Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Mardon wala kaam kaise karogi?"

The answer is blowing in the wind (of freedom). That said I am not sure that a burqa is the safest attire for a school bus driver, especially under Mumbai road conditions.

As soon as the class gets over at Antonio D'Souza High School on the premises of Byculla's Gloria Church, a dozen kids happily hop onto a yellow-coloured mini bus parked outside the school gate. "Aunty chalo" goes the collective cry from the chirpy bunch. Next, she starts the bus and drops the kids to their doorsteps at neighbouring Nagpada, Clare Road and Madanpura.

The kids "aunty" Khairunnissa Shaikh, ferries everyday on her bus are too young to realize the importance of the work this almost frail, bespectacled, burqa-clad woman performs. It may not be uncommon to see women driving cars, even rickshaws and cabs these days. But when was the last time you saw a burqa-clad Muslim woman driving a bus, even if it is a school bus?

Nagpada resident Shaikh (39) epitomizes a silent, liberating change blowing through Mumbai's Muslim streets. When she first decided to take up driving school bus five years ago, Shaikh faced opposition, the biggest from her mother-in-law. "Mardon wala kaam kaise karogi (How will you do a man's job?)," the annoyed mother-in-law asked. "I wanted to prove her and other critics in the neighbourhood wrong," says the woman even as her husband Zahir looks on.

A decade ago, Zahir and Khairunnisa would walk some students to school and make an earning. Then Zahir bought a mini bus, but was soon diagnosed with serious heart ailment and declared unfit to drive. "Starvation faced our family as Zahir stopped working. There were two options to me. Either do something myself or live off charity. I chose the former," says the mother of two. 
 In her fights against odds, she says, two persons helped her immensely. While Nagpada-based advocate Rahman Kazi helped her financially to ensure that her two sons continued their education (now the elder is studying engineering while the younger is in an ITI course), Sunita Bhogle, another bus driver at the same school, encouraged Shaikh to learn driving.

When told that the Wahabism-influenced Saudi Arabia has still not allowed women to drive, Shaikh says: "If women can fly planes, why can't she drive cars?"

She admits that many strangers do get surprised when they see a burqa-clad woman driving a bus. "Every adult woman in my family wears burqa. It is not a barrier if you really want to do something meaningful," explains the school dropout. 
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