By Azmat Haroon
Deconstructing the image of Fatima Jinnah as a mere aide to her illustrious brother Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to that of a stateswoman and activist, is one of the primary objectives of a riveting scholarly work by the Georgetown University Qatar (GU-Q) professor Mohammed Reza Pirbhai.
His book Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation recounts her role in the women’s rights movement and details her vision of Pakistan as a welfare state. Pirbhai argues that Fatima was a modern thinker and her legacy should be of a charismatic leader who fought for the rights of women and minorities.
In an interview with Community, Pirbhai recounts the many challenges faced by Fatima Jinnah, including a sordid attempt to disempower her that continues 50 years after her death.
You describe Fatima Jinnah as a stateswoman and an activist in your book, yet she never assumed a public office. How do you place her among her contemporaries as a politician?
I believe Fatima Jinnah needs to be placed in the context of women like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Khaleda Zia. She’s their forerunner in many ways and she should be recognised as a woman whose legacy laid the groundwork for women in politics in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Despite many constitutional constraints, she won 37% of the vote of the basic democrats when she ran for president against (military ruler) Ayub Khan in 1964.
I think Fatima Jinnah in that sense is no more or less than any woman leader in the 1960s, whether in Britain, Japan, China or India. It’s the system that denied her position in politics. I’ve literally read thousands and thousands of letters in Urdu and English from people from all walks of society and what all these letters are saying is for her to take political leadership. They are not saying you’re a sister. They are saying we need you to lead and it’s almost a unanimous opinion. This tells you that publicly, the fact that you were a woman was not a great barrier — at least in that period. But the state, on the other hand, took that popularity and said you are just the sister of the Quaid (leader in Urdu — a title bestowed on Jinnah), know your place.
Fatima Jinnah’s political career appears to have a one-dimensional narrative — there is hardly ever any discussion on her vision for Pakistan. How is it that we know so little about her views on state and politics?
This is what I try to bring out in the book. Fatima Jinnah’s categorisation as ultimately the sister of the Quaid. She’s his nurse, his secretary and the keeper of his house. That is everything that she stands for. Period. This perspective has now become public opinion. What I argue in the book is that this was a way of disempowering her. If she’s made nothing more than the aide of the great leader, first of all, it puts her in her place as a woman. Secondly, it disempowers her as an independent political voice in Pakistan. She was disappointed in the leadership for selling out on the ideals on which the state was build. She was absolutely clear in that Pakistan should be a welfare state.
In 2003, many works came out on Fatima Jinnah, and I comment on this in my book, that 99% of them say she was a great helper to her brother; she nursed him when he was sick, and she gave up her married life to be his support. In all these ways, you are reinforcing this same image and ignoring the fact that in her life, she was a charismatic leader in her own right.
Mr Jinnah’s Aug 11, 1947 address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan has been a subject of an endless debate on whether he envisioned Pakistan to be a secular or theocratic state. Why is it that no-one ever sought an answer to that in the life and works of his closest aide?
Our discourse is shaped by this dichotomy of whether we should be a secular or an Islamic state. When we define secular state, we do it in puritanical terms and the Islamic state is described in Maududian terms (referring to religious scholar Abu A’la Maududi’s thought). The message of Jinnah’s speeches is echoed in Fatima Jinnah’s writing. The interesting thing to me is that both of them repeated time and again that we have to be an Islamic state that is governed by Islamic principles. Fatima Jinnah says that the ideal of Islam, as far as polity goes, is a representative government. What Jinnah and Fatima argue is also rooted in (Pakistan’s national poet) Allama Iqbal’s ideals — that the founding principles of polity in Islam is representation of the community. Having a democratic state is having an Islamic state and the parliament allows for that representation. She believed that if we have a representative government, the representatives of the people will propagate laws that reflect the will of the people.
Why do you think her adversaries tried to keep her away from politics?
She was the state’s harshest critic. Pakistan took nine years to write a constitution after independence and in the first 10 years Pakistan had 8 prime ministers. She was critical about how all the people were coming in without the people’s mandate. She was a firm advocate of how Pakistan is not just a homeland for Muslims, but a place which should be Islamic in character.
Do you think these measures were motivated by a gender bias?
It was partly a gender bias and misogynistic ideals of people from the clergy. Fatima Jinnah believed minorities and women should have equal share and stake in the state. The state had a problem with her as a modern thinker more than anything. She was aligned with (military strongman) Ayub Khan’s Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. The laws were meant to regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance, and they were particularly emancipatory for women. The ulema harshly criticised them and called them un-Islamic. But even as Fatima was in line with Ayub Khan’s ordinance, she ran against him. It was because she was highly critical of the fact that he implemented these laws in an undemocratic fashion. She wanted people’s will to shape legislation regarding inheritance, divorce and such. So during her political campaign, Ayub Khan found fatwa after fatwa from religious groups to prove that it is illegitimate for a woman to run as head of state. Nawaz Sharif did the same against Benazir Bhutto. The irony was that Fatima ran as the head of a coalition that included Jamaat-e-Islami. Maududi was the last person to issue his consent for her and issued a fatwa saying that ‘as there are no upright men to lead at present, we will allow a woman to lead’. He made it an exception under exceptional circumstances. But it was ultimate hypocrisy.
Did she have any impact on the women’s rights movement of Pakistan?
She was not fighting alone. She was a symbolic head but there were a number women groups, organisations as well as individual women who were playing a very important role — two of them being Shaista Ikramullah and Jahanara Shahnawaz. Both of them were members of the constituent assembly and extremely close friends of Fatima Jinnah. They would daily report to her on the affairs of the assembly but their ideas were being ignored and not heard. There were women in provincial legislature in large numbers as well and of all them were part of different women organisations. An important organisation at the time was APWA and it existed alongside other organisations like Binat-e-Islam and the League of Women’s Rights. All of them were in touch with Fatima and they were fighting for the same rights. I would emphasise that she was not a lone voice. It’s Fatima Jinnah as a member of the women of Pakistan that she should be understood as; it’s these women who are fighting for rights and women who are being excluded from power.
The women rights movement of Pakistan in the 1950s that you describe, appears far more organised and structured than one would imagine. Do you think Fatima, Shaista and Jahanara were part of a global women’s rights movement in that context?
What is often missed in movements for women’s rights whether in South Asia, Arab world, Britain or the US is that these movements were growing at the same time. They are not one following the other. The women in the West that first received a college degree earned that degree at the same time as women in the Islamic world. The very first doctors in the West concur with women doctors in India and Egypt. Women in India first started gaining rights to vote in provincial legislature that was under the British Raj, and this is the same time rights were being granted to women in the West. This was an organic growth on a global scale. These are modern women from the middle class that are educated, organised and mobilised.
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