The unrelenting feminism of Bashirbi Ismail Shaikh

A story of the rebellion of a rural muslim woman

Credit : Photo Scan

Bashirbi is just one of the many unseen pages of the history of the million mutinies of rural women in Indian history. 70 years back, she refused the Burkha and started wearing pyjama and shirts for the rest of her life. Her rebellion was not just limited to choosing an attire for herself but was also reflected in her struggle as a single woman for her whole life. She sold fruits for a living till her death at 83, even when her son got a well paying teacher’s job.

Unlike stories of many a urban woman, nor did Bashirbi have privileges of caste, class, education or a liberal space around her, neither was her struggle based on entitlement. Bashirbi was born in a working class family of Ismail Shaikh in Buldhana, a district in the state of Maharashtra.

Born in 1922, Her life was dramatic and full of struggle. She lost her mother when she was 4 years old and lost her father too, at the age of 16. As an orphaned teen, she had to take all responsibilities of her family on her shoulder. Some years later, she ran away from the family because of some issues, which she tried to solve earlier but couldn’t and she decided to live independently.

Bashirbi got married, tried to settle down in life, but her difficulties were not to end. She lost her husband at a young age of 25. By now, they had had 2 children. She had to do something to feed them. Her brothers came to her to convince her that she, as a widow, now had to live with her brothers and that they would take care of her. But Bashirbi refused to go with her brothers and decided that she will work hard on her own and feed her children.

snapshotBashirbi working the fields.


She started going to the market at Akola early morning everyday, to buy fruits and vegetables from there and sell them in nearby villages. She used to walk around 15-20 kilometers each day to sell them. She would come at home around 6 or 7 in the evening and then would go to collect firewood and then cook food for her kids. “There was not much electricity at that time, so both of us brothers would light up Kerosene lamps in the evening and used to wait for Amma, for hours sometimes and panic, because we were small kids, but we had to make it through this.” Abdul Gaffar Shaikh said, sharing the memories of his late mother, Bashirbi.

Abdul, sharing more memories of her, said, “I clearly remember, since my childhood, I never ever saw her wearing a Burkha or Naqab or even having a Duppata. In fact, She always wore pyjamas and shirts throughout her life. She never wore sarees or dresses. She was not any fond of ornaments, make-up etc either. She would carry her pyjama-shirt comfortably and would attend social, family functions in the same dressing. Sometimes, some people would gossip about her attires, but she never cared about it. Even after Me and my brother settled in our lives and told her that she must had stop working, she didn’t agree. We used to tell her, Amma, now please don’t work, we will take care of you. You are still working so people become judgemental and they taunt us. Amma used to say, who are these people? Bring them to me, I will make them understand, did those people ran my house in difficulties? Did they help me ever? So these people don’t have any right to judge me and even if they do, I don’t care.”

Basheerbee used to sell Choona (Limestone paste) too, once a week for extra income. Every saturday she would buy lime from Akola and sell it to Paan shops. She would deliver all material in different shops by herself. It was not that easy for a woman, especially 50 years back in rural India. Selling lime, tobacco is a male dominated business even today.


Bashirbi (right) working the fields wearing pyjama and shirt.


Ravindra Ingle Chawarekar a retired professor and writer from Buldana shares his memory about Amma, saying, “I have seen Amma selling fruits for many years. She used to sit on the bike with Gaffar sir (her son) carrying her basket of fruits and then Gaffar sir used to drop amma outside the school where she would sell fruits everyday and then he used to enter the school to start his work of teaching.  Her son was the then principal of that school, Bharat Vidyalay where she used to sell fruits outside. She did not believe that she must stop working now that her sons are well settled.”

Though Bashirbi never went to a school, couldn’t take formal education, She was firm in her resolve of living as a single woman and find out ways for survival. She didn’t only survive but she gave a vision to her two sons for living. She had given a struggling spirit to every woman around her. She had empathy for the poor. Whenever she bought seasonal fruits from market to sell, she would call all small children of the Gavalipura mohalla, where she used to live. She would distribute those fruits to the children of the Mohalla for she knew buying fruits is a luxury for them.

She used to go for cinema sometimes with neighbouring women of Mohalla, she used to sing songs with them. Even though her life was tough, she could find her own ways of getting happiness. She had her own value system of empathy, self determination, struggle etc. all of which she had learnt in school of her life. She didn’t like to take loans for money or borrow from someone, but she helped people in their difficulties.  She not only lived her life on these principles but passed that legacy to the next generatio.

“Amma never forced any woman in our family to wear Burkha, rather she would say that I want my granddaughter to be well educated. I want her to be a barrister and wear a coat.

So No woman in our family wears Burkha. Everyone is well educated and even working. One of my daughter in law, Shahrukh Durdana, is pursuing her L.L.M. course now. She is a practising lawyer but wanted to pursue her post graduation, so she is studying now. She has two kids, they go to school and she goes to college,” Abdul Gaffar Shaikh told Indie Journal.

This powerful woman died in 2005 at the age of 84, leaving behind an untold story of a resolute struggle.