NAT COMBO MAIN-1615192822322
Clockwise from left: Kusum Dutta, Reema Mahajan and Meenakumari Pathmanathan. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: They have come from different parts of India and represent different generations of Indian expats in the UAE. And these women are currently heading three community groups of Indian women in Dubai, having distinct hallmarks and touching the lives of many compatriots in diverse ways.

On this International Women’s Day, Gulf News tells you the stories of Meenakumari Pathmanathan, president of Tamil Ladies Association (TLA), Kusum Dutta, founder of Community and Social Work (CAS) Group, and Reema Mahajan, founder and administrator of Indian Women in Dubai (IWD) and their community groups.

Meenakumari Pathmanathan: United for the love of Tamil

When she came to Dubai in 1994 after her marriage, Meenakumari, 52, joined the Tamil Ladies Association, a non-profit which was formed in 1974 by a group of women who wanted to raise awareness about the culture and tradition of Tamilians and offer a platform for those from the community. “The group was later continuing its cultural and social activities as a member of the former Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC) under the patronage of the Indian Consulate in Dubai,” she recollected.

Meenakumari during a TLA initiative in Bur Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Though she had joined TLA as a member to participate in cultural and social activities, Meenakumari went on to become a board member and later its president. As of March 2019, TLA was one of the few associations that were granted a licence by the Community Development Authority (DCA) as a non-profit association to conduct cultural and social activities in Dubai.

“Our goal had remained to provide the women and children of the Tamil community in Dubai, a stage where they may hone their skills and find passions that they can take forward in life. We have been holding specifically themed events such as festivals, arts and craft competitions, cooking tournaments, talk shows about health and cultural awareness, debates etc”

COVID-19 brings big change in focus

Meenakumari said the group with 61 members witnessed a big change in its focus after the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year. With permission from CDA, the women organised distribution of grocery packages to all people in need, especially maids, labourers and families suffering without an income, irrespective of nationalities and religion.

TLA members also volunteered to participate in the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ and assist the consulate in the repatriation of Indian citizens including pregnant women, senior citizens, those requiring urgent medical attention, stranded visitors, students, workers who lost jobs, families etc. “We also handled various cases involving senior citizens who were stranded without an income to manage their daily living while under a travel ban etc. TLA was finally able to resolve all their issues with the assistance of Good Samaritans and repatriate them to India.”

As per local regulations, Meenakumari said her current team comprises 10 founding members including two Emiratis. From the founding members, five committee members are selected to run the association. “We continue to promote Indian culture and traditions to the Tamil community members and their children living in the UAE. We also volunteer to assist the consulate and CDA in various social and cultural activities. We are happy that we have also been extending assistance to needy people during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic,” said Meenakumari.

The rest of the founding members running the TLA include Sakthi Ram, Usha Krishnan, Prema Alaguraja and Srirenganachiar Ashok Kumar.

Kusum Dutta: From artist to social worker

Kusum Dutta, 71, from Uttar Pradesh is one of the oldest Indian community workers in Dubai.

When she moved to Dubai from Kuwait in early 1990s, Chandini Dayal, wife of the then Consul General Prabhu Dayal, encouraged her to brush up the artist in her and introduced her to the now-defunct Indian Ladies Association (ILA) in Dubai. “At that time, it was a very big association to meet the community, for cultural and social activities,” recollected Kusum.

Kusum Dutta and her team during a charity drive. Image Credit: Supplied

“My 13-14 years of experience with ILA was kind of an eye-opener. I came to know that life is not only about dance and party anywhere in this world. Underneath, there are sorrows, miseries and hardships of life. Many ladies would approach us for monetary help. It maybe for a child’s tuition fee or medication of a family member or something else.”

In 2008, Kusum got some like-minded ladies together with the support of the wives of two consuls general of those days — the outgoing and incumbent — and then the CAS (Community and Social Work) Group was formed.

Multi-dimensional approach

The ten-member team has been working closely with the consulate and its help centre Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendran (PBSK) formerly known as Indian Workers Resource Centre. “We adopted a multidimensional approach offering immediate help to blue-collar workers in distress, providing them with food, shelter and helping them in any way possible, sometimes resolving differences with their employers, sometimes offering legal counselling or helping with resolution of family issues, and adoption etc”

Pre-pandemic days, the group used to hold regular visits to labour accommodations for awareness talks with small giveaway gifts.

Tackling COVID crisis

Though they are just a small informal group, these mighty women have done a remarkable job during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “As we all know suddenly many blue collar workers were jobless and in dire need of ration and some support. During this time, we had a great chance to reach out to them and more people would approach us as well,” said Kusum.

She said the CAS group distributed around 20,000 ration kits to the needy and also provided toiletries, sanitisers and masks etc. “Around 300 flight tickets were given away to send stranded people back home. I cannot thank enough our community members, who came out to support with open hearts,” said Kusum, who is also a member of the Prerna group under the consulate which offers support to differently-abled children and their families.

Other CAS team members include Samita Khanna, Smeeta Meherish, Reema Asnani, Smita Hatti, Veenu Kaucher, Manu Mehta, Bindu S Chettur, Vandana Srivastav and Jyothi Kapoor.

Reema Mahajan: IWD is Google for Dubai Indian women

Reema Mahajan, 37, from Chandigarh, runs an eponymous online community of more than 21,000 Indian women in Dubai, popularly known as IWD and self-proclaimed as “Google for Indian women in Dubai.”

NAT IWD women’s group admins and volunteers during a meet-up-1615192820401
IWD women's group administrators and volunteers during a meet-up. Image Credit: Supplied

Once you happen to scroll through their Facebook page, you will know they really are the go-to source for all sorts of information that expat women typically want to know about in dealing with their daily lives and jobs.

“Our mission is simple — to be a family away from family. Our community is aimed at making friends, supporting each other, celebrating events together and empowering women-led businesses,” said Reema, who founded the group three years ago when she moved to Dubai from London.

“I was initially looking to find my girl gang here. Dubai is a lovely city and very transient in nature. As with everything you need great company to enjoy. To connect with like-minded women, I started a small Facebook group where I added a few girls I had known in Dubai. But over the last one year during COVID-19, we have added more than 20,000 women to our network.”

Reema had done her education in India from IIT Delhi and IIM Bengaluru. “I am a management consultant with over 10 years of experience across India, London and Dubai and was doing a full time job until a few months ago. Due to the amazing response to our initiative, we decided to get it registered with Dubai Economy and I now run IWD full time.”

A platform for everyone

Reema said the group has conducted over 1,000 online free events and provided nearly 100 giveaways. IWD works with women entrepreneurs in the group by giving them opportunities to showcase their talent and creativity on the group — from event planners, jewellery designers, dress designers, cake artists, and travel agents to tarot readers.

“Our members find us as the Google of Dubai. We are the platform for everyone where they can find like-minded people with similar interests. We encourage them to ask questions, fire away their doubts, offer suggestions and recommendations, participate in competitions, share dishes and recipes, find fitness freaks, and join our book club.”

Free programmes

“We run free programmes for supporting women — such as breast cancer awareness, job alerts, fitness support groups, food and recipe groups and book clubs — you tell us your interest and you are more than likely to find some like-minded friends in our community. From Bollywood celebrities like Meghna Naidu to the Bhangra super stars from Pure Bhangra, all have done live sessions on our group.”

Reema said she and her co-administrator Arpita Naik have a wonderful team of moderators and volunteers who have supported them on this journey. “I am super thankful to them. They are also my closest friends now.”

What does Women’s Day mean to you/ your group?

Meeankumari Pathmanathan: “For us, Women’s Day should be celebrated every day as we truly believe that women are the most integral part of our society. We hold the common belief that if women put their minds to it, the impossible becomes possible. We would like to take this opportunity to tell everybody that the struggle is only temporary, but the lessons learnt are forever and no matter the consequences, keep striving forward.”

Kusum Dutta: “I believe it is the celebration of achievements by women encouraging women — to inspire more and bring awareness among women that they are capable of doing or getting everything they wish for. Only strong will and confidence can take them to fulfil their goals. Gather your courage and you can even go to Mars!”

Reema Mahajan: “Well, behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back. We aim to empower each other to be the best we can — by helping each other with advice and suggestions. My message to all women is — follow your passion, stay true to yourself. When women support each other, incredible things can happen. One woman can make a difference, but together we can rock the world.”