The day my husband was taken to jail for speaking out for the rights of indigenous fishing communities, I took off my burka and burned it. I donned a chaddar and sat outside the press club. I knew my burka would not protect me: in this system, I had to come out and fight for my protection myself
– Tahira Ali
Tahira Ali. A woman brought up in the fishing community of Ibrahim Haideri on the outskirts of Karachi. A woman who married of her own choosing and defied the stringent norms of her Syed family. A woman who taught herself to read and write when her youngest was two. A woman who first learned how to speak out and then taught thousands of other women to speak out for themselves. A woman who led not only other fisherwomen in a successful movement for over two decades, but also, at many critical junctures, led the entire fisher folk movement in pursuit of their fishing rights and a life of dignity.
This dignified leader, brave woman, and my dear friend passed away last week.
I met Tahira in 2003 and have known her since in many ways. I was interested in the folk culture of the fishing communities and admired those who initiated social action: this attracted me to Tahira. After a trip to the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2003, where we became very close, spending several days together, she always spoke as if she had full rights over me. She told me that, since I trained young leaders from all over the country, it was my duty to train her children in turn. Her daughter, Yasmeen, had done a two-month leadership course at Mehergarh, the organization I was working with to develop youth leaders. Her son Mehran had also attended courses at Mehergarh. She wanted me to scold them both because she thought they were not as socially active as she wanted them to be.
“The day my husband was taken to jail for speaking out for fishing communities, I took off my burka and burned it”
A large part of her fight was against the ‘contract system’. In Badin, where the Rangers set up contractors illegally, fisher folk are forced to sell their entire catch to them at far below the market price. Violence is quickly meted out to anyone who attempts to circumvent the system.
Tahira had been involved in campaigns against such contracts for so long that, at times, she would lose her patience with politicians. Once, when talking to a provincial assembly member about the negative consequences of the contract system, he asked simply, “What is the contract system?” She responded angrily, saying, “What are you doing in the Assembly? Selling channay (pulses)?” Others had to pull her back from attacking the man any further.
Although soft spoken, she could attack like a tigress when required. Her confrontations with the Rangers, special agencies, and the police were frequent. I remember one occasion when a policeman, who was drunk, slapped her daughter Yasmeen at a rally. Tahira grabbed him by the neck, threw him down, sat on him, and beat him.
During her struggle against the Rangers in Badin in 2000 and 2004, she would motivate the women of the fishing communities to get over their fear of ‘uniforms’. The women there were very tired of the Rangers taking away their catch and treating them like maidservants, giving them dirty laundry to wash and ordering them to cook. Tahira explained to them that ‘uniforms’ were meant to protect people. If some persons were taking liberties with this, they should be punished, rather than others assuming that uniforms were bad.
In those days, both Tahira and her husband were often harassed by the security agencies and even declared ‘state enemies’. A man she knew told Tahira that he had been shown her photograph and questioned about her. He warned her to be careful as they might kill her on some pretext. In a carefree manner, she said, “I have died so many times that once more would not make a difference. One has to go one day in any case.”
Most people saw only her compassion. When Khattu Mallah, a poor fisherwoman, was kidnapped and gang-raped over three months, Tahira could not sleep. Tireless, she led the campaign to have Khattu recovered and the criminals punished. Once Khattu returned, Tahira kept her in her own home for two years, afraid for the fisherwoman’s safety in the village; she also wanted to help Khattu pursue her case in court in Karachi.
And yet, the other image that comes to mind when I close my eyes is that of Tahira dancing the jamalo with a large group of women. The women of the fishing communities off the coasts of Sindh and Balochistan loved their leader and would dance together at every opportunity. That was the other thing she and I had in common: we both loved to dance the jamalo together and sing from our hearts. We both also loved theatre. Tahira would develop plays on the issues facing the fishing community and produce them complete with music and choreography. Celebrations of World Fisheries Day were always marked by poetry recitations, plays, song, and dance.
She called me just recently, thrilled to hear that I was moving back from Washington to Islamabad. She said, “Now the fishing community has a claim over Lok Virsa. We will visit it as though it were our own place.” I made plans with her to record some of the resistance poetry and folk songs they had developed over the years as I was very interested in people’s narratives articulated in their own folk ways. Tahira quickly promised that she would make plans and that I should come there with my team to record them. We made plans for 20 March.
On 10 March, I received the news of her accident: both husband and wife were thrown into a ditch full of water. Tahira was taken out first, but no one would touch a woman’s body even in an attempt to get the water out of her lungs. However, they did everything they could for her husband, thumping his chest and turning him upside down to get the water out immediately. He survived and she died.
For the past year, I have been working on a book about women’s political agency in Pakistan – their ability to make decisions that can change their lives. During this research, I have documented several successful women’s movements in the country over the last 15 years, among which the fishing community’s movement is a key case. I had been spending a lot of time with Tahira: at her home, in various districts along the coast, and in small settlements around the lakes in Sindh. Although I knew her well, it was my good fortune to have spent so much time with her in the last year. I must have interviewed her at least six times and travelled with her extensively, understanding the folk culture of fishing communities, their issues, her leadership, her strategies, and her plans.
I have yet to complete the story of this remarkable woman and the collective agency of the brave women of Pakistan’s fishing communities. However, a strong lesson that she articulated is something we can all learn from:
“After working for a joint social movement for over 20 years and standing up for all collective issues alongside men,” she told me, “I was disappointed that the men did not stand with us in the same manner when it came to women’s issues.”
In order to address issues that were specific to women, she had recently initiated a separate platform, Noori, from which to create a space for women to raise their own issues. In her straightforward manner, typical of Tahira, she told me: “When it comes to police beatings, ladies first! When it comes to decision-making, men first!”