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Leading a fight

From a journalist to a firebrand activist. Srinand Jha narrates the story of Sheeba Fehmi who has filled her plate with issues like poverty, exploitation, illiteracy and corruption. Read the whole story in The New Muslim...

india Updated: Oct 30, 2007 23:54 IST
Srinand Jha

Amidst the nondescript and packed structures of the smoke filled and crowded by-lanes of Delhi’s Jama Masjid locality, Deen Duniya House – once the residence of the Nawab of Bhopal – stands out as an anachronism.

This is home to Deen Duniya, an Urdu monthly that has been disseminating for the last 70 years as much obscurantist Islamic values as the “Kalyan” – a Hindi monthly that promotes fundamentalist Hindu philosophy. That Sheeba Fehmi lives and works out of Deen Duniya House is one oddity. The second is that she is so unassuming and soft-spoken, that she is hardly likely to be seen as a firebrand activist. But don’t underestimate her: she has caused huge miseries to none other than the Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam, Syed Ahmed Bukhari –chipping away at his larger-than-life image and authority.

Sheeba’s own explanation of the peculiarities of her circumstances: “The insider is the one who brings about meaningful societal changes and not intellectual paratroopers who drop down once in a while.”

Sheeba may not quite be a Rama Bai Saraswati (India’s first feminist who delved deep into Hindu texts before she turned a rebel), but she is not far behind. She is not into any of the “isms”; is not associated with any political party – and does not even run a registered voluntary organization.

Her philosophy is simply this: “There are issues of poverty, exploitation, illiteracy and corruption that need to be attended to; I have my plate full. Is there time for anything else?”

For one accustomed to the multi-cultural life of a cantonment, the cluttered environs of Jama Masjid can come as a cultural shock. Particularly for individuals like Sheeba – who have enhanced notions of moral and social values. For three years from 1993, she edited and published a daily from Kanpur (where her father was stationed in the defense services) focusing on civic and social issues. She launched a monthly in 1996 and – shifting to Delhi the same year after marriage – she ran a magazine called Headline Plus for 13 months.

Her reason for these ventures: “Instead of having emerged out of some phase of renaissance, democracy in India has been imposed from above – and there is a need to constantly push forward the multi-cultural and democratic discourse. Propagation of such values through the media can be one of the strategies.”

Her view is that Muslims have continued to remain victims of the minority syndrome. “In the name of minority rights is being pushed the patriarchal values and culturally acquired malpractices of the Islamic faith – there is a need for a debate on the minority question within minority.”

In association with husband Arshad and other colleagues, she has run a poster campaign against the illegal encroachments allegedly done at the instance of Bukhari; campaigned aggressively against the cleric’s call to float a political party for the Muslims; has been going hammer and tongs against the politician-police-bureaucracy-Mullah nexus. Over past years, the Shahi Imam has had more than his fill of the Fehmis.

On several occasions, the family were threatened and attacked. Sheeba’s justifications for persisting under such adverse circumstances with what is perceived as a personalized campaign against the Imam: “The Shahi Imam represents the worst form of institutionalized corruption. Rather than being involved in religious, philanthropic or humanitarian activities, his concentration has been on amassing wealth through wrongful means.”

Imam Bukhari refused to comment on Sheeba’s campaign saying, “She has no standing or stature.”

Sheeba has some very committed supporters, people inspired by her. Reshma, for one. She is herself illiterate but is sending two of her daughters to school, inspired by Sheeba. Just like Iram and Nusrat, who are determined to get their children educated.

“English education is the ticket to prosperity and my children must have it,” said Ismat, a sweeper in a government school. There is a silent revolution happening as the numbers of first generation learners (with illiterate parents) has been growing exponentially in the locality. Sheeba part-finances the education of some children.

In the Jama Masjid area, a fascinating process of sociological change is at work and dominant myths and stereotypes about Muslim women in particular are getting shattered. There is a greater emphasis now on girls’ education than ever before. Blame it on the economics of more earning members in a family, but it’s happening.

Sheeba is dot on target when she says: “There is more to Jama Masjid than the wonderful eateries and the marvelous lighting on Ramzan day.” But she will never say how much of it is because of her.