LedBy interviewed Qurratul Ain Contractor, an alum who graduated in architecture and is pursuing her master's in Water Management and Governance at IHE Delft Institute of Water Education in the Netherlands. She has also worked with the rural communities in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, for four years.
Q. Tell us about your name. It is so unique!
My grandfather named me Qurratul Ain. It technically translates to "eyeball", which sounds weird, but poetically means something that soothes or gives joy to the eyes - "Aankhon ki thandak". It's a little difficult to pronounce and gets spoiled a lot, so everybody calls me Ain.
Q. Tell us more about yourself and your journey?
My family is originally from Bombay, but I grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia. I moved to Bombay at 13, and was suddenly put in a very competitive environment. As I began working, I realised that I didn't enjoy the rat-race, so I decided to drop it and make my own way.
I had wanted to study humanities, but my family worried that I wouldn't be able to make a career out of it. So I chose Architecture, which was a middle path between technical and social sciences with an involvement of art. Though I never imagined myself as an architect, the design world exposed me to many different fields of work.
Q. How did you switch from architect to water management? (When did you realize taking a call for a different career move / How did you develop this idea and execute it?)
When I was doing my final year architecture thesis, I chose to do it on water because of an experience I had while traveling to a hill station near Mumbai. Despite receiving plenty of rainfall, the people suffered from water shortages, to the extent that they were not able to serve tap water in restaurants. I found this very odd, started researching it a bit more and got involved in it.
Water is a fascinating substance; it's the ultimate connector of all living things. I was interested in various concepts of sustainability, and began working with a grassroots community organizations in rural Tamil Nadu involved with micro-finance for women's self-help groups and social enterprise development. I also got involved in organic farming, water harvesting with farmers, and sanitation. If you get into any one of these fields, you can easily see how they are linked. It's like a nexus. At some point, I felt like the scale at which I am working could not create the impact that I felt was needed. I wasn't able to scale-up the projects. I kept wondering, "Why is all this happening? What are the underlying issues?". So I decided to study more about water governance, and chose the Netherlands since it has the best international reputation in water education.
Q. What projects are you working on?
I volunteer with an advocacy group based in Mumbai which campaigns for universal WASH access. During the COVID lockdown, I started realizing the massive scale of water & sanitation issues faced by my city. Though four generations of my family have lived in Mumbai, I felt we still knew very little about it. With the pandemic, the situation was only going to worsen. So I got involved in responding to these problems with civil society groups, learning about their ways of working and engaging in governance.
Water access is a social problem and is connected to identity as well. There is still discrimination in our country when it comes to water supply. In Mumbai, predominantly Muslim and Dalit communities are more likely to face problems with water & sanitation. The state machinery discriminates on various levels of operations. It is not only a question of water or sanitation access. This campaign is about universal access to dignity. I am also working on a short film about this campaign.
Q. What are some of the challenges you've faced along the way, and how did you respond to them?
Though I never faced stark discrimination, I can't say that my Muslim identity has not affected my life at all. When I first moved to Mumbai, there were 250 students in my class, and only two others were Muslim. On the first day of school, my mother dressed me up in salwar kameez because she considered it to be a respectable dress. For the rest of the year, I was teased about it and the identity it revealed. But I never felt like, oh, I'm being neglected or something like that.
I went to a Muslim architecture college, where I found two extreme sides of Muslim identity; People who were conservative and others who wanted to escape their Muslim identity. I always felt like I was being pushed to choose between being myself and being Muslim, and this was a bit annoying for me because I felt like, why do I have to choose? It took me some time to have confidence in my spiritual identity and my outward identity.
When I was in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, a place meant to be above divisions, where people from very different backgrounds came and worked together. But I would always notice that I was one of the only Muslims there and wondered why. Do they feel excluded?
In the past years, all the news we have been getting about horrible islamophobic incidents in India was really making me angry. I noticed that other people around me would acknowledge that these acts are wrong, they condemn them, but they wouldn't get mad. And I was also angry that they were not getting angry? How? Some people say, " Oh it's such a big country, a lot of bad things keep happening", but what if my father gets beaten up on the street one day? Will it be considered just one of the many things happening? It's not that people are evil or inconsiderate; things just don't affect them in the same way.
I try to view this as something that helps me be more compassionate to the experiences of marginalized people, to which I was otherwise blind. When you live in a comfortable cocoon, you don't realize the realities faced by many people. What is happening to the Muslim community in India is an opportunity for elite Muslim groups to understand what has been the plight of many minorities in the country who face discrimination.
Q. What did LedBy Fellowship bring to you as an individual?
Network. Friends. When my Muslim identity was making me feel isolated, LedBy brought people from very different backgrounds together who only have this one connecting thread. It gave me a network of people who do get it. During this fellowship, I also realized how much privilege we have and started to ask: What is our role to play? We have got to learn how to build community, which is constant work.
Q. One message that you would like to give to our community?
There is nowhere to run to. Wherever you go, you can't shake it off; you are an Indian Muslim woman. Own it. We can't circumvent the social revolution and skip to the parts where everything is fine. We need to learn how to have difficult conversations; with our family, friends, community and beyond.