Monochrome photographs are fascinating. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind every time I look at them. So when I stumbled across this photo a few months ago, the identity of this woman and what her story was piqued my interest, not least because she was sat behind a placard which read “Pakistan” which just happens to be my homeland.
Her bold, confident gaze is very striking. Not your average, oppressed looking South Asian woman is she?
After a quick internet search with the aid of the ever knowledgeable Sheikh Google, I later learned that the name of the woman pictured in the above photograph was Begum Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah (1915 – 2000), and her story is a remarkable one.
Born in Kolkata (now known as Calcutta), Begum Shaista Ikramullah was the only daughter of Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, who was himself a noted politician and surgeon in his time.
She was the first Muslim and Asian woman to earn a Ph.D in 1947 from the University of London. This was a colossal feat for any woman to achieve in a time where academic endeavours were the domain of men, and women were expected to take up the traditional role of a domesticated housewife.
Her husband, Mohammed Ikramullah, was a member of the Indian Civil Service prior to the partition. He himself went on to become the first Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, and was also Ambassador to Canada, France, Portugal and the United Kingdom. They had four children together; Ina, Naz, Salma Sobhan (1937 – 2003), a former barrister and professor in Bangladesh, and Sarvat Ikramullah, who became Princess Sarvat El Hassan in her marriage to Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.
Begum Shaista Ikramullah’s achievement as a Ph.D graduate was merely the tip of the ice berg. She was a “First Lady” so to speak. Not only was she the first female Muslim Ph.D graduate. She was also the first female Member of Parliament of Pakistan, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. She also served as Ambassador to Morocco from 1964 to 1967, and was a delegate to the United Nations from 1948 to 1956.
She was also a well known author, publishing books in both English and Urdu. She later documented the details of her intriguing life in an autobiography she penned called “From Purdah to Parliament”. She passed away in Karachi at the age of 85.
The notion of a powerful, educated Muslim woman might sound ridiculous to some given Islam is after all, (very mistakenly), synonymous with misogyny. Of course, there’s no denying that this is the case in many Muslim countries, although this is down to patriarchal cultural practices rather than the religion itself.
However, since the very beginning, Islam has been a religion heavily rooted in encouraging its followers, both men and women, to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”.
Begum Shaista Ikramullah did not only just that, but she shatters the stereotype of the “powerless Muslim woman” perpetuated today, although she is by no means the only one to do so.
Was she a Muslim woman beyond her time? I would say, no. But she was certainly a woman beyond her time.
brown skinned, bearded men. However, Begum Shaista Ikramullah is just one of many women who shatter this stereotype of powerless Muslim women perpetuated today, although she is by no means the only one to do so. One of the earliest examples of a powerful Muslim woman can be drawn back to the very inception of Islam, where Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, was one of the foremost female scholars of her time. Her life and accomplishments are certainly worth discussing, but that will left to another post.