On some nights, you may glimpse a slender 61-year-old woman, clad in a plain cotton sari, her hair tied back in a tight bun, quietly reassuring women in the red light areas of Murshidabad district in West Bengal that all will be well. “You don’t have to do this,” she tells them. “I will help you get out of it—if that’s what you want.”
Meet Khadija Banu, who has been fighting for the rights of poor divorcees from Muslim families whose husbands have abandoned them, pronouncing ‘talaq’ thrice. It all started in 2008. “I was attending a women’s conference in the locality,” Khadija Banu recalls. “The women were speaking about their many problems. One woman, who had just been thrown out of her in-laws’ house with her baby girl, was sobbing inconsolably. She was really disoriented, confused and traumatised.” A few months later, Khadija Banu attended another conference in Pune and witnessed similar scenes there. She decided then that enough was enough, and started the Rokeya Nari Unnayan Samiti (RNUS).
At first she operated from her own house. “Most of these women are from poor families. As far as their families are concerned—especially their fathers and brothers—after they are married off, they no longer have any rights in the parental home. So they live on without dignity or respect,” she says. “Abused and beaten at their husband’s house, they receive the same treatment when they seek refuge at their own houses. Being uneducated, they are unable to earn a living. Their plight is heartbreaking.”
Khadija Banu’s focus has been on teaching them skills that will bring them economic self-sufficiency. “Stitching, embroidery or knitting, which do not require literacy and do not involve much investment, are the most effective ways of making them capable of earning,” she says.
Her organisation has also made representations to the central government that personal laws that allow a Muslim man to have more than one wife should be changed. It has also demanded that laws recognising divorce through triple pronouncement of ‘talaq’ must go. “We want these laws scrapped,” Khadija Banu tells Outlook.
She says she is driven by two things. “I have an ideology,” she says. (She is a committed leftist and was actively involved in student politics.) “And I cannot live for myself alone.” Her work, she says, has the full backing of her husband Swapan Ghoshal, whom she fell in love with while they were both students.
According to Khadija Banu, trafficking of women and children is rampant in Murshidabad district. “They end up in the hands of traffickers and are forced into prostitution. My aim is to prevent this,” she says. “But with the survivors, it’s complicated, for they are doubly rejected by society. That’s why I go to the red light districts and try to talk to those have been trapped in prostitution and encourage them to return to mainstream life.”
It’s a very difficult transformation to make, but there are some who have been successful. A few are even willing to speak on record. Jyotsna Khatoon says she was married off at 13 and her husband sent her back home with a triple talaq. A second husband threw her out similarly. She now lives with Khadija Banu. Then there is Bilkish Khatoon. “She is educated,” says her mentor. “But she was beaten at her husband’s house and thrown out with her child. She was suicidal. I sent her to work with an NGO. Now she lives with dignity.”
From small beginnings, RNUS has managed to acquire a one-storey building. It serves both as a shelter for destitute women and their children and as a training centre to make them self-sufficient.