GENERATIONS in India have grown up seeing the daily trials of ‘The Common Man’, sketched by the legendary humourist-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 various districts across Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Hameeda Khatoon (25) is their Laxman -- her comic strips introduce them to their rights and they are a window into their hearts and minds. And why not? Hameeda was once where these girls are today. She knows their lives and their constraints. She is what enables her to understand what they want to say but are afraid to articulate it. "For me, 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 adolescent issues amongst less privileged girls and women," says Hameeda, whose hands are always busy sketching something on paper.
A native of Faizabad district, about 160 kilometres away from the state capital of Lucknow, Hameeda was raised in a poor family where there were six other siblings to be provided for, besides elderly grandparents. "My father, a weaver, made cotton-wool quilts for a living. His earnings were not enough for a family of a dozen members to survive. I had to drop out of school because of the financial problems we were facing and started working young. I knew I had to earn not just to support my family but also to continue my education," she recalls.
Hameeda’s father suffered from tuberculosis -- a common ailment afflicting those who work with cotton -- and that greatly affected his capacity for work. So after she turned 10, the little girl 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," elaborates the gutsy young woman.
For a few years she struggled in this manner until she finally managed to secure admission in a college in her home district. "I always had this zeal to study and I was earning just to do that. I was happy that my wish was being fulfilled and my education did not prove to be a burden on my family in any way," she adds.
A Turning Point in Life
Entering college changed the course of Hameeda’s life. It was here that she got the chance to work as a supervisor with the Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust, a job that not only helped her complete her education and get two of her sisters married, 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 along with her," says Hameeda. Working as a volunteer with Vanangna gave Hameeda an opportunity to understand concepts like gender rights, leadership abilities 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 that talking to them about the various aspects of their reality and getting them to speak their minds, proved to be a difficult task. "They had so much to say and so much to ask, and yet they did not know how to express themselves," she says.
That’s when the idea of creating Urdu and Hindi cartoon strips struck Hameeda. "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," explains Hameeda.
While her sketches present serious issues in a light-hearted vein, the use of the local languages -- Hindi and Urdu -- 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 an interest in learning how to create cartoons I realised that they could also be a great way for them to express their feelings," says Hameeda.
Eventually, Hameeda decided to train the girls to make their own comic strips. "I saw that they were using them to voice their points of view on subjects they felt strongly about. 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. I realise that these cartoons are a way for them to express their thoughts on what they see around them every day, but cannot talk to anyone about," adds the talented artist-cum-activist.
Spreading Message of Rights
Hameeda, who has been working in the slums and bastis of Lucknow since 2008, has trained over three dozen girls, who are now spreading the message of rights in their own areas. She also regularly travels to cities like Chitrakoot, Banda, Barabanki and her hometown of Faizabad to train young women there.
Girls like Ayesha Khatoon from Lucknow cannot thank Hameeda enough for teaching them the importance of self-expression. Says Ayesha, "Initially, I used to shy away from voicing my opinions. But when Hameeda didi (elder sister) taught me how 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.
Hameeda now nurtures a dream that she will be able to reach out to every girl in the state through her cartoons. "My horizons have expanded beyond Lucknow. It was the urge to understand myself that brought me to the state capital. Now it’s the urge to reach out to each and every girl that takes me beyond Lucknow," says the young crusader. WFS