Some people are born with a mission. Others discover it along the way. A few develop it just about when others of their age are ready to retreat into seclusion, to spend their remaining days in contemplation and introspection, doing the little things of life – reading or gardening- that they were too busy to do earlier. Prof. Hasnath Mansur’s life demonstrates that it is never too late to contribute to society. She stated active social work after she retired, committing herself to improve the lives of Muslim women, “Education is their way out” she says.
For 23 years she was the principal of a girls’ college. Throughout her life, what struck her most were the dramatic absence Muslim women in higher education. She had started her education in Salem, Tamil Nadu. In the local Sharada College, of the 2,000 students, only five were Muslim girls. In a college in Coimbatore where 1,500 students were enrolled, just four were Muslim. She says “It was so depressing. These were big colleges getting huge grants from the government. But the visibility of Muslims was nonexistent. I started wondering what’s wrong with my community?”
Over the years, she discovered that acute poverty was the main culprit. Except for a few households, most Muslims in the area were dirt poor. Parents could not afford the fees. “One of the biggest and enduring myths is that it is our religion that stand in the way of Muslim women’s progress. But I can say with conviction that it is not Islam but poverty that is the root cause” she says.
Girls from poor Muslim families are married of by the age of 15. This imposes severe psychological and physical stress on the girl. Without exception she delivers her first child within 12 months of marriage and then several more follow at regular intervals. It is not unusual to find in these homes three generations of women, where the oldest will just be in her fifties!
Hasnath Mansur feels that about 15% of women from poor Muslim family are literate. Lack of literacy coupled with poverty leads to suppression. She helps these women to become informed and take charge of their own lives. Poverty is the bane of Muslim women. Girls from poor families are married of by the age of 15, even in the cities like Bangalore. For a family struggling to earn a hundred rupees a day, one person less at home is one less mouth to feed. After marriage the girl becomes the responsibility of the husband!
Prof. Nazni Begum and Prof. Farrukh Sultana, colleagues of Hasnath Mansur at a meeting of a womens’ Self Help Group (SHG) in HBR Layout in North Bangalore. Women are encouraged to form groups and save small amounts of money on a monthly basis. The monies are deposited in a bank account. After 12 months they can take a loan from the bank to start a small business. This helps them to be financially self-sufficient to an extent.