2018 marked seventy years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). An exhibit was held by the UN that featured the women who helped shape the declaration in the third committee of the UN. While it was awe-inspiring that so many women from all over the world contributed to this landmark document, it is of particular significance that some of the most critical work on it was done by non-western women, who are usually not considered as ‘free’ and ‘empowered’ as women in the West are. One such name that stands out is Begum Shaista Ikramullah, Pakistan’s delegate to the third committee of the UN. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres in his remarks at the opening of exhibit on the 70th anniversary of the UDHR commended Begum Ikramullah as the person “who championed Article 16 on equal rights in marriage, to combat child marriage and forced marriage.”
Being a delegate to the third committee of UN from Pakistan, Begum Shaista Ikramullah’s work on the UDHR was actually rooted in her religious, political, cultural and social beliefs. Begum Shaista Ikramullah aimed to make a contribution for generations to come through UDHR that encapsulated the principles of freedom, choice and equality. Begum Sahiba’s contribution to the making of UDHR is part of the enduring legacy of her work.
Begum Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah initially studied from Loreto College, Kolkata. She later obtained a Ph.D from University of London, the first ever Muslim woman to do so. She is also recognized as a Pakistani-Bengali politician, a diplomat and an author. Her doctoral thesis, Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story, was a critical survey of Urdu literature. Begum Sahiba also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Morocco from 1964 to 1967.
Begum Ikramullah was born on July 22, 1915, in a renowned Muslim family of West Bengal known as the Suhrawardy Family. Her father was Hassan Suhrawardy and mother was Nawab Abdul Latif’s granddaughter. Her mother was a traditionalist while her father, a distinguished surgeon and a politician, was a vigorous liberal who stood by his daughter at all times and motivated her to study. Begum Shaista got married at a very early age to Muhammad Ikramullah in 1933. Her husband served as a diplomat and was Pakistan’s first foreign secretary. He was a supportive husband and encouraged his wife’s pursuit of modern education. They had four children, Inam Ikramullah, Naz Ashraf, Salma Subhan and Princess Sarvath of Jordan.
Meeting with Quaid-i-Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah in Delhi inspired Begum Sahiba to take part in politics. She was a strong presence in the Muslim Women Students’ Federation and the All-India Muslim League’s Sub-Committee. She was entirely dedicated to the cause of Pakistan. Begum Sahiba was one of the two women representatives of the first and principal legislature of Pakistan in 1947; the other one being Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz. Both being the women of substance, made tireless efforts to revive the Islamic Personal Law of Shariah. Their male counterparts, however, were skeptical of this law mainly because it highlighted women’s rights to property inheritance in accordance to the Shariah law. The law also recognized all citizens, male or female, to be equal in the society in terms of work, pay, status and opportunities. The bill eventually got approved in 1948 after the women started protesting intensively inside and outside the legislature. The law became effective in 1951 when Pakistan adopted its first constitution. Begum Shaista Ikramullah has made numerous contributions to the politics of Pakistan even through the critical years leading up to martial law.
Begum Shaista Ikramullah was also known for composing some exceptional volumes of books ranging from politics to biography to literature. Some of her most notable earliest works are Letters to Neena, published in 1951 and the much extoled, Behind the Veil, which was published in 1953. Her commendable accomplishment in the field of writing was her autobiography titled, From Pardah to Parliament, which was published in 1963. Ikramullah often felt perturbed that the future generations would be deprived of the access to the gilded age when women strived hard and struggled for their rights. In order to reanimate those memories Begum Sahiba translated From Pardah to Parliament into Urdu. During the late 80s, Begum Sahiba started working on a biography about her uncle, Husayn Shaheed Suhrawardy which was also titled, Husayn Shaheed Suhrawardy, published in 1991. She also translated the all-time famous Mirat-ul-Uroos, an Urdu classic which was written by Deputy Nazir Ahmed and an Urdu volume on Kahawat aur Mahavaray. However, she wasn’t fortunate enough to see them in print. Begum Ikramullah also contributed tirelessly for the magazines, Tehzeeb-e-Niswan and Ismat. Her own Urdu works include, Safarnama and Dilli ki Begemat ke Mahavaray.
Begum Shaista Ikramullah was a symbol of women empowerment. She exercised her power at a time when the society was not very open to the idea of a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own. She exemplified strong women by challenging the patriarchal mindset rooted in tradition to prove that a woman has all the capacity to excel in every field of life. Speaking at an event which was co-sponsored by Brazil and was titled as Women and the Origins of the UN – A Southern Legacy, Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistani ambassador to the UN, while paying homage to all the great Pakistani women who worked persistently for the advancement of the UN system and for the progression of Pakistan, said that it was the legacy of such women that inspired future generations in the region as well as across the world. She also recalled the active roles played by all the exceptionally dynamic women such as Begum Shaista Ikramullah, Begum Ra’na Liaqat Ali Khan, Mother of the Nation, Mohtarrama Fatima Jinnah and Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and said that these influential women made several contributions in moulding the image of Pakistan as being progressive and democratic in essence.
Begum Sahiba was awarded Nishan-i-Imtiaz, posthumously by the Government of Pakistan, in 2002.
Begum Shaista Ikramullah symbolizes strength, bravery and honor. She continued to put forth tireless efforts for the women and people of her country and represented Pakistan on platforms like the United Nations, influencing people worldwide by exhibiting tremendous amount of self-confidence. She is an inspiration for today’s independent woman who aims to acquire education and pursue a career for herself without looking up to others. If women during the pre-independence era could walk out of their homes to acquire education and raise an entire generation then what excuses can we have? We should follow in her footsteps not just to look after ourselves but also, to work for the betterment of mankind. Women like Begum Sahiba are gems that are too rare to find. However, we should aspire to be like them because ‘empowered’ women empower women. HH
The writer is a lecturer of Sociology at The Millennium University Campus, Islamabad
Read 2797 times