Zeenat Haroon Rashid (21 Jan 1928 - 8 April 2017) was the daughter of Sir Abdullah Haroon and the daughter-in-law of Sir Abdur Rashid, the first Chief Justice of Pakistan. She was a young stalwart of the Muslim League and founding member of the Women’s National Guard at the time of Independence and throughout her life promoted a vision of Pakistani women as equal partners in the struggle for building a modern Pakistan in accordance with Qaid-e-Azam’s vision. About the Women’s National Guard she said "Jinnah wanted to show people that in Pakistan, women would do things. We didn’t cover our heads. We were a symbol of progress."
Zeenat became an icon for women's empowerment in the nascent nation state of Pakistan, when Margaret Bourke-White, the legendary photographer for LIFE Magazine, snapped a photo of her in 1948 practising with the Women's National Guard.
An Interview with Zeenat
I was led by the arm by the party’s host to meet a graceful older lady sitting at a large table, watching the proceedings with interest. She fixed me with a quizzical gaze, extended her soft hand and told me her name was Zeenat Haroon Rashid. ‘You want to know about history,’ she said, leaning her head to one side. ‘I’ll tell you.’ I pulled up a chair and listened to her describe how, when she was seventeen, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a close friend of her father’s, asked her to gather up her high school friends and create what would become the Sind Women’s National Guard. ‘He said, "The women are standing shoulder to shoulder with the men. What are you young people doing?" I said, "We’re ready – what do you want us to do?"’ Initially, she told me, the Sind Women’s National Guard was a small group, perhaps twenty-five or thirty teenagers who wore all-white uniforms, learned first aid and self-defence, and registered people to vote. ‘We were a symbol, you see,’ she explained. ‘Jinnah wanted to show people that in Pakistan, women would do things,’ she said. ‘We didn’t cover our heads! What nonsense. We were a symbol of progress.’
That evening, I searched through old Life magazine issues online and found an issue Mrs. Rashid had mentioned from January of 1948, with the gaunt face of an ailing Mr. Jinnah on the cover. There, in the centre of the magazine, was a series of crisp black and white photographs taken by the legendary photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. The photos show Mrs. Rashid brandishing a lathi, standing in formation, and looking up at a flag, a sense of promise and import on her young face. The photographs taken that day suggest a bright and glorious future for Pakistan, a future where women would make an important contribution.
The next week I interviewed Mrs. Rashid at Seafield, the Haroon family home. As she led me through the dining room, she told me about an evening long ago, when a tailor placed the new flag of Pakistan on the long table in the room’s centre. Jinnah inspected the flag’s white strip of cloth, meant to represent Pakistan’s minorities. ‘He said, "The white strip should be wider",’ she told me. ‘And you know – the tailor had to go back and make it again.’ Just a few days later, I thought of this story as I heard a news report about Aasia Bibi, an illiterate Christian labourer who had been condemned to death for reportedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. It was unclear what she had said, but clear that she would never get a fair trial. The next time I visited Mrs. Haroon, she told me how upset she was by the case. ‘This is not what Mr. Jinnah intended,’ she said sadly.
Excerpt from article “On re-visiting Karachi” by author and filmmaker Sadia Shepard
ABOUT THE ZEENAT HAROON RASHID WRITING PRIZE FOR WOMEN
The ZEENAT HAROON RASHID WRITING PRIZE FOR WOMEN has been set up to honour the memory of Zeenat by her daughter Syra Vahidy who is the principal donor. The prize will be awarded annually in the hope that it works to promote and provide support for women who wish to pursue writing as a career.
We are grateful for the participation of the judges who have offered their services pro bono, as well as many volunteers, both individuals and companies, who have helped to make this enterprise possible.
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