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International Women’s Day

Remembering Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah

Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq

March 8 marks International Women’s Day. On this day while highlighting the issues faced by women all the world and in Pakistan, we must remember Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, who not only participated in the independence movement during the lifetime of Quaid-i-Azam, but was a great support to him, and after his death she acted as the conscience of the people and fought for her illustrious brother’s ideals of democracy, tolerance, rights of masses, rule of law and justice and confronted the despotic, anti-people dictator of her days.

The 2019 theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’ that focuses on novel ways in which humanity at large can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure. We all know that the achievement of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires transformative shifts, integrated approaches and new solutions, particularly when it comes to advancing gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Message on the website of United Nations aptly observes: “Innovation and technology provide unprecedented opportunities, yet trends indicate a growing gender digital divide and women are under-represented in the field of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and design. It prevents them from developing and influencing gender-responsive innovations to achieve transformative gains for society. From mobile banking to artificial intelligence and the internet of things, it is vital that women’s ideas and experiences equally influence the design and implementation of the innovations that shape our future societies”.

All those who are concerned with the empowerment of women and other weaker sections of society are aware that this goal is not possible without democratisation of all institutions in our society. Those who believe in gender equality and have been in the forefront of democratic struggle in Pakistan would never forget the name of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, sister of the great leader and founder of Pakistan, whose life and struggle is a symbol of defiance of dictatorship and injustice and unshakable belief in equality and rights of women and minorities. When Ayub Khan imposed his martial law, she was the only voice reminding her countrymen that their land had been created for higher purposes rather than bending knees before a thoroughly conventional dictator.

In Pakistan, the forces of obscurantism and status quo keep on resisting changes that can lead the country towards a true democratic state where the weaker sections of society get their due share and Article 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan is implemented in letter and spirit. This provision says: “The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfilment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability to each according to his work”.

Tragically, over the decades, dictators—military and civilian statesmen—have deprived the people of their primary right to elect their rulers. Even during the democratic periods, the authoritarian-minded rulers showed little respect for the rule of law, rights of women and other weaker sections of society and unfortunately demonstrated extreme anti-people character. In this perspective, the message and struggle of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah is a source of inspiration for those who are still struggling and advocating the cause of women, minorities, tolerance and consolidation of a representative and participative democracy.

It is shocking that the Government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has given negligible representation to women in Cabinets in the Centre, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa though women played a great role in its struggle to capture power. The governments of Pakistan People Party, claiming to be progressive in outlook, and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have also showed the same apathy whenever in power in the centre or in any province. This confirms that the struggle for Quaid’s Pakistan in which Ms Jinnah played a leading role is still unfinished. And those who are still struggling for it face a similar campaign of vilification at the hands of anti-people forces of the day of which she was the main target.

Remembering Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah on International Women’s Day extends an opportunity to all of us to consider how to accelerate the 2030 UN Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the SDGs, especially goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and number 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. On 1 January 2016, the 17 SDGs  of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit — officially came into force.  Over the next fifteen years, with these new Goals that universally apply to all, countries are required to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climatic change, while ensuring that no one is left behind. The SDGs build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and aim to go further to end all forms of poverty. The new Goals are unique in that they call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and addresses a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.

We are still lagging far behind in achieving SDGs and MDGs as per stipulated deadlines.   Though we have witnessed uninterrupted Decade of Democracy [2008-20018] but the larger part of our history has been moulded by repeated constitutional hiatuses, prolonged through conspiracies and chicanery, and sustained whenever necessary by the political use of religion, resorting to a self-styled defence of ideological boundaries of the country and in recent times to ensure the perpetuation of “controlled democracy”. All this ultimately led us to merciless intolerance. The call given by the Great Leader, in his first speech to the constituent Assembly, was totally ignored by various governments that followed, simply because that did not suit their political ends—as they made every effort to push this country into an oppressive system where the poor men and women and their offspring are the real sufferers.

The third decade of our existence, from 1958 to 1968, was the culmination of these policies. The dictatorship of Ayub Khan destroyed the people’s democratic prerogative to elect their rulers, curbed civil liberties and freedom of the press. A docile parliament, comprising sycophants and apologists of status quo, was brought into existence. During this decade came the finest hours of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah when she decided to oppose the apparently all-powerful and invincible Ayub Khan. The only redeeming feature of that era was the emergence of Mohtarama Fatima Jinnah as a moving force behind the demand for a change. She reminded the custodians of Pakistan’s destiny to honour the promises that had been made to the people and the principles on which this country had been founded. In the presidential election of 1965, she was defeated as the entire administration, lackeys, collaborators and henchmen of Ayub Khan did everything to save the dictator from his doom. But the fact of her having come out against the tyrant had shaken to its roots the citadel Ayub Khan had built to ensure permanent rule. Within a few years, people came out into the streets and the mighty dictator was forced to bow out.

There are two important lessons one should learn from her struggle. First, there was no shortage of hired mullahs who issued at that time fatwas (edicts) that Islam does not permit a woman to become a head of state. Irrespective of the merit of their decree, the most gruesome aspect of such an exercise was the political use of religion in support of status quo. Second, no matter how strong a dictator appears to be, the ultimate victory belongs to the people. It has always been a matter of time: sooner or later even the strongest dictator has to submit before the power of the masses.

The most remarkable aspect of Miss Jinnah’s campaign was her struggle against the system, rather than against a person. She made it clear that her intention was not just to replace Ayub Khan but also to do away with the sort of (presidential) system he had created. And however brief the respite won by the people, she succeeded in her mission. We are facing the same grim challenge today in the name of sustainable democracy, which means nothing but to hold on to power under the garb of “attractive slogans’. An observation made by her during the 1964 election campaign still has great relevance, as in 2002 the people of this country faced the same grim opposition. She declared:

The people of Pakistan should themselves decide what kind of government this country will have. The people of Pakistan are not prepared to tolerate corruption, dishonesty, tyranny and dictatorship. We are champions of democracy. We want a clean administration so that people should benefit and their sovereignty could be guaranteed. We are opposed to dictatorship, corruption, nepotism and monopoly because these amount to usurpation of people’s sovereign rights. (October 30, 1964)

Knowing fully well that the fight for her ideal was going to be a long and hard one, Miss Jinnah said, “I am an old woman. My shoulders are frail. But my real shoulders are the masses. This nation is a living nation. Its conscience is alive. The flame of liberty burns bright in its bosom. The people want democracy; they will not be cowed down“. Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah contribution to the honour of the nation’s history throughout the dark fifties and the much darker sixties is simply unmatched. For the women of this country it is a matter of great pride and inspiration. Those who waste no time in ridiculing the struggle and demands of Pakistani women should feel ashamed that in the hour of need, not a single man rose to the occasion and the historical responsibility fell on the “frail shoulders of an old woman”.

As a woman, Ms Jinnah exploded all the myths attached to females; she gave up her career and personal life to look after her brother who was engaged in a long struggle for a homeland for the Muslims of the Sub-continent. Yet she was a prominent member of the Working Committee of the Bombay Provincial Muslim League, and also of the Council of the All-India Muslim League. Even more laudable were her efforts in developing the Women’s Sub-Committee of the Muslim League as an effective instrument for mobilising Muslim women. The best tribute to her role in the freedom movement came from the Quaid himself, who in a public address said: “During all these years of worry and hard work, my sister was like a bright ray of hope whenever I came back and met her. Anxieties would have been much greater and my health much worse but for the restraint imposed by her. She never grudged, she never grumbled. Let me reveal to you something that you probably don’t know. There was a time when we were face to face with a great revolution. We were ready and prepared to face bullets and even death. She never said a word, but on the contrary she encouraged me. For a solid ten years, she stood by me and sustained me”.

What a remarkable life Ms Jinnah had spent. In one of her addresses, the great lady said: “Pakistan was not created for a few people. It is the jagir of the people and with them it will remain. No power on earth can snatch Pakistan from its people. The people achieved it under the leadership of the Quaid-i-Azam so that the nation’s future generations could live in comfort and dignity. Remember, the Pakistan that the Quaid-i-Azam had visualised has not yet been realised. The struggle for it continues. And as long as we and the present Pakistani generation do not wage a ceaseless struggle for restoration of democracy, Pakistan will not be complete”. (November 18, 1964)

Of course, the Pakistan that the Quaid and Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah had visualised is still not complete. Today, the nation faces the same challenge. What is required is certainly a ceaseless struggle for the consolidation and progress of an open government [‘Open governance doctrine, Business Recorder, January 19, 2018] and representative democracy. The most important question that the struggle and message of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah poses to us is: Should we rise and take part in the struggle against undemocratic forces or instead should we remain in acquiescence with them?


The writers, lawyers and partners of Huzaima, Ikram & Ijaz, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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