Picking up the Flag: Mumtaz Shahnawaz, Sherry Rahman and Tahira Abdullah

Published in the Daily Times on March 15th 2009

 

The Pakistani lawyers’ movement is on a collision course with the establishment. The country, entirely without stratification resonates its restlessness with this movement, and soon either the judiciary will get some semblance of fairness or a lot of blood will be spilled in the streets before this happens.

In the maze of political hustle bustle the quintessential Pakistani woman, if there is such a concept, needs to be defined more now than ever. She needs to be dug out from the depths of History and named from the roster of current politicians and their womenfolk who join them side by side; the lot of them needs to be beaten awake, like cotton plumped blankets hung over charpoys in preparation for winters.

She needs to more than just sundry, this mold which represents about 85 million of Pakistan, requires study and a nailing on the wall of the senate, some profiles of courage.

I have three of my favorites, chosen for their diversity and courage more than their popularity. The common theme between them is they are fiercely political and unafraid to express it on the street.

1. Mumtaz Shahnawaz

The first profile of the quentisential Pakistani woman was known as Tazi, her actual name was Mumtaz Shahnawaz, and she was born to Sir Muhammad Shafi and Begum Shahnawaz in Lahore in 1912. Her spark and intelligence was recognized by Sarojini Naidu, George Bernard Shaw and Mahomed Ali Jinnah.

She was among the first Muslim women to get a university education. Her family in those days was close to the Nehru family, and like many Muslim elites at the time, she associated with the socialist cause and vehemently supported him and the Congress party.

Even when Nehru joined the side of the right wing on the issue of picking a leader for the Congress Party, she pinned blame on Gandhi and the radical Hindutwas rather than doubt her cause. When Germany invaded Russia, Mumtaz was out of Purdah (rare in those days for good Muslim families) passing out pamphlets on the streets of Lahore asking “Who lives if Russia Dies?” But 1940 was a watershed moment for Mumtaz Shahnawaz, when the Congress Party was categorically anti-Muslim in its crackdowns in several Indian states, and the time when Muslims of the Subcontinent passed a resolution to govern themselves. Mumtaz’s house was central in canvassing the women’s movement for the Pakistan cause and this is where she met women she thought of grace and admiration, such as the Begum of Bhopal who worked devotedly for the cause of empowerment of women and the emancipation of the left behind section of India. When Congress started the Quit India movement the break was surgical and thereafter she defined herself as a Muslim League worker of the women’s wing. She moved to Delhi and there she strove under the guidance of Mr. Jinnah to convince women to define themselves as women.

Mumtaz fought traditionalism and obscurantism and asked women to come forward and be counted in local politics and in their political mobility and awareness she inadvertently was part of the galvanization of Muslim women’s education. Her personality was bold, furious, angry even, for she realized the responsibility that her sheltered life she had placed on her shoulders.

At a time when women were bred to marry and were considered successful if they simply breed themselves healthy children, Mumtaz Shahnawaz caused a revolt in first her own family by disobeying the misrepresented rules that she did not participate in enforcing on herself.

In her novel, which is largely considered autobiographical the character, Zohra on the issue of her marriage to a civil servant snubbed the fiancée in waiting and told her father, “I will marry for love, if you educated me, I cannot marry because you think someone is good for me to marry, I will make that choice based on my politics.” She lived for her politics, but unlike many self-professed liberated women she did not apologize for making this her sole preoccupation.

She did not pose this as her side gig, her attempt to get a high brand marriage partner while she felt guilty for not making her “home her kingdom” like many at the time had though it to be.

She was not sorry for hating domesticity. She rejected what her free sprit did not find comfortable. Such confidence comes from a deep sense of justice. She spent time in jail under the Punjab Unionist government for her part in Muslim League’s massive civil disobedience campaign throughout the early part of 1947.

Mumtaz Shahnawaz contributed significantly to the relief work of the Muslim refugees who fled the violence during the partition that followed the creation of Pakistan. It was Mumtaz who set up the woman’s branch of the Muslim League in Punjab.

Thereafter she moved to Kashmir when the war came to Kashmir after partition. Mumtaz Shahnawaz at 35 tragically died on a plane crash and was mourned by many. She still is missed by the readers of her poetry and fiction, particularly her unedited work called The Heart Divided. She was on her way to the US to talk about Kashmir, upon invitation by the New York Herald Tribune to attend a session at the United Nations.

2. Sherry Rahman

Today, almost 70 years later, we see a similarly celebrated woman, in Sherry Rahman, Information Minister under the PPP government. Her career begins and troughs for her decade long position as Editor-in-Chief at Herald Magazine, DAWN Newspaper’s prime political chronicle, known for its muckraking features and in depth analysis. Sherry Rahman was one of the most avid critics of Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal of the then Supreme Court Chief Justice, Sajjad Ali Shah back in 1999.

During her five years in the parliament, Sherry Rehman moved a number of bills related to media freedom, women’s empowerment and human rights. She is the architect of all five of the PPP bills tabled in the National Assembly, including Women Empowerment Bill, Anti-Honor Killings Bill, Domestic Violence Prevention Bill, Affirmative Action Bill and Hudood Repeal Bill. Recently she moved two well-authored and specific bills for the protection of the media.

The first is the Freedom of Information Bill and the other, the Press Act, which prevents working journalists from being arrested under the 1999 Press Ordinance. As the Zardari government shows no flexibility in addressing the demands of a call for a free and fair judiciary, Sherry Rahman declared in public her loyalty for her party by stating that if and when her government will block any media freedoms she will step down as a Minister for Information and Broadcasting.

Like Mumtaz Shahnawaz, her watershed was when GEO TV was taken off the airwaves without her involvement. The challenge for women with a titanic spirit in a crash with an iceberg, is how they rechanneled their energy toward a cause that has a similar backbone, but a different direction. How will Sherry Rahman adjust her sails?

Perhaps with a background such as hers, in her interest and practical work toward child health, women’s education, Kashmir affairs and foreign academic exposure, she has shown the world that when women can demand a change of course regardless of the results causing conflict. She had like the first profile of the Pakistani woman, refused to play the peacemaker just because women are supposed to cajole, coax and calm conflict. Sherry has sent a message: Not at the cost of freedom of the citizenry to know. And in her resignation she has set a no tolerance policy to curb the freedom of the press which is largely a pillar of the state since it’s a prerequisite to modern democracy.

3. Tahira Abdullah


A resolute fighter in the cause of all that women value, in equality and egalitarianism in society, Tahira Abdullah’s frame and gentle manner reflects her strong and silent resolve of someone who has seen too much to be afraid of anything. Even on February 8th 2009 as Pakistani police dragged her away to jail for participating at a protest at the judges enclave in Islamabad, she protested but for the Pakistani green crescent and star flag that fell to the ground in the struggle. “Don’t trample the flag.” She cried.

But the true mark of someone who makes struggle and protest part of their profession is when they start to profess the strategy of appeal to mercy. In a show of massive weakness Tahira Abdullah on GEO TV’s Hamid Mir show asked then Information Minster, Sherry Rahman to “save Pakistan” and “save the Pakistan People’s Party, the party of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Shaheed Benazir Bhutto.” She put her hands together and asked Sherry in the name of God, to change the situation where “one hand of the party doesn’t know what the other party is doing.” She broke down, tired she said of being roughed up on national TV by PPP politicians who insult her for her views. She named names: Abida Hussain among others.

“I am not a politician, I am a Pakistani.” And as a Pakistani citizen Tahira Abdullah asked what the country is asking now, “Where is President Zardari’s promise when he said Pakistan Khappey?”

Tahira Abdullah’s pain, nationally televised, shows that there is no shame in breaking down and weeping when the walls of your shelter are breaking down: When your country neither can protect you from raining bombs or from random acts of terror within the state and from external factors; When you can’t walk in dignity in your own country and when protest against injustice is labeled sedition and met with brute force. Tahira Abdulla’s defines that women can be powerful in their passive resistance, provided it is sincere to the national cause, and can evoke moral recourse without a fight.

The moving dance of persuasion can be seen on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZpbHLsOuuA These women refuse to be victims.

Although by virtue of being women they are or have been but they understand that their rights are fought for, not earned.

Women in Pakistan, young and old, at home and at the workplace, in sports and in media should realize that there are many women from Mukhtaran Mai, Asma Jehangir and Benazir Bhutto who are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to ensure someone etches it in stone that Women are entitled to happiness, as much as men are. That their life, family and property is protected, that their right to know remains.

How do we etch this in stone? There is no other way, regardless of the fact that Pakistan is closer to Talibanization than ever before, there is one permanent way of doing away with decades of discrimination and oppression of the weak: restoration of the judiciary. Restore it now.

A common judge is what the quintessential Pakistani woman needs. A judge we can go to when we’re battered and bruised, when our fathers force us to marry men we cannot live with, when our brothers call on our honor and deny us rights to an education, or when our own children are taken away from us on false charges of character. A judge who is on the side of justice…

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