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Tharparkar’s women of substance

It is true that gender bias exists in our minds only. Thus you get a pleasant surprise when you get a glimpse of how these are being erased in none other than the desert of Thar

Tharparkar’s women of substance
Gulaban. Tiffin women at work. Dr Kamla Derajani.

How often will you come across a woman on the almost deserted road going from Islamkot to Nagarparkar driving a jeep? Not only that, what are the odds of seeing a Thari woman in a white and lavender-coloured ghagra-choli, white bangles on her forearms, a bright red lipstick matching the teeka on her forehead, behind the wheel with her husband sitting on the passenger seat?

Not many, not even once, you would say. So when you see Gulaban, 25, mother of three doing the unexpected, you want to get to know her better.

She proffers her hand, and smiles, as she comes down the temple steps. It’s a smile filled with pride. I am on her turf and therefore her guest.

Gulaban had recently built the temple in the village of Bhalwa next to a tree, a sacred site for the Hindus. “I had some savings and also sold a plot of land my husband had given me, to build this,” she waves towards the place of worship.

She comes all the way from Islamkot, which is roughly 55km from the village in Nagarparkar taluka. She makes this journey (one way is about an hour and a half) twice a month, and brings with her a big pot of rice to feed all the kids of the village.

She was also among the first batch of 30 women that were trained to drive trucks by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), a Pakistani firm excavating coal from the Thar desert. Driving a truck may be different and even difficult, but according to Gulaban, she already knew how to drive a car so she had an edge over other women who had never sat behind the wheel. She has since left her job in the company devoting all her energy and time towards completing the temple.

***

Ruqqiya Zaheer, 34 and mother of four, may have a master’s degree in Zoology, but her first love was always food — not so much eating but feeding others. And if the food is good, it can be turned into a roaring business. This is exactly how Zaheer won over the hearts of her ever-growing clientele — through their stomach. Today, her tiffin business has become the talk of Mithi town.

She got together a group of women from her neighbourhood and started a homemade food delivery service.

“You would be surprised to learn how many single working men and women are ordering our food!” What started with just six or eight lunch orders daily five months ago, has grown to 250 regulars — and they are now providing dinner as well.

“Some of our clients are from different cities of Sindh, like Dadu and even Hyderabad. It is expensive to eat out day and night or even to hire a cook, they say,” she says.

Zaheer and her team offer a daily menu and have a Facebook page by the name of The Guide. The orders (they have set up two dedicated phone lines just for this business) are to be placed by 11am and she sends for the groceries accordingly. By 2pm the food is packed and sent all across town. “We offer free delivery and have five riders (three go on foot to the nearby places) just for this,” she adds.

The achaars, salads and raita are complimentary sides that come with the food. She often gets the achaars and halwas made on order from other women from the town. “We recently got a big lunch order for a conference where we had to make 200 rotis. We knew we would not be able to cook as well as make rotis on such a short notice, so I just outsourced the rotis and within no time everything was ready and sent across,” she says.

Right now her own kitchen is being used, but soon, from her profits, she plans to rent a place and fit it with a commercial kitchen. “I live in a joint family and my kitchen is too small now for our orders, it would be better if we move out!”

***

Kamla Devrajani could not have chosen a better profession for herself. “I love animals!” she says, the only woman veterinarian. So when she sees the mistreatment of animals, she is extremely saddened. “Animal drawn carts are overloaded, no one pays heed to the injuries incurred to cows during ploughing, the living quarters of domestic animals are filthy…” and the list of complaints by the animal rights activist goes on.

Devrajani works in Mithi’s government-run central veterinary laboratory and is among the 30 vets in all of Tharparkar, looking after a livestock population of over seven million. A lot of her time is spent peering under the microscope looking for anything suspect in the various samples of milk, blood and faeces of various animals that are collected by the ground staff. “Through this we can pre-empt disease outbreaks and give the animals medicines before they become sick,” she says.

It has also been her mission to educate the rural women about keeping their livestock in a sanitised environment since a majority of women are the real caretakers. “We need to change their attitude.” And so she, and her colleagues, go around talking to villagers about the importance of giving animals a neat and clean pen and how it can be done.

What never ceases to amaze Devrajani is that despite the cyclical drought-like condition in Thar which adversely affects the health of the livestock, the nutritional value of the milk from Thari livestock and the quantity still surpasses the urban livestock population which gives less milk of poorer nutrition.

“It is possible that the Thari animals are given lesser quantities of oxytocin (the hormone injected into animals to produce more milk) which has a harmful effect on the animal as well as human beings. Milk laced with oxytocin is specially harmful for young girls and affects their menstrual cycle and causes gynecological and reproduction problems,” Devrajani warns.

Before she joined the Mithi veterinary centre in 2015, she was a lecturer in Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences from 2005-2010 and then at Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at Sakrand from 2010-2012. A mother of five, the eldest 22 and the youngest just five, she says she was able to pursue her higher studies as well as continue to work because of her husband — Dr Ashok Bakhtani’s unwavering support.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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