Amitha Fathima.

When a classmate said that her name sounded like that of a “terrorist”, she was jolted and could not get over such a careless comment about who she was and the religion she identified with.

Amitha realised that all the talks about Islamophobia in the contemporary world were real and that she was being subjected to the same hatred and prejudices Muslim communities across the world face, a situation that she probably never thought would play out in her life. Amitha had done her entire schooling at Muslim Higher Secondary School, Erattupetta before moving to St Anne’s in Kottayam for Class XI.

Muslim HSS Erattupetta has an illustrious history. It was a daring decision by seven leading Muslim personalities in the region to start a school for Muslim girls in the rural area of Kottayam in the 1950s as formal education for women among Muslim communities was still much of a foreign and unwelcome idea. They challenged this and stood up for the right of education for girls. PP Ummer Koya, the then Minister for Public Works, laid the foundation stone for the school on June 21, 1964, and since then, hundreds of Muslim girls from the area have been able to receive formal education.

Amitha grew up within this rich legacy. She was aware of her Muslim identity and the fact that she was among the many Muslim women who were privileged to have received formal education owing to the efforts of some visionary thinkers and supporters of women’s rights.

Never had Amitha thought that the popular stereotype of all Muslims being involved in terrorist activities would be used against her by children who probably did not even realise the gravity of what they said.

But despite the hurt that Amitha experienced, she did not want reductive ideas about her or her schoolmates to be the only thing that defined her.

Since Amitha was also a student police cadet, she decided that she could not be casual about this. From that day onwards, Amitha made an extra effort to engage with the girl who made the insensitive remark. Amitha spoke to her about everything from herself to what she thought of the nation and the work she had been doing as a cadet.

Soon, she became friends with her and was happy that the girl who made a negative comment about her religious identity was able to see that there was so much more to her as a person, as a citizen and as a regular girl her age.

When Amitha was still at Muslim HSS, Ansar Ali, the CPO, told all his students, “Life may not always present us with favourable conditions. But success lies in trying to change the existing situation into a favourable one for yourself.” This advice always stayed with Amitha. She reminisces:

I could have continued in Muslim HSS for my Classes XI and XII. The school was close to my home, I had been in the school all my life and I knew the teachers and students there. It was my comfort zone. But my parents and teachers encouraged me when I thought of going to Kottayam and joining St Anne’s Girls Higher Secondary School. It was a challenge and I wanted to take it.

As a girl typically dressed in the traditional Muslim attire with a headscarf, Amitha is equally at ease wearing khakis on the parade ground. Her parents were her greatest support in redefining her identity.

Once I asked my father about a father writing letters to daughter after I heard a bit about that at school. Next day, he brought me the book by Jawaharlal Nehru. He was that alert. The case is the same with my mother. She could not do much because of her orthodox background and I always felt that she is realising her childhood dreams through me.

Amitha’s mother, Mumtaz, defended her daughter’s choice of wearing khakis during the parade within the extended family. She told them that Amitha must change with the times, and she knew that her decision for her daughter was right as she has now become a role model for other girls in the community who aim to be like her. “I feel really proud knowing that other girls in our community are treating my girl as a role model,” said Amitha’s mother. Mumtaz realises that she has achieved her goal of making her daughter self-reliant and confident of herself. Amitha’s increased social responsibility and her commitment towards society have also boosted Mumtaz’s conviction in the project.

Amitha’s engagement with SPC helped her develop a balanced perspective about society and life that went beyond communal angles and religious identities. She got numerous opportunities to understand herself better. For instance, cadets are required to present an analysis of news reports every Saturday. This helped Amita hone her public speaking skills and analytical abilities. She immensely enjoys public speaking.

For Amitha, the SPC community was like her extended family. She says,

CPO Ali Sir and Additional CPO Salama Jacob were great support to me while I was a cadet. I was much attached to my grandfather who died while I was a cadet. Salama Ma’am held me close to her while breaking this news to me and said you should not cry; you are a student police cadet. Those words worked like magic on me and helped me get over the grief. I would have faltered if it was not for SPC at that point.

Since it was introduced, the SPC project has been a changemaker for the youth in Kerala. They have begun to explore a world beyond their immediate environment and academics and started adopting a holistic approach towards civic life. Amitha Fathima is one of the many shining faces that emerge from the frame that SPC has built.

Amitha’s tenure with SPC taught her that it was not about the forty-four cadets who marched under the sun along with her. It was about forty-four families, their neighbourhood and everyone who lived in that space. As a science student, she has the option of pursuing a career in the medical field as a doctor or a nurse. Civil service is also within her spectrum of goals right now. But underneath all these goals, her vision remains crystal clear. “I want to give back to the nation that has given birth to me. SPC gave me that vision and that is guiding me now, in whichever profession I choose.”

This clarity gives her the courage and conviction to analyse and go deep into the concept of religion as an integral part of her life and community space.

Excerpted with permission from Schools that Dream: Transforming Kerala’s Schools into Empathy Engines, Shashi Velath and Anand Haridas, Westland Books.