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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Begum Naseem Iqtidar Ali

Portrait of an exceptional Muslim lady

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

Begum Naseem Iqtidar AliLucknow: Aiy aabrud-e-Ganga woh din hai yaad tujhko / Utra tere kinare jab kaaravan hamaara (Oh waters of Ganges, do you remember / the day our caravan landed on your banks) is a verse written by Iqbal in his immortal Tarana-e-Hind. The verse probably stemmed from the thousands of hordes of horsemen, soldiers and warriors pouring-in from Khyber-pass over the centuries and making India their home forever. One of those caravans landed in Shahjahanpur in Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh. That is erstwhile Oudh or Awadh.

"We are descendants of Khaleel-Salarzai who came down from Afghanistan during the reign of Emperor Shahjahan (1627-1658). All the clans from Afghanistan, which had then come, named their dwelling places after their places back in Afghanistan.." This is how the conversation started with Begum Naseem Iqtidar Ali, the only woman executive member of the 201-member All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), the apex Muslim body. AIMPLB has 25 women members in its general body.

Even if she were not affiliated to the most distinguished organisation of Indian Muslims, she is eminent enough to qualify as a true portrait of an Indian Muslim woman. Her moves are calculated, words punctuated, she prefers to converse in Urdu and with it has an aura of all the traditions and authentic culture and at the same time she is moving with the times too, like visiting UK, France and Hong Kong, on voyages to gratify her daughters’ children. "You are the first journalist whom I found inquisitive about my family's past," she said, describing her pedigree which shed light on the many tribes which made Shahjahanpur their everlasting home. There were Alizai, Baruzai, Baruzai Awwal, Aimanzai, Chamkani, Baruzai Peshawri and Yusufzai, and the places where they lived came to be known after their tribal names. The mohallas in Shahjahanpur are the same as found in Afghanistan, she said.

Coming to the real issue which brought her into the limelight: the talaq-e tafwiz. "It is a clause under which, at the time of Nikah, the husband gives a right to his wife, sometimes conditionally and sometimes unconditionally to divorce him without forgoing her dower," she elaborated. How does it differ from khula' and under what conditions the husband can delegate the right to divorce? "Under khula, the wife has the right to walk out of marriage forgoing her dower because for Muslims marriage is a contract. As for the conditions; they may include that if a husband consumes liquor, which is banned in Islam, or is cruel to his wife etc., she may opt to divorce him. Talaq-e tafwiz is not in Nikahnama passed by the executive of AIMPLB on Dec 25, 2004," she said, adding that talaq-e tafwiz is allowed in Pakistan.

When did you marry? "I married in 1953 at the age of 19 years to Janab Iqtidar Ali Khan who belonged to the family of Khan Bahadur Abdul Ghafoor Khan. He was not a Pathan but his family was conferred with the title of ‘Khan’ by the British. The results of my graduation (BA) from Aligarh Muslim University were yet to be out when I was married. My father was posted as a judicial magistrate in Aligarh those days and incidentally all of my three daughters were married before their graduation too, " she said.

The mention of AMU made her go down the memory lane and details of all that gone-by era came trickling down. Mumtaz Aapa, daughter of Shaikh Abdullah, was the principal of Women's College. She always made girls feel at home. "She was extremely respectful and strict as well."

The train of yesteryears could not stop that easy and then came a very interesting anecdote. Once when they organised a theatre show in the drama club, the theme was partition of India. Sikhs were also a part of the show and obviously represented by girls themselves. But, whenever a Sikh protagonist would arrive on stage, all-women audience would draw their purdah. Aligarh those days was an amalgam of all diversities. Mrs. Habib, mother of Professor Irfan Habib, now a great historian, was a Shiite and loved me dearly. Irfan Sahab despite being a leftist, never entered our room as I used to observer purdah. Mrs. Habib called me "Bare Khan Sahab ki Larki" and I remained in touch with her despite having left Aligarh with my husband and finally got settled in Lucknow.

Naseem Iqtidar Ali is also an adeeba (Urdu poetess) and her flair made her associate with one of the greatest Urdu women writers, Qurratul Ain Haider. In fact, once she was the only one to accompany Haider in an interview on Doordarshan (there was no media boom then). She also made up to Mehran Writers function in Karachi where she had a chance to meet Shabnam Rumani, editor of Aqdar journal. Amrohi graced the function which was also joined by the former Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan, Islamabad Mani Shankar Aiyar who is now the Union Minister of Petroleum. Shabnam. Rumani, incidentally, was from Shahjahanpur and in a loving spirit published an exclusive issue on "Dil" Shahjahanpuri, one of the most prominent of Urdu poets of Shahjahanpur. 

How did you become a member of the AIMPLB? "My husband was very close of Maulana Ali Mian Nadwi. He was not a member of AIMPLB. His proximity to Maulana paved my way into the Board and for the last 15 years I have been trying to play my role in it."

She then tells me that once she was asked to file a report as an official observer at a rally held at Delhi's Boat Club in the wake of Shah Bano controversy. She complied with it only to find it incorporated verbatim in the autobiography of Maulana Ali Mian. "He has referred to me twice in his autobiography, now in print in five volumes, mujh khaksara ke liye ye bahut bara aizaz hai." (It is a high sobriquet for a small person like me).

Gujarat 2002 riots cannot remain unmentioned these days, and Begum Naseem apart from organising relief for riot-victims, had risen to the occasion to speak about the riots. The occasion was a two-day workshop organised for Muslim women empowerment and attended by Poornima Advani, daughter of the former home minister, LK Advani, on March 12, 2003. Begum Iqtidar criticised Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, LK Advani and PM AB Vajpayee openly, much to the discomfiture of those present on the stage.

Tell me about your personal family? "We are descendants of Meer Daad Khan, the Diwan Meer Khaleel, Wazir-e Sultanant-e-Mughlia. My grand-father was Khan Bahadur Habibur Rahman Khan, a district magistrate who retired from Hamirpur in 1946. Another was Khan Bahadur Fazlur-Rahman Khan who remained a member of the Legislative Assembly for 20 years and as chairman of the municipal board for 32 years. It was he who established Gandhi Faiz-e-Aam College in Shahjahanpur in 1947. Its foundation stone was laid by the Nawab of Rampur. At present it is a post-graduate degree college, " she said adding, "We are pioneers of education in a sense."

"Now it is nothing but "pidaram sultan bood" (my father was a king) as Partition of the country brought innumerable misfortune but I still have someone from my family to be proud of," she reminisced. Like? "To be from the family of Shaheed Ashfaq-ullah Khan who went down the gallows for India’s independence and lies buried inside Faizabad jail," she answered with twinkling in her eyes.

As the conversation drew for a close, she tells that her daughter Humra Quraishi has written a book, Kashmir: An Untold Story which has been published by Penguin India. How did you relate to the situation of strife-torn Kashmir? "Humra never let me know about her itinerary," came the answer.

Before we end, can you please tell me one of your own verses? "Well, here it is: ham hain naseem girya kunaan us dayar ke / Jiski kali kali ko ura le gayi hawa (I am a lament of an era / whose flower-buds never managed to bloom).. The pain could be felt surely and definitely as echoing the feelings in every Muslim heart. Her words had the pain of the pangs of Partition, division of families, marginalisation of Muslims in the political arena and also her personal tragedy: losing her husband in Alzheimer disease.
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