A young Lucknow woman creates comic strips that talk rights to Muslim girls and inspires them to speak out.

Generations of Indians have grown up seeing the daily trials of The Common Man, sketched by legendary humorist-cartoonist R.K. Laxman. His cartoon strip ‘You Said It’, which first appeared in 1951, has motivated scores of people to face their everyday challenges with a smile and also helped them understand their political and social environment a little better.

For countless marginalised Muslim and Dalit girls and women in districts across Uttar Pradesh, Hameeda Khatoon is their Laxman — her comic strips introduce them to their rights and are a window into their hearts and minds. And why not?

The 25-year-old Hameeda was once where these girls are today. She knows their lives and constraints. “The Urdu and Hindi cartoons I create are not just a way to express my inner feelings, they are a means to spread the knowledge of rights, leadership and adolescence issues among less-privileged girls and women,” says Hameeda, whose hands are always busy sketching on paper.

A native of Faizabad district, about 160 km from Lucknow, Hameeda grew up in a poor family that included six siblings and elderly grandparents. Hameeda’s father was a weaver who made cotton-wool quilts. Like many who work with cotton, he suffered from tuberculosis. After she turned 10, she dropped out of school and took to selling flowers on the streets with her sisters and grandmother. “Within a few weeks, after working for a few hours every day, I managed to earn enough to be able to go back to school. I was never ashamed of my work even when my friends saw me selling flowers,” says the gutsy young woman.

She struggled in this manner for a few years until she managed to secure admission to a college in her home district. Entering college changed the course of her life. It was here that she got the chance to work as a supervisor with the Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT), a job that not only helped her complete her education and help two sisters marry, but also brought her to Lucknow, a city she had always dreamt of visiting.

“A cousin of mine was working with an NGO, Vanangna, and she brought me to Lucknow,” says Hameeda. Volunteering with Vanangna gave her an opportunity to understand concepts such as gender rights, leadership and adolescent health. “I realised that as a young Muslim woman coming from a poorer strata of society, I hardly knew what these issues meant. I slowly turned into a trainer for gender rights and this helped me gain an understanding on life,” she explains.

But, often, while interacting with young women from Muslim and Dalit families, Hameeda found it difficult to talk about the various aspects of their reality or get them to speak their mind.

That’s when the idea of creating Urdu and Hindi cartoon strips struck her. “I was always good at drawing, and during my training at the NGO I had been taught how to make comic strips. As I was thinking of ways to make my sessions more interactive I realised the potential of such illustrated stories. The cartoons I make discuss gender rights, adolescent health and sexuality,” she says.

While her sketches present serious issues in a light-hearted vein, the use of the local languages make them easy to understand and interpret. “Initially, these cartoons were a medium for me to communicate with the girls. But when some of them showed interest in learning how to create cartoons, I realised that it could also be a great way for them to express their feelings,” says Hameeda.

Eventually, she decided to train the girls to make their own comic strips. “At times, I am really surprised when I see girls as young as 14 or 15 take a stand on issues like sex-selective abortion, domestic violence and even polygamy. Topics like early marriage, education and adolescent health, too, have found expression,” adds the talented artist-cum-activist.

Says Ayesha Khatoon, from Lucknow, “Initially, I used to shy away from voicing my opinions. But when Hameeda didi taught me to draw cartoons, I slowly realised that these characters could easily articulate what I wanted to say. I am still very much an introvert but my cartoons do all the talking for me now.”

Vandana Verma, another of Hameeda’s students, says that at times the cartoons help her question received ideas and beliefs. “In my comic strips, my characters ask certain questions, the answers to which are provided by Hameeda’s comic strips. It’s a dialogue not just between two women, but between a knowledge giver and seeker,” she says.

Working in the slums and bastis of Lucknow since 2008, Hameeda has trained over three dozen girls, who are now spreading the message of rights in their own areas. She regularly travels to cities such as Chitrakoot, Banda, Barabanki and her hometown, Faizabad, to train young women there.

Her dream is to reach out to every girl in the State through her cartoons.

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on September 27, 2012)
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