Winters lend a melancholic charm to Islamabad. Cold biting afternoons inevitably transport me back to the past years. And then from hazy recollections bursts through the bright sunshine of the memory of my aunt, Dr. Salma Maqbool. January 12 will mark half a decade of her passing, yet her image is vivid, her melodic voice echoes and her person is omnipresent.
I can’t help but wonder at the poignant coincidence of events. Nine years ago in October, Dr Fatima Shah a pioneer social worker in the All Pakistan Women’s Association, met her sad demise. It was a mournful winter in 2002. Winters this year also ushered in the end of a glorious life. Saima Ammar, Chief Executive Officer of Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness, passed away a few weeks ago leaving behind a lifetime of precious memories. Dr. Fatima Shah, Dr. Salma Maqbool and Saima Ammar had much in common. They perhaps came from the same distinctive mould. They were women from three generations, women who were afflicted with visual impairment, women who were educated and cultured and women who made social work their calling in life. They illustrated through their lives the resolve of human spirit. They led a selfless struggle to bring dignity and respect to the deprived amongst us. They became symbols of hope to the disabled women of this country. May Allah never shatter that unique mould! May He bless one such woman every generation!
Dr. Salma Maqbool, my aunt was the voice of the disabled in this country. After she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa — an incurable genetic disorder leading to blindness — she took it upon herself to elevate her individual struggle to a bigger sphere. From there started a journey that left an indelible mark on history of social welfare in Pakistan. A young visually impaired female doctor would go on to single handedly establish ‘Darakhshan’, a Vocational Rehabilitation Centre for Women with Disability, develop the National Policy on Disability for the Ministry of Social Welfare, chair the Committee on the Status of Blind Women of the World Blind Union and manage the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness in the capacity of Chairperson. Her proudest achievement however remained the induction of visually impaired in the Civil Services of Pakistan, a first in the 60-year history of Federal Public Service Commission. This in itself is beyond most will ever aspire to do in their lives, but being her niece I was privy to facets of her personality that were much personal.
To the world she was a doctor, a social worker, a human rights activist and a philanthropist. However it is her person that intrigues me the most. Her sheer optimism in the worst of circumstances. Her unflinching faith in God and self. I have seen it with my own two eyes. Yet I wonder was she made of a substance alien to this world? Did she not battle self doubt? Were her internal ramblings ever about the hand she was dealt by fortune? Did she have qualms about her place in life? To all and sundry around her, the answer to these questions was no, absolutely not. Nobody ever saw a crack in her resolve, sniffed a whiff of self doubt or witnessed a flash of depression. If that was the case then surely she was not human. On the contrary, if that tenacity was an outcome despite a relentless battle inside her, then not once did she falter. This makes her extraordinary, yet human.
In fact Bobo, as we called her, detested any disapproving and patronising characterisation of the disabled. In the early nineties a drama written by the venerated Ashfaq Ahmed was televised. The plot disturbed her immensely despite the literary merit of the play. The protagonist, a fighter pilot, is diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. The young boy loses all hope after the diagnosis. He breaks off his engagement and denounces worldly connections. The last act shows the protagonist destitute and blind, begging alms at a shrine. Bobo, an ardent connoisseur of literature, could not bear a pessimistic portrayal of the disabled even in a piece of fiction. She vociferously put across her reservations to Ashfaq Ahmed the next time she met him. I suppose she was the only disgruntled fan he ever met. Such was her passion!
In the renowned short story, ‘The country of the blind’ written by H. G. Wells, the hero loses his way to a remote country. He finds himself surrounded by a blind nation. He is the only sighted man in the community, yet he is relegated to the lowest social status in the population. His description of the scenic beauty of their valley is met with cynicism. He is labelled a mad man at his effort to elucidate the concept of vision. The elders of the blind then arrange for his eyes to be removed. The story culminates when the hero escapes from the clutches of this nation. I have often likened the character of the hero with Dr. Salma Maqbool. She spent her life championing the rights of the disadvantaged. She advocated mainstreaming the underprivileged in our social fabric. She envisioned a world of diversity, dignity and respect. A world which we are oblivious of. A world we do not aspire for. A world we reject. Alas we are the country of the blind!