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- INDIA - NAZREEN
Oct 5, 2011
She looked me in the eye and shook my hand with confidence. She and I sat on the floor of a one-room home in an urban slum in India and briefly chatted about the training meeting we were both going to. I sensed something different about her.
Normally, Muslim women from urban slums will not even acknowledge my presence due to their own shyness or insecurity. Cultural norms, particularly among the poor, prevent Muslim women from interacting with a man who is not their husband, much less a foreign man. Why was she so different? As the day progressed, I learned more about her story.
We stepped outside this tiny home into the teeming masses of people going every which direction. The cries of vendors filled the air along with the smell of outdoor cooking which wafted past me like an invitation to a backyard party. We boarded bicycle rickshaws, buses, an underground subway, and, finally, walked a long distance to get to this training event. Nazreen always walked a short distance behind my male co-workers and myself. Out in public, she knew which boundaries not to cross. Walking next to me would indicate that she was my mistress, or worse.
The training we attended that day was an extension of the “empowerment” training Barnabas Ventures has been offering for the past three years. We have been helping 14 pastors and members of their house churches learn to advocate for themselves and their urban poor communities. In India (and virtually every developing country), the government makes promises to their people, but rarely delivers. For example, since the public education system is so overwhelmed, some types of private elementary schools are required by the government to admit up to 20 percent of their enrollment from poor backgrounds. Few schools actually do this and most of the poor do not even know about this mandate. Hundreds of thousands of young people are missing out on the educational opportunity of lifetime because they don’t know it exists and, when they do apply for admission, they are turned down because they from the wrong caste or economic class. But the government has promised its citizens the right to a basic education. It turns out that Nazreen herself is a mother of two children, but she never attended school. Her husband never encouraged her and she never had the resources or time even for public school.
What started as a pilot project three years ago has now taken on a life of its own. There now exists a network of 55 leaders who are practicing what they’ve learned in various sessions of the “empowerment” training. They are meeting together to share successes and failures as they advocate for their communities. Most of these leaders are Christians, but lately, Hindus and even a Muslim woman – drawn by the love she sees and experiences – have joined the network. In a society known for its communal violence over religious differences, this is a miraculous development.
My co-worker and I sat in the back of the classroom and listened to the stories of how people and communities are changing. At the end of the day, the group voted on what they felt was the best example of how someone had implemented the training. (This was an exercise developed to build a sense of community and appreciation from among the network of leaders.)
It turned out the “best story” vote recognized one of the women who has been helping urban poor children get admitted to private schools. She had learned about the education laws from a high-powered lawyer she now works for. Through mentoring from our lead trainer, she also learned how to deal with dismissive teachers and principals. Her story was incredibly moving to the group — not only because of the way she was changing lives in her community, but because she herself had never attended school and yet was now on the verge of completing her secondary education. Her confidence had grown over the last few years. She not only was serving the children in her slum neighborhood, but she had studied on her own and passed standardized tests through the 10th grade. In two more years she would graduate from high school.
My eyes welled up with tears when I realized this was the woman, Nazreen, whom I had met earlier that day. From being an abused wife living in a marginalized, densely populated Muslim area in one of the largest cities in India, she was now part of a growing legion of change agents emerging from the urban slums. She was now being drawn by the love of the people of God into his work and is helping create an atmosphere of cooperation in a country riven by religious strife. And this day, her peers voted her as the person who most exemplifies what it means to be “empowered.”
Then I understood why she looked me in the eye and shook my hand with such confidence when we met.