Muslim women: nearly 7% of the population, less than 1% in the Lok Sabha

This is the second in a three-part series on gender and the 2019 general elections I wrote for IndiaSpend

The sarpanch or head of Hussainpur village in Haryana’s Nuh district, I photographed Farhuna, an arts graduate, as she made rotis for her extended family of 22

She may be the head of her village, but making rotis for her extended family of 22 is still her responsibility.

Hunched over the small chulha (earthen stove) in the family house at Hussainpur village in Haryana’s Nuh district, her hands efficiently slapping a small piece of dough into a round roti, Farhuna (she uses one name),  smiled when she recalled the circumstances of her marriage–and election.

It was early in 2016. The panchayat elections were around the corner and the Haryana government had recently introduced a new eligibility condition. To contest the elections, women needed to prove that they had cleared their eighth standard exams; men had to be matriculates.

That year, the seat at Hussainpur was reserved for women. The problem: No woman in her husband’s family had ever been to school.

So Farhuna’s father-in-law began looking for a bride for his son. His only condition: Education. “He didn’t even take any dowry,” grinned Farhuna, proud holder of a bachelor of arts degree.

The family has a gas stove over which the vegetables and dal are made. But rotis taste better when they come out of a mud stove, and that is how they are made–some 70 of them for the afternoon and an equal number for the night meal–said Farhuna.

Life after lynching: The widows of Nuh

Nuh in Haryana is India’s most backward district. It is also where Rakbar Khan and Pehlu Khan were lynched on suspicions of cattle theft. I travel to Nuh to meet their families.

Pehlu Khan’s grave at Jaisinghpur, Nuh/Namita Bhandare/Shot on my iPhone

Lying on a string cot beneath a row of pale green prayer beads that hangs from the wall, Asmeena Khan holds up a frail hand and says softly, “Please pray for me.”

There is no electricity and Asmeena cannot summon the strength to wave away the flies that settle on her face. She has been bedridden since being in a car accident four months ago. Her brother says the doctors have said she is paralysed from the waist down, and will never walk again.

Asmeena is the widow of Rakbar Khan, the dairy farmer who was killed by cow vigilantes on the night of July 20, 2018. After the murder of 28-year-old Rakbar, Asmeena, who has never been to school and is unsure even of her age, was left to raise her seven children. The eldest, 14-year-old Saahila, dropped out of school to help her mother with household chores and add to the family income by working as a daily wage labourer; four younger children were enrolled at a residential school in Aligarh run by a charitable society. The youngest two, aged six and three, have stayed with their mother in Tapkan village in Haryana’s Nuh district.

When the accident happened. Asmeena was on her way to visit her children in Aligarh in a taxi. A truck collided with the car she was in. The driver and a 19-year-old niece accompanying Asmeena were killed. Asmeena was first taken to the medical college in Nuh and then referred to a hospital in New Delhi, as her injuries were serious.

Bedridden and bereft

Four months later, she still lies on a cot in her parent’s home. Rakbar’s parents have refused to take her in, says her brother Irfan. But, reasons Asmeena, “Rakbar’s father is an old man who barely makes ends meet by keeping a few goats. Rakbar’s brothers add to his income, but he can barely feed himself.”

Asmeena got married when she was about 13. Three of her brothers work as drivers, two work in a poultry farm, and the youngest has dropped out of school and is learning to repair tyre punctures. Seventeen family members live in the two-room house at Tapkan. Two married sisters are visiting; they have come to find work as daily wage labourers, harvesting the ripened wheat in Nuh’s farms.