Saiba and Imrana have a lot in common. They’re both in their early thirties and live five minutes away from each other in northeast Delhi’s Mustafabad. But they were strangers to each other until February 2020, when both their husbands died during the Delhi riots.
Three years later, their struggles have brought them closer. “Whenever we need someone to understand us, she comes to my place and we speak our hearts out,” Imrana said.
So, when Newslaundry asked Saiba for an interview, she asked this reporter to meet her at Imrana’s house. “I am afraid to share my story in the presence of my in-laws,” she said over the phone. “Could you please meet me somewhere outside?”
The communal riots in Delhi claimed 53 lives. About 26 women lost their husbands and 60 children their fathers. Newslaundry spoke to 10 of these women, who all told similar stories of abuse or abandonment following the deaths of their spouses.
Saiba is one of them. She was married to Aas Mohammad, with whom she had three children. On the morning of February 25, 2020, he left as usual for work but he never returned. Thirteen days later, his family found his body at the Gokulpuri police station.
Newslaundry had three years ago. The FIR in the matter said he was killed by “unknown rioters” who tried to hide evidence by throwing his body into a drain. Saiba told this reporter that the mob that killed him allegedly opened his pants first to check his religion.
Imrana’s husband Mudassir Khan also died that day. He had been returning home from a relative’s when he was struck by a bullet. He left behind a wife and eight daughters.
Saiba and Imrana expected life to be difficult – but even so, they were taken by surprise. They told Newslaundry their inlaws turned from supporters to enemies, denying them financial and property rights and subjecting them to abuse.
But what triggered this change? Saiba and Imrana said it’s because they did not divide the compensation for their husbands’ deaths among family members. Each widow received Rs 10 lakh from the Delhi government.
‘They want to push us out of our house’
In Saiba’s case, she lives with her children in her in–laws’ home. “In such a big house, they have given us only one room,” she said. “It is so difficult for four people to adjust in such a small room.”
Saiba (top) and Aas Mohammad.
After she got the government compensation, her husband’s brother and his wife demanded that the amount be divided amongst the family.
“But then my children and I would have only got Rs 2 lakh. Why should I share that money?” she said. “It is my children who lost their father.” She used the amount to buy a house for which she receives Rs 6,000 per month as rent. She also earns around Rs 4,000 a month from tailoring work that she does at home.
This is not enough to feed and educate her children, she explained, so she’s pinned her hopes for a better life on her eldest son, Mohammad Rihan, who is just 12 years old. “He wants to become a doctor when he grows up. For that, I need to give him a better education,” she said.
Imrana lives with her father-in-law and her brother-in-law and his family. She has eight daughters, ranging in age from three to 18. The Rs 10 lakh she received was divided between her and Mudassir’s second wife.
Mudassir had owned a scrap factory which Imrana’s brother-in-law now runs. “It does good business,” she said. “My brother-in-law gives me Rs 10,000 per month which is not even half the income of the factory. I wanted to run the factory but the family did not approve of women running the business.”
Imrana said her eight daughters used money from “donations” to set up a small cosmetic business in their home but her in-laws shut it down.
“They told us it’s humiliating for them in their neighbourhood that young women are sitting in a shop,” Imrana said. Now, she’s unable to send six of her youngest daughters to school and relies on the income from another daughter’s work at a beauty parlour.
Do her in-laws give her any money? They used to, she said – between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 a month to make ends meet, but that stopped six months ago. “It’s their tactic to push us out of their house,” she said.
Additionally, Saiba, Imrana and their families still struggle with the trauma of what happened.
“I still can’t sleep at night,” Imrana said. “I am constantly worried about how I’ll be able to raise my children. Sometimes, I wish I’d been able to complete my education and not gotten married at such a young age of 18. My eldest daughter Shifa has started to get anxiety attacks because she was really close to her father. If he had been alive, I’m sure she would have been able to fully pursue her dreams.”
Saiba said, “My life was so beautiful with my husband. Unlike other husbands, he never beat me. He loved me so much and fulfilled all my wishes. This is something I can never get back.”
‘We are struggling for everything’
Last year, on how children impacted by the riots were unable to return to school due to financial constraints, the pandemic, and communal divides. In Ghaziabad, the Sunrise Public School was set up in November 2020 by the Miles2Smile Foundation to help these children pick up the pieces of their lives.
Mohammad Danish, principal of the school and board member of the foundation, told Newslaundry the school also gives jobs to women widowed by the riots.
“The inlaws of these women physically and mentally harass them,” he alleged. “Their biggest greed is they don’t want to support them financially or give them their share of property.” Muslim personal law guarantees widows and their children the right to a husband’s property but Danish said “none of the families are abiding by it”.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Loni, Najis, 36, lost her husband Jamaluddin on February 27, 2020. He had been attacked by a mob at their home in Shiv Vihar and was killed, leaving behind Najis and four children aged six, nine, 12 and 14.
Her world turned upside down after the riots, Najis said. Jamaluddin had run a bakery with his two brothers but after his death, the brothers stopped giving his share of the income to his widow. So, Najis and her children left her in-laws’ home in Shiv Vihar, where she’d spent her married life, and moved in with her mother and brother in Loni, Uttar Pradesh.
Najis does some sewing work, earning around Rs 2,000 a month. “There is no support from my in-laws,” she told Newslaundry. “They are well off and run their house from the same bakery. But here, we are struggling for everything.”
She told Newslaundry she refused to hand over the compensation amount to her husband’s family. Instead, she built a separate room in the house which she rents for Rs 2,000. She said her in-laws subsequently told her that her children no longer have claim on the family property.
Najis also wants to fight the case against the people who killed her husband. “I want to see those murderers behind the bars”, she said. But she can’t, she added, because she doesn't have the resources to do so.
Najis and her four childen.
Also in Loni, Newslaundry met Ruksana Bano, whose husband Firoz Ahmed was murdered here on February 24, 2020. He had been on his way home from work when he was attacked by a mob. His body was found 14 days later.
Ruksana lives with her four children, aged nine to 16. She said she never had a good relationship with her in-laws so she didn’t live with them when Firoz was alive too. But after he died, her brother-in-law would often visit and “beat her” because he was angry that Ruksana wanted her husband’s share of the family land.
“We have five acres of land in the village,” she told Newslaundry. “I should get my four acres. But instead of giving it to me, my mother-in-law said she wants the Rs 10 lakh compensation. Why should she get it when I am raising the children?” Ruksana said she “will not give up” until she gets her share of land.
Ruksana and Saiba both said their in-laws call them “prostitutes” out of anger. “Don’t even ask what kind of slurs they use for me. It’s torture,” said Saiba. “They do it deliberately because they want me and my children to leave their house.”
Why doesn’t she leave? Saiba said she wants to, but she has nowhere else to go.
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