema Beevi was would be publisher, journalist. But both these were merely powerful instruments in the hands of the social activist in her. The social worker in her used the paths of the publisher and the journalist. Instruments in the hands of a woman who strength came from women’s public meetings, talks, political activism, and field work.

Both her natural inclinations and the social circumstances worked alike in shaping her as a social activist. One may see a Haleema Beevi who challenged the establishment from her youngest age.

There is an incident that Haleema Beevi mentions in an article of hers. A religious scholar once organized a series of discourses in this area [Travancore]. Thousands of people gathered to listen. That was also the time when many Ezhavas in the area were considering conversion. The discourse was tolerable on the first day. Then it went towards Bismi and superstitious tales. On the fourth day, the Musaliar began to make the most misogynist pronouncements… Haleema Beevi and her friends did not keep quiet. She says that many of them rained questions on the preacher. She says that she reminded the preacher that this was an audience full of highly-educated women and men who were keen to know the beauty of Islam and hoped to convert. Before walking out of that discourse with a group of women, she issued a challenge. That she would find better scholars who could speak authoritatively on Islam to speak on the same platform the next day.  She met it by bringing there such scholars as K M Muhammed Maulavi, Aslam Maulavi, and M Abdussalam.

This incident reveals her inherent internal inspiration to question wrongs and her courage. It is that basic skill that enabled her to cut through obstructions and walk right through them.


Welcome Speech : M Haleema Beevi

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.

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