The 38-year-old grassroots activist Shaheen Hussain is about to leave for Nagaon as I drop in for an early morning chat at her office on Rajgarh Road, Guwahati. At 8 o’clock on a lazy winter morning, her day has already started. She has been invited by a madrassa in Dhing to address some of their concerns. When I ask her if madrassas regularly invite her, she says,
‘I am the first woman in the last 25 years to be a major contributing member of the Jamiat-Ul-Ulaima in Assam, madrassas are not the most inclusive institution but when women have started storming male bastions elsewhere, this is a natural progression’.
Emphasis on Early Education
Shaheen spent considerable time with her daughter till she was around six years old and this is when she realized how important a child’s early years are. Around the same time, she came in contact with Jasmina (name changed), who had been brought to Guwahati by her aging parents to be engaged as household help. Through her, Shaheen became aware of the difficult life on a char in Assam. ‘Both the girls were roughly around the same age, but the difference in the quality of education both had access to was infinite. As a practicing Muslim, I set aside a certain amount of money every year to be paid to the needy as zakaat. That year, I decided it would no longer be a yearly exercise. I set aside money every month for an NGO that would work especially on education in the char areas of Assam. This was in 2007’, says Shaheen. It would take four more years for CARDS (Char and Rural Development Society) to be formally registered as an NGO. Jasmina has passed her matriculation exam last year and assists Shaheen with her work.
Impact of CARDS
The first char visited by Shaheen was Abedor char in Dhing (Nagaon). According to the RTE act 2009, every village should compulsorily have a primary school in a 1 km radius, and an upper primary school in a 3 km radius. The entire char had just one school with around 450 students and two teachers, but it wasn’t a government school but one built by the members of the community with their own hands. ‘It took me a year just to win the trust of the local people. Many politicians and NGOs had promised many things such as providing job cards, employment, etc but nothing had materialized,’ says Shaheen. Every year, the char would be flooded and the school would close down, for months at a time. She, with the help of the local people, built a separate school with better infrastructure to withstand the monsoon season in 2013. Additional facilities for sports were also provided.
There are 17 schools under CARDS now, in three districts of Assam: Nagaon, Barpeta and Hojai district. The CARDS Modern School in Herapati (Nagaon) was one of the first ones to be established with 180 students. ‘In this school, we provide free education in English to the most backward, the daughters and sons of rickshaw wallahs and thela wallas along with regular students’. A music school with 31 students has also been started in the Morikolong area of Nagaon town as Shaheen had always been interested in music and the arts.
As time went on, Shaheen realized that for primary education to succeed there must be food on the table at home. She helped empower the most marginalized group on the chars, its women. Looms and sewing machines were given out in the villages of Dakhin Kaladuba, Laogaon, and Namati in Nagaon. ‘I now have 3000 women associated with us in Raha in Morigaon district, 500 women work with CARDS in Barpeta Road in Barpeta district, apart from our vocational training centres in Nagaon district. The initial funding for CARDS was through my husband’s (a prominent businessman) savings. No other group or the State Government had helped us. We are steadily becoming self-sufficient and no longer would need to depend on the mercy of funders’. The prominent campaign ‘One Billion Rising’ has reached out to CARDS to register its help in ending violence against women.
When I ask her why she felt the need to join politics, when she was already contributing constructively to society, Shaheen replies, ‘Why not? I think women try to keep a healthy distance from politics as they consider it to be a polluting influence. My father S Roy was a well-known politician in Diphu, where I grew up. From a very early age, I was exposed to politics and I would say there was always a politician in me. Women should not shy away from politics rather embrace it to better articulate their rights’. Shaheen is the Vice President of AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) and is pressing for reservation for women in political parties; she has already proposed the same in a resolution and now awaits the response from her party. The Ananda Group’s ‘South Asian Women Conference’ in Dacca is her next stop after Nagaon. But then, she has never been one to put up her feet and relax. In work alone lies her succor.
Written By: Nasreen Habib