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Begum Tahira: An elegy for a towering humanist mother figure

She was not just a woman; she was a strong lady; she was precious as a diamond pearl

by Anwar A. Khan

Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community. Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali was an epic poem of humanism in the Indian sub-continent during the British regime and then in Pakistan.

Serene stands the little chieftain,
Tahira is not hurried; her voice was neither high nor low,
Her eyes give more light to us than our battle-lanterns,
In the sky, there in the beams of the moon they surrender to us.

Born on 5 January 1924, in Lahore, British India and died at the age of 90 on 23 March 2015 in Lahore in Pakistan, Tahira Mazhar Ali was a Pakistani women's rights campaigner and a political activist. Her children include British Pakistani political activist Tariq Ali, Tauseef Hyat, and Australian journalist Mahir Ali.

Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali
Tahira finished her basic education at Queen Mary School in Lahore. She married at the age of 17. Her husband, Mazhar Ali Khan (1917–1993) was a veteran journalist and editor of the Pakistan Times newspaper who had socialist leanings. Mazhar Ali Khan was a close friend to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. January – March, 1971 he visited Bangladesh and met Bangabandhu several times to pay his tribute to him.

Tahira was a comrade, a mentor, a friend, a mother and an inspiration to many. She was deeply involved in politics. One of her earliest memories was of Tahira arguing with her father Sikander Hayat Khan that he was not anti-imperialist enough.

In 1971 Tahira was among a group of progressives who held a massive demonstration on Beadon Road to support Bangladesh. “People threw rubbish at us,” she recalled. She used to say, “It might not be today, tomorrow, or even in my lifetime. But Inqilab of Bangladesh will take place. On that day, from my grave, I will shout Zindabad’.” Her entire life was dedicated to the just cause of mankind.

Tahira had a deep love for Bangladesh and our people…We are lucky enough that we could honour this grand lady on the soil of Bangladesh because of her hardihood to stand up against the blood-bath of the Bangladesh’s people by the savage Pkaistan’s military regime in 1971. She came to Bangladesh several times and every time, she publicly begged pardon of the unspeakable barbarities including rapes committed to Bangladesh’s people by the Pakistan army and strongly condemned them for their grievous misdeeds in 1971.

More than four decennia after the Liberation War against Pakistan, Bangladesh honoured thirteen Pakistani friends for their contributions to the Bangali cause during the war in 1971. These Pakistani nationals raised their voice for the freedom of Bangladesh, thereby going against all odds in their home country, which attacked unarmed Bangladeshis on the night of March 25, 1971. Some of them were sacked from their jobs, imprisoned and tortured for helping Bangladesh.

The Pakistani nationals were conferred the “Friends of Liberation War Honour” at a function at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in Dhaka a few years back. The awardees are politicians Begum Naseem Akhter, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Habib Jalib, Malik Ghulam Jilani and Qazi Faiz Mohammad; politician and filmmaker Shameem Ashraf Malik; journalists Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Prof Waris Mir; journalist and pilot Anwer Pirzado; human rights activists Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali and Ahmad Salim; lawyer Zafar Malik; and late philosopher Dr Eqbal Ahmad.

Tahira signed a statement along with 43 other intellectuals and politicians, demanding the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the termination of the military offensive in Bangladesh. Zafar had formed a supportive group to press home his demand for the release of Bangabandhu. Eqbal Ahmad delivered speeches at various US universities to create public opinion in favour of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

Tahira Mazhar Ali organised the first protest rally in Lahore against the genocide in Bangladesh and was later arrested along with her associates. Mir Ghaus Bizenjo, a close associate of Bangabandhu, visited Dhaka in March 1971 and tried to break the impasse over the handing over of power to the elected representatives.

Tahira was jailed for vigorously opposing General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship in Pakistan. She was the first person in Pakistan to pair the fight for workers' rights with the fight for women's rights, resisting Zia's assault on the rights of women. Although she was born in an affluent family, she remained an activist for labour and women's rights for over 60 years. Ali formed the Democratic Women's Association (DWA) in 1950 in Pakistan. For the first time in Pakistan, International Women's Day was observed under her leadership where it was openly demanded that women be given equal status and rights.

It is considered the country’s first women’s rights organisation that ran with the support of the Communist Party, something that Tahira was proud of, often comparing it to internationally run organisations today. Other members of the DWA included Hajra Masood, Khadija Omar, Amatul Rehman and Alys Faiz. Its work was based in the grassroots in small neighbourhoods and involved mobilisation of women and workers.

In her later years, before she suffered a series of debilitating strokes that left her partially paralysed, she served as a wise and trusted guide and advisor to many prominent Pakistani women. Human rights activist I. A. Rehman paid tribute to her in the Dawn newspaper, saying that she was "a true activist" and mentioning her work for women's rights and peace-making efforts between India and Pakistan. Her death has been met with a profound sense of loss by those who knew her.

Unlike many others, she never thought it was beneath her to sit next to workers in their homes and eat with them. She had so much empathy within her. But at the same time, she was outspoken, confident and brave and nothing could deter her.

No other woman had done as much as Tahira had for women’s rights in Pakistan. It is because of this that she has been recognised in the subcontinent as a great woman of Punjabi origin. Tahira also led fierce resistance against dictatorship, especially under the Ayub, Yahya and Zia regimes.

She had given away her entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Communist Party. She was penniless but content. She and her family lived off just Rs 300 a month for an entire year, and often ate spinach and daal. They had no regrets, no complaints and no second thoughts about leaving the luxury of their home. Her life with Mazhar was meaningful and complete. “Our home may have been empty of material things, but life was full in every way that mattered,” Tahira told Jugnu Mohsin

Tahira’s famed husband Mazhar Ali Khan was a Communist sympathiser although he never joined the party. In Wah, he worked with the peasants and workers at Khaur. Of course, the family was distinctly uncomfortable with this line of activity but they didn’t object openly. Those were happy days. Tahira recalled, “We lived on virtually nothing. I remember the time Ghaffar Khan was externed from the Frontier. He came to live with us in Wah for two months.

Shortly after that, Tahira and Mazhar’s home became a salon for writers, poets, activists and foreign visiting socialist leaders and was also the birthplace of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Their apartment on Nicholson Road overflowed with life. The Progressives were constantly in and out of our home — Sajjad Zaheer, Sibte Hassan, Mirza Ibrahim, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was friends with Mazhar and visited him in Lahore to warn him that the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan was poised to snatch control of the newspaper he edited, The Pakistan Times.

Mazhar Ali Khan remained unemployed for years together. He kept his sanity by observing a strict regime of exercise. He also read voraciously. It was not possible to write anywhere in those days. It was much later that Mazhar began to write for The Bengali Weekly Forum. His great pride and joy was Tariq, their elder son, who at 12 had led a demonstration of schoolboys to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader and first PM. He was also a keen debater, another thing he had in common with his father.

“During Ayub’s regime, we (DWA) invited women from Vietnam to visit Pakistan. Led by Mirza Ibrahim, the trade union leader, a huge number of women came to greet them. When we made a call, people would come out on the streets,” Tahira said. But soon after in the ‘60s, Ayub Khan banned the DWA because it opposed his rule.

Tahira consistently upheld the workers’ cause to take a stand against her own class including personal friends and she was among the handful of people who had come out on Lahore’s Mall in 1971 to protest army action in the-then East Pakistan and been spat upon for traitors by passersby. And there was WAF – women from her daughter’s generation whom she had disagreed with, criticised, and stood with in common cause against military rule, Islamisation and unjust laws.

Tahira’s most important legacy is her work amongst working women. She did not just restrict her work to the educated middle class women. She was amongst the first activists to have started organising women relatives of the railways workers.

The Humanist view of life is progressive and optimistic, in awe of human potential, living without fear of judgement and death, finding enough purpose and meaning in life, love and leaving a good legacy and Tahira do so throughout her entire life.

The world witnessed the departure of Tahira Mazhar Ali, on 23 March December 2015. The death of her, a humanist, a freedom fighter, a leader, is a great loss for the entire world. Her life, her struggle for a better Pakistan and world, his entire existence gave hope to the oppressed, the excluded, and the poor of the world. The whole of Tahira’s existence has been a gift to humanity.

Tahira never made distinctions rule – self-respect she infused in all! Empowered it in the weak so much that they now wake to others’ call! She made one know one’s neighbours’ woe! She made one care all sincerely! She made one sweat with sweetness true –she made one labour selflessly! She exhorted all to light one’s ways with love and joy and peace always! Ideas, ideals, vision, mission – she gave them all a human face!

She became the poet of symbol of power of human endeavour, independence, and survival which are characteristics of humanism. Tahira, the humanist figure who gifted humanity with hope. Her death reminds me the famous words of famed English poet John Donne, “Death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

She was not just a woman; she was a strong lady; she was precious as a diamond pearl. Yes, she shed tears; she might get stuck in fears. She fell in grief; and she got disappointed by other’s false beliefs.

But in Tahira’s genome, the unknown power for good lingered inside her real core.

-The End –

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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