When two young researchers decided to delve deep into the past in search of Haleema Beevi, the first woman municipal councillor, publisher and editor in Kerala, they were baffled by the total absence of information on her.
They found that Haleema has been thrown into oblivion with only sketchy traces of her existence remaining in the public domain. She was not found in any literary history and her fight against patriarchy was not recorded anywhere. Nor were her ventures in publishing taught in journalism classes. It was the cruel marginalization of Haleema that prompted the researchers, Noora and Noorjahan, to write a book to retrieve the memory of the multi-faceted figure.
“We realized that searching for those who were erased from history is a daunting task. The journey to Haleema either hit a roadblock or became a futile exercise,” the researchers wrote in the book “Pathradhipa: Life of M Haleema Beevi.”
“We heard about Haleema from Mujaeeb Rehman Kinaloor of Vakkom Moulavi Study and Research Centre. We never thought the journey in search of her details would be so arduous,” said Noorjahan. Thus began the passionate journey of the two young women to the past to meet probably the first ‘Islamic feminist’ in Kerala, who dared to interpret Quran and Hadees from a woman’s perspective.
Born in Adoor in Pathanamthitta in 1918, Haleema shifted to Thiruvalla after her marriage with K M Muhammad Moulavi. She started her first venture in publishing, “Muslim Vanitha” in 1938 when she was only 20.
Haleema did not stop even after “Muslim Vanitha” met with a tragic end due to severe financial crisis and opposition from the orthodoxy in the community. She started “Bharatha Chandrika” in 1944 which had writers such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P Kesavadev, G Sankara Kurup, M P Appan, P Kunhiraman Nair, O N V Kurup, S Guptan Nair and N Balamaniamma as regular contributors. Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer was one of the sub-editors of the magazine.
She started a monthly along with “Bharatha Chandrika” titled “Vanitha”. Her last venture was “Adhunika Vanitha” that was started in 1970.
“We talked to many people, including her children to know more about her personal life. One description that lingers in our memory is the picture of a woman who spends the nights in the printing press busy preparing materials for the next edition,” Noora said one of the researchers who works as a schoolteacher in Malappuram.
“Haleema was also a good organizer who used to convene meetings of women’s forums in Thiruvalla, where she was a municipal councillor from 1938 to 1945,” she said.
Haleema was arrested and put behind bars for her political activity. She recalled in one of her interviews that Sir C P Ramaswamy Ayer had once offered her a good job if she was ready to end her political life. The authors believe that such a strong woman was wiped out from our memory because she became the victim of a “double marginalization”. “We couldn’t find her in our cultural history because she may not fit in the upper caste mode as she was a Muslim. She was also conveniently forgotten by the Muslim organizations because of her identity as a woman,” said Noorjahan, who is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Science.
Haleema was associated with the activities of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen and presided over the meeting of women as part of the organization’s annual conference in 1959.
“But you will not find her name anywhere in the history of the organization that claims the legacy of Muslim renaissance,” Noorjahan said.
Writer Mujeeb Rehman Kinaloor said he hit upon Haleema’s name while he was collecting materials for an article on the presence of women in the Kerala Muslim renaissance.
“She was an exceptional character who wrote on Islamic issues in Al Manar magazine,” he said.
The issues that Haleema discussed in her writings are quite explosive and indigestible to the patriarchy even now. She boldly declared that a woman’s role cannot be confined to the kitchen.
She had alternative plans for the women’s empowerment. She evolved an educational project in which religious and modern education are placed side-by-side. Haleema wanted topics such as health and psychology along with Quran in the syllabus. The picture of Haleema emerging from the sketches is incomplete and fragmentary. “Majority of the materials related to her life were lost when she became a point of discussion in the public. We recreated a good part of her life from her own writings,” said Noora.
Joining the dots on the life of the lone fighter would also be a combat against the forces that erased her memory.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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