Maldhari Women Changemakers of Banni Grasslands in Kachchh
The women of the Maldhari community have a huge role to play in the rearing of livestock. They are also very artistic and their embroideries are works of art. On International Women’s Day, read about three women who have dared to dream and have made their presence felt in the semi-nomadic community.
Astha Chaudhary and Dipti Arora 7 March 2023 6:52 AM GMT
Astha Chaudhary and Dipti Arora
The Banni grasslands in Kachchh, Gujarat, extend over 2,500 square kilometres. There are over 55 villages in this area coming under 19 village panchayats. The grasslands fall between the rocky mainland of Kachchh and Greater Rann of Kachchh.
One of the communities that reside in the Banni grasslands are the Maldharis, a majority of whom are Muslims. The Maldharis are a semi-nomadic community, who migrate seasonally from one place to another in search of fodder and water. They keep and breed livestock such as the Banni buffalo (Sindhi buffalo), Kankrej cattle (Sindhi cow), horses, camels, sheep and goats.
The women of the Maldhari community have a huge role to play in the rearing of their livestock. The men usually take the animals for foraging and are responsible for selling milk to the dairies, choosing the grazing routes and so on.
It is no surprise therefore that the women who spend a lot of time nurturing the livestock are a storehouse of information about the animals. Just by looking at the milk yield and its quality, they can tell where the cattle had grazed that morning. They play an important role in making decisions related to buying and selling of buffaloes, the quantity of fodder to be fed to them and so on.
The Maldhari women are also very artistic and their embroideries are works of art. The motifs are unique to each caste amongst them and are passed down from one generation to another. Girls begin embroidery very young in life. The women of Banni are connected with several handicraft organisations and earn money for their efforts.
But most of all, these are women who have survived despite adversities and hardships and shown the way to others in their villages on how their lot can be improved. Following are the stories of three strong women who have dared to dream and have made their presence felt in the Maldhari communities of Banni Grasslands.
Nazia Mutwa: The first woman graduate from Banni
Nazia Mutwa is a 21-year-old Maulana from Gorevali village near Rann of Kachchh. As a Maulana, she teaches the tenets of Islam at the Madrasa. And, encourages women to read the Namaas on Jummah.
Gorevali is one of the few villages where girls’ education has seen an improvement in the last decade. Even so, most of them drop out either because they are needed to help out at home or are getting married.
Fortunately for Nazia, who always wanted to study and become a teacher, she had her father’s support. She moved to Malegaon in Maharashtra to complete her education in Urdu and Arabic from Mohammadia Tibbia College. She pursued the Aalmiyat course to become more proficient in the Holy Quran.
She said doing that was tough as she had to adhere to strict rules and regulations. She had to be in burqa and restrict herself from mingling too much with the outside world. But, it was her desire to become a Maulana that kept her on the straight and narrow.
“I felt as a Maulana, I could make a positive impact on my society. I am proud to say that I am the most educated woman in my village, and I am one of the very few from my batch who got a chance to work after passing out from Mohammadia Tibbia College. Best of all I have been able to instill some hope in the young girls that they too can have a bright future despite all boundaries,” she said.
Nazia, like a lot of her fellow villagers, does traditional embroidery and also sews the uniform for her students.
Rabani Jatt: An outsider who became a Maldhari
While marriages are usually within the Maldhari communities in the Banni grasslands, once in a while, women from outside, usually from West Bengal or Bihar, are welcomed into the fold.
24-year-old Rabani from Asansol, West Bengal, is one such. “I came here when I was just 18 years old. I was so worried and anxious as the people, culture, costumes, jewelry, everything was new to me. I told my mother I did not want to live here,” she said. Rabani was married into Sarada, a Jatt community village in western Banni that traditionally keeps Banni buffaloes and practices a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Today, Rabani is no longer an ‘outsider’. She quickly learnt the ways of the community and has become the main caretaker of the buffaloes at home. According to her, being from outside has emboldened her to voice her opinions.
“My motive is not to offend anyone, but just stand for the right things,” she said. Rabani firmly believes that the orthodox patriarchal system impacts women's health and choices in life. She is also the most educated woman in her village, having passed class eight.
Haneefa Jatt: Using every opportunity to set up an enterprise
Haneefa Jatt belongs to Shervo village, in Western Banni. She is an enterprising woman who used opportunities that came her way to earn a livelihood. Haneefa, who is in her 50s is often spotted carrying bundles of clothes on her head and slung on her shoulders going from home to home, selling clothes. She buys the clothes from Bhuj and sells them to Jatt communities in the three villages of Sarada, Shervo and Bhitara.
“Four years ago, our villages got flooded and we had to move bags and baggage to upper reaches in the area. That was when I sold some of the clothes I had got from Bhuj the previous year,” Haneefa said. Ever since, she has made a name for herself and women of her community eagerly look forward to her visits.
Today, the money she earns this way is looking after a family of eight members and five cattle. Her husband is a daily wage labourer. Haneefa earns anything up to Rs 15,000 a month. “I have built myself a boonga (a home) and bought a three-wheeler vehicle popularly called a chhakda,” she said. She has earned her freedom and uplifted her family in the process, Haneefa added.
Dipti Arora and Astha Chaudhary are research scholars associated with Coexistence Consortium. Views are personal.