Remembering women leaders

One of the most popular and oft used quotes of Shakespeare has been Ides of March from his play Julius Caesar.  He warns the Roman Emperor of the tragic fate that awaited him.  And ever since the day that marked Caesar’s assassination, Ides of March is used as a precursor to forecasting events of far-reaching consequences. In Pakistan’s history too, this month has great significance—both good and ominous.

When we talk of landmark event we are reminded of the historic decision by the Indian Muslims to seek autonomy for the Muslim majority provinces in the Indian Union in a Resolution passed by a representative meeting of Muslims held in Lahore (March 23, 1940) under the banner of All India Muslim League led by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Many years later when Indian Congress leadership showed its true colours this resolution per force got converted into demand for a separate homeland.

Jinnah opted not to have a theocratic state for Muslims but  to have an  independent homeland to establish Pakistan as a secular, liberal, democratic egalitarian state with equal rights for all its citizens. He believed in the highest values of Islamic social justice and was of firm view that democracy was in the bone marrow of all Muslims. Hence in his Pakistan all its citizens—irrespective of their caste, creed, colour or gender—would be treated equal unlike Bharat which had an inbuilt discriminatory  social system as strongly manifested in its caste system where bulk of its people could only exist as second class citizens.

Unfortunately, Jinnah’s concept was waylaid by the power troika comprising of military, civil and judicial bureaucracy  plus feudal vested interest in cahoots with the Mullahs who had opposed the Quaid and Pakistan. His secular ideology was replaced with a so-called Nazaria-e-Pakistan (religion-based ideology) backed by those who saw in this conversion their monopoly over power and establishment of a security state.

Pakistan’s slide to the existing tragic pass is explained by the betrayal of Jinnah’s vision. While that being a situation that has nothing to rejoice, outright discriminatory attitude towards minorities often puts us to shame universally and Pakistan is pilloried for its maltreatment of minorities and the less privileged including women that are nearly half of the country’s population. Indeed, had we as a nation translated into action Jinnah’s advice that women should have equal rights and be equal share holder of power and resources, course of our history would have been different.

Looking at it retrospectively especially in the light of the recently celebrated Women’s Day, one must give credit in letters of gold to that rare breed of great women leaders who braved the most difficult challenges in an essentially bigoted men’s world and by their sheer determination created space for themselves hitherto unchallenged by men. While we had a butrqa-clad Bi Ama sitting with Jinnah in his Executive Committee meeting before partition contributing women’s share in the freedom struggle, later in post-partition Pakistan we had his sister Madre Millat Fatima Jinnah plunging herself in the fight for democracy against dictator Ayub Khan. Begum Ra’ana Liaqua Ali Khan, widow of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan dedicated her entire life towards of empowerment of women.

It was a historic coincidence that on March 23, 1929, the Ispahanis of Karachi were gifted with a daughter, Nusrat Khanum, who was chosen by destiny to be the great woman behind two great martyred leaders of our time – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto.
She was an Iranian Kurd by origin, her ancestry leading to the legendary Salahuddin Ayyubi. I had known Begum Bhutto to be a person full of compassion and determination. And her love of humanity turned her into a leading light among young women of her time.

Among many other qualities that make a perfect human being, she passed on this quality of compassion for the needy to her daughter Benazir. In 1947-50, as a member of the Women’s National Guard, she carried out personally the relief operation to provide shelter and succour to millions of the uprooted refugees at a time when Pakistan had no resources. She stood tall among the tallest of ladies that had plunged themselves in one of the biggest relief operations ever undertaken. She showed rare qualities of leadership that inspired others and strengthened the young nation’s will to survive despite the odds—a fact recognised and acknowledged by both Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah and Begum Liaquat Ali Khan.

Begum Bhutto kept alight the flame of democracy when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was incarcerated by Ayub for opposing him and founding the PPP. Her tenacity as a Kurd to fight back came out in full glow when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq in a coup in 1977. She kept ignited ZAB’s mission when he was imprisoned on a concocted murder charge. Though she was not alone at that time, as her talented daughter was with her, nominated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as the party chairperson in his absence, she kept the party flag high in defiance of a ruthless martial law and betrayal by some of senior party leaders sold out to Zia, to the extent that she received a head injury that led to her disability and ultimately death in silence. Despite her personal tragedies, she had set example of tremendous forbearance and resistance. Indeed, our women folk who are asserting for their rights as ever before owe much of their success to her and her daughter Benazir’s untold sacrifices.

Among the catastrophic events in our life March 1971 saw the beginning of the end of united Pakistan followed by the birth of Bangladesh. March, in 2008, once again plunged Pakistan onto a democratic course after sublime sacrifice in blood by Benazir Bhutto. Despite machinations, intrigues, conspiracies, electoral engineering and selection of prime minister instead of election Pakistan continues to bring forth the need to revert to MAJ’s liberal ideology with secular governance.

Pakistan’s democracy continues its roller-coaster existence. It is threatened by terrorism, lawlessness, socio-economic problems and growing apprehensions of an implosion. The dictator that it ousted remains at large while its legatees are busy in hatching conspiracies to undo the constitution of 1973 that has proved to be more unifying than the religion itself. When we hear from powers that be that 18th Amendment is worse than Sheikh Mujib’s separatist 6-points, we know where threat to Pakistan’s current democratic dispensation and Constitution is coming from.

Unfortunately we neither have Begum Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto nor the last of the iconic human rights leader Asma Jehangir to fight for the rights of the people. However, despite a bigoted puritan leader stealthily making his moves on the tunes played by the bag-pipers, March coming to an end with the dying sounds of death-knell, it seems chances of war have receded. However, the way media is facing difficulties and the new hurdles in the way of democracy have to be resisted at all cost. It is question of now or never.

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