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Sons of the soil, meet the woman who defies patriarchal Pakistan

Updated 07 May, 2015 10:41am
42-year-old Meena Bheel has made a name for herself in a largely male dominated society. - Photo by author
42-year-old Meena Bheel has made a name for herself in a largely male dominated society. - Photo by author

BADIN: The recent story of an Egyptian woman dressing up like a man for 43 years, fighting for survival in a largely patriarchal society instantly gained global attention. In Pakistan, 42-year-old Meena Bheel has a similar story to tell; she tills the field, dresses like a man, rides a bike and continues to defy negative stereotypes and prejudices held against women.

Meena belongs to the marginalised community of Bheels in Tando Bago town in the Badin district.

In her village, female peasants can only work in the fields under the supervision of their male heads. But Meena, who is popularly known as ‘Kamdar’ (field manager), not only supervises nearly one hundred acres of agricultural land owned by the local landlord and politician of Tando Bago, Atta Hussain Jamali, but also manages all the affairs of the haris [farmers] and their accounts.

Ten years ago, Meena (extreme-right) was asked by Mr Jamali to supervise his agricultural lands. - Photo by author
Ten years ago, Meena (extreme-right) was asked by Mr Jamali to supervise his agricultural lands. - Photo by author

“I have never been to school as I had to work in the fields at a very young age since my parents were extremely poor. But after years of toiling in the fields, I have now learned enough to be able to manage the land and its crops patterns. I also settle the accounts of haris without any assistance," says Meena while talking to Dawn.

Meena’s parents were diagnosed with Tuberculosis when she was a child, after which she took up the responsibility to earn for them and become the ‘man of the family’.

At a young age, Meena started dressing in male attire in order to protect herself from eve teasing and sexual harassment from fellow male workers in the fields of Haji Abhryo Dago village.

“I had some minor scuffles with a number of people because of their hostile attitude towards my dressing and many couldn't bear to see me working more efficiently than other haris,” she recalls.

Ten years ago, Meena was asked by Mr Jamali to supervise his agricultural lands which she took up as a challenge, proving herself to be more hardworking than other male ‘Kamdars’ of Jamali family.

Meena drives herself to work on a motorcycle daily, and also goes to a nearby town, Tando Bago to buy commodities frequently. Before getting a motorcycle, she used to ride horses or donkeys to travel to different towns in order to run errands.

Before getting a motorcycle Meena used to ride horses or donkeys to travel - Photo by author
Before getting a motorcycle Meena used to ride horses or donkeys to travel - Photo by author

Not only has she broken stereotypes, Meena has also shouldered the responsibility for giving the haris, who work under her, a sense of security. During night time when her subordinates water their crops, Meena carries a gun and patrols the fields to counter any attack.

When asked about her marital life she categorically denies having any intention to marry, as according to her, marriage means 'confinement'.

“When I was young, many people of my community came with proposals but I flatly refused because at that time I was the sole breadwinner of my parents and five sisters," she says.

Kamdar, who sometimes ploughs the fields with a tractor, also manages the transportation of the crops to markets in Tando Bago, Badin, Hyderabad and other areas of Sindh to buy and sell fertilisers and pesticides.

Kamdar also manages the transportation of the crops to markets - Photo by author
Kamdar also manages the transportation of the crops to markets - Photo by author

Despite having a Computer National Identity Card (CINC), she feels it is below her dignity to get the Benazir Income Support Programme stipend, adding that despite being the Kamdar of a political family she has never voted in any elections.

“My landlord wanted me contest the local bodies elections but I refused because I don't like the current state of politics in the country,” she says.

Her one political message to rural women, especially peasants: stand up against victimisation.