Wabagai (Thoubal), Manipur: Donning a brown abaya and with a white synthetic cloth clutching her forehead, Najima Bibi sat on a mat on the mud floor of a neighbour’s hut with a cluster of men and women, both young and old, surrounding her.
A used plastic container with a bright red lid filled with ten rupee notes sat in front of the 44-year-old who scanned her surroundings with a slight smile.
With the words ‘Ten4change’ scrawled in blue ink on a paper taped to it, the container served as a donation box. By the time Najima ended the community meeting, each one of those present had made their contribution for ‘change.’
Just as cups of lukewarm black tea – a definite afternoon pick-me-up – were being handed out by the owner of the hut, Najima passed around forms listing questions about the basic facilities in the village and about the expectation of the people from their representative.
Najima, also known to many as Najima Phundreimayum, has been a social activist for over 15 years in and around Santhel Mamang – the leikai (colony) she belongs to in the Wabagai area of Manipur’s Thoubal district. After years of activism, she changed gears and decided to contest the upcoming Manipur assembly elections.
Alternating between contemplating and then hurriedly jotting down their answers, a few seemed a bit unsure of what to put down in the form and what to leave out. Even as they began returning the filled sheets of paper to her one by one, it became apparent that she didn’t quite need such thermometers to measure the ills of the poor people of her Muslim community, particularly the womenfolk. The level of comfort between her and them was obvious.
Yet, these forms are seen as a key for gauging the mood and expectancies of the people who would choose between her and three other major candidates in the March 8 elections in the Wabagai assembly constituency.
Even though forms are often seen by voters as a novelty in Manipur, Najima – a first-time contestant in an assembly election – felt that “They are vital.”
“The answers will help me focus more on what exactly they are seeking from me as a contestant, and if I win, as their representative in the assembly,” she reasoned.
For those unfamiliar with the candidates in the fray for the upcoming elections in the state, Najima’s immediate introduction to them would be as the Wabagai seat contestant from the anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila’s party, Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). She is also the treasurer of PRJA.
She is also someone who has made her name in Wabagai as an intrepid trendsetter among the Meitei Muslim women. A dynamic woman to have challenged her conservative background to demand her gender rights, she has been a relentless voice for women’s empowerment within her community.
However, her name would go down in history for something even more exceptional – being the first Muslim woman contestant of Manipur.
Stepping into the public life as a woman has never been easy, not even in the Northeast, where the general myth about women being relatively more empowered than in the rest of country looms large.
“My struggle has been long and lonely. First, I was mildly taunted for what many saw as breaking rules set for girls in our community, and then gradually it turned into serious opposition,” she said.
Across Santhal Mamang leikai, billboards announcing various government schemes weren’t hard to spot. Stuck to the walls of the mud huts were also posters asking the villagers to “break silence” on the “war crimes in Syria” and the “genocide of the Rohingyas” in Myanmar – the country that Manipur shares a border with.
A few labourers have been repairing one end of the main road that runs through the leikai and which is broken in several parts.
On being asked about the repair work, Najima smiles and says, “That’s the reason I am contesting elections. There’s only patchwork in the name of development by the people’s representatives.”
“I have been working against domestic violence faced by our women, for our right to food, etc. We are poor people. We have many problems. We can get effective results from various government schemes that already exist if our representatives are supportive of us. But what we get is only ample show of money power and muscle power by the MLAs and people connected to them.”
When Sharmila announced the launch of her party, Najima resolved to join her. She had her reasons. “I thought this would be the best way to expand the scope of my work. What I have been doing at an individual level could be done in a bigger way if I can be the MLA,” she told The Wire.
Najima, unlike most women from her community, found her voice by dint of her sufferings. If being the only girl in her class was an assertion of her right to educate herself early in life, being the first girl in her family to have completed the tenth standard was certainly an eyebrow raiser, among relatives and others.
When Najima was about to be married off aganst her wishes, she did what she knows best – defy. “I ran away to marry a man I met only twice before. That marriage turned out to be a disaster.”
Within six months, she took another step which women from her community would usually avoid – a talaq.
Thereafter, day-to-day survival taught her a lesson on self-reliance. She initiated ‘Cheng Marup’, a rice thrift fund for the women of her leikai.
“Everyday, the women in the group would take out one handful of rice from the quantity to be cooked in their homes. These were collected and kept in my house, and twice a month, whoever’s turn came, she would get the entire rice and would sell it to earn some money. It was looked at with suspicion by many people in the leikai as I was divorced and our saving was considered a theft. But we kept it running. Slowly, people realised its benefits,” she recalled.
Najima made small moves to claim her space in her conservative society, like riding a bicycle.
“Even now, everyone makes fun of me when I ride a bicycle to the meetings but I don’t mind. Muslim women were not allowed to ride a bicycle just to slow them down. I realised that I can begin fighting most of it off by just riding a bicycle. Alongside, I was also able to make it on time everywhere and get a lot of things done,” she said in a recent campaign meeting with women voters of her constituency.
Soon after she announced her decision to contest the polls, she was met with a warning from local clerics. “They not only warned me against contesting the elections but also said if I do, I would not be given space for my grave in the local kabristan. They also warned that anyone who supports me or talks to me would meet the same fate,” Najima told The Wire.
This, however, was not the first time that the clerics had declared a fatwa against her.
“After attending a workshop on gender by an NGO in Imphal in 2001, I realised what I had experienced and what many of my fellow women had experienced daily was gender violence. I began to help out such women,” she said.
“I now run a destitute home for such women here. All such activities led to a fear in the minds of the clerics that I am turning into a follower of Meira Paibi (a powerful women’s rights organisation in the Meitei community). They tried to stop me but couldn’t. So in early 2006, the clerics announced on the local loudspeaker used for namaaz that all women self-help groups in the area were banned on religious grounds. They named me for provoking women, still I didn’t bother. Then they issued a fatwa as per which I was stopped from taking water from the local pond. No shopkeeper would sell me goods. I defied it too and went to bring water from the pond.”
Her defiance led some people to beat up her present husband, twice. “I am proud of him, he chose to stand by me,” she said.
A few months later, the matter was settled after the intervention of Jamiatul Ulama, Manipur and some other Muslim organisations that sided with her for helping Muslim women get empowered.
For the present fatwa, Najima countered the contention that such a call from them had come only because she was a woman. “There is a leadership crisis. I have been raising questions on the distribution of ration through the PDS system. This ban by the clerics is one of the tools used by the local politicians to stop me from contesting the polls. Else, those in power run the risk of getting exposed,” she said.
The sitting MLA from Wabagai, Fajur Rahman, who is from the Congress party, is also contesting the elections. Taking on him is yet another stalwart, U. Deben, a former MLA. Then there is the BJP rebel candidate Habibur Rehman, who is contesting as a Janata Dal (United) candidate. Rehman was the vice-president of BJP’s state minority morcha.
So where does she see herself in this complicated fight?
“I know I am fighting formidable forces; they know many a trick to win elections. It is the biggest struggle for me to convince the voters about what is actually good for them. But I am confident to surmount it with the help of my supporters,” she replied.
Irrespective of who wins, the fact that Manipur is seeing in its elections the participation of a woman from its sizeable Muslim community for the first time in the 70 years of independence, is certainly notable.
What took so long for this to happen?
“The main problem is, ours is a male-dominated society, women are afraid of confronting men. When they say you can’t contest elections, it becomes the final word,” she said. “Women bow down to men because they are uneducated. Lack of education deprives them of their political right.”