Fatima Jinnah: She Kept the Torch Aloft

Published in Most Read English

Written By: Prof. Sharif al Mujahid

On the occasion of 49th death anniversary of Fatima Jinnah that falls on July 8

History has an inscrutable way of recognizing great souls, even if they are ignored in their own times. Those who serve humanity in one way or another, those who dedicate themselves to advance the cause of liberty, justice and public good, come to be appreciated, sooner or later.


For the moment, they may be chastised, penalized, called all sorts of names, or even simply ignored. But when the time for reckoning comes, it is not the men in power that find an assured niche in the hall of fame, unless they have used their authority for public good. Rather, it is those daring and dedicated souls who have helped their countrymen or humanity at large in creating order out of chaos, towards promoting peace and harmony, towards discovering a new integration, and towards creating a better world, that do. That is precisely the reason why we don’t remember Ghulam Muhammad (1895-1956), Iskander Mirza (1899-1969), or in some aspects even Ayub Khan (1907-1974), except in a negative sense. And that is also the primary reason why we do recall, almost religiously, year after year, the singular services rendered by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah (1893-1967).

What, then, is Fatima Jinnah’s claim to our admiration and reverence? The answer was provided by Malik Ghulam Jilani. In a telling tribute on her death, when he said, inter alia:


fatimahjinna.jpg“She had her hour of loneliness, her hour of despair and her long hour of distress and yet her courage never failed her. Her voice never faltered. Her spirit was never taken by wariness. She had the strength of those who live for the great principles, silent endurance of those whom the world needs.”

And what were the great principles she had lived for and strived after? In a word, she had stood for democratic norms and principles. She had strived to get the people their inalienable democratic rights. She had stood for justiceable fundamental rights, for a free press, and for the rule of law. And all this continuously for almost twenty years following the Quaid’s death.

But, then, what equipped her for this historic role? Her apprenticeship under the Quaid whose sister and life-long companion she was for some twenty years. That, above all, equipped her to become the foremost symbol and advocate of the cherished principles for which Jinnah had stood for and struggled all along. And by then she herself had stood resolutely, with courage and determination, till her rather tragic end – whatever were the circumstances, whatever the disabilities, whatever the consequences!
Thus, during the 1950s and the 1960s the one figure that had carved for itself an enduring place in our national pantheon was Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah. What she had stood and worked for, and what she had accomplished, constituted, as it were, a part of our national heritage. And it beckons us to the pristine principles that had impelled the Pakistan demand, inspired the strivings and sacrifices in its quest, and enabled the beleaguered nation to establish it, despite hurdles galore and almost impregnable.

Till Jinnah’s death, Fatima Jinnah was content to live under the lengthened shadow of her illustrious brother, unassuming, somewhat cloistered except when she accompanied him wherever he went. But she worked behind the scenes: nursing and tending him when he was sick, looking after his comforts, and sustaining him during the ongoing onerous struggle for Pakistan. Of course, she had played some role in organizing the women’s wing of the Muslim League during the 1940s – as Vice-President of the Women’s Wing of the All India Muslim League, and as President of the Muslim Girl Students Conference at Delhi in 1942 (which gave birth to the All India Muslim Girl Students Federation. But, generally speaking, she had scrupulously shunned both politics and publicity: She had abstained from assuming public roles. Actually, during the period several other Muslim women leaders, such as Begum Mohamed Ali (Delhi-1944), Begum Habibullah (Delhi), Begum Jahan Ara Shahnawaz (Punjab) (1896-1979), and Begum Aijaz Rasul (UP) (1909-2001), were more widely known. They also outshone her on the political platform and in public life. Thus, unlike the latter day politicians’ wives, sisters, daughters, and other close relatives, she was averse to capitalizing on her relationship with the Quaid, to project herself during his life-time, or to claim the Quaid’s mantle after his death, as a “blood-line” right.

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 thrusted on her. Indeed, she had to don the leadership role, whether she liked it or not.

Although she assumed a sort of low-key political leadership in the 1950s, the leadership qualities in terms of independence and willpower, the capacity for hard and sustained work and for decision-making had been there all the time, translating themselves in the monumental decisions she took on her own in respect of her education and career. Much against the family, Khoja and Muslim tradition, she went to a convent school, stayed at a boarding house, worked for a diploma or degree in a professional field (dentistry) in far away Calcutta, opened a dental clinic on Abdur Rahman Street, a Muslim locality in Bombay, and worked simultaneously at the nearby Dhobi Talau Municipal clinic, on a voluntary basis. Inter alia, this indicated her penchant for social welfare activities and social and economic upliftment 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.

Fatima Jinnah’s role in causing awakening among Muslim women, albeit indirectly, was yet extremely crucial. It is not usually realized that by merely accompanying Jinnah wherever he went during the late 1930s and the 1940s, Fatima Jinnah had served as a role model: she had psychologically prepared the Muslim women, by her own conduct and demeanour, to stand shoulder to shoulder with men during the freedom struggle. Numerous pictures of the period show Fatima Jinnah walking alongside Jinnah, not behind him. The message was loud and clear – the message that both, the brother and the sister, wished to convey to the nation. And by 1945-46 the message had sunk deep enough.

Since the early 1950s, she took upon herself a minatory role, serving as a guide and warner. This, now and then, brought her in clash with the powers that be, but was appreciated by the public at large. Donning the role of a warner and guide was by no means an easy task. But for this critical role she was eminently suited, playing it out with courage and conviction. This was made possible only because of her strength of character and her steadfast attachment to the lofty principles she had imbibed from her distinguished brother. If the people listened and responded to her, it was not primarily because she was the Quaid’s sister – but, chiefly, because, amidst the wreckage of ideals all around she alone represented certain ideals and values which they cherished themselves and which hundreds of thousands of them had staked their lives for, in the years gone by.

And her minatory role and simmering political activism finally climaxed in her entry into active politics when she accepted the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) nomination on September 16, 1964, in the ensuing presidential elections. For now, she had decided to take on Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, despite his being a formidable candidate and an entrenched President on all counts, under his own incumbent-oriented system. Though seemingly unexpected, this decision was not uncongenial to her previous role and her mettle. In a sense, it signified but an extension, indeed the culmination, of her erstwhile role.

Fatima Jinnah “lost” the 1965 presidential elections of course, as she was bound to – but not without sending out a message. And the message, at once loud and clear: the country wanted to engage in critical debate and discussion rather than subscribe to the cult of docile conformism, and that without such a dialogue and the requisite climate for various ideas to compete for people’s allegiance in the free market place of ideas a la Milton, democracy would be utterly meaningless. Indeed during the 1960s she alone could help to keep the torch of democracy aflame and aloft.

Liberty, said Burke, doesn’t come down to a people; they must rise themselves to liberty. Likewise, democracy is never given or ensured for the mere asking; it calls for sincerity of purpose and sacrifices on the part of both the leaders and the people. And to the cherished memory of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the sacrifices the people have made in the quest for democracy over the decades represents the most fitting tribute.

But the journey continues in search of destiny!

The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, and the recipient of several awards including that of the President’s Award for Best Books on Quaid-i-Azam for 1940 to date, the writer has recently co-edited UNESCO’s History of Humanity, Volume-06, Part-II & The Jinnah Anthology (3rd edn, 2011), and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007), the only oral history on Pakistan’s Founding Father.
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