The women of CJP: Resilient and resolute in their mission to advocate for the rights of all and counter prejudice On International Women’s Day, we at CJP salute all our women team members working towards inclusivity, tolerance and access to justice

08, Mar 2024 | CJP Team

The team of Citizens for Justice and Peace, a human rights organisation working on issues of constitutional rights – citizenship, hate speech, free speech, right to education for all, minority rights for all – in the Courts and beyond, has diverse representatives committed to the rights of all who value the rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. Visible at the forefront, are women. Today, on International Women’s Day, we bring you a glimpse into the lives of the women of CJP who have been tirelessly working to realise the rights of all, for years. We ask them about their motivation to continue working in this field, their goals, their interest in human rights and also, the hurdles they face while spreading the message of peace and harmony in the current politically charged environment.

The women of CJP’s Team Maharashtra: Noorjahan Shaikh

Noorjahan Shaikh is the Associate Director of one of the core programmes of CJP, namely KHOJ: Education for a Plural India. One of the most senior members with CJP, she has been involved with Khoj since 1998. Faced with rising prejudiced thinking and approaches and growing division amidst people, Khoj was an attempt at making an intervention right where it mattered, and with the tools that mattered. Thus, armed with the constitution and its ideals, Khoj’s team has spread its message of peace and harmony across Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. 

For Noorjahan, intervening in the social sector has been a way of life since she was a child. Reminiscing about her childhood, she narrates how her father would always be active in social work and fighting for human rights. Her father’s passion for human rights was shared by Noorjahan, and since a young age she had decided to pursue a career in social work. During her college days, Noorjahan was a part of a woman’s group named Awaaz-e-Niswaan (Voice of Women) that works with Muslim women and girls in improving their safety, access to justice, education and livelihood issues. Her work at Awaaz-e-Niswaan deepened her interest in and understanding of women issues, women rights and human rights. Noorjahan remembers meeting Teesta in 1997 and becoming a part of the CJP family in 1998. 

Noorjahan Shaikh with school children: Teachers Day Celebration

Teesta and I shared the same passion for human rights. Soon enough, we started working together and I got to work with children and teach them the values of secularism, fraternity and equality.”

When asked about her opinion on the important of her work in today’s environment and whether any results can be seen by her till now, Noorjahan clarifies that it is important to try to impart values that empower society no matter what challenges stand lie in front of you. 

“Big challenges are upon us today. Even in regards to our work at Khoj, there is too much resistance. The kind of policies that are being implemented now have made it much more difficult for us to function.”

Separate from her work, Noorjahan also shed some light upon the kind of hurdles she is facing as a woman and as a Muslim. Markably, there has been a shift in the behaviour of the people in Maharashtra. Even in schools, the seeds of prejudice and division have been planted, which has an impact on the life of Noorjahan. 

“Belonging to a minority religious community and being a woman plays against me a lot of the times. I have to act very carefully in certain situations. I have to be extra careful and cautious. The environment is totally against me. It does become very difficult at times. But I keep going on.”

Talking about the young girls that she teaches at Khoj, Noorjahan states how many of them share her passion for human rights too. She enjoys being surrounded by girls who want to work for the welfare and upliftment of other girls and women. 

“My students at Khoj are always willing to help each other. They never shy away from any tasks. Many of them are already interested in pursuing social work in the future.”

Referencing to the hardships being faced by Noorjahan, the interviewer asks her whether she thinks about leaving this field of work, to which she responds by asserting that she does not let such thoughts cross her mind. 

Today, it is pertinent that we spread the message of peace and love by teaching children about secularism and human rights. We have to keep moving forward, there is no question of backing down, now or ever. My passion to work for human rights will never die. Working for the welfare of all has been my dream since childhood.”

The women of CJP’s Team Assam: Rashminara Begum, Zesmin Sultana, Papiya Das

Resilience is the word that comes to mind when one gets to hear the story of Rashminara Begum, a mother of four, and how she got involved with the CJP’s ongoing work on citizenship in Assam. The citizenship crisis is an ongoing one, wherein lakhs of people have had their citizenship questioned by a mala fide arbitrary process. (while the rest of India is most familiar with the 19 lakhs excluded from the National Register of Citizens –NRC- few are aware of the “suspected foreigner” label arbitrarily levied by the Assam Border Police & Foreigner’s Tribunals (FTs) or the ‘D’ Voter tag summarily put by the State Election Commission-SEC). Over 22, 00,000 persons and their families, live with the threat of a “civil death” as the sword of being rendered minus citizenship hangs over their heads.

Such is also the story of Rashminara and her family.

In 2016, Rashminara was served a notice stating she was to present herself before a Foreigners Tribunal (FT) as she was a “suspected Bangladeshi.” She submitted all necessary documents and was shocked when, despite this, the FT ruled that she was a Bangladeshi. The ruling was based on an error in her date of birth. Two different school leaving certificates gave two different dates of birth! She was detained soon after. Pregnant at the time, she had to spend almost 9 months in Goalpara detention camp, during which she had delivered her baby, before she was granted bail by the High Court. Her ordeal and the legal proceeding of the case may be read here. 

Rashminara Begum with her daughter Nazifa Yasmin

Today, Rashminara works as a community volunteer with the CJP’s Team Assam. When we spoke to her about her motivation to work on this issue, in the field, her response is telling. She told us that while in jail, and even after being released on bail, she felt like dying. Terming her period in jail as the most difficult time of her life, Rashminara said that she would not wish the same upon anyone. To ensure that others get the support they need while dealing with this crisis, and inspired by CJP’s on ground work, she joined our team. According to Rashminara, her own experience makes it easier for her to understand the despair, suffering and alienation of any person suffering at the hands of the state as well as the family of that person. 

“My experience has equipped me with such an understanding that I can empathise with the victims and the families without them having to say much. This process is a pain for the family as well. I kept thinking about my children when I was in jail. The process is the punishment.”

She also clarified that it took her time to muster the strength to start working again after she came out of jail. She mentioned how meeting Teesta Setalvad, secretary of CJP, gave her the confidence to join hands with CJP. Rashminara’s willingness to work for society and help people can also be traced back to her father and grandfather, both of whom were freedom fighters during the battle fought for India’s Independence. For Rashminara, working on the rights of all and helping people brought her happiness. 

“I feel so happy when I help people, it makes me feel so respected. I was wronged by the state. I was put in an overcrowded jail even when I was pregnant, even eating adequately was not possible.” 

Rashminara also said that when support started pouring in for her, she started feeling hopeful again. According to her, a show of solidarity is essential with the targeted individuals, as it can means the world to them. Rashminara further explains how she, and the CJP team, go beyond just helping people with the legal proceedings and ensure that the targeted person feels supported and seen. 

When asked about the hurdles she faces as a Muslim woman, Rashminara states that the people she works with recognises the troubles she takes to help them and never makes her feel less than respected. She further clarified that her kids are now old enough to be left at home without her, so she can focus on helping people and bringing a change. Even towards the end of the call, Rashminara asserts that “no matter what, I will help people”.

Community volunteer Rashminara is accompanied by district volunteer motivator, Zesmin Sultana who also works in Goalpara district. Zesmin starts the conversation by expressing her happiness on being connected with CJP and the Assam team, making it possible for her to help those who are currently suffering the citizenship crisis. 

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She draws attention to the fact that 69% of the 19 lakh individuals who were found to be excluded from the Assam NRC are women. Zesmin mentioned that the issue of a name being excluded from the NRC or an Aadhar card being rejected was observed to be happening with women more frequently. Zesmin explained how women’s personal life are greatly impacted by their exclusion from the NRC because it prevents them from even being able to get married. Additionally, those without an Aadhar card are not eligible for any government assistance programs. Zesmin began volunteering with CJP four years ago in order to assist the people of Assam in overcoming these challenges. 

When asked about her interest in rights’ based work, Zesmin stated that she always inclined to serve the people and help them in any way possible. When she got to know about CJP and its work, especially the aid and assistance that CJP provided to people during lockdown, she joined her hands with the organisation. Reiterating this once more, Zesmin provides that she is extremely happy with the work that she gets to do here and the contributions that she makes to society. 

Zesmin is also a mother and a wife. When asked about how she balances her personal life and her private life, she narrates how her husband and family support her in all her endeavours. 

“My husband and I also run a pharmacy shop. Whenever I am required to go for field work, I either take my husband and children along with me or I leave my children with my husband. I have also gotten my husband invested in the work that CJP does. Even when we both go in the field for work, my husband is the one caring for my children.”

Zesmin also emphasises the importance of education for women. As per Zesmin, the State are majorly targeting those women who are uneducated. She says that she also wants to fight against such oppression that women, especially Muslim women, face. 

The ones facing the citizenship crisis are mostly uneducated. Women remain uneducated in those households who believe that if a woman steps out of the house, it will attract shame. Many also believe that women do not need to work, or should remain in a burqa. I get to meet and talk with such people too as I work.”

Zesmin says that when she meets such families that do not support education for women or do not let them work, she explains the important of self-reliance for a woman in this face-paced world.

“I tell these people who quickly the world is changes. The times we are living in today are different from before. Today, a woman needs to be educated, independent and aware. I tell them that women can no longer hide behind the men of the family, they need to be empowered and self-reliant.”

Zesmin has a daughter herself. She states that educating her daughter is one of the biggest commitments and resolves of her life. She also tells us how she takes her daughter along with her for work to build her interest in social work and human rights. 

Another senior volunteer who is a part of the Assam team is Papiya Das, a professor. Papiya has been working in the human rights field since a long time, and became a part of the CJP Assam team four years ago as well. Like her peers, she too joined CJP with the objective of helping the people of Assam. When asked about the reason behind her interest in social work and human rights, Papiya credits her father. 

“I spent my childhood looking at my father do this kind of social work. That created an impression on me. He is no longer alive now, but he was the reason I wanted to work in human rights and help people.”

When the interviewer asked Papiya if her gender is any obstruction, Papiya states that even though she has more responsibility to take care of, regarding her family and her household chores, it also helps her connect with people more efficiently.

We encounter many households where only women can go inside and talk to the female members of the family. Since I am a woman, I can go to the deepest corner of the house. Some women do not even feel comfortable while talking to men, they can easily confide in me. Even children sometimes get scared of male members, but they talk to me about everything in detail.”

Papiya ended the interview by stating that the work she does brings her great joy. As the interviewer asked her if she ever wonders about leaving this field owing to the current environment, she says that she will continue to help people till the day she dies. 

Papiya Das along with CJP Assam Team members

The women of CJP Purvanchal Team- Dr. Muniza Khan, Shama Bano

Dr. Muniza Khan is the one who leads the Purvanchal, Uttar Pradesh team of CJP. This three-membered team works on deepening of understanding of constitutional rights in schools (CJP’s KHOJ programme) and towards community building and countering hate. This is done by holding various mohalla meetings, community discussions and programmes at education institutes. 

Muniza has officially been a part of the CJP family for the last four years. When asked about what motivated her to work in the human rights sector, she fondly remembered the positive role that her father, a labourer, played in building her interest in social work and reformation. She stated that her father always advocated for educating women and stood against any form of purdah to be imposed on women. She shared how her father never imposed any restrictions on Muniza and his sisters, rather was the one who empowered his mother, Muniza’s grandmother, to remove her burqa. It was also her father that did not impose kitchen work on Muniza and her sisters, and even encouraged Muniza’s mother to step out of the kitchen. As per Muniza, her father made her feel like there was nothing unachievable for Muniza, based on which she started her journey. Muniza has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and many publications to her name. 

My father only encouraged me to take up studying outside of my town. He told me that education is the most important thing in everyone’s life, especially that of a woman. He was very much opposed to burqa. It was never imposed on me or anything. Such conversations too never took place in my house.”

One of the key areas that interest Muniza are gender and peace. On being asked about it and the connection between the two, Muniza explains how she thinks that women play a crucial role in maintaining peace in the society. According to her, women in our society might be religious, but they are not communal, which is also why the current union government is targeting them and communalising them. Women have remained at the fore front of every battle that India has fought. As per Muniza, women are inherently loving and non-violent, and thus play an essential role in peace building and harmony. 

“I feel like women do not need to be taught kindness, it comes naturally to her. This is why women are more tolerant. It becomes even more essential to include women in our fight for spreading love and peace.” 

Coming to gender, the interviewer enquired into the hurdles that Muniza faced while working in this field as a woman. While recognising that women have to face more difficulties than men, she said that being a woman helped her be more empathetic towards people and form better connections. Muniza further said her gender made it possible for her to understand the issues and oppression that women in our patriarchal society face, and direct her energy into working on them. Speaking on her religious identity, Muniza said that her religion never held her back, thanks to her father and his progressive thinking. Muniza, who sports a short hair-cut, said that at a young age itself, she vowed to never marry as she did not want her independence to be snatched in any sense. She also stated that during her college time, most of her female professors were unmarried too. Breaking all the stereotypes attached to a Muslim woman was not conscious decision of Muniza, but something that was based on her father’s teaching. Not donning any purdah or burqa and not carrying any “Muslim” symbolism also makes her accessible to women across castes and communities too, she says. 

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“Muslim women find it easy to talk to me as I am a Muslim woman. Because I do not look like a stereotypical Muslim woman, Hindu women too find it easy to approach me and trust me.”

Muniza said that she pursued her career in human rights and social work because it brought her happiness. For her work, Muniza travels to many parts of Uttar Pradesh and interact with people from all generations. According to her, women from the younger generation are more aware of their rights and are willing to put up a fight for it, even at a cost. Talking about many movements and women led protests taking place in the recent times, even in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Muniza assured that young women are heading into battles for their rights across India. 

“I see and talk to so many young women on a daily basis. I see how hopeful and charged up they are. They are aware about their rights. They are willing to fight them too. Many protests are being held by women in Uttar Pradesh. Even in Indian Institute of Technology- Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU), women are leading protests. These protests are not being covered by mainstream media so people do not know. But be assured, young women are fighting.”

The last question that the interviewer asked Muniza was whether the thought of leaving the field of human rights ever crosses her mind, especially in this fractious environment.

In her endeavours, Muniza is accompanied by another fearless woman- Shama Bano. Shama, who has been working with CJP since the last 4 years, is also someone who believes that women play an important role in bringing change. Shama says that she got to know much about human rights after joining the CJP team post COVID pandemic. Shama’s works as a teacher with the Khoj programme of CJP. Khoj is an endeavour started by CJP almost 3 decades back. 

 “Through Khoj, I would teach and celebrate Human Rights Day with my students. I would meet people at meetings and participate in seminars. I learnt about human rights along with my students itself.” 

According to Shama, the most essential task in today’s times is to ensure that women and young females are equipped with knowledge and are aware about the rights guaranteed to them by law. 

I have seen girls in myriad stages of life. They may be studying in school, working as a house wife or doing manual work, it is not a given that they may be aware about the rights that they have. They all face oppression in many ways. It is only through education and awareness that such women, especially young girls, can be empowered.”

Talking about the younger generation, Shama says that she sees hope and resolution more in the young generation girls than the elder generation of women. She explains how she gets to witness women participation in protests and rallies all around her. 

The participation of young women are not only limited to understanding their rights, but also ensuring that others are also aware about their rights. This is quite motivating for me too. I get to learn so many things myself.”

On being asked about the hurdles she faces as a woman, she says that even though her gender and the responsibilities attached to it comes between her work, she believes that the voice of a woman carries much more weight and importance. Narrating an incident of how she raised her voice against a bothersome incident taking place near her place, she said that when I raised my voice, change was affected. 

“Men do not really raise their voice against injustice and talk to other men about it. I see injustice, and I raise my voice against it. It does not matter to me who is on the other side. I believe that when women raise voice, change happens. The other person also understands that the women talking to them is empowered and aware.”

No challenge, no hurdle to big

After our conversations with these six women, it is clear that they are unstoppable. Despite having varied lives and upbringings, the six women are united by their desire to strive towards the rights of all, disseminate the message of love and peace. This means battling societal norms and institutions. For all of them, being a woman has only made it easier for them to relate to others and comprehend their suffering. Not only do they all want to work on issues like citizenship and fighting prejudice, but they also want to empower other women around them. 

As we commemorate International Women’s Day today, we at CJP, give thanks to all of the women who are using every resource at their disposal to fight against the pervasive patriarchy and oppression. Young girls are able to exercise their rights and are aware of them, in large measure, because of the work these women carry out on the ground. 

Saluts! Happy International Women’s Day 2024!


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