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244. Begum Ashraf Mulla

Begum Ashraf Mulla. Photo: Special Arrangement

Ashraf is a simple woman. Her plain looks obscure much of her persona and the difference she has brought about in lives of people around herself. She talks without frills, often disarming her subjects with practical logic.
Ashraf did not look far enough to identify problem areas. She knew the illiteracy and ill-health existed in Muslim pockets of her own city, Pune. She selected Syednagar, a settlement of labourers, petty merchants and menial workers.
Lack ofeducation, paucity of resources, and absence of a vision of life had all combined to make life hell for the people of the teeming slums. These pained her. But she spurred into action when her mother died. She wanted to do something in her memory. That is how she organised a crafts workshop in 1985 and trained women in tailoring,papadandshikakaipowder making.

Her good work was soon recognised and a kind soul from the village donated 3,000 sq.ft. of land for her Muslim Samaj Prabodhan Sanstha. A primary school came up in 1990. Since then Ashraf — Ashrafi Mulla to people close to her — has not looked back. She created a stir in 2003 when all the 11 girls from her Rehmani Foundation High School passed the SSC Board exam. Never before from Syednagar village had so many girls taken the school leaving certificate.
Today, altogether 1,200 students study in the three schools set up by her. Looking at her zeal, several organisations like Rehmani Foundation, Mumbai, Muslim Cooperative Bank, Pune and Rotary Club chipped in to help her build a 5,400 sq. ft. complex. But this has become inadequate for the work which is expanding in all directions.
All these urged her to set up “Home for the Girls” in 1993. Mumbai philanthropist Abdul Qadir Supariwala turned it into a concrete reality in 2003. Today 100 destitute girls live, eat, study, play and receive vocational training in the elegant building called Yasmin Iqbal Aashiyana (building named after Sopariwala's wife).
Retirement from Government school had set her free for social work. A philanthropist donated her a plot of land next to Aashiyana to build a junior college in order that girls could continue their education.
Currently, she is setting up a polyclinic in the same complex complete with x-ray machine, diagnostic lab and dental chair. Her ITI started classes last June.
Relentlessly mobile, she has hardly anything by way of a cogent vision. But she acts at the spur of the moment, configuring the needs of society and knows no rest till her plans are realised.

She may just pass off for a commoner, one in a crowd. Rural, rustic in manners, ever clad in a sari,palluover head, Mulla Ashraf Adam has no urban air about herself. Till two decades ago, she was just a teacher in a Government Urdu Primary School. Hung in a three-room society apartment in Pune's Kondhwa area, Ashraf went about balancing her daily life between teaching at the school and raising a family at home.
But precisely those were the years her nerves got that steely twirl. Passion was building up within her to transform society. But being a school teacher and a family woman, she knew her limitations. She started in a small way, setting up a stitching class, then a primary school and on to a high school. Today she is a household name in Pune. She has already set up half a dozen educational and skill imparting centres and does not feel tired of pursuing her objective of the light of education to the lowliest of the low.

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Often, simple, silent workers achieve through their consistent efforts what learned, loud-mouthed remain from attempting. Pune's Ms. Mulla Ashraf Adam is one such iron-willed woman. For over 30 years, Ms Ashraf—Ashrafi to most of those who know her in Pune—has been at work, devoting every single moment to the cause of the children, their education, health and overall welfare.
The rustic woman had been relentlessly mobile, balancing her teachers' job with social work and domestic chores. Three years ago she earned her retirement, only to engage herself in newer assignments.

Service with devotion rather than success and fame had been fuelling Ms. Mulla's life. A humble Government primary school teacher, few can imagine that the rustic woman today presides over half a dozen institutions that she went about setting up during her nearly 30 years of service. She built them from scratch and guides the destiny of nearly 1,200 kids who are either inmates or students.

A passionate social worker, Ms. Mulla has never learnt to sit quiet. It was in 1984 that she gathered a clutch of social activists and began the Rehmani pre primary school in Syednagar, a locale inhabited by the underprivileged people of Pune, The outfit called itself Muslim Samaj Prabodhan Sanstha (MSPS). The school would gather local poor women who would engage themselves in making vanity bags, paper covers, shikakai powder (rural variant of shampoo) and embroidery. Looking at her zeal, Shamsuddin, a local philanthropist donated a plot of 1,000 sq ft for school. Shamsuddin's widow later contributed an equal measure. The school was upgraded into a high school in 1998 and even began to get government aid from last year.

As it is realized, the more one tries to tackle the people's woes, the more he or she is likely to get drawn into them. Ms. Mulla soon became aware that mere bringing the kids to school would not address the problem. Poverty had the people in its vice like grip. Hungry kids fainted in school, girls from broken homes faced insecure living conditions and women deserted by their husbands were pushing kids into jobs.

Circumstances were urging her to address the question at much more basic level. She set up 'Darul Banat' (Home for the Girls) in 1993. Mumbai philanthropist Abdul Qadir Supariwala turned it into a concrete reality in 2003. Today 80 destitute girls live, eat, study and receive vocational training in the elegant building called Yasmin Iqbal Aashiyana.

By this time, Ms. Mulla and her scientist husband had retired. With her own (all male) children settling in life, she was freer to attempt bigger assignments. In 2005, she came up with a junior college with a gentleman donating her 1,200 sq. ft of land next to the Aashiyana.

I have seen Ms. Mulla struggling with her stitching class in Syednagar from 1991 onwards. When I visited her earlier this year, she was organizing a polyclinic complete with an X-ray machine and diagnostic lab next to the junior college. Few would disagree, we need hundreds of Ms. Mullas who could grapple with poverty, illiteracy and deep-seated social maladies.

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