On March 8, International Women’s Day, I turned on my TV to watch my favourite breakfast show on DD Kashir, Good Morning JK. They had invited veteran women educationist Dr Ashraf Jelani as special guest on the occasion. From her conversation I could conclude that she was a woman who had worn many hats through her life, from being an educationist to a women’s activist to an author of many books. She still had the thirst for knowledge and the curiosity to know more at an age where most people surrender before the demon of death and take to the couch to await their final moment. Ashraf sahiba’s conversation was full of wit and humour. Her narration of interesting anecdotes about her past struggles and how she had to fight against patriarchal norms on the way to becoming the principal of a college made my eyes wet.
After watching the show with keen attention, I was overtaken by thoughts of these intellectual giants whose great work comes to fore only when they have passed the prime of their life or after their death. I began to question why don’t we celebrate these women educationists while they are at the height of their profession? Why they are not part of our educational curriculum at school and why we keep on finding inspiration in the west while ignoring our local intellectuals? I hope I get the answer to these questions, but till then, let’s turn back the pages of our chequered history and be astonished to find that this nation has given birth to great women who have changed the course of educational history on their own and their legacy is still alive in the forgotten pages of our cultural folklore. I know of two such great women who have made great contribution to the cause of our education. One was Begum Zafar Ali and the other was Ateeqa ji from Sopore. Although there are many more intellectual heroines like them, but here I will try to highlight the achievements of these two great women.
Begum Zafar Ali sahiba was born in 1901 in Srinagar. Her father was the judicial minster in the Maharaja’s cabinet. In 1930 she added an important medal to her credit by becoming the first women matriculate of Kashmir. Begum sahiba was a staunch women’s rights and education activist who fought for reforms in education in Kashmir. During her tenure as chief inspector of schools she introduced the concept of midday meals in school to decrease the dropout rate. She introduced technical training centres for women. She was the member of the J&K Legislative Assembly from 1977 to 1982, where she continued to raise her voice for the cause of women’s rights. She received the Padma Shri award for her work but went on to return the award in a televised protest on Doordarshan, when she felt people of Kashmir were not getting the treatment they deserved from the authorities at the centre. She died in 1999 in the USA but her legacy continues to live on.
Ateeqa ji, whom people lovingly called Ateeqa behan ji, was born and bred in Sopore. She belonged to a revered religious family. Those days girls were kept away from schools, but that didn’t deter her from plucking the fruits of knowledge. She started her career as a teacher and with her relentless efforts went on to become the joint director of education and retired from government service as the director of libraries. She was the vice-president of Adabi Markaz Kamraz, an institution she took to the next level by bringing in more women to help in spreading and preserving the Kashmir language. During her tenure as chief education officer, she used to visit schools on foot or sometimes in a tonga. Her visits would induce a shiver down the spine of teachers as she was herself a workholic and expected other teachers to be so as well. After her retirement, she started collecting ancient artefacts from the length and breadth of the valley to preserve the region’s cultural history in her privately-owned museum named Mehraas Mahal, which continues to enthrall visitors with its rich collection. Ateeqa ji had dedicated her life to the enlightenment of society through education and that commitment didn’t let her rest even when she was battling deadly cancer, which ultimately led to her death in October 2017. Ateeqa ji has left her legacy in the form of different institutions, especially her Mehraas Mahal.