Rubina Saigol was not only a brilliant scholar committed to difficult and even dangerous causes. She was also a vivacious human being who was full of fun and loved life
The latest Covid casualty, Dr Rubina Saigol, has left those who knew and admired her work shocked. Can it be that the soft voice which dared spell out the harshest, and yet the truest, critique of the system of domination which stifles the dreams of so many will never be heard any longer? I met her first, in the early ’90s I think, in a conference on education. She looked at the subject through the lens of feminism, human rights and power. She spoke softly and politely and without acrimony but she lay bare the way our male dominant culture operates to coerce, control and distort not just the texts which are taught but also the teaching methods and the minds of the pupils. I was impressed and in the coming months read almost everything written by her. Then we met in several conferences and again, from education to the dominance of males in our families and the political domination of the military in Pakistan, she connected seemingly disparate subjects and themes together till one started understanding the dynamics of power: how one kind of dominance leads to a distortion in the body politic, economic and societal till it leads to other kinds of domination, other distortions and other deprivations.
I was privileged to attend some conferences with her in foreign countries in which I got to know her better. One such conference was in Washington DC just before the American invasion of Iraq. It was October 2002 and President George W Bush was said to be weighing the pros and cons of an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime on the pretext that they possessed nuclear weapons. Rubina Saigol and I were chosen from Pakistan to talk about what would be the possible repercussions of such a move for Pakistan. There were other people from the rest of the Muslim world and we were told that several such panels would be invited to speak to the members of the US Congress. We were housed in a hotel near the Capitol and met in the Library of Congress in book-lined rooms. I remember that all of us opposed the war and what Rubina said, and I completely agreed with her, was that such a move would usher in and strengthen Islamic militancy, leave Afghanistan in a mess and would be a disaster for the United States itself. Indeed, if memory serves me right, some speakers from the Arab world had already prognosticated that Iraq would become the world capital of Islamist fighters who would be America’s bitter enemies. Now we know that between 151,000 and over 1.04 million Iraqis died even between 2003 to 2006. The Islamic State came to be established and the war ended only in 2011. Over the lunch some people said that only American contractors, and big business, would get rich and Rubina said this was a point worth writing about.
I hope they understand that it is not easy for someone unconnected to a university, a think-tank, a donor-driven project to write and publish work so distinguished.
But Rubina Saigol was not only a left-leaning, liberal-humanist scholar committed to difficult, even dangerous, causes. She was also a vivacious human being who was full of fun and loved life. I remember how, besides the shelves of books in the Library of Congress, she told me that she had gone around all the museums and other places of interest in the city. I too followed her example but only after having wasted much time simply because I did not know much about such places. In another such conference, this time in Kathmandu, she told me that she had just flown past the Everest and seen that wonder of the world in the cool sunlit morning on the roof of the world. This time I could not follow suit because we never had another such sunlit morning and the plane did not venture out on that expedition in the few days that I was there. It was not only museums and mountains; everything interested her. When invited to our house she showed interest in everything from what the children did to the food and in my library. In short, she was full of life and could talk about things without being boring or dominating. Indeed, her air was always as if she was only learning ever so humbly from one till one found in one of her books that she knew and had written about that very subject earlier.
When Covid-19 struck in 2020, I used to ring my friends and acquaintances to find out how they were doing and to show solidarity with them in that first lockdown which was a new experience for all of us. One day when I rang her, she was warm and gracious as always but she told me that she had just recovered from cancer. I was sorry that I had not talked to her for such a long time that I did not know about her illness. Anyway, after this, we talked, thrice I think, but again unfortunately, not for the last two or three months. And then the news came — she had succumbed to Covid on August 27. I was shocked to say the least. One by one, the pillars of those whose intellect, courage and learning I cherish and look up to are departing. As Insha Allah Khan Insha would put it: bohut aagay gayay baqi jo haen tayyar baethay haen (many have gone ahead, the rest sit ready to depart). She has gone ahead but her work remains. I hope someone still reads the passion in those apparently calm, dispassionate, scholarly writings about education, gender and power. I hope they understand that it is not easy for someone unconnected to a university, a think-tank, a donor-driven project to write and publish work so distinguished. She was not doing it as a professional requirement or as part of a job. She did it because she wanted to leave the world — especially for women and the underprivileged — a better place than she found it. If this is not knight-errantry with a pen instead of a sword and a shield, what is?
I close with a couplet from Ghalib and a silent salute to her courage and humanity:
Maqdoor hoe to khaak say puchun keh aye laeem
Tu nay woh ganj-ha-i-gran-maya kya kiyay
(If I had the power I would ask the earth: “O! Miser!”
“What did you do with those grand treasures [buried in you]).
The author is an occasional contributor.