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Flashback: The young reformer

June 10, 2012

Sa’adia Reza talks to Begum Kaniz Sakina Wajid Khan about her immense contribution as a social worker

“I lost my parents at a very young age; after a brief stay with my sister, I was enrolled in a British school — a convent in Mussorie, a hill-station — where I spent nine years. It was a very select school, with just around 80 students. I joined when I was six years old, and left when I was around 16. In the meantime I forgot how to converse in Urdu since we spoke in English only.

I finally returned home to my family, whom I had not met in years. My brother had also just returned from England and taken over the management of our estate in Kothwara. I was just beginning to enjoy the company of my aunts and other relatives when — three months after my return — I got married. My bhabi — a Turkish princess — had found the match; my husband, Dr Sahibzada Wajid Khan was a very well-educated gentleman and the secretary to the Chamber of Princes. I was his second wife; his first wife had passed away, and he had three children — two daughters and a son. I became a mother to them and then my own children, a son and daughter.

I moved to Delhi after my marriage, and there, I had the pleasure of meeting Mohammad Ali Jinnah. This was in 1938. I used to attend the Assembly and listen to Jinnah’s speeches. Around that time Fatima Jinnah was organising a meeting to initiate Women’s Muslim League. A few of our relatives associated with it had arrived in Delhi and were staying at our place. I used to accompany them to the meetings and my interest in the creation of Pakistan grew.

Mr Jinnah was an extremely impressive gentleman, and for us he was like a father figure. He used to host a huge party every year at his residence, and we were invited to it. Soon after attending the meetings we met him at one of his parties and my husband, while apologising that he couldn’t join the Muslim League mentioned that I was interested. Jinnah replied, “We’re happy to have the better half”. I was 17 years old then.

Thus I began my life as a social worker. Three years later my husband became the chief minister of the central Indian state of Johra. This was during the Second World War, and the British appointed me the chairperson of Central Indian Red Cross Society. Later when we moved to Jhansi, I was appointed the divisional commissioner of Girl Guides. This gave me the opportunity to do a lot of field work.

In 1947, we migrated to Pakistan. The funny thing was, during the days leading to the Partition, we were stationed at Murshidabad which comprised 75 per cent Muslim population. We obviously assumed that this would eventually be a part of Pakistan, so, on August 14, we raised the Pakistani flag on our house, but the next day we found out that we were actually in the Indian territory!

So we had to leave and cross the border to Rajshahi in East Pakistan. In Rajshahi, Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan had initiated a project called Women’s National Guard, and she wanted it to operate from various places. She invited me to organise the project which I did and had the girls trained by the army.

We eventually shifted to Pindi in 1949 where my husband was appointed in the Kashmir affairs ministry. I also began working at the Kashmir refugee camps set up at Wah. I’d visit the camp three days a week, and work among the women of the community and organise income-generating activities. We also opened an orphanage there and enrolled the children in schools.

When we moved to Karachi in 1952, my social work activities increased multi-fold. I joined APWA as social welfare secretary and then became the relief secretary and eventually the international secretary. We involved women from various embassies — at that time situated in Karachi. For those interested in social work, I designed a form which included a list of areas APWA was working in to gauge what would interest the women, and how much time each could contribute, so that we could place them accordingly.

The founder of APWA Begum Liaquat was a very samajhdaar woman. She knew the art of taking work from people. She would encourage everyone into giving their best which is why she found a lot of willing workers. Despite the fact that her husband was the prime minister, she led a very simple life. So much so that during meetings, or when entertaining personal guests, she would ensure that the bill for the refreshments served was deducted from her personal expenses. She taught us that public money is not for personal use. Such was the culture in those days; the government servants did not even use official cars for private purposes.

During the ’50s, the government approached the UN and requested a workforce that could help improve the situation of the people of Pakistan. After an appraisal, the UN representative’s response was that our first priority should be trained social workers. The UN then sent teams to the five provinces and invited NGOs to send their representatives. I was among those who represented APWA.

After a six-month formal training, I began social work in earnest. A few colleagues and I chose Malir, which even back then, was one of the poorest areas of Karachi, mostly inhabited by landless labourers. Their children used to be sick and dirty and that’s the first issue we tackled. Gradually, their health improved. Malir was largely divided into Sindhis and Baloch, and the women of both the communities were good at ethnic embroidery. So we took orders for them from Karachi and that helped prop their family income. They told me that they did not even have enough money to buy soap, so this additional income was a blessing. Within two years, there was a marked improvement in their condition, especially the children. This gave me the idea of holding a ‘child show’ for which we invited Begum Liaquat as the chief guest. The Unicef contributed milk and blankets and each child was awarded that as a prize.

The UN team then came up with the idea of an urban development community programme. We worked in coordination with them, and I was assigned to identify a locality where the programme could be implemented. I found Lyari the most dilapidated area of the city. The aim was to empower the residents on self-help basis and within six months 20 centres had opened up, some even in people’s homes. A community council was created which I was part of, and since everyone worked during the day, the meetings were held from 10pm to 12am. I used to commute by a taxi at 12am daily!

In 1954, I flew to England for further studies and returned two years later. Around that time, the Pakistan Council of Child Welfare was created, and I was selected as the general secretary. The idea was to promote child welfare; we started a programme on radio on how to cater to the social and psychological needs of a child. Later, we decided to initiate a children’s award which included categories such as best writer and artist. In order to ensure maximum participation, we began at the district level and eventually took it to the national level. The programme continued for around four years, after which I left to join the government service.”