Fatema Degia- A Woman of Unique Inner Strength and Purpose
Writer: Ferozah Kothdiwala
Little did Yakub and Hawabu Degia know when they left India in the 1950’s and 60’s respectively, like so many others in search of a better life, that their union would produce a strong, resilient and patient woman. Fatema Degia was born on February 3, 1975. She lived in her parents’ humble home until she married Haroon Degia in March 1994. She recalls her childhood in King Street as being “ordinary”. Neighbours looked out for each other and were always quick to tell her disciplinarian father when she or her siblings ventured out on the streets when they were not supposed to. There was not much recreation-wise during her early childhood for young girls - apart from attending Madressa (classes at the mosque for young children) and occasionally spending a day with a friend. Fatema, like many other young ladies from her age group, spent her days training for married life and running a home. This made her most grateful for having siblings as they “kept each other company”. This bond gave her the strength and courage to deal with her mother’s illness which, after a long time of being “sickly”, Fatema’s mother was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. On being told the news after another lengthy appointment at the doctor, Fatema says with sadness that she had to “look up” what the illness was all about as she had no idea. With doctors giving her mother little or no hope of survival, Fatema’s heart was filled with a fear she found impossible to discuss with her siblings or even her mother. Armed with this despairing reality, Fatima and her siblings - along with her father - began preparing for life without their beloved mother. On hearing the news, Fatema’s mother decided to visit India, a place she had not returned to in over 30 years. Her health deteriorated while away on this trip and on her return to Barbados, Fatema and her siblings took turns physically looking after their mother during the last weeks of her life. With the passing of her mother, her two older sisters - who were already married - moved out of the family home and Fatema, now faced with the possibility of being married off to someone in India, decided to accept the proposal of marriage from Haroon Degia. Haroon, also had just lost his mother (whom he lived alone with) to cancer and this created an inexplicable bond between the newly-weds. Life settled into a routine with Haroon going off to work each morning, while Fatema put her childhood training to practice in her new home. During this time, she learnt to swim and was able to fully enjoy her love for the outdoors. With the arrival of their three children, Fatema’s life began to be centered around them and their activities. Having grown up in a community which she felt dictated standards for persons based on their wealth and status, Fatema set about in earnest to be a role model for her daughters; Amirah, Samihah and Safiyah. She encouraged them to take part in extra-curricular activities and to socialize and interact with others by setting up play dates. She wanted to create a childhood for her daughters with opportunities she felt she did not have, and raise them in an environment in which they had options other than marriage alone, when they reach the ages of 16 or 17. This created a buffer for them when they entered Madressa and Fatema found herself re-entering a community she discovered had not changed in thirty years. With the death of her father in 2006, Fatema remained focused on her plan for raising the type of family she wanted. Her regret of not fighting harder to achieve an education beyond fifth form at Springer Memorial School was not going to be the plight of her daughters. Though busy with family life, Fatema found the time to complete courses in cake baking and decorating, Early Childhood Education, and she also gained her Open Water and Advanced Certification in Diving for Recreational Purposes; adding to the dress-making course she had completed prior to her marriage. With her three daughters all at school, Fatema began assisting her husband in the water sports business he had taken over from his father. Tragedy struck again, with the sudden and totally unexpected death of Haroon in 2009. At only 37 years of age, Fatema was faced with the almost unsurmountable task of raising three young daughters and making a decision on the future of the family’s watersports business. Though troubled with the question of “why me?”, Fatema gratefully acknowledges the assistance of family through this difficult time as they stepped in and up to assist her. She continues to say that without their assistance, life would have been even more difficult. With very little time to dwell on her emotions and the pain of her sorrow, she quickly set about reassuring her daughters that though their father was no longer there, they had nothing to worry about as she would take care of them and everything. She recalled having to think fast and make decisions quickly, and with the burden of an entire business and its staff on her shoulders, Fatema valiantly took on the responsibility of the family business and quickly set about readjusting life to the new circumstances they were all facing. With the knowledge of being the sole “breadwinner” of this newly changed family, Fatema, - just like she had done so many times in the past - squared her shoulders, dusted her hands, rolled up her sleeves and got busy providing for her children and home! She found comfort and escape in reading (a hobby she had from childhood), watching shows like “Criminal Minds”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, cooking shows on Food Network and animated classics. Her love for reading is equaled only by her love for spending time with family. Her eyes light up and her face breaks into a huge smile when she mentions her profound devotion for visiting old people. She says with a mixture of sadness and joy, that she visits those who were her mother’s friends and usually ends up spending a longer time with them than she had anticipated discussing old times, food prices and sharing memories. At 43 years of age, Fatema looks to the future with optimism steeped in the philosophy that everything good or bad happens for a reason. She is happy to see the keenness of the girls in the Muslim community toward gaining an education, branching out into different fields and becoming more vocal. She encourages females to continue along this path but to endeavor to do so with Islam at the forefront and within in the context and boundaries set by Almighty Allah. Fatema, however, expresses deep concern for the plight of the young males in the Muslim Community. She finds that parents are not interacting in the manner that they should with their sons and as a result, boys are not progressing as they should; academically. She surmises that families are becoming “too busy” and as a result, not showing enough interest and not being the role models that are so desperately needed for our young males to mature and develop in the manner that they can and should. She recognizes that as human beings we have no control over when death strikes. It stops you in your tracks and brings you back to reality. Human nature, she quietly says, usually only accepts death due to illness and accidents. She encourages all parents to get to know their children, recognise that each child is different, interact with them, discipline them when necessary, engage them in discussion, so that when that inevitable moment arrives - as it has so many times already in Fatema’s life - your children will remember the times you shared together and that you, as their parents, were always there for them. Fatema, though small in stature, can stand tall today; most proud in the knowledge of what she has accomplished and continues to, facing and managing each day with renewed vigour and the zeal to keep going!
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