Written By: Prof. Sharif al Mujahid
It is not usually realized that by merely accompanying Jinnah wherever he went during the 1940s, Fatima Jinnah had psychologically prepared the Muslim women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men during the freedom struggle. Numerous pictures of the period show Miss Fatima Jinnah walking alongside Jinnah, not behind him. The message was loud and clear – the message both the brother and the sister wished to convey to the nation.
Over the decades a good deal has been written on Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah’s (1893-1967) singular contribution to national politics. The focus in most writings on her and about her is almost exclusively on how she stood for and beckoned the people to the pristine principles that had impelled the demand for Pakistan; how she had inspired the strivings and sacrifices in their quest, how she had enabled the beleaguered nation to own them up; how she had provided an unfailing source of inspiration to them during the 1950s and the 1960s; how she had helped, substantially and significantly, to keep the torch of democracy aflame in the most un-fortuitous circumstances; and, thus, how, above all, she, more than anyone else, had sustained the nation’s quest for democracy during president Ayub’s (1907-74) marathon semi-authoritarian rule.
Fatima Jinnah’s contribution in the social development sector, though as singular, substantial and critical, has however lain ignored somewhat. This has largely remained overshadowed by her political role despite the fact that she, along with Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan (1905-90), had made the greatest contribution in the realm of women’s awakening and participation in national affairs, in their emancipation, their regeneration, and their empowerment. Indeed, since her early life Fatima Jinnah had served as a role model for Muslim girls/women in several areas as the various roles she had donned would indicate.
Indeed, if you cast a glance at the various vicissitudes of her life, you will see that from the beginning she had cast herself in the role of a modern Muslim female persona. That role calls for equipping oneself to shoulder the tasks, along with its male counterpart, at various levels – domestic, public, and/or national – and contribute fully and significantly its share in accomplishing them.
Consider, for instance, her early life. In an age when few Muslim girls took to English education, she went in for modern education. In an age, when convent schools and boarding schools for girls were shunned, she enrolled herself in the Bandhara Convent School (1902) and, later in St. Patrick School, Bhandara (1906) from where she did her matriculation. And all the while she stayed on her own in a hostel, much against the family and Khoja traditions. She did her Senior Cambridge in 1913. In an age when few Indian (not to speak of Muslim) women went in for a professional degree or diploma and training, she went in for one. She moved to Calcutta in 1919, and got herself enrolled in Dr. Ahmad Dental College. Interestingly, she decided to stay on her own in a hostel, although her elder sister, Maryam, was living along with her family over there. Not only did she train herself as a dentist; she also, with Quaid’s encouragement, opened a dental clinic on Abdur Rehman Street, a Muslim locality in Bombay, in 1923. Indeed, a rare phenomenon even for cosmopolitan and modernized Bombay. In an age, when social work was not an in-thing, nor a sort of fashion, even with educated and affluent womenfolk in India’s most modern society except for the tiny Parsi community, she exhibited a passion for social work. She worked simultaneously at the nearby Dhobi Talau Municipal Clinic, on a voluntary basis.
Although Fatima Jinnah had lived with her elder sister during this period, her choice of a modern profession and leading a busy professional life indicated that she was determined to live on her own, that she wished to lead a useful life, instead of being a burden on the family or living off the family. Indeed, she was determined to pursue the values she deemed important to give meaning and purpose to one's life. Above all, she wished to contribute for the social uplifting and welfare of the community, rather than being a drain on it.
All this, inter alia, indicated her independence and will power, her capacity for decision-making and for hard and sustained work, and her penchant for social welfare activities and social and economic uplift of the downtrodden and poor womenfolk. This also indicated the progressive streak in her thinking in those days. A streak that required women to take to the professions and make themselves useful to the community and country at large, instead of wasting their talents and frittering away their energies, just sitting at home and engaging themselves in routine domestic chores and idle pursuits. Even in those days she believed that women should take part in nation building activities – a view she propagated repeatedly, later. But life is much more than a mere career, as Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out years earlier when reigned supreme as the First Lady. When the call from the family comes, the profession inevitably takes a back seat, however committed one is professionally. Thus, when Rutten Bai (b. 1900) died on February 20, 1929, Miss Jinnah sacrificed her career, wound up her clinic, took charge of Quaid-i-Azam’s palatial Malabar Hill mansion, and assigned herself the most critical task of helping her illustrious brother out in terms of his personal needs and comforts, and in providing him with a salubrious atmosphere at home, so that he could give undivided attention to the critical problems Muslim India was confronted with. Additionally, she served as his confidante and advisor: she stood by him all the time, giving him hope and encouragement, and trying to sustain him during the most strenuous period of his life. She remained his constant companion for the next twenty years (1929-48).
Years later, Jinnah, who is seldom known to give public expression to his private feelings, acknowledged unreservedly. “My sister was like a bright ray of light and hope whenever I came home and met her,” Jinnah told the guests at the first official dinner, hosted by Ghulam Husain Hidayatullah (1879-1948), Premier and Governor designate of Sindh, at the Karachi Club on August 9, 1947.
Interestingly though, despite her closeness to Jinnah during all these years when he was almost the uncrowned “king” of Muslim India, Fatima Jinnah kept herself behind the scene; she was content to live under the shadow of the towering Quaid. She never utilized her vantage position to take to public office or public platform, leaving it to other women leaders like Begum Maulana Mohammad Ali (d. 1944), Begum Aijaz Rasul (1908-2001), Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz (1896-1979) and Begum Salma Tasaduq Hussain (1908-1995), to assume leadership roles. She was, of course, active in organizing women (e.g., as Vice President, Women’s Wing of the All India Muslim League; founder, All India Muslim Women Students Federation, etc.), but she never aspired for public office, nor was she nominated by Jinnah for one. In both these cases, the brother and the sister broke the prevailing sub continental tradition of dynastic succession in the political realm.
Despite his democratic penchant and orientation, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), for instance, had nominated his sister, Vijay Lakshmi Pundit, as leader of the Indian delegation to the UN, and later as the Indian nominee for the presidentship of the UN General Assembly. He also got his daughter, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), elected as the Congress president during his own life time, paving the way for her to succeed him. The super populist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) got Nusrat Bhutto (1929-2011) elected to a woman’s seats in the NA in March 1977. More explicable, he had her nominated as his successor for life as PPP Chairperson. Nusrat got her daughter, Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007), nominated as PPP’s Co-Chairperson. This all indicate of a tendency and setting the trend for dynastic rule in Pakistan and India. Bhutto’s trend was followed by Khan Abdul Wali Khan (d. 2006) getting his wife, Nasim Wali Khan, and son, Isfandyar Wali Khan, to get “elected” as NAP’s NWFP President and as NAP’s President respectively. Likewise, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) Bandaranaika followed her husband in the seat of power in the 1950s, and in Bangladesh Hasina Sheikh and Khalida Zia assumed leadership roles in the wake of her father’s/husband’s assassination, since the 1980s. Thus, Fatima Jinnah alone had set her face against the dynastic tradition, so characteristic of, and so prevalent, in the entire region.
But, despite Fatima Jinnah’s cloistered approach and low-key profile for over a decade, the nation was able to discover in her a leader in her own right, after she emerged from the Quaid’s towering shadow. Thus, in the post-Jinnah period, she donned the role of a supreme guide and became the foremost symbol and advocate of Jinnah’s cherished principles. Thus, in a real sense, leadership came to be thrust on her. Indeed, she had to don the leadership role, whether she liked it or not.
Thus, Miss Jinnah did come to the public platform – but only at the fag end of her life, some fifteen years after Jinnah’s death and even then, only, at the imminent and desperate call of the nation. This she did to head the democratic movement against the incumbent Ayub regime in September 1964. And when she took to the public platform she did it with indefatigable courage and unflinching determination, whatever the disabilities, whatever the odds, whatever the consequences. And despite being a septuagenarian, she dutifully went through the strenuous campaign all the way – though it meant great discomfort to her personally, wrecking her physically, and putting her to all sorts of mean attacks by her opponents.
Indeed, the inexhaustible energy, the unrelenting stamina and the unflagging enthusiasm she displayed during the election campaign surprised almost everyone, friend and foe alike – including President Mohammad Ayub Khan. All this could have been, and was, made possible if only because of her strength of character and conviction, and her tenacity of purpose. In all this, again, Fatima Jinnah served as a role model for Pakistani women. It is not usually realized that by merely accompanying Jinnah wherever he went during the 1940s, Fatima Jinnah had psychologically prepared the Muslim women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men during the freedom struggle. Numerous pictures of the period show Miss Fatima Jinnah walking alongside Jinnah, not behind him. The message was loud and clear – the message both the brother and the sister wished to convey to the nation. And by 1945-46 the message had sunk deep enough, to induce Muslim women to participate to the hilt during the critical election campaign. Mian Mumtaz Daultana told me that almost one-third of the audiences in the election meetings in the Punjab comprised women. Women volunteers campaigning door to door in the urban areas, he said, made the Muslim League’s success at the hustings possible.
Likewise, Miss Jinnah’s political role during the 1950s and the 1960s helped a good deal in making women’s role in public life both respectable and credible; it facilitated other women in later years to don public roles without let or hindrance, without raising an eye brow. Indeed, her candidature in the 1965 presidential elections settled once and for all the knotty question whether a woman could be the head of a Muslim state. In the circumstances it was her candidature alone that could have induced a favourable fatwa from Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. And once that was acquired, the controversial issue ceased to be all that controversial for all time to come. In perspective this represents a singular contribution towards women’s regeneration, women’s empowerment and women participation in public life in Pakistan.
Even otherwise, Miss Jinnah believed that “Women are the custodians of a sacred trust – the best in the cultural and spiritual heritage of a nation”. And all through her life she called on women to equip themselves as best as they possibly could and play out their due role in the onward march of the nation.
To sum up, then, apart from leading the nation in its democratic quest at a critical hour in its history, her genius lay in helping the development of a modern Muslim female persona which would equip itself to shoulder, along with its male counterpart, the tasks of nation building the dramatic birth of the new nation in the most treacherous circumstances had called for.
The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, who has recently co-edited Unesco's History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007), the only oral history on Pakistan's Founding Father.