Pakistan’s legendary women’s rights campaigner Tahira Mazhar Ali passed away in Lahore on Monday. She was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). In 1981, Tahira Ali, along with other women activists, formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) to resist the Islamisation agenda of the Zia-ul-Haq regime. A tribute by Kavita Panjabi
I just read about Tahira Mazhar Ali passing away, feeling really sad, hence this. I met her only thrice, and it was like I carried her within me all these years.
The first time was in 2001 at the ASR seminar on the 30th anniversary of the genocide in Bangladesh. She came up to chat after my presentation on the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity (MARS) and the Tebhaga women’s movement, excited. It had taken her on a nostalgia trip, and she said she remembered the MARS on a collection drive for the Bengal Famine in Lahore too; many, including she, had taken off the gold bangles they were wearing and contributed on the spot.
The next time was a couple of years later on the way back from the Karachi conference of the PIPFPD – NIghat had generously opened up ASR to the whole Bengal contingent, and it was like a shaadi baari when we arrived there, late in the night – mattresses had been hired and laid out last minute, to accommodate the extra people who had suddenly called up to say they too were coming, steaming hot degchis of food were put out for us in the kitchen. And Tahira Apa invited all of us to lunch the next day – for we were from Bengal and she wanted to meet us. I remember one of the most serene Buddhas I have ever seen, sitting to the right of her doorway, close to a glass cupboard full of the latest finds from digs in Baluchistan, “Of course its …., she grinned, But if I didn’t buy them, they would have gone out of the country. People are such thieves you know – all this would have gone out of the country…..” As unforgettable as her robust welcome, that made us feel so wanted in a stranger’s house, was the amazing Punjabi meal, which included various meats, naans and rotis of course, but also some of the finest baigan ka bartha and shalgam ka bartha we had ever had.
I instinctively took to her, wanted to record a proper conversation with her. She met me early the very next day – for we were leaving soon after that. I remember sitting with her in the morning light – in an open courtyard, maybe in a garden, with the sun and shadows flickering across her face that had such character. She talked about her younger days, Nehru and her deep admiration for him as well as major differences, Jinnah, the CP being sent underground, her work with peasants, the National Workers Party and the Democratic Women’s Association. Especially striking was the completely natural way in which she talked about ‘us’ across generations, contexts and movements. Included in that ‘us’ was I, a woman from across the border, and all the women whom I had protested with, walked the streets with, and sung with, completely off key, but lustily nevertheless, in Kolkata, Dhaka and Delhi, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi. She had a no-nonsense, down to earth way of articulating that ‘us’ with such ease and confidence – it sounded so natural because, one realized the moment one heard it, it was natural