Almost a century ago, in the heart of the sub-continent, the downtrodden, desolate and dispirited Muslims felt a thirst for freedom and an independent homeland where they could be modeled into a Nation; a nation of the pure. To quench this thirst of theirs, Muslims of sub-continent unified, labored day and night, and initiated a freedom movement under the charismatic leadership of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Enwrapped within this freedom movement was an unconscious social revolution that emancipated Muslim women of India and made them break the conservative orthodox milieu to defy all shackles, step forward, stand shoulder to shoulder and work progressively for the cause of Pakistan. The birth of Pakistan in such a short time span owes its credit as much to women as to men.
It would not be false to say that the pioneer of this revolution was in fact a woman who had a progressive mind even though she hailed from a conservative background. Abadi Bano Begum, also known as Bi Amman, was an eminent figure in Indian politics during the Khilafat Movement. After incarceration of her sons, she stepped out, toured the sub-continent extensively, addressed large gatherings from behind the veil and apprised them about the importance of Muslim fraternity. She herself lacked formal education but made sure that her children acquired English education, the need of the hour. She succumbed to her ailing health in November 1924.
Bi Amman inspired countless women to take active part in politics. Among them was her own daughter-in-law Amjadi Bano Begum, wife of Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar. She led a tumultuous life but contributed enormously to the Muslim League and the freedom struggle. Keeping sanctity of her purdah intact she interacted with her male colleagues and travelled India at length for fund raising and ignited the zeal among masses with her fiery speeches. In 1930, she accompanied her husband to London and participated in round table conferences. She was the first female member of Muslim League working committee and contributed in drafting the Pakistan Resolution. Her zeal for freedom and fiery temper often earned her the title of ‘rebel’ from the conservative sections of the society. Even Mahatma Gandhi in an article titled her as ‘The Brave Woman’.
One cannot go on without underscoring the contributions and services of the woman who was a source of strength and succor to the Quaid himself. Fatima Jinnah, The Mother of the Nation and loving sister of Quaid-i-Azam, continues to inspire countless women even after years of her passing away. Her life has been an inspiration for the emancipation of women. In an era, when Muslim women led their lives in purdah, were limited to their household and acquired religious education only, Fatima Jinnah chose dentistry as her profession and accompanied her brother in all his endeavours. In a male-dominated atmosphere, having a woman advisor and aide was unusual but inspirational. Fatimah Jinnah quit her dentistry practice for the cause of Pakistan and engaged herself wholeheartedly in politics. She was the first vice president of women’s wing of Muslim League and after partition formed Women’s Relief Committee, which later served as the precursor for All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA). That Fatima Jinnah devoted her entire life to the cause of Pakistan and her brother is evident as Quaid said about her: “My sister was like a bright ray of light and hope whenever, I came back home and met her. Anxieties would have been much greater and my health much worse, but for the restraint imposed by her." After her brother’s death she retired from Pakistani politics, however, when she sensed turbulent forces in play to jeopardize the Quaid’s legacy, made a comeback. She toured the length and breadth of a still infant Pakistan. She had an immense support throughout the country, large crowd of people flocked to hear her addresses as she appraised them about the importance of their weapon, ‘vote’, and about their rights as the citizens of Pakistan. The fact, that in all the surviving portraits, Fatima Jinnah is seen standing right next to the Quaid, is a bold message about the significance of female participation in national life, that Quaid and his sister desired to convey, but this very message is the one that often goes unheard.
The early 20th century, was a sea dominated by patriarchy but in this sea a feeble voice made strong ripples by protesting fiercely against the practice and was successful in passing a resolution by All India Muslim Women's Conference against it. The voice was of Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz, a leading figure and an activist in Indian politics. She was the first vice-president of the Central Committee of the All India Muslim Women’s Conference. She was nominated to represent women at the Round Table Conference in 1930. Though unsuccessful, she argued vociferously for reservation of quota for women in legislature. In 1946, she was nominated by Quaid-i-Azam to attend the International Herald Tribune Forum and make a case for a separate Muslim homeland. She ended up casting quite an impression on the public with her articulate addresses. Beside politics she supported social welfare organizations such as Anjuman Himayat-i-Islam. She was the first woman to be elected as vice-president of the Provincial Executive and was a member of the All India General Committee of the Red Cross Society.
Mumtaz Shahnawaz, daughter of Begum Shahnawaz, followed her mother’s footsteps and was among the first few women to acquire higher university education and to step out of purdah. As Pakistan movement picked up strength, she, along with other Muslim league workers, toured the Frontier Province and successfully organized protests and agitations in women’s circle in favor of Pakistan. She vehemently criticized men of Mardan for preventing the women to participate in the referendum.
It was due to the efforts of brave women such as Vaqar-un-Nisa Noon, Shaista Ikramullah, Lady Haroon, Begum Tassaduq Hussain, Begum Ra’ana Liaqat Ali and innumerable others that Pakistan movement was transformed into a mass movement. It was solely due to the efforts of these honorable ladies that even in traditional and conventional areas of Quetta and the Frontier, thousands of burqa clad women were stepping out to participate in sessions of the Muslim League. In a very short span of time these women brought a revolution in the prevalent mind set. They forced women to step out of their homes and schools to work for a joint cause.
Their efforts reached a denouement when a young woman Fatima Sughra, climbed the Punjab Secretariat in Lahore and replaced the British flag with the Pakistani flag: “On the day I took down the flag from civil secretariat building in Lahore, the men came out in support of women …”
Even after independence these women continued to work for Pakistan, working to assuage and manage refugee crisis, fighting for women’s rights, contributing for social and welfare development of the newly established state of Pakistan. They made sure either with pen or their rhetoric speech that their message kept resonating in the power corridors.
From Pakistan Movement, where their voice echoed throughout the sub-continent and revitalized the Pakistan Movement for the Muslims in India to the present day, women of Pakistan have proven their mettle. For the women of today’s Pakistan, the genius of these women serves as a beacon of hope, inspiration and aspiration because they managed to achieve astonishing feats at a time when they were shackled by norms and traditions which hindered their mobility.
Women of today enjoy a range of equal opportunities due to the change in mindsets and opinions, which has made a significant impact on the movement for empowerment of women and consequently, national development. Unfortunately, there have been periods where voices of women have not been able to find receptive ears but women continue to work for the progress of Pakistan and their own well-being, and they find inspiration in the lives of their iconic predecessors in overcoming any challenges that might come their way. HH
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