MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Most of Mehr-un-Nisa’s day is spent doing domestic chores and exchanging verbal volleys in an ongoing feud with her mother-in-law.
Come afternoon, however, while the household is sunk in siesta, she takes off for two idyllic hours to the Rehnuma Reading Club and Library Center.
"Most of my life, I couldn’t even tell if a book was the right way up," says the cheerful 30-year-old. "But now, I hate anything that interrupts me when I’m in the middle of a good read."
Nisa is one of the hundreds of women who have found their way over the past four years to the 5,000 or so books at Rehnuma, a word that literally translates into "guide" or "leader."
The small, two-room reading club, on the first floor of a rickety building, is in the heart of Mumbra, an orthodox, Muslim-dominated suburb of Mumbai. Most women on the streets here are covered in head-to-toe burkas or veils covering their heads and parts of their faces.
"We started the library in 2005 when we realized that there was no space for local women to talk or just be together," says Hasina Khan, a member of the nongovernmental group Awaaz-e-Niswan (Voice of Women), which runs the center. Along with facilities for reading and studying, the center provides counseling and legal aid to women as well as support programs for victims of domestic violence. There are also literacy classes for women who have had to drop out of formal schools and colleges, as well as English speaking courses, all running out of the same small space."
Women here can end up spending their entire lives within the same restricted circles, moving from adolescence to old age without breaching these boundaries," says Hasina Khan. "Through reading, we hoped to open a window to the world outside."
Visits During Spare Moments
While running a number of time-limited sessions and meetings, the center keeps its doors open through most of the day for women to trickle in as their schedules permit.
"We try to keep the costs of running the center low," says Hasina Khan, "but sourcing books, especially those printed in Urdu, can be quite expensive." Most of the funding comes from donations from other nongovernmental groups and some foreign grants. "Our idea was to keep our user fees low since Mumbra is an impoverished area and we wanted to reach as many women as possible."
For about $2 a year, members of this small library can access an eclectic collection of books, where some English titles by Virginia Woolf rub shoulders with Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women." "Marxist Thought" rests snugly next to the "Giant Book of Zombies."
Most of the titles, however, are in Hindi or Urdu, which members can read more fluently.
In the sunlit corners of the book-lined room, girls recently sat cross-legged on the floor, absorbed in the final pages of the romances they were due to return. Two friends leaned against the book racks, discussing the ending of a novel in excited whispers, only to be shushed by an irate reader trawling the shelves for Hindi fiction.
In the other room, where the women have painted cheerful murals on the walls, the members of the Rehnuma Reading Club hold their monthly meetings. With their burkas heaped on a table, the women sit in a circle and talk, laugh, shout and loudly argue over the literary merits of the selected work.
"This is one place where we can say whatever we want," says 19-year-old Tabassum Khan, a voluble member of the club. "At home, my mother can’t read and my brother isn’t interested in what I have to say. But here, I know people will listen."
Luring Women With Words
At first the library mainly drew teens and college students who use its resources for their studies. But as word has spread, housewives have become some of the most enthusiastic members of the reading club.
"I am training her for a career in women’s rights," says Gulshan Khan, only half in jest, referring to her 2-year-old daughter accompanying her on a visit.
The works selected by the club include the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, a satirist known for his dark vignettes about the partition of India and Pakistan, and the poetry and novels of Amrita Pritam, a prominent female author who wrote in Punjabi and Hindi.
Many of the women say a favorite is the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, whose stories about women’s everyday lives and quiet tragedies are set around the 1940s and 1950s. "Her stories are so fresh and funny, she could be writing today," says Tabassum Khan. "Many of the characters are exactly like my neighbors in Mumbra."
"Many members come through the domestic violence program that runs out of the center," says Kausar Ansari, the administrator. "They often see their reflections in the stories, and bring their experiences to discussions."
"Our homes don’t typically have many books besides religious texts," says Naheed Butt, an 18-year-old college student who grew up being told reading would corrupt her. "My grandmother would hide magazines under her mattress to protect us from their bad influence," she recalls. "But I would sneak them back into my room, to pore over at leisure with my sister."
‘Nothing Wrong Going On’
Her grandmother now encourages Butt to spend time at the library, "since I convinced her there’s nothing wrong going on."
Often, says Ansari, women who come to seek help at the center end up sending their daughters there "so they don’t repeat the same mistakes with their lives."
"If I hadn’t come here, I would have been happy to have gotten married like everyone else," says 16-year-old Rabia Siddiqui, whose baby-faced looks hide a steely determination. "Now I want to be a writer and take our stories to the outside world."
Her constant companion is an exercise book that she fills with jottings and poems about life in Mumbra.
Rehnuma has faced opposition from local people, as well as some clerics.
"Initially, our neighbors wouldn’t give directions to women trying to find us," recalls Ansari. "Once our chief guest for an event stood us up because people told him this was a ‘talaq’ (divorce) center."
But Butt says the reading center has established a firm place in its members’ lives. "Earlier we were too scared to open our mouths in public, or raise our eyes while walking on the road," she recalls. "Now, even the neighborhood boys nudge each other to keep quiet when we pass. They know they can’t mess with Rehnuma girls."
Taran Khan is a journalist and film maker based in Mumbai.