Two months into her pregnancy, Farida Khatun suffered a fate all too familiar yet often glossed over; her husband, Atar Mia, left her and went off to marry another woman. Given this was sometime in the early 80s, Farida Khatun could have been forgiven for resigning to a future full of gloom. But like the rose that grows from concrete, Farida's resilience would spur her on to blossom to not only survive the odds stacked against her but resoundingly conquer them. And all that with a lamb purchased for Tk 80.
It is now hard to believe how Farida Khatun, 50, redefined her fate, along with prevailing stereotypes of gender roles. Initially, she began living with her parents and gave birth to her son, Babul Hosen. Her parents often tried to convince her to remarry. They thought this would be the only way to ensure a bright future for their daughter. But Farida Khatun was determined to not rely on another man, especially with her newly born son's future in the balance.
It was in 1985 that her brother, Abul Hossen, bought a lamb for Tk 80 and gave it to her. Back then, Farida's son was only two years old. Her brother's gift was given in the hopes of offering his sister some sustainability for her future. He had probably never imagined that it would end up with her one day becoming the proud owner of a sheep farm.
During a recent visit to Kumarkhoda Ashrayan Project in Savar, where Farida Khatun currently lives, The Daily Star correspondent found her in her farm, surrounded by 49 sheep. All this that stood before her today started with that one lamb. “When my husband left me, I was only 17 years old. Still, I wanted to do something on my own. But all I had was just a calf of a sheep. So I had to start with that," Farida says.
While Farida's tenacity itself is praiseworthy, her compassion for her sheep is an even more compelling aspect of her story. Without any formal training and 2.5 decimals of land only, Farida still went to work with a purpose. She turned the veranda adjacent to her room sheep shed. Every evening, the sheep enter the shed and sleep till 10:00am, in close proximity to Farida and under her watchful eyes.
Every morning, Farida herself takes her sheep out into the fields to graze and returns to join them after lunch. “I have been doing so for the past 32 years,” she says. Salina Begum, Farida's daughter in law, explains the depths of her mother-in-law's compassion. “If any sheep is found dead, she goes into mourning and refuses to eat. It's like a member of her family has passed,” she says. Salina also adds that even the sale of a sheep plunges her mother-in-law into melancholy. The sheep, in return, give her their outright loyalty. “The sheep follow her wherever she goes,” Salina says adding that Farida will rear sheep till the last breath because they are what gave her a new lease of life.
Today, Farida is a successful entrepreneur who inspires others around her. Razea Begum, one of her neighbours, also recently bought a pair of female sheep from Farida for Tk 6000 and is now also daring to dream. “I want to change my fortune like Farida,” Razea says. Salma Begum, another neighbour, also aspires to rear sheep. “Before I used to pass a lot of free time. Now I am trying to follow in Farida Apa's footsteps,” she says. While Farida Khatun has become a trailblazer and an inspiration, she has not forgotten what began it all. Her son, now all grown up and a father of three lovely children, has his own flower business but Farida continues to bear all the costs of her family.
“I bear the education cost of my grand-children too. I even bought my daughter-in-law gold ornaments for her hands, ears and neck,” Farida says, laughing. Her laughter is raw. It is pure and it sounds like it had been waiting for a long time. Farida doesn't look back on what once was any longer. She looks forward and she sees positivity. Circumstances can change if one has the will and the support system to change them. Farida had both and now she stands as a testament to what can be done when a human spirit refuses to break, stereotypes be damned.