Zohra Begum (Lahore 1917-1998) was a woman so full of life that there was laughter even in tears when she was around.
Zohra Begum, with her compassion and sense of humour, taught us many things. Here are two of the most essential: She taught us to respect human beings without regarding religion, status, caste or creed; and, she taught us to love the life happening in and around us.
She lived in a vibrant political environment within a landowning family. Her closest kin, her only brother Sardar Ahmed Ali who she dearly loved, was the founder and leader of a nation-wide association Anjuman-e-Arayaan-e-Pakistan, and he held the ‘family seat’ from Kasur to the national or provincial assemblies. This he had earlier shared with Zohra Begum’s older brother-in-law Sardar Mohammad Hussain who was much loved by his constituencies but was way more interested in his magnificent dogs, and hunting, than in politics. The two people closest to her adhered to ‘tribal’ or ‘clan’ politics where Arayeen brotherhood was held supreme, and was organized to fight for identity, vote and privilege.
On the other hand, Zohra Begum’s first cousin on the maternal side, Sardar Shaukat Ali, was a committed communist leader who remained actively involved in Punjab’s progressive movements. Another first cousin, Sardar Mohammad Shafi was a Unionist who, in a historic meeting, had refused Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s request to provide support for his newly-made Muslim League. In the second generation, Zohra Begum’s brother’s older son Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali became the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Benazir Bhutto’s government and has held other portfolios since, her son-in-law Mian Mohammad Farooq is an important mover and shaker in Lahore. Her only son Sardar Salim Haider took after his uncle in that his interest in politics was minimal as compared to hunting, but again, he was the more-loved ‘sardar’ in the area.
Zohra Begum, who had no formal schooling, was consulted by all regarding all major issues. She gave everyone her thoughts about their concerns, her strength and good wishes for them to achieve their goals, and her vote when it was needed, but her own politics developed independent of the mainly ‘male’ currents represented above.
She had lost both her parents in early childhood, and the woman she came to know as her mother, her ‘Baybay’, was her aunt who later became her mother-in-law. Zohra Begum held her Baybay in high regard, and was influenced by her neutral and humanist attitudes. The bond between them was so strong that Baybay not only supported Zohra Begum’s decision to remarry after the death of her son Sardar Mohammad Rafique, but she also showed her preferences by continuing to stay with Zohra Begum instead of moving in with the family of her other son, Sardar Mohammad Hussain, as was expected.
Zohra Begum was keenly aware of women’s pain and suffering, and she showed by her example that boundaries can be broadened. Perhaps she was not the first woman in her family to have re-married because widowed women were often re-married to a brother or a cousin of the husband, but she was the first to have married out of her own choice, outside her family, and outside her clan, to a Syed. In this, she was supported by most women in the family but opposed by all men including her only brother. She carried out her decision, and suffered for it in many ways; most painful for her was when her brother ex-communicated her ‘forever’. The ‘forever’ finished in eight years and she was re-united with her brother. During those eight years, again, she was fully supported by the women, foremost among them, her sister-in-law Asghari Begum, the beautiful wife of her brother Sardar Ahmed Ali, who made sure that she and her six children continue to meet with Zohra Begum and her three children while her husband remained unwilling to see Zohra or to hear about her.
Zohra Begum’s struggle and ensuing politics was deeply rooted in women’s rights, and how best to survive in the present system. She was against dowry but realized that for a majority of young women of underprivileged families, it’s a stigma hard to endure. She asked her followers in Karachi to create an organization to provide dowry help to families. She openly supported marriages outside of traditional families and clans. A poet, she was a great lover of the arts, especially singing and dancing. It was not uncommon for women to sing and dance at her gatherings.
She was a strong woman in every way, spiritual, physical and emotional. She employed her spiritual strength to heal people so that they can take better care of themselves. She had lifelong struggle with diabetes and high blood pressure that she kept under control basically through food and very little medication. She was physically so strong that once when her family had just moved to Lahore, she was the only adult in the house one night, and a thief arrived; She slapped him across the face so hard that he ran back out, leaving some of his teeth on the floor.
She was a staunch believer in the ‘parvardegaar’ the Creator, but her beliefs were not mechanically perceived or implemented. For example, she hardly ever insisted that we pray five times or fast or offer ‘nafal’ or anything like that because she was convinced that it is between an individual and the Creator as to what and how much ‘ibaadat’ (praying) is offered, and that it should not be told/discussed in public. Instead, she emphasized ‘haqooq-al-ibaad’ the Rights of People to each other. She felt that doing well with other peoples and beings was the highest form of ‘ibaadat’ and ‘taqwa’.
Her followers though majority Sunni Muslims include Shia, Ahmadi and members of other Muslim sects. Not just that, they also include Hindus, Sikhs and Christians; and, they are not just Punjabi but Sindhi, Mohajir, Pakhtoon, and others. Mostly middle class women, some men; and many women and men from lower social strata.
She had unlimited appreciation for life in all its forms. Plants, birds, animals, insects. She fed and communicated to them on daily basis. We all heard stories of her brave and wise dog Moti, of an extraordinary mare; stories of crows, pigeons, wolves, peacocks and sparrows. She used to say that it’s the same ‘kiran’ (ray) or ‘ramak’ (spark) of life that runs through all creation.
She chose the path of the Sufi. The path that transcends narrow religious and nationality/ethnicity/class perspectives and leads to awareness, tolerance and love. These themes are in her verses, and in most of her thoughts she left behind.
Zohra Begum taught us to go beyond prejudice in order to love and respect all life. She knew, it’s not possible otherwise.
Fauzia Zohra Rafique
One of Zohra Begum’s many daughters