Actress Shabana Azmi has been diligently working towards her father’s dream — to empower rural India by providing employment, empowering the girl child and raising living standards. The late Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi founded Mijwan Welfare Society (Mijwan in a small village in Uttar Pradesh) with the goal of making Mijwan a scaleable and replicable model of development with a focus on the girl child and women. Today, as they gear up for their 9th annual fashion show ‘The Walk of Mijwan’ by Manish Malhotra, which is helmed by Shabana and Namrata Goyal, the actress says she is glad that she has got the full support of Bollywood.
This year Ranbir Kapoor, who is the Goodwill Ambassador of Mijwan Welfare Society, and Deepika Padukone will walk the ramp. The idea behind the show is to bring changes in the lives of women who are involved in the Craft of Chikankari. “From Shah Rukh Khan to Priyanka Chopra to Ranbir, every single film star has walked the ramp. I have had the unsaid support of my industry colleagues who have come on board every time I have requested without any questions asked. I am extremely grateful for that,” says Shabana.
Ask her how does it help to bring Bollywood on board and garner attention for the cause and she replies, “It’s huge because not only the Indian film industry but international super model Naomi Campbell has worn our clothes and that brings a lot of attention. It greatly builds the confidence of women who are doing this craft, they have been brought to the centre stage. They take great pride in their work, so the support I get from my industry people is crucial,” says Shabana adding that the partnership with ace designer Manish Malhotra is good because he has taken traditional craft and refashioned it with contemporary silhouettes and has made it wearable for the youth. “It’s a win-win combination,” she quips.
However, one must realise that this (the fashion show) is not the only thing that Mijwan Welfare Society does. “We do a whole lot of ground-level work and empower women. We run a school and an inter-college for girls, a computer centre, a skill development centre and do a lot of work for the infrastructure of the village (Mijwan) because we believe that Mijwan is a replicable model. If we can apply this model to all the villages in India, there will be no need for people to migrate to cities in search of work,” she adds.
Shabana says that because her work started in the slums of Mumbai, she realised that unless people get employment in villages, they will keep migrating to cities where they can find work but not housing, which is why they end up living in slums. “My father Kaifi Azmi founded the NGO to empower rural India because he believed that to bring real change we have to move our attention towards villages with focus on the girl child,” she says.
Sharing more details about their work and achievements, she says, “All the ground work was done by my father and he had to overcome several hurdles but after he passed way, I, along with my goddaughter Namrata Goyal, have been spearheading this. The achievements have been remarkable because we have managed to spread ‘gender just education’ (where both boys and girls get education). Also, child marriage has been eradicated from Mijwan and the surrounding areas. That, for me, is a huge step forward because it shows the change in mindset. If a girl gets married at 18, she will think that her daughter also has to marry at 18. This perspective had to change. Girls, who were earlier considered liabilities, are now being looked upon as assets because they are earning, operating their own bank account, getting financially literate and so on.”
The Society runs several institutions including Kaifi Azmi High School for girls, Kaifi Azmi Inter College for girls, Kaifi Azmi Computer Training Centre and Kaifi Azmi Sewing and Tailoring Centre. She proudly adds that they started the computer centre in 2000 when computers were unheard of in villages. “I also remember my mother had bought a pressure cooker from Delhi and whenever it would whistle, the village women would come running thinking it was the train’s whistle. They had never seen a pressure cooker, a TV or a computer, and today, Mijwan is a model village.”
Talking about her future plans, she says, “We have many action plans. We have developed a model village and it is for people to take it forward. We want to build an English school and a factory, which will give work to both men and women. We want to transform the economics of the area. It was primarily a potters’ village and then they gave up pottery. Now, there is reverse migration. They are returning to Mijwan because they have all the comforts.”