My First All-Women Iftar Party at a Slum in Bhopal

Even though I have been brought up in Bhopal for almost all my life, the streets of Old Bhopal are still alien for me. So when I came to know about an all-women iftar party, I decided to jump on the opportunity.

My Jumma (Friday) at Junta Quarters began with hunting for a group of women in the scorching heat. These quarters are close to Aishbagh Stadium and half of the buildings – reeking of old paint – are on the verge of crumbling down.

These extremely small apartments make up one of the poorest pockets of Aishbagh urban slum community, mostly populated with Muslims. These are largely migrant families who travelled here in hope of getting better wages.

When I reached, I saw continuous hustle in the kitchens that would double up as bedrooms late in the night.

Women at Junta Quarters preparing for iftar party. Image credit: Aishwarya Shrivastav.

Reclaiming public spaces

While coming here, I crossed Iqbal Maidan – famous for its iftar gathering – spread across many lanes accommodating everyone to come together for the last meal of the day. This Maidan is surrounded by white tents where women break their fasts.

But women miss out on the charm of the evening lights and the independence that comes with open spaces.

“You will see men enjoying iftar parties outside while women are confined to indoor parties. All women occupy themselves day and night is cooking. Why can’t women step outside to break their roza with their friends?”, said one of the volunteers in an attempt to convince her ammi to attend the event.

Young women from the basti – Nighat Khan, Amreen Sheikh and Samreen Khan – were beaming with joy while setting sheets and gearing up for one last round of verbal invitations in their locality to encourage people to be a part of the evening.

Iftar evening meal. Image credit: Aishwarya Shrivastav.

On why they chose this area for organising the event, 24-year-old Nighat, who is youngest among her seven siblings, said, “A big part of this colony is a red light area. People don’t want to be associated with this place. Minor girls are pushed into commercial sex and pimping in the regular brothels existing here. With girls exposed to such kind of fearful environment it becomes essential that we encourage them to come out and claim their spaces and not succumb to the fear through organising such events.”

Nighat, along with some of her friends, run a youth counselling centre in the slum educating girls about safe sex, contraceptives and physical safety. Sometimes they are successful but it can get risky.

As this was my first iftar party, I was quite unsure of what was going to happen. With every passing hour, more women arrived and chattering never stopped. Members of other feminist organisations such as the Mahila Samakhya from Uttar Pradesh – Eka and Muskan – came together to show solidarity.

Intersectional informal gathering

To not add to workload, this roza iftar had been named ‘Sajha Dastarkhana’ where every women could bring whatever they had prepared and pool together for the feast. The crowd had women from all castes and religions connecting over common issues.

Another organiser Farah, who just finished Class 12 this year, talked about education in the basti. “Here, boys drop out sooner than girls. They have to take up daily wages jobs to support their families from a very young age that takes away the opportunity to get an education that could transform their thought process. Only very few of them manage to break the shackles of patriarchy and work together to build an equal society,” she said.

Abdul Haq from Insaani Biradari was patiently answering questions posed at him from the gully boys.

Women gathered outside the Junta quarters for iftar. Image credit: Aishwarya Shrivastav.

“People feel religion pull them back. I owe my liberal learning after reading all the religious texts. These men who haven’t come forward to support women are blinded by the religious teachings taught to them and they seldom question that with reasoning,” he said. “Jab tak saath baith kar khaayenge nhi tab tak samaanta ki baatein nhi ho sakti.” (Unless men start eating with women, inequality will prevail)

Fifty eight year-old Ruksana expressed her happiness with the party. “I am proud of these girls who are becoming what I wanted to become. I love eating out but I have to spend most of time indoors. So this is a day I shall cherish for years to come,” she said. “Auraton ko sirf khana banana hi nahi khana bhi accha lagta hai.” (Women enjoy eating as much as cooking).

Neelam Tiwari, who belongs to one of the only Hindu families in Budhwara, stressed on the importance of keeping these traditions alive that foster Hindu Muslim unity. Born and brought up in lanes of old Bhopal, it was a nostalgic moment for her.

Around 7:15 pm we heard an announcement asking everyone to break their fast and everyone, without any delay, attacked their plates. We were served pakodas, watermelon, sprouts, and laddoos with chilled glasses of Roohafza. With azaan calming our minds and selfless love filling our hearts, my first iftar party is a memory I will forcer cherish.

As I boarded the cab back to my home, I wondered if I was seeing those apartments for the first and last time.

More than half of the colony has been demolished due to deteriorating condition. But for now, I promised them I would return for Eid.

This is how Bhopal appears to me.

These people bond over love and not over those who will represent them in parliament over the next few years.

Aishwarya Shrivastav is a 22-year-old freelance journalist, history graduate from the University of Delhi and the author of ‘Mouthpiece’.

Featured image credit: Aishwarya Shrivastav