The name Saleha means “chaste, virtuous woman.” It was as if from her very birth, society had decided a role for Saleha to play – a role of the virtuous woman. What it meant to be a ‘virtuous woman’ in Saleha’s tight-knit Kalandar community in Nehru Nagar, Bhopal, often clashed with the basic rights to education, freedom, and dignity of a woman. A virtuous woman was to relegate herself in the kitchen, marry at a young age, and be the dutiful wife she was meant to be. Education in turn was a mere distraction that would prohibit a woman from fulfilling her roles in a patriarchal society. Yet, as Saleha grew up, her parents pushed her to create her own meaning of what it meant to be a woman of virtue. Today, at the age of 22, Saleha is fighting to get her degree in pharmacy. A virtuous fight we can all be a part of.
“ I knew from a very young age I wanted to be some kind of medical professional and I was willing to do whatever it took to become one, ” says Saleha. This young woman’s dream is one that no one from her community dared to have. The Kalandar Community had carried on the age-old tradition of “dancing bears’ ‘ and tamed sloth bears for a living. The practice was passed on from father to son and so like every other man in the community, Saleha’s father too tamed sloth bears. He used his earnings to feed his family of five – Saleha, her mother, her sister, and her brother. To make a sloth bear “dance” a hot iron poker was poked through the muzzle of a sloth bear which was then tied with a rope. As the sloth bear’s master tugged on the rope the bear would stand on its hind legs in agony – an act grossly misinterpreted as dancing.
In tandem with its goal to preserve the wildlife of India, Wildlife SOS put an end to the dancing bear practice. As the bears were seized, Wildlife SOS realized that the Kalandar community too needed aid. Battling the perils of poverty, child marriage, and lack of education – the Kalandars were left centuries behind from the otherwise rapidly developing India. Wildlife SOS thus began their Tribal Rehabilitation Program that would – enable the Kalandar community to have self-sustaining alternative livelihoods after giving up their bears, allow their children to have proper education, and empower the Kalandar women to have additional financial security. Through the program over 3,000 families spread out through six states and over 15 villages have received support to become economically self-sufficient over 12 years.
Saleha’s family was one amongst the 3,000 families that were given support. Embracing change, Saleha’s parents pushed her to educate herself and break the shackles of tradition. Raised in a house that refused to bind itself to the shackles of patriarchal thought, Saleha was sent to school where she could receive education, learn about the world, and inculcate in herself dreams and goals for her future. Her teachers too saw in Saleha a spark of determination that they decided to turn into a blazing fire. As her teachers began encouraging Saleha, she decided to go to medical school.
Yet, fate had other plans. In 2016, right as Saleha was about to begin medical school, her beloved brother was caught in a tragic car accident.
“ The doctors told us my brother would not be able to survive if they did not operate on his hip right away. My father thus invested all his life earnings into ensuring that my brother survived,” says Saleha.
With no money left for her education, Saleha gave up her dream of becoming a doctor. As she saw her lifelong dream slipping away from her hands, Saleha fell into despair. To get her life back on track, Wildlife SOS’S Tribal rehabilitation program head, Ms. Rakhee Sharma, counseled Saleha. She said “ I didn’t want Saleha to lose hope. She had to continue fighting to achieve a goal that the world did not want her to achieve.”
With Ms. Rakhee Sharma’s guidance, Saleha enrolled in a pharmacy program. Yet, her family faced the wrath of community members who refused to let anyone go against their tradition.
“Community members, including my grandparents, refuse to talk to us. They believe our family is doing the wrong thing by getting their girls educated. In their eyes, I should have been married when I turned 18. I have other dreams for myself, much more than being married and confined to my home.” says Saleha
With her family ostracized, Saleha continued to push through. On the way, she discovered her passion for pharmaceuticals.
“ During one of my practical classes, I learned how to make paracetamol. It was the first time I felt like I created something – a medicine that could help people relieve their pain. I still have the tablets I made and I wish to get them framed one day!” says Saleha.
While Saleha continues to fight for her education, Covid-19 created another obstacle in her uphill journey.
“ Education unfortunately is not free. Out of the 7 semesters required to graduate, I have completed 4 but have only been able to pay for my first two semesters. I am at a point where I might not be able to get my degree.” says Saleha.
Currently, employed as a tutor at the Wildlife SOS Tuition center, Saleha helps younger kids with school work. She saves her stipend as a tutor and is hoping she can gather enough money to pay for pharmacy school.
Saleha says “ I dream that after I graduate I will become a drug inspector. With this degree I will have a much larger scope in life, I will have choices, I will have financial security.”
Women all around the world continue to fight for basic freedoms. In India itself, only 13 per-cent of all Indian women have more than primary education. If Saleha manages to get her degree in pharmacy she will be the first-ever woman with such a professional degree in her community. More than that, Saleha will be an example for all young women, defying the odds and redefining what it means to be a virtuous woman.
You can support Saleha by donating to the Kalandar Community Program.