Two days ago, many in the Shi’i communities celebrated the birthday of Hazrat Fatima (S.A), daughter of the Holy Prophet who is also know as Zahra (Lady of Light) and Syedatun Nisa al Alamin (Leader of the Women of the Worlds). Many scholars have highlighted the ‘deep and revolutionary influence Fatima’s memory evokes in breadth of transformation in the Muslim societies’ .In this context one came across a vast array of conversations and narratives celebrating her life which invite introspection onto our own lives. But this year such an auspicious occasion has a special significance for me personally because it has coincided with my own mother’s birthday, unwittingly allowing me to celebrate the lives of two very special mothers.
Among one of the salient aspects of Hazrat Fatima’s life is the fact that she selflessly lived her life for others. All historical narratives of her life, which are few and far between, are agreed on the fact that inspite of her austere existence no one was ever turned away from her door. A common lament that one thus keeps coming across is that we need Fatima as a role model today because such generosity and selflessness is rarely found in these times. Indeed this fact is largely true in today’s materialistic and greed driven world, but I could not help but feel lucky to think that I had such a role model in the form of my other mother who similarly devoted her entire life to helping others. Living an almost nomadic existence in Pakistan, moving incessantly from one city to another and often living in far flung areas where qualified teachers were hard to come by, my mother volunteered to teach at every opportunity she had. Helping teach at the government colleges and schools which were run by the Pakistan Air Force was her way of giving back to her country. She did all this probably at the cost of a bright academic career elsewhere, being an outstanding student, skilled debater an ambitious science student (who by the age of sixteen had even exchanged letters with the likes of Neil Armstrong) and one of the handful of women who did their Masters in a hard science subject like Physics in the early 70’s. Inspite of her own academic success and potential future opportunities she never professed any sense of entitlement or superiority over others and willingly gave it all up for her family and others. I am sure others have similar stories to share and such stories about our mothers who are indeed the proverbial unsung heros, need to be shared and celebrated.
Growing up witnessing many such acts by my mother and many of her contemporaries, such volunteerism was the habitual way of life and was taken for granted by people like me. However I am forced to acknowledge such as a spirit as singularly selfless activism because such notions are conspicuously and visibly lacking in my own generation. It would be safe to say that unlike our mothers most of us urban, educated and well-to-do women today are mostly spending their time by pursing career options that involve financial gains. Of course there must be economic explanations for such a proclivity since we are living in times when the greatest measure of our success seems to be the amount of money we earn. In this context I find most of the women of my generation are selling either clothes, jewellery and furniture rather then venturing out to teach lesser privileged children, volunteer to help motivate and educate illiterate women about their rights and professionally train them to become self-reliant and productive citizens , like people of my mother’s generation. However the fact that many of us are not volunteering our time for selfless motives says less about us and more about our mothers. Needless to say our mothers also had numerous options , the easiest of which would have been to could do nothing. They could have easily chosen to just sit at home or done something more lucrative with their time but did not. These are life lessons that I feel we need to learn from our moms, which would undoubtedly have a far-reaching effect on our society at large where privileged people and underprivileged ones live in two separate worlds. Perhaps our mothers recognized and dealt with the responsibilities that came with privilege more than we do.
As far back as I can remember my parents have been proponents of social equality and humanitarianism in their own quiet way. I am not sure if I speak for many others in Pakistan’s polarized society but my parents were among the few people I knew who were not class conscious at all. We comfortable interacted with people from all social rank and file, because everyone was seen as an equal. I remember many instances such as once when I lived in Peshawar, when the neighbour’s maid came over to see my mother I inadvertently yelled out to her saying ‘The neighbour’s servant (naukar) is here to see you’. I must have been seven years old. After the lady left, my mom sternly sat me down and told me that I must never address anyone in such a way and that it is degrading to call someone as such on their face. She made me realized what I had done could have hurt someone’s feelings. “No one is your servant, these people are just helping us’ she said. This was possibly one of the most important life lesson that I learnt from my mom, who in her own way instilled such values in us through her own example.
As for my mom, even today she continues to quietly help people in every way she can by always putting others before herself . Many years ago, when she was fighting with debilitating cancer, she negotiated with God, to give her a passage to live since her children were small and needed her. Today she fights with another life threatening ailment, she seems to have made another pact with God to let her live because her elderly mother needs her. And because I know that there will never be a time when we will stop needing her help and support in our lives I find some comfort in the hope that God will recognize her value for others and reward her for her selflessness by always letting her be around us.