Most Muslim women led secluded lives within their homes, and were not visible in public spaces. That is how purdah (segregation and separation from men or strangers) was observed, right up to the early part of the 20th century. A handful of women emerged during the Khilafat Movement (1919-1922), a pan-Islamic movement for the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey. Amongst these was Bi Amma, the mother of Maulanas Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali, who addressed public gatherings from behind a sheet.
It was the Quaid-i-Azam who brought about a social revolution in the emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women, a little recognized fact. He repeatedly stressed the importance of treating women as equal partners of men if the Muslims of India were to achieve the dream of a separate homeland. Fatima Jinnah was always at his side, a visible symbol of the new woman, advising and participating in all the activities of the Quaid, and not tucked away at home minding the kitchen.
However, the real game changer was the Muslim League session at Patna in 1938, when the Quaid-i-Azam, who was reorganizing and revitalizing the Muslim League since his return from England in 1934, created the All India Muslim Women’s Sub-Committee of the Muslim League. By the mid-40s, a galaxy of women had emerged in the leadership role of the Muslim League, organizing and mobilizing in the cities and also at the district level. Some of the more prominent names that emerged were: Jahanara Shahnawaz, Begum Salma Tassaduq Hussain and Begum Fatima from Lahore, Shaista Ikramullah from Bengal, Zari Sarfraz from what was then the NWFP, and Lady Abdullah Haroon from Sindh.
As the Pakistan Movement picked up, the Muslim Students Federation and its women’s wing began playing an increasingly important role in mass mobilization, with girl students traveling even to the Frontier Province, a remarkable act given its social conservatism. Begum Fatima, the founder principal of the Jinnah Islamia College for girls in Lahore, had played a key role in mobilizing female students. She invited the Quaid to come and address the students of her college in November 1942. Imagine the impact on these young minds when this charismatic leader declared, “…I am glad to see that not only Muslim men but Muslim women and children have understood the Pakistan scheme. No nation can make any progress without the cooperation of its women. If Muslim women support their men, as they did in the day of their Prophet of Islam, we should soon realize our goal”.
When the Muslim League won all the Muslim seats in the provincial elections of Punjab but was excluded from the formation of the provincial government in February 1946, massive demonstrations were held outside the Chief Minister Khizar Hayat’s house, with the women Leaguers’ processions making a serious impact. When the government banned the Muslim League National Guard and the RSS, there were police raids at their offices, and the women Leaguers partnered with their male counterparts in offering passive resistance.
When the Parliamentary Board was formed in the same year to negotiate with other parties for the formation of a government in Punjab, Jahanara Shahnawaz was made a member of it. The Quaid-i-Azam was invited to send a representative to the USA to attend the International Herald Tribune Forum in September 1946 in order to present the case for a separate homeland for Muslims. He nominated Jahanara Shahnawaz and MAH Ispahani for it, telling Ispahani that it was to counter the Hindu propaganda that Muslims were reactionaries who wanted to create a theocratic state. They addressed public meetings and met heads of delegations at the UN from various countries. Ispahani wrote of Begum Shahnawaz, “The Begum, an experienced parliamentarian, made quite an impression on the audience with her fluent speeches.” When the provincial assemblies elected their quota of members to the Constituent Assembly, Begum Shahnawaz was elected from Punjab and Shaista Ikramullah from Bengal.
By early 1947, the Pakistan Movement had become a mass movement. An intelligence report quoting the Daily Dawn reported that on 2nd February, the Frontier Women’s Provincial Muslim League held its annual session in Peshawar, which was attended by a thousand burqa-clad women. By April, groups of women Leaguers were touring the Frontier, for the Frontier Women’s Sub-Committee had asked for help from the Punjab women Leaguers. Mrs. Kamaluddin from Punjab addressed the women of Kohat from the Muslim League office through a loudspeaker. As the date of the referendum approached, parties of women toured the districts of Mardan, Kohat and Hazara. One of these young firebrands was Mumtaz Shahnawaz, who in one of her addresses chastised the men of Mardan for not allowing their women to participate in agitations. Lady Haroon had toured the Frontier Province as far back as October 1945, accompanied by a group of women that included Begum Hakem, the President of the Bengal Muslim League. There was a fair amount of exchange with Bengali Muslim Leaguers visiting what became West Pakistan.
The penultimate act of women Leaguers’ heroism was in February or March 1947, when one young woman climbed on top of the Punjab Secretariat, removed the Union Jack, and hoisted the Pakistani flag. The Quaid not only transformed the Muslim League into an effective mass organization in just under 13 years, but also brought about a social revolution, bringing Muslim women out of their homes, schools and colleges onto the streets as activists and effective parliamentarians. Since then, there has been no turning back for the women of Pakistan, although some of the Zia-era legislation continues to be a challenge to the women’s movement for emancipation and empowerment.*
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