I Can Do It- Sabah’s Story

Story by Mahima Dev

Story based on Sabah Wajid Ali Siddiqui, 19 years old, First Year BAF at MVM College

While interning at Vacha Resource Centre for Women and Girls, I came across a girl named Sabah. I was impressed by her confidence and gumption, she was never hesitant to put forth her view. I was surprised to learn that she was the same age as I am. She has been with Vacha for 9 years now. Just goes to show how a girl’s strong will and a little external push can create great outcomes. Here is Sabah’s story-

Sabah’s younger days… she has come a long way

A timid smile and resolute voice, Sabah’s personality intrigues you instantaneously. She speaks with striking confidence about her journey. Her ambition acts as the source of her morale, never mind that resources and odds are not exactly in her favour. She soldiers on. Her latest achievement is a research paper on “The Role and Contribution of Small and Medium Enterprises in the Indian Economy” which was published by her college.

At first Sabah found it hard to cope in a college environment. If being a girl of newfound adulthood wasn’t already complex enough, she was suddenly amidst fluent English speakers. Up until the tenth grade Sabah had studied in an Urdu medium school. She was usually the outspoken girl at her old school, but found herself terribly quiet here. She was perplexed as this was all she ever wanted- going to college, pursuing a Bachelors in Accounting and Finance degree. In fact she was already the most qualified person in her nine-member family. What’s more, she’d even received the Shadhika scholarship. What she hadn’t accounted for though, was the language barrier.
After a few days and many awkward attempts at spoken English, she realised that although she was weak at English, no one, not even the teachers could speak Hindi as fluently as herself. Her grasp over economic theory and accounting too, was good. She cinched the opportunity with a speech and dazzled her teachers and classmates alike. That day she knew that she was in no way inferior, all she had to do was muster her courage and play to her strengths.

With her nascent confidence, she was determined to keep her winning streak going. She had heard, in the passing, about a study that her college was about to publish on “SMEs.” She wondered what they were. Abbreviations have always confused her, she turned to her most credible source- Google. This too, was only accessible to her at her college laboratory and at the Vacha resource centre. When she hit ‘search’ she was introduced to a new world that seemed both intriguing and elusive in parts. She delved deeper into the realm of Small and Medium industries in India. She walked through definition, marched through advantages, darted through importance and danced through economic impact. Her mind was aflame- she wanted to know more.

Technology can be a girl’s best friend

Sabah pulled out all stops, she elicited every source possible- teachers, mentors, family, and the ever helpful internet. Many weeks went into it. She even sacrificed a few of her beloved accounts lectures in college to gain practical knowledge outside. She says, “Research and application gave me a much deeper insight into economics and clarified many concepts on GDP. I have learned new words in English also. I think everyone should learn from books first and then apply in real life to fully understand subjects.” Many a time she found her near and dear ones concerned about her. ”Are you mad spending so much time in all this and missing classes too? The teacher said this was co-curricular, that means no marks for all this. Better forget it”, said a classmate. But Sabah knew better. She told her classmate that although the teacher would not award extra marks for her research, she would surely do better on her exams because of it. She toiled on, asking her teachers more and more questions each day. Crunching numbers and data was what she looked forward to the most every day. Because “at the end of the hard work when I get a clear conclusion, it makes me very happy.”

Finally, Sabah turned in her research to her teacher. It was a file that read “Role and Contribution of SMEs in Indian Economy.” Sabah beamed with contentment and pride as she handed it over. A few days later, her teacher asked her to wait back after class. “Sabah, the principal loved your thesis. It has been selected for the college publication. In the interest of the college students, we would love for you to present your thesis at the conference next month,” the teacher said. These words seemed like the sweetest song to Sabah. Her committed effort had finally borne fruit. In the next moment, it dawned on Sabah that she would have now to present her research to an auditorium full of students, teachers, dignitaries and international experts- in English! But she had never let anxiety and nervousness hold her back in life, and she was not going to start now. So she smiled and said, “Sure, madam.”


Sabah hones her speaking skills

The conference day arrived quickly. Sabah had practised relentlessly, yet some nervousness remained, it was her first big address. The event started with the keynote speech by Mr. Vincent Wahrenburg, Head of Environmental Engineering, IRIANS, Berlin and a wonderful address by Mr. Chandrakant Salunkhe, Founder and President, SME Chambers of India. Next up was Sabah. She explained her thesis from beginning to end, about the importance of government support to SMEs, micro scale innovation, women entrepreneurs, and challenges in employment growth with proposed solutions. She ended on a beautiful note, “We must encourage girls to study and run their own small businesses, just like they run their households.” The content made up for any shortcomings in her linguistics. Everyone appreciated her presentation and signature confidence. Mr. Wahrenburg, congratulated her personally.

This experience has been unforgettable for Sabah, she cannot wait to start research for her next presentation. She says, “I love presenting to people because I want my voice to be heard by many. I want to become a lecturer in accounting and economics someday.”



A Woman’s worst enemy.

At the start of every workshop, we begin with a session on ‘gendered understanding’, the topic of the workshop notwithstanding. The first day is invariably spent in lively discussions of gender discriminations at home and school, of unfair customs and practices that one doesn’t want to confirm to, of the television, street hoardings and schoolbooks showing women that one cannot identify with.

Discussions on how we ourselves propagate these practices are less lively. Girls cannot understand how they can possibly support beliefs that oppress girls, and thus go against themselves.

Something similar happened in a Videography workshop being held with a group of about 25 girls in the age group of 18 to 21 years. Coming from a lower socio-economic background, struggling to complete their education in the face of pressures to marry / work to support the family, they were very much aware of the restrictions placed on girls. This awareness is much rarer amongst girls from a better-off background, because oppression at that level is much more camouflaged and therefore much more dangerous. Anyway, just as I began to think that our gender workshop had gone off quite successfully, one girl states: “ The biggest enemy of a woman is a woman.”

I waited. Surely, many in this sensitive, vocal group of girls would debate this point.

To my utter amazement (and some horror) all the girls were so vehement in agreeing to this, that for a moment, I was at a loss for words and wasn’t sure if I could even dispel this notion of theirs properly. At this point, Medhavinee, a senior worker with many years’ experience as a trainer, asked the girls,

“Why do you think the mother-in-law treats her daughter-in-law so badly?”

Pat came the reply, “They are just jealous. Women are jealous..”

“Why do you think the mother-in-law is jealous of her daughter-in-law?”

When no answer was forthcoming, the trainer again asked, “What are most fights between them about?”

“About what to cook..”

And then the trainer gave them a succinct, and very effective explanation of what is known as kitchen politics. Since there is such little power given to women anyway, they fight amongst each other over that little power. Each woman is a threat to the other because of this. An example is a woman in the house, whose sole domain of control is the kitchen – or decisions of what to cook. All other decisions are taken by the men – of who will earn, how will they earn it, where will that money be spent, who will study, how much, who will marry, when and to whom and so on. When the daughter-in-law enters the house, this domain of the kitchen is threatened, and therefore the mother-in-law resists her. Thus it is called kitchen politics. Also, the mother-in-law gets some power through her son (in the sense that mothers of sons are preferred over mothers of daughters). The daughter-in-law threatens this power source too.

This same analogy can be applied to many other areas of life, where women manage to gain some foothold but this foothold is so small that any other woman trying to enter it is deemed competition. This is what turns women against women.

And does man have no hand in this? Take the example of the kitchen again. The otherwise powerful man, who has the right to take all other decisions of the house, does nothing to reduce the friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. He does nothing to save the oppressed younger (and sometimes older) woman from the other. Why is this so? Why does he suddenly become powerless?

The myth of women being the biggest enemy of women serves the purpose of creating divides amongst them. This is not to say that women don’t oppress other women, of course they do. However this oppression must be seen in the larger context of the patriarchal system. By putting the focus on trivial issues, larger trends of oppression go unnoticed. Men also oppress other men, yet you hardly ever hear someone say, “The biggest enemy of man is a man”.

-Amrita De and Anu Salelkar