Tahira Mazhar Ali, a veteran of Pakistan’s left movement, believes Pakistan needs clarity and good governance to come out of crises. She seconds state’s decision to engage in talks with the Taliban and militant groups but asserts that the state should be clear whether it wants to stay democratic or religious. There is no middle ground.
Tahira Mazhar Ali has struggled for human and women’s rights for more than 60 years. Her father, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, was the prime minister of united Punjab from 1937 to 1942 and her mother was daughter of Nawab Muzaffar Ali Khan, a prominent landlord of Punjab. She studied at Queen Mary School, Lahore, and was married to Mazhar Ali Khan, a student leader, when she was around 16. Her political activity began after her marriage, at a time when it was compulsory for a political activist, especially of the Communist Party, to work at grassroots level for at least two years.
During this time, Baji Rasheeda, a prominent political activist, inspired her. Mazhar Ali Khan later became a famous journalist and held various editorial posts in Pakistan Times and Dawn before editing his own publication, Viewpoint, until he died. Tahira has two sons and a daughter. Her elder son, Tariq Ali, is a renowned writer and her younger son, Maher Ali, is a journalist in Australia.
Stretched on a bed in her old constructed house in Shah Jamal, Lahore, while recovering from paralysis attack a year ago, Tahira recalls her struggle since 1950s for a socialist charter and for establishing women rights in Pakistan. She stresses the importance of education, revival of political activism and equal rights for Pakistan’s progress.
"We were among the group which observed International Women’s Day on the streets for the first time in Pakistan with the clarity to fight for women’s empowerment."
Tahira, among other activists, established Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) in 1950, which is considered Pakistan’s first independent rights group for women.
"Today, many rights of women are acknowledged. There has been no compromise on women rights. We achieved something, but I don’t say we have achieved everything," she says. "Women’s right to property and inheritance are some of the goals yet to be achieved."
She says women rights movement in Pakistan is still led by women only. There are no large scale collective efforts by the whole society in this regard. Women need their rights and more liberty to exercise them. "We have not done enough work on this issue yet. We want same rights as men have."
She says the situation of human rights in general and women rights in particular has improved but no specific laws have been made to address women’s issues and even if they have been made there is no proper implementation and freedom to practise them. She says liberty means women should be given rights and they should not be treated as second class citizens or killed for honour or tortured or abused. Rights reflecting in laws and policies alone are not enough.
In the subcontinent, Tahira Mazhar Ali is recognised among the "great women of Punjabi origin". When she founded DWA as an outfit for women’s political struggle, there were organisations like All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), Christian Women’s Associations, and Women’s Guards, highlighting women rights at different levels. She and her colleagues in DWA started working for social change -- equality for women in society. People recall her active role in protests and rallies from The Mall to Mochi Gate showing her strong will and confidence.
In the 1960s, Ayub Khan banned the DWA for its resistance to dictatorship. Later, during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime, though there was more freedom of movement, assembly and expression, but the DWA was stopped from inviting Indian women activists to celebrate International Women’s Day in Pakistan. After further restrictions on the association during Ziaul Haq’s reign, these leading women rights activists formed Women Action Forum (WAF) as new resistance movement.
"Zia’s steps, like Hudood Laws, were the reasons of making WAF in 1981," she recalls.
Tahira, a true activist, has participated in rallies and protests even at the age of 80. She is a member of the National Workers Party’s Central Working Committee.
Her activism spread over all these years is nationally recognised for fight for equal civil rights, workers and labour rights.
Regarding the efforts of Pakistani left for a socialist charter, Tahira thinks that they have not done enough work. "We need to go to people, talk to them and educate them. And we need to do collective efforts to promote education and literacy to make things better," she says. "There is need to do more for this cause. We have not done anything for land reforms yet. Shortcomings are our own. We have not done much work."
"We have reached nowhere in these past 67 years. We have not been able to govern the country till now. There is need to sit together and evolve a comprehensive and consensual strategy. The ruling people have been minting money and filling their pockets till now. Good governance is missing."
On extremism and terrorism and ongoing talks with Taliban and militant groups, she maintains religion should not be a part of administration.
"There is no solution yet. I don’t see light. But, I think meeting and talks should be held. Sometimes they will refuse to talk, sometimes state will change its strategy," she says, adding, "The major issue is that we need to have clarity whether we want democracy or Shariah. Both cannot be mixed up. And also, there is no counter narrative. Counter narrative is under threat and fear."
Her life dream is to have peace in Pakistan. She thinks our organisations have gone backward too. "There is need to sit together and make peace." She says coexistence is very difficult in this type of religious society. "There is need for an open society but I don’t see that in near future," she says.
"There is need to improve governance and ensure democratic rights." Tahira Mazhar Ali stresses the importance of education to achieve equal opportunities and balance in distribution of wealth in the society.