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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Aisha Ma­lik

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.

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