Women’s Front Line for Peace in India

Published on Mar 20, 2002 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

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Hyderabad, India: In a city on the brink of Hindu-Muslim violence following highly charged events in the temple city of Ayodhya, Muslim women formed a human chain that stopped Muslim youth from going on a rampage last Saturday.

Clad in their black burqas, the women, who are part of an organization that works in the old city with both Muslims and Hindus, formed a chain outside Mecca Masjid, the 400-year-old mosque where the youth had been attending prayers.

Waiting for them outside, in the expectation of trouble, was a squad of police, most of them Hindu. Trained to face the risk of attack from angry groups on both sides, the Muslim women persuaded the youth to remain peaceful and leave the area.

“We won’t budge even if we are beaten,” said Noorjahan, a volunteer from the organization, which is called Confederation of Volunteer Associations (COVA)

As police with batons tried to break the human chain between them and the youth who had resorted to mild stone-throwing, Noorjahan pleaded with the police to show restraint, cautioning that the situation would flare into real violence if they lost their tempers.

When the group of policemen finally forced their way closer to the mob of youth, the volunteers tightened their chain to prevent the youths from advancing on the police.

Several older Muslim women went into the mob and talked quietly with the youth, while the chain of women kept the police at bay. Eventually the youth disbanded.

This tactic was part of a tightly orchestrated plan by COVA to make sure that the old city, with an impoverished population of half a million, 75 percent of them Muslim, did not turn violent.

Volunteer Teams

Greater Hyderabad, which was ruled by a Muslim prince for 400 years, up until independence in 1947, has a population of 5 million, more than one-third of them Muslim.

Two days before, at the COVA offices, I sat with about 25 Muslim and Hindu volunteers who live in the old city and watched as they formed teams to prevent trouble in sensitive area of the city. Muslim women and youth, they decided, would guard the Hindu temples, while the Hindu women and youth protected the mosques.

Earlier in the week, I had gone out one night with COVA staff simply to sit with residents in one of the sensitive areas. The week before, in an adjoining neighbourhood, several Muslim families had had their doors broken down by Hindus on a rampage in retaliation for violence that had taken place in the north of India.

But in this neighbourhood, Chowni, where small Hindu temples sit next to Muslim graveyards, communal questions were not discussed. In the air was the distinct smell of urine as a result of the absence of appropriate public toilets. Garbage collection, I also learned, does not exist.

“We need vocational training here,” said a Muslim woman who complained that the government had built a community centre and then put a padlock on it. “Our health services are terrible,” joined in a Hindu woman who sat on a step outside a Muslim neighbour’s home.

Across more than 200 mixed neighbourhoods in the old city, just like this one, ordinary Hindu and Muslim women are trying to work on what really plagues the community - poverty.

Through COVA, more than one thousand “link volunteers” mostly housewives, each keep track of what is happening with 20 families. The goal is to zero in on problems that relate to child labour, health services, vocational training and employment.

Through these activities, more than 200 women’s self-help groups have been formed. Thrift and Save programs that allow women to borrow from their own funds without going to gouging money-lenders was the first step. In addition, through COVA, rhe groups have succeeded in creating a range of special schools and vocational programs for youth as well as more than 20 microenterprises headed by women entrepreneurs who are providing training and work to growing numbers of unemployed women.

This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 2002.