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When discussing prominent Pakistani women, references are usually made to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, human rights activists Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, or even entertainers like Zeba Bakhtiar and Nazia Hassan. Pakistani women like Mukhtaran Mai or Asia Bibi have also rightly garnered media attention for different reasons.
Fatima Jinnah, sister and confidante of the founder of modern day Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (M.A. Jinnah), is not as often referenced by western media. Snippets on her life have been written by a handful of people, but much of the praise and adulation for her comes from national scholars like Dr. Riaz Ahmad of the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research (NIHCR) in Islamabad. Considered a role model by many, she is unequivocally revered across religious, ethnic and gender lines in Pakistan.
Born 1893 in Karachi, she is one of three Jinnah sisters and considered closest to her brother, Mohammed Ali, who became her guardian and with whom she went on to spend 28 years of her life. Fatima originally trained as a dentist despite “strident family opposition to the very idea of a Khoja* girl joining the Convent as a boarder or launching upon a professional course” (My Brother). With her brother’s support and encouragement, Jinnah completed her training and also opened a dental clinic in Bombay.
Jinnah gave up her practice and any semblance of a personal life to be her brother’s caretaker, advisor and emotional support network until the day he died on September 11, 1948, one year after the birth of Pakistan. She also contested presidential elections in 1965 against then military president Mohammad Ayub Khan. With her shocking white hair and billowing shalwar, she gained popular support and roused Pakistanis to reclaim democracy only to lose amidst accusations that the incumbent cheated. President Ayub Khan also tried to delegitimize her, alleging that Muslim women could not become head of state. Jinnah remained unmarried and died in 1967.
She has been credited for the Women’s Relief Committee, which later formed the nucleus for the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), an organization that caters to the wellbeing of Pakistani women on issues ranging from health to income generation and poverty eradication. With the creation of Pakistan came the resettlement of Mohajirs (Muslims from the newly Indian state who wished to reside in Pakistan), in which Jinnah played a significant role.
Her unfinished biography, “My Brother” was written in response to Hector Bolitho’s contribution on M.A. Jinnah—which, according to her “failed to bring out the real Jinnah in terms of his political life and achievements.” Like her brother, Jinnah’s preferred language of correspondence was English and the eloquence of her word choices are expressed in the following quote from her biography:
“Work, work and more work. He drained away the last reserves of his energy like a spendthrift child of nature. Alarmed at his poor health, when I sometimes begged of him not to work such long hours and to give up for some time his constant and whirlwind tours that carried him from one end of India to another, he would say, ‘Have you ever heard of a General take a holiday, when his army is fighting for its very survival on a battlefield?’”
Another fascinating memoir is “Memories of Fatima Jinnah” by Sorayya Khurshid (translated into Urdu by Khalid Hasan), which provides keen inside details on her day-to-day life. Khurshid’s husband was the private secretary to M. A. Jinnah and the obvious consequence of that relationship meant Khurshid served Fatima in a similar capacity. In her book, Khurshid narrates everything from small talk to more serious discussions on both public and private issues, including commentaries on a number of local and foreign influential personalities.
Several short documentaries on Fatima Jinnah have been produced for Pakistan television including GEO TV’s tribute to the Madr-e-Millat (“Mother of the Nation”) in 2009. Similarly, Shirin Shah portrays Fatima Jinnah in the 1998 movie “Jinnah” with Christopher Lee in the lead role as the Pakistani leader. The movie received generally positive reviews and Fatima’s portrayal in the movie continues to one of a courageous woman, independent in thought and spirit and every bit as patriotic and passionate about Pakistan as her brother. Several education institutions and public facilities in Pakistan have also been named after her.
Ms. Jinnah, as she was often publically referenced by her brother, is evidence that a strong role model for Pakistani women was present since the very beginning. Like most woman, Jinnah was an excellent multi-tasker, which served her well while she kept up with her brother and Pakistan.
Not many, it is therefore presumed, are aware of the private Fatima. Who was this woman apart from her brother and his heroic cause? What were her hopes and dreams? Was she a big fan of beautifully tailored clothes like her brother? Did she at any point fall in love or did her passion for the newly created Pakistan outweigh everything else? Who was woman behind the billowy veil and the angular face? These are questions that may never be answered, but this author’s curiosity is piqued. In some respects, Fatima did exactly what her brother did, fought for a nation but only like a woman can – with beauty, grace and perhaps in a pair of strappy, high heels.
* The Khoja are an ethno-religious community that are mainly concentrated in South Asia, majority of which are Ismaili Shia.