Making Connections: Exploring a feminist perspective to community mental health

Based on our fellows’ interests and discoveries, we strongly feel that the upcoming project in our Qafila Fellowship will be surrounding issues faced by the women of the community. To address this topic from a broader lens, we were joined in by Sheeba Aslam Fehmi Ji, a dynamic woman from Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area. She is a feminist writer and journalist as well as an expert in women studies. Her conversation did not only widen our understanding of women and community mental health but also facilitated the process of gaining insights into the community work. Let’s see how it unfolded!

The session with Sheeba Ji can be best described as a colour pallet. A colour pallet used in the making of one painting. Where from afar, on the canvas, we might see one painting, with a number of elements. Yet, when we deconstruct..we arrive at the pallet. With so many colours, fused together, amidst their differences and similarities, resulting in a surreal painting.

The session was a collection of things, where one lead to another. We talked about issues that surround us ranging from reservation to parenthood and its responsibilities. But if we were to take all of the issues and separate the underlying threads that ran parallel in this conversation, it would be historicity and empathy. Both are interlinked because to see one event with its history attached to it, is in itself an empathetic stand.

The fellows took back a bundle of different ideas from the session. Aside from lending them the motivation to pick up books and theories, Sheeba Ji’s session opened them up to a lot of things that are still practiced in the country. The fellows found that the issues of caste, class, and gender are present strongly in Daryaganj (part of their community engagement) and found it beneficial to understand that these issues can be looked at from a lot of perspectives. They also feel that researching on what the Daryaganj community has been, where it began, are all a part of where it is now, and this will help them engage in a more empathetic manner with the people living here.

Here is an example of how, through the session, one question lead to the opening of many discourses. When we were talking about what religion is, and how it affects people in all walks of life. Here we encountered the question,“Has it always been like this in religious practice?” This leads us to broaden the discourse from just religion to historicity of religion…Sheeba Ji talked about how religion is different from Spirituality, and that spirituality is something personal that exists within, as a bond between individual and God, with no middleman. Where as organised religion has its own historical discourse and reason for existing, for example, it exists to protect the unit of family, marriage, and advocate certain values. This also opened up the conversation to who wrote this history. The answer was, usually males. And we went to discussing why is history patriarchal, and what does a feminist lens of history mean and signify.

The main points of discussion throughout were caste discrimination, gender superiority, effects of patriarchy, understanding spirituality as different from organised religion, going through feminist history and feminism, the changes after the printing press came into being, etc. The conversation, though inter-woven with small and big stories, kept finding its way back to mental health, as the fellows kept asking questions about how they could bring what Sheeba Ji was talking about in practice while engaging with the community.

This question was answered by the fellows themselves as they borrowed from Sheeba Ji’s stance of analysing, interpreting and solving issues through multiple lenses, such as the mental health lens, socioeconomic lens, the geographical lens, the political lens, the lens of feminism…these offered a more holistic picture of the issue at hand, and let us take an empathetic and informed stand.

The fellows took back something that they saw as a part of healing, ‘spirituality.’ They found that religious faith is something a lot of people carry, something that grounds them, and this needs to be given its own space while discussing mental health, as it’s one of the things the people hold close to their sense of well being.

Sheeba Ji left with having imparted a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm to the fellows, and a will to dig deeper into the cause of what they are doing with the community. The fellows also carried the awareness, that looking at issues through the psychological lens is not enough, they are required to give just as much thought to the cultural context that exists in Dariyaganj, and analyse that from a sociological and geographical point of view to come up with changes they can make for the mental well-being of the people.

Needless to say, the fellows walk away from this session, with a few more colours in their pallet, to add a little more to their paintings.

About Sheeba Ji

Sheeba Aslam Fehmi is a feminist writer and journalist in India, and one of the Indian Muslim women scholars who write on Islam (among other issues). She has edited a political monthly Headline Plus and has been the managing editor of a daily newspaper and a magazine.

Sheeba Ji is studying to be a Doctor of Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her project is on the absence of a visible Muslim women’s movement in post-1947 India.

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