Sameen R. Chaudhary, London
It is generally acknowledged that the role of women changed during and after the World Wars. With the men away on the battle field, it was up to women to hold down the fort at home, taking on war jobs that went beyond their traditional roles. Mechanics, factory workers, farmers; jobs that before were ‘men’s jobs’ were now being done by women. Posters of strong women and propaganda challenged the stereotypes and encouraged women to work, because the nation demanded, nay, depended on it for their survival. It was perhaps intended to be a temporary break from the norm until the men returned. Once begun however, many of these women found it difficult to go back to their roles pre-war. They had come to a realisation almost by default; that they were capable and intelligent enough to do a man’s job and for them that meant that they were now equal.
There was a quiet revolution for women happening elsewhere in the world around the same time, 1922 to be precise. There were no posters, and no propaganda. And women were not being told to leave their traditional roles temporarily. These women had already been given an equal status by their faith, Islam, more than a thousand years earlier, but they did not have to act like men to prove it. This revolution recognised the uniqueness of women and the contributions they could make to further a nation, as women in their own right. This revolution occurred in India. Here, even though approximately 1.3 million men had gone off the fight the war, still women did not have to take on the role of men. Instead they were taught how to flourish in their own role as women. When a woman is allowed to achieve everything on par with men, but in her own way, without having to prove that she can act like a man- that is not just equality. It is freedom. Freedom to be a woman, and freedom to be equal in the true sense of the word.
These women I speak of, Ahmadi Muslim women were relatively financially poor but rich with enthusiasm and love for Islam and even managed to wholly finance the first mosque in London while living in 1920s India. The Second Khalifa, the spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community set up an auxiliary women’s organisation called Lajna Ima’illah in December 1922. Its aim was self-education and training of women, both in spiritual and secular terms. For example, as is still the norm in rural parts of the East, women learn crafts such as sewing and embroidery. One of the first departments created within this auxiliary was that of Industry and Handicraft, after some ladies used their skills to make artefacts and hold an exhibition where they were sold. The proceeds went to good causes. And thus this department was born with its roots in the empowerment of women by encouraging them to learn and use their skills to eradicate unemployment.
In short, it allows them to pursue means by which they can improve their skills and earn their own money-an important feature for some women when claiming their independence. But crucially, it allows them to do it in a way that does not compromise any other aspect of themselves. So often women who have multiple roles face the harsh reality of having to put one role above the other: A working mother may feel the guilt of leaving her child whilst she goes to work sometimes out of financial necessity and sometimes out of having to make a financial contribution to her household as this is what her ‘equality’ entails. The Second Khalifa of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, with his amazing foresight, recognised the importance of making women independent and eradicating unemployment as a means to empower them, rather than empowering women because they needed to fill the shoes of men. Even today in many cultures financially independent women are still feared. But he encouraged them at a time when working women were scarce amongst those that were financially supported, by giving them a higher cause: to earn their own money and spend out of it for the cause of faith thereby raising their spiritual status as well.
For over 10 years now I have watched my mother serve in the capacity of Secretary for Industry and Handicraft for Lajna Ima’illah UK; watched all kinds of women work hard, to learn new skills, to set up their own businesses sometimes in the face of adversity. I have seen women take on their roles as women and entrepreneurs with dignity and grace, and above all, creating a work life balance where their womanhood is not compromised. Skills such as cooking, sewing and handicrafts may seem old fashioned and out dated. But only a look at some of the most popular TV programmes currently suggest otherwise. It is not only these skills that can be developed, but whatever you wish. The idea is to help all those who have not pursued other career routes to work for themselves, giving them true independence and the ability to answer to no one but themselves and God. Women have organised bazaars with a footfall of over 3,000 women, providing a platform for many business women to sell and advertise their products and services. They work in temporary industrial sized kitchens in the outdoors, and feed over 10,000 women every day for three days every year at the Annual Convention for the Ahmadiyya Community. It is not pretty or dainty work, and it is certainly not for the weak. The strength, stamina and resolve of such women is remarkable. And they are not alone. A huge voluntary task force of women work long hours providing security, shelter, food, and comfort of every kind to their guests during this time.
As India celebrates its all women flights, Lajna Ima’illah has been running its own organisation, own events and own programme of education and reform for all women and girls for decades upon decades. Indeed, it is now an organisation global in scope, working in over two hundred countries around the world. Perhaps here in the UK in the future Lajna Ima’illah can reach the level of holding exhibitions such as those in Earl’s Court and the Excel Centre, mirroring the humble efforts of those first pioneers back in the 1920s.