Rasheeda Ahsan belonged to a Muslim family from Punjab, India. An only child, she graduated from university in the 1920s. It wasn’t just her eagerness to learn that drove her to achieving everything that she did, but also immense support from her family that was way ahead of its years in terms of progressiveness and education. She had the best of both worlds, and had studied everything from Ghalib to Shakespeare. While she learnt Iqbal and Ghalib from her uncles, she learnt Shakespeare directly from British teachers themselves.
Having lost her father at the young age of six, Begum Rahseeda spent most of her early childhood living with her uncles and cousins. Being the eldest of all cousins, and wise beyond her years, she was chosen to arbitrate over matters by both, the children and adults alike. They all strongly believed in her inner moral compass, and were convinced that she held the insaaf ka tarazoo within her at all times. She was blessed with the power of rectitude, and continued to be a peacemaker all through her life.
Be it dictators like Zia, or her affectionate but zameendar father in lae, she would stand her ground on principle and compassion. Begum Rasheeda would not fear challenging unjustified authority and gave much respect to her in laws. Begum Rasheeda’s husband, Ahsan, was a PCS officer of LLB. Together they had four children; Aijaz, Shireen, Nasreen and Aitzaz, who each went on to achieve great things, both personally and professionally.
In February of 1946, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah called for a civil disobedience movement in response to the unfairness of the general elections of 1946. The family members including young cousins would fill up the courts and public spaces, and get beaten up by the police every single day. They would go home in the evening wounded, get bandaged and return the next morning. Begum Rasheeda’s father-in-law, who was a MPA in defiance of the law took out a procession and got arrested; her husband who was a PCS officer in Jhelum at the time resigned from his post and headed another procession. They too was arrested.
Not being one to just sit back and watch, Begum Rasheeda instigated womenfolk around her and took a procession, defying section 144 of the constitution that barred public gatherings of more than five people. They marched to the then superintendent of police, Mr. Wall’s house and demanded an arrest, which he refused. Still adamant, she then marched to the deputy commissioner’s house, DC Sardar Balwant Singh Nalwa, who was a very close family friend. He was surprised to see Rasheeda Begum at his doorstep and exclaimed,
“Apa, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
Charged with both passion and anger, Rasheeda Begum jumped straight to the point,
“Can’t you see? Arrest us! We are in violation of section 144.”
Not willing to arrest his Apa, he said that his house was not a public property and therefore, there was no violation. On continued insistence, he explained how there were no jails for women and no orders to arrest women either. A very disappointed Rasheeda Begum suggested that they be put in a tent, as long as they could be kept under ‘arrest’. It was both, her passion for the cause of Pakistan and her inner conscience telling her to play her part, no matter what obstacles.
August 1947 will go down in history as one of the darkest and most horrifying months; half a million people were killed within two months, with an average of five to six thousand people being raped, mutilated, murdered or burnt alive every single day. The streets weren’t littered with corpses; they were blocked and it was said that even the vultures had gorged their fill.. Refugee camps were set up all over the country to help facilitate the migrants. Rasheeda Begum served as the divisional organizer for the Rawalpindi division of Muslim League Women at the time. Deeply moved by the pain and suffering of the refugees, she devoted her days and nights to help at the camps, putting her self and her family second to those in need. Because she spent every waking minute at the camps, the rusted maid at home chided her for neglecting her own children. Did she not been sorry for her children? She was asked. Her reply was remorseless. “Mere bachon ka sar pe chatt hai, rehnay ko jagah hai. Unkay pass sonay ko charpayi nahi, pehennay ko kapray nahi. Mujhe kyoun apnay bachaoun pe tars aye?”
While many shared the passion for Pakistan, very few had the strength and compassion to face the terrorized reality of it, and to acknowledge the cost that had to be paid for it. Rahseeda Begum was one of the few. Soon after, the Kashmir war of 1948 erupted and parts of the state were lost. She was overcome and vowed to give up silk clothing and wear cotton only, till the lost territory of Kashmir was freed. This was her way of showing solidarity with the affected.
Rasheeda Begum served as the vice-president of All Pakistan Women Association APWA for decades. It is the oldest women NGO conceived at the time of Partition by Rana Laiquat ali Khan. She never aspired to be the president and declined any every opportunity offered to her. She believed solely in working for the empowerment of women. She was fair and honest; her empathy and compassion knew no bounds, and her inherent need to help elevate everyone around her made her an indispensable asset for APWA.
She was also extremely generous and charitable, and one time during the 1965 war, somebody came to the APWA office to collect donations. All women generously gave whatever they had. Rasheeda Begum, embarrassed to find that she had no ready cash on her at the time, took off one of her diamond rings and gave it to the charity worker much to everyone’s surprise. This wasn’t the only time though. Her daughter in law, suspects that the family silver tea set met with a similar fate. Her husband often joked about how one day her generous charity checks were going to bounce when encountering zero balance in the bank.
Through APWA, Rasheeda Begum founded the Darul Aman, which is a shelter home for orphaned or widowed women. During General Zia’s martial law, Rasheeda Begum took out a procession to protest against his dictatorship. As a result, she was placed under house arrest. On seeing Rasheeda Begum, the woman threw a fit. She began to howl and shriek saying that she could not do it! She could not detain her! This was naturally quite alarming and when questioned the warden declared that Rahseeda Begum had been the one who had taken care of her at the Darul Aman. She had funded her education though out and this is why she had been able to get into the Police. On hearing this, Rasheeda Begum took the woman aside. She explained to her that they were both just doing their jobs – hers was to break the law while it was incumbent on the other to enforce it. She said she couldn’t bear to see the woman lose her job and how it would break her heart to see all her effort wasted. Besides, the replacement may not be as kind to her. Like the police officer, there are possibly many who are indebted to Rasheeda Begum for helping them find direction and purpose in their lives.
When our generations begin to forget the sacrifices of our elders and worse, question the founding of this young nation it is icons like Rashida Ahsan that come to mind. These women were handpicked at the time to conceive and build the free land we call our home, Pakistan. One cannot over exaggerate their contribution but only wonder at the sheer conviction and inspiration that drove them to realize the dream that was almost impossible and turn it into reality for millions that have lived since.