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February 2, 2020

Fatima Jinnah — the most trusted adviser of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Karachi

February 2, 2020

During the launch of ‘Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation’ at the Arts Council’s lawn post-sunset on Friday — the first day of the Adab Festival — Nusrat Khawaja asked the author Reza Pirbhai what turned Fatima Jinnah bitter and disillusioned with the Muslim League’s leaders after her brother Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s death to the point of calling them feeble and polygamous, and why she initially supported General Ayub Khan’s coup but later turned against him.

Pirbhai replied that Fatima Jinnah was constitutional like her brother, and believed that there were no contradictions between alternatively living and creating an Islamic state, being a parliamentary democracy with liberal welfare values. “[But] what she saw after the death of her brother and in the era in which the [first] constitution was being written, which took nine years to promulgate, the infighting and backdoor politics, which were alienating Bengal, left her in absolute dismay.”

An ideologue

Pirbhai said that these things were also undermining the ability of those like her and other women who were active in relief work to solve one of the biggest crises that Pakistan ever faced, of housing millions of refugees and providing them education, jobs or basically a roadmap for their future. “The very people who she saw kowtowing before her brother’s leadership were now in power, and drifting towards provincialised and sectarian politics — in her opinion — for their personal gains; her attitude was the reflection of a truly ideological affection.”

He added that when Ayub Khan came into power in 1958, kicking them out and abrogating the 1956 constitution, Fatima Jinnah was very happy, and so were other women who took part in the Pakistan movement, except Raana Liaquat Ali Khan — Pakistan’s very first First Lady — over the assumption from the general’s words that the constitution would be re-instituted shortly after the elections, but it did not happen until 1964. “During these six years, [Fatima Jinnah’s] frustration only grew, to the point that she, nearing the age of 70, was very due to stand by herself. She believed that to not enter the political foray would lose the opportunity for all the men and women who truly believed in the same vision for Pakistan as her brother did.”

Political grooming

The talk reflected on the political grooming of Fatima Jinnah that happened under the watch of her brother, who took her to study at a convent school in Bombay (now Mumbai) and then to London, where she started acquiring the wisdom of the world and came out of her shell. Nusrat quoted William Stevenson Meyer — who became the first high commissioner for India after Partition — referring to Fatima Jinnah as an “evil genius”. Nusrat asked Pirbhai if he thinks that Fatima Jinnah’s relationship with her brother changed after she became stronger, more specifically during the days of his illness.

The author said London was a turning point for Fatima Jinnah, as she began to open her eyes to the politics of the day; she was an observer at that stage but her brother took her to parliament, a number of the meetings, roundtable conferences with the Indian National Congress; she was present when there were meetings with the Aga Khan III and the leaders of the Muslim League. “The excitement of the time played a role in awakening her, and her brother welcomed having her in terms of a political destiny that he fought for, the Muslims had to make for themselves and move forward.”

The committee

Pirbhai elaborated that soon after their return to India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah embarked on a political agenda of Muslim nationalism, and Fatima Jinnah was now in a position where she had seen the evolution of this movement from its beginning, and as her brother was getting more infirm, she was playing a more important role. “There is a wonderful line that I came across in an interview with one of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s many secretaries, where he says that he came to Muhammad Ali Jinnah with an issue raised by someone, and he said, ‘Well, I cannot rule on this without it going to the committee’ — and the committee was Fatima Jinnah. It gives you a good sense of the role she began to play by the late 1930s and the early 1940s.”

New woman

Nusrat said people have written that Fatima Jinnah represented the values of Muhammad Ali Jinnah after he died, soon after Pakistan came into being. “In a way she does not aspire to leadership right away, but eventually she does come into politics — as a new woman in terms of the clerical ideology of that time, which did not see enough roles for women in society. And the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), whose stance was to never allow a woman without purdah in leadership, supported her during her campaign against Ayub [Khan]. How was it possible?”

Pirbhai said that there were contradictions in history because it was not written by great men and great women, the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Fatima Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan or any of such figures; the history in fact represented trends that were shaping a much larger class of society, and speaking of the contested notion of a new woman, Fatima Jinnah represented the particular ideology of womanhood. He said that her notion of a new woman was of women to be economically independent so that they could take part in political and social struggles. But, he added, it was also contradictory because Fatima Jinnah’s embodiment had also some conservative aspects, like when she asked her fellow Shaista Ikramullah to tone down her rhetoric and role in the Pakistan movement so as to not step on the toes of her husband Mohammed Ikramullah, who was a British Indian civil servant.

Over the clerical view of women, the author said that it was the stated policy of the JI that women even in purdah should not be in a leadership role or in politics at all. “They really did make a huge U-turn as a member of the Combined Opposition Parties. Maulana Maududi himself issued a fatwa at that time. It was a very interesting fatwa because it was entirely conditional and relied on a fatwa of the Delhi Sultanate that allowed Muslims to eat carrion in a state of hunger; it stated that it was a time of major crisis and, therefore, an exception had to be made to allow a woman to assume a leadership role. But other schools of thought also supported her, saying that women can participate in politics but never become the head of a government.”

Qawwali

Then the discussion highlighted Fatima Jinnah’s concession speech following her defeat in the 1965 presidential election, which Pirbhai described as the twilight of her career. “After that she was not in the limelight; she withdrew to the Mohatta Palace, spending time with friends and family. A friend of hers described said she would sit on the roof at night and listen to Qawwali from Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine just down the road. Her speech was the last major political statement that she used to reinvigorate the very political agenda she learned through the creation of Pakistan, that it was an Islamic welfare state. And she reiterated that there was no Pakistan without its people represented through the various organs of state.”

Murder conspiracy

At the conclusion, Nusrat asked about the conspiracy surrounding Fatima Jinnah’s death: “July 8, 1967, a few days before her 74th birthday; the night before, she went to a friend’s wedding; she comes back and locks herself in her room, and when she is found the next day, she is dead.” Pirbhai said that there was no way we could definitively say whether she was murdered or not. “In other words, we don’t have enough evidence to convict anybody.”

Speaking of the labour it took to document Fatima Jinnah’s life, the author said that it was very difficult. “Her papers were taken by the state after her death, with the intention of preserving them and making them available to the public through the National Archives. It took them 20 years to present some of them. By 1987, much had been written about her through these papers, but all those pieces were state-sanctioned, so free access has not been available. Even her book ‘My Brother’, which was Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s partial biography, was censored to some extent, and Professor [Sharif al] Mujahid, who was the editor of the volume, had documented this himself, and the government made it clear that there were several portions related to Liaquat Ali Khan that could not be published.”