The Dishwasher’s Daughter
Fathima Shabana, the daughter of a poor Indian dishwasher, has made it to the Indian Institute of Technology against all odds.
The youth of India has just the right amount of passion and vigor to push them forward in the field of education. Although South Asia in general and India in particular is rampant with poverty and illiteracy, the scales are shifting slowly but steadily. The need for education as well as the awareness of its importance in molding one’s future is being increasingly felt by the youth of South Asian countries. With the media at the forefront of education campaigns, and the social and digital media agencies promoting the cause of eradicating illiteracy, the need for spreading education, even in the most backward areas, is getting the kind of importance it deserves. A recent case of a motivated and committed student is that of Fathima Shabana, the 17-year-old daughter of a poor dishwasher in Chennai. Fathima stuck to her guns about getting an education in the face of serious challenges such as poverty and gender discrimination and successfully made her way towards the Indian Institute of Technology.
Fathima’s achievements in education are particularly commendable if her background is taken into consideration. Part of a small community in Chennai, she and her family struggled to stay afloat. Her father, Shahul Hamid, has a minieatery or a ‘dhaba’ where he works as a dishwasher and serves food. He came to Chennai from a small village in Thoothukudi and has since been
working day and night to ensure that his family does not go to bed hungry. With such adversity, one does not expect an environment encouraging enough for children to carry out their studies.
Fathima’s father dropped out of school to pursue his current career, from which he makes only Rs.300 a day. Fathima has worked tirelessly to ensure that her father’s hard work paid off in terms of her education, and the day finally arrived on May 25, 2014, when Fathima found that she had cleared the Joint Entrance Exams and had a chance to enter engineering at an IIT.
Hamid is overjoyed at his daughter’s achievement as he has witnessed how hard Fathima worked to get this position. “My daughter has made me proud. I always knew she would pass her exams with flying colors,” an emotional Hamid said. Although Hamid was unable to send Fathima to a private school, he saw to it that both his son and daughter attended a corporation school, which is free. Hamid reflects on how it had always been his daughter’s dream to be an engineer and how he used to worry that he wouldn’t be able to fulfill her dream with a paltry income of Rs.300.
Fathima’s mother, Bahira Begum, is equally proud. “I couldn’t attend school and neither did my husband. But we made sure that our children do not miss a single day of school and it has finally paid off,” she says, planting a kiss on her daughter’s cheek. Bahira Begum recounts how girls of Fathima’s age would be playing on the streets while Fathima would devour books after books. She has always had a penchant for writing and it’s evident from her scores.
While Fathima’s parents did try to place their children in a private school, they soon realized that they could not afford the fee and shifted them to a school where they didn’t have to pay fees. When Fathima was in Class IX, a team from a private coaching institute visited her school. It was looking for bright students to be coached for the JEE-IIT test. Fathima happened to be among the nine students who were selected and was put through a screening test. While her parents were unsure about the affordability of the
JEE coaching classes, the headmaster of Fathima’s school was certain about her talent and played a major part in convincing her parents to let her appear in the JEE test. The headmaster was fully aware of the importance of this opportunity. Fathima studied night and day for her JEE entrance exams. She also scored a whopping 83 percent in her class X board exams.
Being a studious girl, she always strived to be at the top of the class and achieved first or second positions. It was her consistent performance that convinced the representative of the coaching institute to allow Fathima to be coached free of cost. Her forte being mathematics, Fathima was confident of doing well in the JEE, a confidence that wasn’t misplaced as she aced the test.
The main difficulty she faces after clearing the JEE is the fact that colleges are far off and girls in her small community aren’t encouraged or allowed to go to distant places, especially for education. Gender dynamics in rural areas of South Asian countries have held back many young women who have the potential to achieve laurels in many fields. It is yet to be seen whether Fathima will also become just another statistic in that list.
Besides the fact that she is a teenage girl from rural India, the affordability factor also comes into play. A dishwasher’s salary can hardly be enough to put a child through college, especially with the soaring tuition fees
of private institutions and the massive overhead charges of studying for a professional degree like engineering. These are some constraints that a large number of students face and Fathima’s story is no different.
However, she has not lost hope and believes that she will be able to carry on with her studies regardless of the challenges. Her dream is to study computer science, as she claims that she thoroughly enjoys learning all about computers. “I do not have a computer at home, but we get to operate the ones at school and I’m very interested in learning how and why they work the way they do,” Fathima says.
Her brother, a student of class IX, says that in his sister he has a solid role model to look up to. Being a class topper himself, he also harbors the dream of becoming an IIT professional, and is already planning a future for himself. Having experienced adversity firsthand and having seen their parents work hard to put their children into school, both Fathima and his brother want to give back to society through their education. Any child’s dream is to make their parents proud, but the motivation one receives through supportive parents who, in Fathima’s case, are practically illiterate, is a rewarding prospect. Hamid and Bahira Begum brim with pride as they look at their daughter, and give her their blessings.