Our Paths May Be Different, Our Destination Is The Same. [1]

Our Paths May Be Different, Our Destination Is The Same. [1]

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Kaneez Fatima M. Kassim, CARE Pakistan

As I entered the hut, I paused. Pulling the end of my dupatta (piece of cloth used by women to cover their chest and head), I wiped off perspiration from my brow. Mariam came forward to greet me and holding my hand, led me inside her hut. She asked some seated women to create space between them and sat me down. She yelled to her daughter Rahmat to bring me something to drink. The child obliged. Mariam handed me a glass of sherbet (sweetened drink) which I drank slowly. Once I had had my fill, I handed back the glass to her. I looked around the room at the smiling and welcoming faces of the women, the colored buntings and silver tinsels hanging from every available space on the plastered and thatched walls, and paused for a few minutes. This was the first time that I had entered my co-worker, Mariam’s home. We had lived in the same village for the last 41 years, but this was the first time I was welcomed here. My eyes suddenly filled with tears.

In a flash I saw my life unfold. I have lived all my life in the village of Ali Nawaz Faqeer, in union council Ismail Kumbhar, tehsil Sindhri, District Mirpur Khas, Sindh, Pakistan. 

My name is Saran Meru. I was born into a poor, rural, Hindu family of two adults and five children, where there was never enough to eat. When I was about 9 years old, my father died. We were left destitute and because my mother was observing Iddat[1] (mourning period for a woman after the death of her husband), my older brother and I worked as domestic helpers in wealthier families’ homes in the village. Life was tough and I remember never having time to play. It was all work – chores both inside and outside the home. I was only ten years old when my paternal uncle decided my elder brother should be married. In exchange for my brother’s bride, I was to be married to my future sister-in-law’s father, a man older than my own father and who already had a wife. My mother protested but her pleas were of no avail, and I became a child bride at the age of ten. Life was difficult for me. I had to cater to the whims of my old husband and bear the verbal threats of his jealous, older wife. I was forced to do all the housework. My cowife would scold and shout at me all the time. It was very difficult to please her. At the age of 12 I became a mother and gave birth to my first child, my son Shankar.

Mirpur Khas is well known for being one of the districts in Sindh with a sizeable Hindu population. Though Muslims and Hindus have lived together in the villages for several decades, they would speak to each other but never visit each others’ homes nor attend each others’ festivals and events. Since I was a child, we lived among a Muslim community, but we never visited their homes, ate their food or attended their social events. Similarly, Muslim woman never came to our homes for the birth of a child, attend a marriage ceremony or to resolve a dispute. We lived side by side in the same village but maintained our differences and remained separate.

March 2011 brought a change in my life. I was told that a local organization, Takhleeq Foundation (working in collaboration with CARE International’s Community Infrastructure Improvement Project) was recruiting destitute women to maintain rural roads on fixed wages in different union councils of Sindh, and that Mirpur Khas was one district where their program would be implemented. I was also told that this would be a two year job where wages would be paid regularly and that I would receive various training. I accompanied a group of Muslim and Hindu women to the union council chairman’s office where the recruitment was being held. Since I fit the criteria for selection – being in the right age group, with a sick and non-earning, old husband, being responsible for several dependants, and not owning any assets - I was lucky to be selected for the job. In our cluster of 5 women, all were Hindus.

On a daily basis, I would get up early to complete as much of the household chores as I could before I left at 7.00 am to walk together with my co-workers to the rural earthen roads that we maintained. With the wages I earned, I was able to buy better food for my family, buy my son some new clothes and strengthen the thatched roof of our one-roomed home.  As time went by, my husband contracted tuberculosis, and my co-wife was also often unwell, and unable to work. In addition to my road maintenance work in the morning, I would work in the local landlord’s cotton fields during the harvesting season in the evenings as well. The extra money I earned from the harvesting work went to pay for my husband’s medical treatment. However, my husband did not live very long and he died soon after I started the road maintenance work.

I continued to work on the roads and soon after we began educational workshops. The trainings were conducted for all the women working in the three clusters in each union council, so we were 15 women altogether in our batch for the trainings – 10 were Hindus while 5 were Muslims. The first educational training that we received was entitled “Road for Life” in which we were taught health and hygiene tips Spending time together for a few hours and learning together each day during the training sessions brought the women closer. We began to laugh and joke with each other on the way to work. It was the second training that made a major impact in my life. This training was on “Gender and Rights” and the chapter on religious harmony interested me the most. The training coordinator, Baji (elder sister) Shabana taught us many new things. She explained that what we had been taught by our parents and other elders ( Muslims eating with Hindus is haram (forbidden) and that Hindus are inferior to Muslims) was  incorrect. The saying that we had all been brought up with “that shoes look good on the feet, they cannot be put on the head” was absolutely not true!

She explained that when we go to the bazaar (local market) or to a hotel in the market, the restaurant owner serves food on a plate for all customers regardless of if they are Hindu or Muslim. The same dishes and glasses are used for everyone. He does not ask the customer whether they are Hindus or Muslims, he treats them alike. Why then should we make such differences? The messages which Baji Shabana gave us really made me think. She herself made no distinction, and though she was a Muslim she would greet us Hindu women just like she would greet a Muslim woman – with a big hug. I was really surprised and decided that what she told us in the training sessions was correct.

I then began to share my food and water with my special friend from the training sessions, Mariam, and we became close friends.  She would also bring along something special for me to eat which she had made herself. Today I had come to my Muslim friend’s home to attend her son, Abdul Razzak’s wedding function. I could never imagine that one day I would be sitting inside a Muslim woman’s home, with colored pictures of Khana Kaaba in Makkah and different Quranic prayers on the walls of her thatched hut, singing Sindhi wedding songs and clapping my hands, celebrating the marriage of a Muslim boy and having the time of my life too! 



[1]  Quotation by Amish Tripathi

[2] This is a mandatory mourning period of 4 months and 10 days for a Muslim widow after the death of her husband.  In communities where Muslims and Hindus live together, many Hindus follow Muslim practices.