Women builders of Pakistan

March 07, 2019


I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE question as to what has kept Pakistan afloat despite its inept and self-centred rulers’ efforts to sink it has never been decisively answered. The most commonly accepted theory is that Pakistan’s survival is due to Allah’s infinite mercy, benevolence and His capacity to forgive what the Pakistanis do to themselves. But Allah dispenses mercy for humankind through the agency of human beings and many of those who have built and sustained Pakistan have been women.

The roster of Pakistan’s women who have done their country proud is getting longer by the day. They have diligently shouldered the tasks assigned to them by the ruling patriarchs and have defied the heaviest of odds to create places for themselves in men’s strongly guarded world.

Today, we can count a large number of Pakistani women who have distinguished themselves in different walks of life. We have had a woman as head of government, women have held high positions in the civil service, in education, in business, in journalism and in the fine and performing arts. They are coming up in defence services and have learnt to fly fighter planes. Some of them have benefited from the state’s benevolence but most have struggled unaided by it. Their achievements are known. Behind these successful women stand rows upon rows of the ordinary women builders of Pakistan.

We meet one of such women in Hamra Khalique’s autobiography, Kahan Kahan Se Guzar Gaye, one of the most absorbing memoirs published in Urdu in recent years.

We can count a large number of Pakistani women who have distinguished themselves in different walks of life.

Hamra’s story runs parallel to that of millions of people who suffered the dislocation and pangs of Partition and battled against all kinds of odds to find means of subsistence in strange and unpredictable circumstances. It also tells us of the days when the leaders of Pakistan had not graduated in the dirty art of favouritism. Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister, could do no favour to Nazir Hasan, the successful lawyer from Muzaffarnagar who had been his close confidant and who had looked after his political and financial interests for years. And if Zahid Husain had helped Nazir Hasan get a job at a private bank in Faisalabad, that job ended with the end of the benefactor’s tenure as governor of the State Bank.

But essentially we are treated to an honest and fair narration of the ups and downs in the author’s life and the courage and resilience with which she faced all the challenges.

She was born in a well-to-do family but her mother was too weak to nurse her, and her childless aunt was persuaded to adopt her. After a taste of the foster parents’ affluence, she found herself sharing their ordeal by adversity. But she never stopped improving her educational qualifications.

During her stay at Faisalabad, Hamra was able to pass her BA exams in relative peace, but when the family was obliged to go to Karachi, a long struggle to survive ensued. How Hamra acquired a B.Ed. degree, started teaching at a primary school, lived with her foster mother in a single room while a toilet and a kitchen were shared with another family, and got through days when they had to be content with a single meal a day is a remarkable account of bearing hardships with fortitude.

Hamra went on to obtain a Master’s degree, teach assignments at a college and get married to the best-known creator of documentary films and author of an outstanding autobiography, and whose love she won by sharing his views on life, his ability to live for others, and a strong commitment to give their children whatever they needed to find a place in the sun. And Hamra went on to do considerable translation work, wrote many plays for television, published a book of short stories and a collection of essays.

The entire narrative is rich in truthfulness. Accounts of hardship betray no attempt to gain sympathy and descriptions of successes have no trace of vanity. Those doing a good turn are remembered with gratitude and those disappearing in times of need are left free to reproach themselves.

We find no reference to anything done as a patriotic duty or in the service of the country and yet we realise that all individual strivings to move forward merge into a collective endeavour to take society forward. This is how ordinary Pakistani women have strengthened Pakistan along with ordinary men.

There have been many more women who in their own different ways served Pakistan by helping their husbands carry out important projects, who gave long years to the education and upbringing of their children and enabled them to achieve distinction in various fields. Do we remember the mothers of Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam, or the incomparable Faiz Ahmad Faiz, or legendary cricketer Hanif Mohammad? These women included some who were not born Pakistanis, such as Alys Faiz and Jennifer Musa, but who devoted their lives to bringing joy to fellow Pakistanis’’ lives.

At the head of these stand women who are unlikely to be remembered in official chronicles with kind words. There was Asma Jahangir who fought for the rights of the underprivileged; when she spoke, arrogant rulers trembled with fear. There was Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who was among the first organisers of working women and among the country’s first campaigners for peace. There have been eminent poets such as Fahmida Riaz and Parween Shakir, and prose writers like Bano Qudsia, Khadija Mastoor and Fatima Suraiya Bajia. Some others, such as Noor Jahan, Zarina Baloch and Reshma revived exhausted workers with their melodies.

Let us honour all the women builders of Pakistan at the dawn of International Women’s Day tomorrow with a salute to them for keeping our dreams of a democratic and egalitarian Pakistan alive. For teaching us to sustain faith in ourselves even while the state has shown little capacity to mend its ways.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2019