Fatima was the fifth girl child born to her parents and she was definitely not the child her mother was hoping for – a son. In the agricultural and fishing village of Boroitola, there are little opportunities for women. Most Muslim girls are married off by their parents as soon as they hit puberty. Fatima was no exception.
“The society I [was] born in was covered [with] superstitions and bigotry. Ever since I was a girl I had to [wear a] purdah to go outside of the house. My parents forced me to wear a burkha at the age of ten, long before I got to understand the meaning of all these,” Fatima wrote.
At the age of 13, Fatima had an arranged marriage, without her consent. Religion was a big factor. “They said, it would be a sin if I do not get married now,” she narrated in her journal.
At that time, she was in her eighth grade. Getting married meant stopping school. After a year, she gave birth to her first son.
Describing herself as “rebellious” in spirit, Fatima was determined to resume her schooling. This caused considerable tension with her husband and in-laws. “I was consumed by the conflict in my household about continuing my studies…I discussed this with my parents, but they told me that women should adjust. They tried to make me understand that my heaven is under my husband’s feet, that he is always right and I should obey him and accept everything,” she related.
Fatima pursued her studies secretly. Her teachers encouraged her and helped her along. After she got her Secondary School Certificate in 1998, Fatima’s husband and parents-in-law found out and got angry. Still, she persisted. Two years after, she acquired her Higher Secondary Certificate and in 2012, went on to study Law. She described the constant struggle to finish her studies as “brutal torture” because of her husband and in-laws’ opposition. Once, she attempted suicide to escape this torment. “While I was in the hospital, one doctor told me, ‘Your life is not for you only. You have to live for others in society. Death is not the only solution.’ After this, I tried to live my life in a different way,” Fatima said.
She started to write about her feelings towards child marriage and women’s rights. Fatima penned poems and novels, which were published in three national dailies and a magazine. “I was inspired. I thought that I have to do more for society, so that what happened to me does not happen to anyone else,” she said. Fatima began to talk to other women who were victims of child marriage and domestic abuse.
She discovered other Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) issues. According to her, women cannot speak about their problems freely at hospitals and health care centers. Women do not get adequate health care and usually suffer from post-delivery complications. They also do not have information and access to birth control. She started organising women around SRHR issues.
Recognising that women need economic empowerment, Fatima took her advocacy a step further by putting up a tailoring shop. Gathering donations from well wishers, she bought sewing machines and employed underprivileged women, most of whom were victims of violence. She also used the income to pay for tuition for her Law studies.
“I took tailoring training and started a tailor shop for underprivileged women. Moreover, I gave them free training for their capacity building. I collected donation from rich people and brought sewing machines for those women. Until now, I have trained 242 women in tailoring. All of them are now self-reliant and earn money through their work,” she said
At the age of 33, Fatima is a highly accomplished woman. She has helped stop around 90 child marriages, provided care for around 100 women victims of domestic violence, employed more than 200 women and educated more than a thousand women on birth control.
Fatima has also led human chains and other mass actions on issues such as rape, as well as conservative religious traditions, such as forcing women to wear the purdah and restricting their reading to only religious texts.
In 2015, Fatima won the upazila parishad elections to become the female vice-president. The upazila parishad is mainly responsible for providing social services in her sub-district. As a member of the hospital management committee, she plays an important role in ensuring women’s access to health services.
“I believe that sexual and reproductive rights are the prerequisite for achieving gender equality, since those are integral to individual uniqueness…Religion should not affect the protection of SRHR. However, misinterpretation of religion, ignorance and social superstitions affect society and women,” she wrote.
Fatima continues to assist child marriage victims, who are just like her during her younger days. She wrote that she derives satisfaction from being able to “do a few good things” for women, and hopes that her life experience will encourage them to struggle for their rights and freedom as well.