By Dia Z Panakkat,
The story of a local woman who fights inequality that persists even in Kerala.
Society should be grateful to volunteer social workers who do good in some of the most challenging neighborhoods in our country.
In places like Delhi and Bangalore, social workers are a common sight because of the obvious, visible social inequalities. In these cities, tall skyscrapers for the rich exist right next to slums and poverty is everywhere.
In Kerala these inequalities are not as obvious. Driving through the streets of Kochi or Kozhikode, you will notice that there are no extreme changes in the appearances of the people or dwellings.
It’s not just in appearances, but Kerala is in fact a more egalitarian society compared to the rest of India. Statistics read that Kerala’s poverty rate is the second lowest among Indian states, its literacy rate of 94% is the highest, life expectancy of 75 years is the highest, while infant mortality of 7 deaths per 1000 children born is the lowest in India.
However, even within Kerala there are hidden pockets of inequality. One such pocket is the community of Payyanakkal in Kozhikode. In Payyanakkal, the roads are narrow and bumpy, the houses are close together and shabbily constructed, and the numerous canals that flow through the area are completely polluted with garbage.
By population, Payyanakkal and its adjacent areas form the largest ward under Kozhikode Corporation. The citizens of Payyanakkal are traditionally fishermen or other low income workers like labourers. Because of poverty, there are a lot of societal problems including low education levels and high levels of domestic abuse. There is also a widespread lack of hygiene and accompanying poor health. This has been made worse during the pandemic since the residents are not aware of the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.
Payyanakkal is also highly religiously segregated. It is located close to the site of the Marad massacre— one of the worst instances of religious violence in the recent history of Kerala.
Fortunately, there are social workers who understand these pitfalls and do everything they can to improve the standard of life of the residents of Payyanakkal. I recently had the opportunity to meet one such social worker — Advocate C.K. Zeenat.
Zeenat herself was born into poverty. One of nine children in a poor seafaring family in Payyanakkal. No one in Zeenat’s extended family had ever attended college. Through extreme grit, Zeenat completed 12th grade at the local government school, and got her BA and MA in economics. She then enrolled for evening classes at the Government law college in Kozhikode getting her LLB, and a subsequent LLM while doing odd jobs during the day. She became the first one to finish college, setting an example for her family and community.
When my father and I visited Zeenat, she explained her journey this way:
“When I was in high school I was awarded a minority scholarship. When we received the money, I needed my mother’s signature on the receipt. All that was left to do was for her to sign her name at the bottom. This was before Kerala’s 100% literacy drive, and my mother did not even know how to sign her name. The realization that the mother who raised me wasn’t even educated enough to write her own name was hard-hitting. I realized that there would be many kids and adults in our neighborhood in the same state as my mother and would remain that way unless someone did something fast. That is when I decided to become a social worker”.
Life for an independent-minded woman was tough in Payyanakkal and Zeenat would go on to face more personal challenges.
“Even after I got my law degree, my family struggled with finding me a groom. I was always against the evils of dowry and only found a suitable partner when I was 30. The marriage, which was according to muslim traditions was presided over by a renowned social worker and not by a religious preist. This created tensions with the local masjid committee which would create problems later. When my father, who was an observant muslim, passed away in 2004 the commitee denied him a burial spot. It was only after a frantic search that we finally arranged a spot at a neighboring masjid.”
Along with her community work, Zeenat went on to be a full-time advocate practicing in family law, making women aware of their rights in situations such as divorce and domestic abuse. She was also elected to be the ward councillor representing Payyanakkal, where she worked within the political system to bring about positive change.
Today, Zeenat’s main activity is to support children who have been missing out on school due to the pandemic. She oversees classes in English, Math and Hindi for 200 students from grades 3 to 9 spread across a network of 12 anganwadis around Payyanakkal.
Being a committed environmentalist, she has also worked to put up barricades along the canals preventing its pollution with garbage.
It was towards the end of our tour that something took my father and I by surprise. On our way back to the government school where we met Zeenat, we came across a large group of young men and boys maskless and most of them shirtless. This alarmed me because it was unsafe to huddle like this during a pandemic. Unaware of the violence that took place in these areas I took this quite naturally, my father on the other hand seemed nervous for some reason. It was only when one of the boys stuck their hand out that I too was beginning to question whether we should just speed past or stop. My father decided to come to halt and see what the young man had to say. Zeenat asked my father to lower the window and he did so.
“Zeenat…we need your help with this sewer leak”, said the young man. That’s when I realised the awesomeness of this local hero who was guiding us through her neighbourhood.