Updated: Jan 29, 2019
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!” These words of William Wordsworth (describing the French Revolution) are what my mother often quoted to describe to me the sublime feeling of hope and joy at the birth of Pakistan.
My mother, Zeenat, may not have been an extraordinary woman, but she lived through an extraordinary time. It was a time when young women rallied to the cause of the Pakistan Movement following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, Miss Fatima Jinnah, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and Zeenat’s own mother, Lady Haroon who were creating a powerful voice and space for women in public life.
Belonging to a political family, Zeenat was raised in a tradition of activism which encouraged the participation of all family members in the Pakistan Movement, campaigning for the Muslim League during elections and helping turn out the vote. Her father, Sir Abdullah Haroon, had been a convener for the Muslim League in Sind but passed away in 1942 when Zeenat was just 13 years old. It was her formidable mother Nusrat, who then took on the mantle of representing the Haroon interests in politics, business and charitable concerns, as well as raising a large family. In the aftermath of Partition, alongside her sisters, Zeenat devoted her energies to volunteering for humanitarian duties such as tending to the needs of refugees, working in hospitals, and even taking on routine paperwork in government offices because the new nation lacked a trained civil service. But the abiding impact of her family background was the schooling in political ideas and processes received at the feet of some of the greatest political figures and leaders of the time, including the Quaid-e-Azam, who were frequent visitors to the family home at ‘Seafield’, which continued to be a political hub long after Independence.
Zeenat’s passion for politics continued throughout her lifetime. She devoured newspapers and news magazines and was as enthusiastic debating the issues of the day with Karachi’s intellectuals as with her domestic staff. Although fiercely devout, she never sought to impose her religious views on anyone, not even her children, and she believed in a gentle, compassionate and liberal interpretation of Islam, reading widely on Islamic History later in her life.
As the Women’s Movement began to gather momentum in the Seventies, Zeenat became an ardent feminist. Although she had herself followed a conventional path in life as wife and mother, she was adamant in her belief that girls and women should be encouraged to fulfil their potential in whatever way they dreamed of, regardless of the demands of convention. She raised her daughters and granddaughters to believe “A girl can do anything a boy does”. In this she had a willing accomplice in my father who taught me to climb trees, love sport and the outdoors and who bought me a motorcycle for my 17thbirthday. I was also the first girl in my generation of the family to be sent to study abroad at University.
People have asked me why I have chosen to establish a writing competition as a way of honouring my mother, since she herself was not a writer. While it is true that my mother was not educated beyond “Senior Cambridge” (equivalent to today’s GCSE), she had a passion for reading and an enthusiasm for learning for its own sake. My family home was full of books and the library was added to regularly, not least because my parents belonged to a “Book of the Month Club” with new arrivals from abroad being awaited with eager anticipation. This enthusiasm for reading was not unusual in my parents’ generation and most well-to-do families had private libraries in those pre-TV and pre-internet days, made possible by the thriving bookshops in Karachi and a postal service reliable enough to fulfil subscriptions.
Our home library was eclectic. My father read mostly non-fiction books on history, exploration, adventure and travel, while my mother favoured the novels of writers like Iris Murdoch, Daphne du Maurier, Lawrence Durrell, E.M.Forster and Evelyn Waugh, with a special weakness for the mysteries of Agatha Christie. But reading was a pastime that we indulged in as a family, with many lazy summer afternoons in Karachi or Nathia Gali spent reading side by side, sharing a passage or sentence from our reading which we thought might be interesting or funny. My mother even passed this love of reading to her granddaughter Shan whom she would regularly “frog-march” to the library during summer holidays in London! So I know it would have pleased her enormously to have a writing prize founded in her name.
As I remember my mother on this anniversary of her birth, I am forever indebted to her for all that she has given me in life. Love and security, a passion for intellectual pursuits such as reading and bridge, a fierce sense of social justice and gender equality, and above all the self-confidence to act on my ideas and beliefs, even if it means defying tradition or convention. The greatest lesson I have learned from her however, is what it means to be a good mother. Devotion, selflessness and sacrifice were qualities she demonstrated everyday in what she considered her primary role in life. But along with these was her astonishing ability to let her children make their own choices and mistakes without her interference or disapproval. So perhaps she was extraordinary after all - an extraordinary Pakistani mother for her time.