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Tahira Shah — 'The martyr of the Indus'

Published Mar 25, 2015 05:47pm


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Tahira Ali Shah, long time social activist and rights campaigner for Pakistan's fisherfolk community, passed away this month in a car accident in Sindh.

I remember when I first met her, at my first official meeting after joining the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) in January 2010, at the PFF’s Secretariat, Ibrahim Hydri – the largest village of fishing community in Pakistan.

I noticed a simple yet graceful lady in her mid-40s, taking notes of the discussion, and humbly raising her hand when she wanted clarification on some points.

She seemed to be very serious about the issues of fisherwomen; their education and health; their role at the unit (village), district and central governing body of the PFF. One of the senior colleagues told me that she was elected Senior Vice Chairperson of the PFF.

That was the first occasion where I observed the leader in her.

Born in a middle class Syed family, it was hard for Tahira to even get an education. But even harder for her was to get married – against social norms and her family's wishes – to Muhammad Ali Shah, who belonged to a comparatively lower class of the fishing community.

Ultimately, Tahira took the bold, rebellious step to get married to him in court. She was confident that she knew what to do with her life.

Together, the couple started working for the rights of the fishing community at a very local level, under the platform of their first, small organisation, ‘Anjum-e Samaji Behbood’.

Also read: Coastal power

Later, Tahira realised that the issues of women were not being addressed appropriately and neither did the women have any effective say in the decision-making of the organisation.

That's when she founded a separate organisation only for women, named ‘Saheriyen Sath’ (group of womenfolk).

She visited women door-to-door, organised and mobilised them, made them understand the roots of their problems and showed them a way to resolve their problems.

In 1998, the couple, along with other companions, founded a countrywide organisation of the fisherfolk community and named it the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF).

Not only did she speak up, she made other women speak up too against the discrimination based on gender, caste and religion.

This one time, the PFF had organised a caravan journey under their 'Keep Rivers Free' movement. Of the hundreds of participants in this caravan, a few happened to belong to the Hindu scheduled castes. Tahira learned that some of the other women participants were discriminating against the Hindus.

She intervened at once. She mingled with the women like they were old friends, shared meals with them, did away with all the discrimination and ensured that their feelings of inferiority were washed away.

She was indeed a genuine leader.

A brave, tenacious woman

Tahira's real struggle started with the Pakistan Rangers – the paramilitary force occupied the lakes in the coastal areas of the Badin district.

She pulled the fisherwomen out of their homes and onto the streets, organised demonstrations, observed hunger strikes and sit-ins in front of the Press Club. To lead a struggle against the illegal occupation by the Rangers like this required some bravery.

*Know more on the topic here: Fishermen protest against Rangers' excesses

When her husband Muhammad Ali Shah was in jail, Tahira fought on to strengthen the fisherfolk community's cause and continued to face the hardships she had willingly chosen.

Soon, everyone saw Tahira meet with success as the powerful Rangers bowed down to her even in a semi-martial law era.

In Sanghar, the journalist community was suppressed under the influence of feudal landlords. Many of my friends say it was Tahira who gave voice to the Press Club of Sanghar district, after the PFF launched a campaign against the illegal occupation of the landlords on the Chotiyarion Reservoir.

Tahira worked her magic again and led thousands in protest on the streets of Sanghar city. She made fiery speeches in front of the Press Club and openly challenged the feudals. Soon, Sanghar's journalists were emboldened enough to cover her speeches and struggle.

Everybody's Jeeji

Tahira was a multi-dimensional personality. Where she led with courage and organised with discipline, she also worked as hard as an ordinary worker of the organisation. She could always be seen meticulously taking notes during discussions and preparing reports of community meetings.

Also read: Slumlords of the sea

In the community events of the fisherfolk, she sang folk songs and danced. In workshops and seminars, she was a great listener and always polite, though those who have heard her speeches in processions and rallies know very well that she was a great, fiery orator too. Most of all, she was a rock; an upright leader who would never leave her companions alone, no matter how dangerous the situation.

Tahira was generous enough to support a number of poor families. Every person she met has their own story with her. Everybody in the fishing community across Pakistan calls her Jeeji (mother).

Jeeji was simple. She never wore jewelry or make up, even at ceremonies and festivals, where other women would insist that she put on some make up. But Tahira always preferred to wear her natural smile instead.

'The Martyr of the Indus'

During the PFF's struggle for the protection of mangroves, two of our comrades had been martyred by notorious land grabbers. Tahira never hesitated to openly call out the names of the murderers every time she spoke at a forum.

I considered that to be extremely risky. I approached her and requested, "Jeeji! Please avoid becoming overbold; it can be dangerous at this time."

She replied, "I would never want to die a death of suppression. I would be proud to rather sacrifice my life for the truth and for this struggle."

Also see: Obituary: The queen of fishing communities will never die

That was not the first time she did so. I recall a number of occasions when we asked her to take time out for some rest, or to visit the doctor when we she was unwell. Her reply was the same: "I want to die in the fight for the rights of my community, not on the bed in illness."

Even the day before her demise, our senior colleague Dr Ely Ercelan noticed that her blood pressure was high and suggested that she avoid continuous travelling. She responded the same way:

"I shall go in a glimpse, not in inches."

And she did.

She went in a blink and right in the center of the path of the struggle, for she was travelling to Badin with her husband to lead a rally there, celebrating the International Rivers Day. They had an accident and their car plunged into a deep pond, proving fatal for Tahira. Considering her sacrifices and struggle for the restoration of environmental flow in the Indus river, she has been titled by the civil society as 'The Martyr of the Indus'.

She may not be with us physically, but her vision, dedication and courage are always be. She lived as she wanted and she died as she wished.

Live long Jeeji Tahira, Live long the PFF.


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Mustafa Gurgaze is currently serving as the Programme Manager Livelihoods and Campaign Lead for Transboundary arrest of fishermen between India and Pakistan at the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF).

He is also the Campaign Lead on the Protection of Mangroves.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (32) Closed

RR Mar 25, 2015 06:15pm

God bless her. We need more people like her.

M.Saeed Mar 25, 2015 06:21pm

Protection of Mangroves should be based upon scientific research and appropriate means. It should not be at the cost of the entire nation paying the price in killing the Indus Development Plan.

R. Kalita Mar 25, 2015 06:51pm

Remarkable lady. May her soul rest in peace.

Adeel Mar 25, 2015 07:08pm

May she be rewarded for all the great work done throughout the years. Thank you for writing this article.

mba Mar 25, 2015 07:28pm

Thank you for telling us about such magnificent personalities like Jeeji Tahira and about little known organizations like PFF. There is hope for Pakistan as long as courageous daughters and sons of our country keep fighting against exploitation and discrimination. I remain of the openion that equal rights for women is one of the fundamental issues for a better future for all of us.

Mansoor Mar 25, 2015 07:57pm

Great leader. Our society needs more people like her.

Iftikhar Gul Mar 25, 2015 08:06pm

May ALLAH Bless her soul. These people are really human beings.

saeeds Mar 25, 2015 08:21pm

I thank Mr. Mustafa for writing this article. These hero should be praised and admire.

nisar shaikh Mar 25, 2015 08:47pm

She was a symbol of continuous peaceful struggle for the peasants and fishermen of this country a fighter . Our ill fate country need more people like her selfless, visionary & revolutionary . She will live for ever in our minds & thoughts .

Zahid - Rajanpur Mar 25, 2015 09:08pm

Such are the people who give us hope to live and struggle when they are here; and become a lighthouse after they leave to hereafter. A great lady indeed !

Jawar lal Mar 25, 2015 09:52pm

She was a champion of womenfolk. She was a source of solace for marginalized fisfer communities. Jeji Tahra always fought side by side with Muhammad Ali Shah for the rights of fishermen of Pakistan. She will be widely missed. Thank Mustfa Sb for writing on the demise of this bold lady.

Sher Ali Mar 25, 2015 10:13pm

Jeeji's struggle will never be ended as she took her last breath .She will live in the heart of people .Thanks to the writers who shared brief history of Jeeji's life .Her death is not only a demise of PFF but also a loss of depressed .It is expected from her husband and her People of PFF her flag must me raised with that same passion .

MAS Mar 25, 2015 10:24pm

@M.Saeed A balance is needed, a balance between the Indus Development project and safeguarding the mangroves, both are vital, and surprisingly both objectives can be achieved if the Indus Development Project is pruned and trimmed scientifically. Environment Impact Analysis is a requisite in all projects and can be the decider in many cases. Refer to the XL Pipeline ( A pipeline project to bring Canadian crude to Houston), on account of the EIA, the project has so far not made it, although the financial benefits are estimated to be a lot. Nations protect their environment.

surrinder gill ADVOCATE Mar 26, 2015 01:45am

Salute brave lady. Such nice and kind souls are treated with best of respect by Almighty also. Ameen.

IC Mar 26, 2015 05:53am

God Bless her soul.

Saifullah Shaikh Mar 26, 2015 06:06am

Symbol of Truth and continous struggle will always be there in our Hearts and Minds.Salute to this great Lady.May Allah rest her with eternal peace and reward her Janat-i-Firdous---Aameen.

Syed Mar 26, 2015 07:00am

She indeed lived a worthy life and left a permanent mark on the people of the Indus valley Civilization. Long Live Tahira jeeji. Jab tak sooraj Chaand rahega, Tahira tera naam rehega.

Aniqa Bukhari Mar 26, 2015 10:56am

Salute to such a brave leady, our society needs more like her.

Aniqa Bukhari Mar 26, 2015 11:03am

Salute to such a brave lady, May her soul rest in peace (Ameen)

Mrs. Khan Mar 26, 2015 11:06am

What a woman... a true inspiration. May Allah bless her with a beautiful jannah in that world. Ameen.

naeem Mar 26, 2015 11:14am

lovely and informative,

Mar 26, 2015 11:31am

Oh that's, I didn't know about her before that much! Really Iinspiring... God forbit her sins and her task of empowering fisher man may accomplish.

Ahmad Mar 26, 2015 11:40am

Rest in peace.

Roshan Shah Mar 26, 2015 01:10pm

No one can deny the role played by Tahira Ali Shah being a woman to uplift the fishing and peasants communities of the country to using the Pakistan FisherFolk Forum (PFF) as an organization of social justice. The vacuum created with her demise will take long long time to fill.

Zohaib Mar 26, 2015 03:38pm

Its sad to see good people facing so many hurdles in doing good things for their communities and countries while the bad people face no challenges and common people even glorifying corruption and violence

Hamad Mar 27, 2015 12:12am

she is such a brave lady and his services for poor sindhi peoples . We sute jiji..

Khawar Parvez Awan Mar 27, 2015 12:27am

Thank you Mustafa for a such informative article about great personality Jeeji Tahira and about PFF. She gave a great courage to the poor women of the society and fought for their judicious rights. She will be remember for her achievements ans will be a roll model for others

sattar zangejo Mar 27, 2015 12:56pm

Good Writeup of Mustfa Gorgeje about Tahira Shah. she was Martyrs of Indus River she was in struggle to Save indus

Sridhar Mar 27, 2015 06:21pm

IT is people like these who bring Pakistan some semblance of normality.

qamar Mar 30, 2015 01:23pm

@Sridhar good artical she was really great leader

Liz Tiongson-Melanio Mar 30, 2015 07:19pm

This article bled my heart. As we continue our journey to seek for justice,equality and humanity in this corrupt and crooked world,we know we need a person like Tahira. A strong fortress with a humble heart for the marginalized sector particulary for the women and fisher folk. Her bravery left us a message to persevere,to be bold enough to stand for the truth,for freedom. I may have not met you personally but you gain my respect,in you i stand in awe. To the one who made an effort to share this story to the world,Mustafa, thank you very much comrad. Keep up the good work. Thank you PFF for being an inspiration and the hope.

Nameera Apr 01, 2015 12:38am

Thanks Mr. Gurgaze, for sharing the experiences you had with Tahira Apa, a truly remarkable lady. I had the privilege to interview her for my short film on mangrove depletion:

Her irreplaceable loss will leave us shaken for a long time. Not only Karachi and Sindh, but the whole of Pakistan will take a while to get over the vacuum left by her. Her efforts were monumental. May her soul rest in peace.