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When Gandhi launched the Civil Disobedience movement, Lady Sakinatul Fatima discarded the purdah, bought a charkha for daily use and wore nothing but Khadi

Portrait of a Lady as a young Muslim revolutionary

Majaz, poet of revolution, gave a call in mid 20th century to young women

Hijab e fitna parvar khud utttha leti to achha ttha

Tu apne husn ko parda bana leti to achha ttha

Tere matthe pe ye aanchal bahaut hee khub hai lekin

Tu iss aanchal se ek Parcham bana leti to achha ttha

Had you lifted yourself your mischievous veil

And made of your beauty itself a veil

On your forehead your scarf is graceful indeed

  Had you made it a banner how well it would be!

Women had begun to make a banner of their veils much before this poetic advice. Muslim women were already playing their part in India’s freedom movement in the late nineteenth century but their voices became louder in the first decade of the 20th century. There were many; Abadi Banu Begum known to the world as Bi Amman, mother of Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, leaders of Khilafat Movement, close associates of Mahatma Gandhi; Rehana, daughter of Gandhi’s friend Abbas Tayabji who designed the tiranga jhanda as we know it today and Jahanara Shahnawaz who was elected first to Punjab Legislative Assembly then to Central Constituent Assembly of India. The three Fyzee sisters, Atiya, Zohra and Nazli of Bombay, whose passion for freedom was expressed in their struggle for women’s education. Sharifa Hamid Ali, also from the Tyabji clan, who drew up a model Nikahnama in the 1930s and was a nationalist to core. Shaista Ikramullah from Bengal, who was elected in 1946 to the Constituent Assembly, her fervour for Independence found in her writings. Then there were women who we know as writers but were passionate freedom fighters; Ismat Chughtai, Rasheed Jahan and many others.

My reason to write today about one woman who is not found in the women’s who’s who of the freedom movement is personal. Her name was Sakinatul Fatima and she was born in UP in 1886. As a child, I had heard stories of her blunt outspokenness and her defiant burning of Manchester cloth in Lucknow’s Hazratganj. Her brief life sketch was written by her granddaughter Dr Sakina Hasan, professor of English and Member of the first Status of Women Commission which wrote the landmark report Towards Equality in 1974. In 1931, when Gandhi launched the Civil Disobedience movement, she discarded the purdah, bought a charkha for daily use and wore nothing but Khadi. Her husband was Sir Wazir Hasan, Chief Justice of the Oudh Court in Lucknow. Much as she hated the British Raj and its favours, by virtue of being wife of a ‘Sir’, she was known as Lady Wazir Hasan. Her bluntness became legendary. At an official function she was introduced to Lady Wellington. They spoke through an interpreter until Lady Wellington said “Your Ladyship, you should learn English so we can talk without an interpreter.” Bang came the retort in her Purbi boli, which was the language she spoke. “Hum kahe seekhain tohri bhasha” (Why should we learn your language?) You have come across seven seas to rule us, you should learn ours. When we rule over you, we will learn yours!”

Another story is recorded in Munshi Premchand’s autobiography. His wife, with a few comrades, was collecting donations in Lucknow city for the Congress Party for Gandhiji’s non-cooperation tehrik. They came to Wazir Manzil, an imposing mansion, which they were hesitant to enter. But Sakinatul Fatima welcomed them with open arms and gave what she could for the cause. Another incident is recorded by TN Kaul, ICS and foreign secretary, who was at the time DM Unnao. Lady Hasan was traveling by car from Lucknow to Unnao and her car was flying the Congress flag. An enthusiastic British joint magistrate on patrol stopped her car and asked that the flag be removed. She looked at him disdainfully and said: “Nahin, kabhi nahin.” The man refused to let her proceed further. Begum Sahiba also refused to comply and stuck to her point. Ultimately he had to ask his boss the magistrate. He quickly advised him to let her proceed and not clash with her iron will.

She sent her daughters to study in Karamat Husain, Lucknow’s first Muslim girls’ school. She supported the Sarda Act of 1929 for prevention of child marriage. She abhorred polygamy and when her cousin married a second wife she forbade them to enter her house. After independence, she was nominated to the UP legislative assembly. She supported the Zamindari Bill of 1948 despite herself being a small zamindar. She did not care that most Muslim zamindars vehemently opposed it.

Far from being confined to choolha chakki chardeewari as was the stereotype, women like Sakinatul Fatima, with no formal schooling, had the grit to become part of the movement which would dismantle colonial rule, not only in India but its domino effect would reach all over the world.

Syeda Hameed is an educationist, women’s rights activist, and a former member of the Planning Commission of India.The views expressed are personal

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