“If political consciousness is awakened amongst our women, remember, your children will not have much to worry about.”
— Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Lahore, March 22, 1940
When Fatima Sughra, only 14 years of age, climbed the iron-clad gates of the Punjab Secretariat in Lahore in March of 1947 and removed the Union Jack, hoisting in its place the vibrant green Muslim League flag while the police gaped below, she became the Pakistan Movement’s youngest icon. Discussing the event with The Guardian in 2007, she said that men and women both came out in support as she swapped the sign for imperialism with their symbol of freedom.
“That would never happen now,” she mused. “The women won’t take to the streets for a cause they believe in, and if they did, the men would never support them.” Although she was the first-ever recipient for the Gold Medal for Services to Pakistan, Fatima was not the first of many extraordinary women who contributed to the struggle for a separate Muslim homeland and the rights of women in said homeland. In an age when females were limited to the four walls of their homes and often declined the right to education, healthcare, employment and political participation, a galaxy of women stepped forward and not only succeeded in shaking off these restrictions but also helped make tremendous strides in the struggle for Pakistan.
Unfortunately, history, or rather, the mostly-male recorders of history, tend to marginalize and omit the experiences of women, not because they were absent or insignificant but because they are considered to be less vital than the achievements attributed to men. Women have been conveniently overlooked and erased from recorded history for they are not thought to be agents of progress or change; their contributions are always secondary, and their participation, a threat to the roles that hold society together.
And while it is true that societal structures have limited women to the domestic sphere for most of history, and that the importance of these traditional roles cannot be stressed on enough, women are often more than mothers and wives. They have routinely led revolutions – Olympe de Gouges and Charlotte Corday come to mind, spearheaded technological advancements – Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program, and made scientific breakthroughs – such as Lady Montagu and Marie Curie’s invaluable contributions to medicine.
Today, as our nation celebrates its 71st year of independence, many still remain oblivious to the scale of contributions that women made to ensure Pakistan’s existence. After 200 years of British Raj, as the Pakistan Movement took shape, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in fact the first to address the importance of women to a political struggle. “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you,” he is quoted to have said. “We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners.”
On another occasion, he claimed, “No nation achieves anything unless the women go side by side with men — even to the battlefield.”
True to his belief that women had the inalienable right to express themselves politically, his sister, Fatima Jinnah, would accompany him to each meeting, conference and debate, shoulder-to-shoulder. However, merely being the sister of the Quaid is not where her significance truly lied. Dubbed Madr-e-Millat, Mother of the Nation, Ms Jinnah occupied an active role in politics as the convener in the Central Women’s Committee, Vice President of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) Women’s Wing and founder of the Women’s Relief Committee, which would later form the basis for the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). She drafted the League’s programme for the uplift of women and organized provincial and district subcommittees while actively working towards promoting women’s health, education and political presence.
Meanwhile, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali, wife to Liaquat Ali Khan – the future Prime Minister – has come to be known as Madr-e-Pakistan. An economist by occupation and one of the most prominent stateswomen and activists during and after the Pakistan Movement, she acted as the vanguard to female politicians. An executive member and economic advisor to Jinnah’s committee and later the All-India Muslim League, Ra’ana led her college students, holding “Simon Go Home” placards, to Liaquat Ali Khan’s winning debate against the exclusionary 1928 Simon Commission that refused the Indians’ the right to autonomy.
In 1942, as Imperial Japan was on the brink of attacking India, Jinnah pulled Ra’ana aside and said, “Be prepared to train the women. Islam doesn’t want women to be shut up and never see fresh air”. In response, she formed a small volunteer medical corps in Delhi and later reprised this role at a larger scale for the Pakistan Army, being the first female Brigadier-General. She was also the founder of the Women’s National Guard – a revolutionary decision for the early 1940s. Talking to Dawn News, Shaukat Ara, a member of the Guard and active Muslim League participant, recalled the surprise on Jinnah’s face as four women – clad in white shalwar qameez and green dupattas, bearing swords – escorted him up on stage for a jalsa at the Islamia College for Boys.
Forever donning a graceful gharara, it was also Ra’ana Liaquat Ali who accompanied her husband to London in 1933 to convince Jinnah on returning to India and leading the Muslim League. A defining moment for the Movement, history as we know it would be very different without her efforts.
Yet another firebrand female advocating for a separate nation state and women’s rights was Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz. President of the All-India Muslim Women’s Conference for 7 years, and then Vice President of its Central Committee, she moved the organization to pass an anti-polygamy resolution in 1918. In 1935, she founded the Punjab Provincial Women’s Muslim League. She was the first woman in Asia to preside over a legislative session and went on to be elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly as the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Medical Relief and Public Health in 1937.
In a room of influential men, Jahanara, with Radhabai Subbarayan, were the only two females representing women’s organizations at the three Round Table Conferences. Albeit unsuccessfully, they argued for greater women’s representation in the legislature and made sure that their voices were heard around the table. So talented she was at dialogue that in 1946, Jinnah flew her and Abul Hassan Isphani to the US to speak on behalf of the Muslim League.
A year later, India saw an astonishing mobilization of Muslim women – thousands joining the League, marching alongside Jinnah, protesting against the maulvis’ extremist ideals and the Unionist government. Day after day, Jahanara, alongside revolutionary icons such as Lady Viqar un Nisa Noon, Begum Salma Tasadduq, Begum Kakaa Khal, Miss Hassan Ara Hafeez Ullah and more, carried out processions. They faced teargas, lathi charge and beatings, and it was during this civil disobedience movement that over 500 Muslim women were arrested, including poet and writer Mumtaz Shahnawaz – Jahanara’s daughter.
Unflinching, angry and aware of her responsibility to speak out, Mumtaz never apologized for prioritizing politics and justice over the domestic stereotypes she was expected to conform to. During the Second World War, she would frequently gain disapproving glances as she passed out pamphlets in the streets of Lahore. A committed member of the Muslim League, she worked tirelessly for women to fight obscurantism and often delivered fierce addresses to the public. She would cite political awareness and mobility as part of a female’s education and soon her house became the center of the women’s struggle for Pakistan, especially during the Congress Party’s crackdown on Muslim activity in 1940.
While jailed for civil disobedience, it did not take long for the quick-witted young woman to work out a strategy in order to get her messages outside the prison. She is said to have deliberately caused issues like broken taps and pipes, and then conveyed her ideas to the League with the Muslim plumber she had called for acting as an intermediary. She is, however, best known for scaling the jail and soaring a makeshift flag drawn on her green dupatta, yelling “Allah hu Akbar” and “Pakistan Zindabad!”
The women of the Pakistan Movement were among the first to shun the age-old religio-feudal order that restricted them from moving forward, and as a result, they proved to be vital to the freedom struggle. When examined closely, these pioneers’ lives tell tales of grace, courage, determination and compassion – be it Amjadi Bano Ali Johar’s participation in the drafting of the historic Pakistan Resolution, Salma Tasadduq Hussain’s overwhelming victory in the 1946 elections, Viqar un Nisa Noon’s tours of the province to educate the people or Shaista Ikramullah’s struggle to pass the bill ensuring women’s right to education, inheritance and equal pay. While the women of Sindh advocated for revolution under Lady Abdullah Haroon’s Anjuman-e- Khawateen, the women of NWFP launched a secret organisation called the War Council and set up the underground Pakistan Broadcasting Radio Station.
Addressing massive meetings, getting word to the media and the common people, raising funds and organizing relief work is not characteristic of a lack of female participation. There is little doubt that women were present at all levels in the campaign for self-rule and equal rights, and that their contributions were immense. Jinnah himself acknowledged their untiring work in 1947, stating, “Half of Pakistan is yours because you have put in no less effort to achieve it than the men.” Then why is it that we continue to diminish and erase their achievements?
The fact that the mentioned women, among many others, are never put in the foreground of history, seems to be the product of a calculated oversight. Whatever the reason for this invisibility might be, ignoring the crucial contributions women have made not only robs historical events of their significance but also leads to the continued invisibility of female protagonists in today’s world; the necessity of historical revisionism cannot be overemphasized.
However, while the achievements of these incredible women seem to have been lost in time, just a little change in focus can help us look directly at the visionaries that charted the course of history. Only with the presence of historical role models in both the public memory and historical records can the exceptional women of the past and present that Jinnah reiterated were among the strongest forces in the world, be the recognized and empowered. There is enough space in history for the ladies who devoted themselves to the fight for independence to be acknowledged alongside the men, who too rejoiced after decades of struggle, 71 years ago, today.