Miss Gulzar Bano, who passed away in Lahore last week, was an iconic figure in the Pakistani women’s struggle for realizing themselves. Better known as a former federal secretary, she also possessed considerable literary talent and had a heart brimming with concern for fellow human beings, especially the under-privileged.
Born in 1927 in one of the Bastis of Jalandhar district, Gulzar Bano spent her childhood in Uttar Pradesh, where her father was an officer in the Indian Forest Service.
She had her early education at Nainital and Dehra Doon and after a brief attempt to study pre-medical subjects at DAV College in Rawalpindi – where she went in a burqa –, she went to the Isabelle Thoburn College, Lucknow.
Sent to Lahore soon after independence she did BA honours from the Kinnaird College. She was in her Master’s course (English literature) at Government College, Lahore, when she took the CSS examination in 1950 and topped the list of successful candidates. (She took her Master’s degree afterwards.)
With that success began her experience of society’s anti-woman biases. She always felt that her relegation to the second position in the final list of CSS qualifiers was due to the viva voca board’s lack of confidence in women’s talents.
A greater shock was the discovery that women were barred from joining foreign service, police and the elite CSP cadre. So she had to be contented with Audit and Accounts Service. When she went to take up her post in the office of the Accountant General (Post & Telegraph), a table had been placed for her in the hall presided over by a Superintendent but he refused to allow a woman to sit in his room.
The Deputy Accountant General, a man known as much for his civilized manners as for his efficiency at work, allowed her to share his room. She found that the large establishment had no toilet for ladies and when her attempts to visit the facility when it was not occupied by any man failed, she had to take a tonga to the Government College to exercise her claim on a washroom there.
Far more serious was her male colleagues’ and superiors’ reluctance to reconcile to her presence and her right to promotion. Several attempts were made by her seniors to persuade her to abandon her job and take up work appropriate for women, such as teaching, but she stuck to her rights and rose to be the first woman federal secretary.
Finally she became Cabinet Secretary during the Zia period, and from that post she retired in 1983.
She was present when Gen Zia answered Law Secretary Justice M. A. Samdani’s respect for law and rules with coarse bullying and had the courage to go to Mr Samdani’s house to commiserate with him, a gesture his male colleagues chose to avoid.
Gulzar Bano started writing poetry quite early in her life, and continued doing so till the end. In 2005 she launched a book of her poems, “Lost Found, Found Lost”, which was appreciated by several critics.
She valued the syncretized culture of the subcontinent. One proof of that was her respect for human beings regardless of their belief and another was the display in her drawing room of the harmonium that had been part of her mother’s dowry.
She was also an outgoing person and enjoyed an extended tour of Europe in a new Jaguar, driven by one of her brothers who had risked his job to let her enjoy high-speed driving.
After retirement, Gulzar Bano gave more time to her role as the leader of her nine siblings, and administering a trust founded in the memory of their parents. Always ready to help the poor in their need for support in case of medical emergency or for meeting the demands of children’s education, she was exceptionally generous while extending succour to victims of disaster or joining the movement to promote human rights.
A feminist to the core she was always ready to join the women’s fight for their rights till her falling health forced her to curtail her activities.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2015