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Letters From A Madrasa: When 3 Teen Girls Told Us Their Stories

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By Ila Kazmi and Hasan Akram:

Getting access inside the girl’s madrasa (name kept undisclosed) is not less than an Augean task. This statement comes after our struggle to get access to an Islamic girl’s religious seminary (madrasa) in the national capital. Over the last few months we travelled to many places in Delhi to get access to a girls’ madrasa in a bid to understand and document their lives. We failed. Umpteen times. And more.

After having given up on the project, one fine morning, as luck would have it, I bumped into my college friend Mohd Zakariya whose father runs a girls’ madrasa in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi. We thought we had everything covered but even there we were allowed to meet female students only after meeting certain stringent conditions. “Only a girl would be allowed inside madrasa for meeting students. You can only capture veiled faces,” explained Zakariya fearing opposition of other protagonist in the administration.

There were even more tough rules for the girls themselves. They were bound to live inside the boundaries of the madrasa only. They were not allowed to go out alone or without a person not from their family. At least one member of the family has to accompany them when they go out. They are also not allowed to have mobile phones.

In madrasas, most of the subjects taught are related to Islamic theology and philosophy, apart from the Qura’an and sayings of Prophet (Hadith). Since not much modern, secular, or scientific education is taught, girls often find themselves devoid of career options at the end of their course. Moreover, mobility is also a big issue. If some girls want to pursue alternate modes of education, they find it very difficult to do so, even from open- or distance- learning modes. A few girls do make it to universities like Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University after leaving the madrasa. But due to their lack of background knowledge they have limited options while applying to courses in the humanities and languages.

Even after we got access to the madrasa the students were reluctant to talk to us. For them, we were outsiders. So we thought of doing things another way. We gave them blank sheets and asked them to write whatever they wished to share with us. And then we got stories. The stories that smelled of cravings. Craving of a better future. Craving of freedom. Craving of life.

Let’s read some of those letters which ooze innocence and ambitions.

Hina Malik, Age 18

I am Hina Malik. I am ambitious and hard working. My hobbies are reading novels, travelling, and sleeping. I don’t like people who are not happy. I want to be a lawyer and an Alima—an Islamic scholar. Freedom. What is freedom? They say it is about loitering and roaming around. According to me, freedom is to have choices to do whatever you want.

India got free long ago but I see many girls not being free even today.

Life is a very weird thing. They say we can do nothing. However, I spend my life according to my choices. I want nobody to stop me. Tell me one thing, will this life come again? Will it? God has given you just one opportunity to live. So, do whatever you want.

My life is very interesting. Many have come to stop me but I didn’t pay attention to them. If someone asks me “What do you like most?” I give them one single answer—that I like myself and my freedom. I can’t compromise my freedom. I love it.

Muskaan, Age 14

I am Muskan. I like English. I would love to speak in English. I want to travel to faraway places. I want to become a doctor and help people.

I used to change one school to another in childhood. I changed school every month. I was not interested in studying. I used to go to school with dolls and other toys and play there. When I was 10 years old, I insisted to get enrolled in a madrasa. Because I thought it would have an easier curriculum than schools. Only Qura’an sharif would be taught there. My father, who is a policeman, tried to stop me going to a madrasa. But then he bowed down to my constant insistence.

Five years ago, I was enrolled in this madrasa along with four other girls from my neighbourhood. But all of them have left now. I am the only person among us living inside the madrasa, now. I was tired of changing schools and that’s why I settled in here. I will learn English after passing out from madrasa.

Iram Ansari, 13

My hobby is reading books, playing games and exercising. I want to be a teacher. I am from Delhi. I am the youngest of my five siblings. My oldest sister is a a chartered accountant. Another sister is preparing for the judiciary exam. One of my brothers is a businessman and the other one is a mechanical engineer.

I am doing the Alima course in this madrasa. I could not appear for my High School examination due to my admission in the madrasa.

I miss my home. Badly. I enjoy it very much when I am at home. There can be no feeling better than being home. That is something extraordinary.

I am excited. My eldest sister is about to get engaged. What a feeling it would be to attend the first marriage function in my family!

Ila Kazmi and Hasan Akram are doing masters in Convergent Journalism from AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia. They are working on a documentary based on the lives of female madrasa students.

Featured Image for representation only. Source: Getty Images.
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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