A changemaker who dared to defy!
“My biggest achievement has been to get people to embrace, as well as pursue education. I don’t believe in giving alms. To provide education is the best weapon to fight any evil.” Qazi says aptly.
Dilafroze Qazi reflects the harsh realities of conflict and the possibilities of achieving peace. Her story defines the dynamic blend of how peace and reconciliation are possible when one is empathetic and determined for action. As a product of the same system that hindered her work, her battle has started to make fundamental changes to the same system.
As Dilafrose Qazi opens up to share her experiences at her cozy home, decorated stylishly with medals and certificates hanging on the walls, the myriad of booklets, pamphlets and photographs give an indication of her work. The unflinching hope in her eyes and the smile on her face communicated to me all that willingness and ability with which she has been able to manage it all. While flipping the pages of a huge pile of papers on the floor, she opens up, and talks about everything that symbolizes her work.
“What do you want me to speak about?,” she beams. “My every struggle is symbolic of all those women in the war-torn Kashmir who have suffered at any point in time. But the conflict has helped me to listen to my inner voice as well as others.”
Qazi is a woman with a compelling, inspiring story. She is the founder of Srinagar School of Management (SSM) College of Engineering and Polytechnic, Jammu and Kashmir, the first private engineering college in the valley. Born in 1962, Qazi has a double Masters Degree in Education and Economics and completed the LLB programme at the University of Kashmir. From her rented house in Rajbagh area of Srinagar, she started her journey with vocational courses for women in 1988. She then added three year diploma courses in civil engineering to the college, which is today a well-known engineering school in the state, and has expanded to Haryana.
Her work has led to some close shaves with death, with threats from community members, some violent - but those attempts did not shake her determination to serve her community. Even her family was not spared; her father, brothers and husband were kidnapped.
She says that violence against women exists almost in every community, no matter in which form - but for those who stand up to make their painful stories heard, the phenomenon of justice is no longer ignored for them. “The circumstance under which I was working was not less than war. I was asked many a times to close my college but I choose to go on. I have fought my own people, politicians, militants who used to give me death threats. But, I never paid heed to them,” she says.
After her family members were kidnapped, she was told that if she didn’t give up her cause, that anyone who dared to unlock the college doors would be killed. But still she did not give up. The college was relocated to a safer area, in Srinagar, but again, she was threatened, with locals – on behalf of a religious leader – starting to agitate against her work in educating women.
Qazi didn’t let this stop her, “There was no question of surrendering before anyone with vested interest. Instead of entering into a war of words, I opened a free school for the local children and made people, especially those who opposed me, to realise the importance of educating women,” she says.
Qazi continues to set examples for the women, as well as the men in her community, remarkable in the male-dominated and conservative society of Kashmir. Her contributions to empowering the women and children of the Valley inspired her nomination for the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside 90 other women from India in 2005.
On her journey to help her community she is inspired by all her students. “I have come from a poor family. When people of different sects hear my stories, they are inspired by me. I keep on telling them that money and influence is not everything, but one should work with sincerity and hard work,” she says. “Those who opposed me at one point in time have become my fans today. They recommend my name to open up new vistas in my college and other self-help groups.”
When asked about the future, Qazi’s voice carries hope to the women who have borne the brunt of violence in the last two decades of turmoil, her efforts drawing attention to the women and children most affected. In addition to her work in education, she is also running handicraft centres. “Education can not only foster the personal development for a woman but that of her family, community, country and continues to the global scale. The negative gender-based norms that are all common in the valley, especially in far-flung areas, can gradually be replaced with the positive image of empowered and educated women,” she believes.
Qazi has also helped to establish self help groups for the underprivileged, especially widows and poor women. “Through these groups, women can now stand up in a crowd and question matters that affect the future of the community instead of accepting their traditional role of their confinement to household chores.” Physical and mental health issues are also an issue in the Valley, and Qazi has also been involved in organising medical camps and rehabilitation programs for women.
While explaining her vision for a peaceful Kashmir, she says that education, along with social, legal and other positive practices will give way to gender-equality at the global level. “Every basic human right should be systematically given to women. An empowered woman can tackle the roots of poverty, as when she works, her children are better fed and better educated because she has a better knowledge of where to spend and how much to save,” she says.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.