Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah was a pioneer of Pakistani literature and journalism in English, and also a pioneer of feminism in Pakistan. She was Pakistan's first female columnist (in English), editor, publisher and political commentator.
Zaib-un-Nissa Ali was born in 1921 to a literary family in Calcutta. Her father, S. Wajid Ali, was the first person to translate the writings of Allama Iqbal into Bengali. She started to write at an early age, and received considerable support from both her mother and father. Zaib-un-Nissa took to writing poetry as a means for expressing her thoughts and emotions. Her later writing was affected by her trips to rural areas of Bengal and Punjab, including her father's birthplace, the Bengali village of Tajpur. She was educated at the Loreto House convent.
In 1940, she married Khalifa Muhammad Hamidullah. Unlike most marriages of the time, hers was not an arranged marriage. She moved to the Punjab with him after their marriage. He worked there as an executive for the Bata shoe company. During the Partition of 1947, she and her husband helped refugees coming from across the Indian border.
After moving to Punjab in 1942, Zaib-un-Nissa found it hard to adjust to the very different lifestyle of her husband's large Punjabi family. It took time for her to adjust, as she admitted in the foreword to The Young Wife.All Zaib-un-Nissa's books were dedicated to her husband, proof of their devotion to one another. They had two children, Nilofar (born 1943) and Yasmin (born 1949).
Zaib-un-Nissa first came into prominence in 1936, when a poem of hers was accepted for publication by Bombay's famous Illustrated Weekly of India. From then on, she was a regular contributor to that newspaper, until Partition. In 1941, her first book of poetry, Indian Bouquet, was published by her father's publishing house and proved to be very popular. All the copies of the first edition were sold in three months. She followed up on her early success with Lotus Leaves, another book of poetry.
In 1945, Zaib-un-Nissa and her husband were in Simla at the time of the Simla Conference. It was here that Zeb-un-Nissa met Fatima Jinnah. They became friends, and Miss Jinnah soon managed to get Zaib-un-Nissa an exclusive interview with her brother, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This was a landmark in the young Zaib-un-Nissa's career, and managed to shoot her to India-wide fame. Her stories, poems and articles started to gain her more fame around this time, as well, and she came into demand.
After Partition, the ambitious Zaib-un-Nissa decided to work in the field of journalism, and soon established herself as an outspoken writer in her column 'Thru a Woman's Eyes', in the daily Dawn newspaper of Karachi. This column began in December, 1948. After a time, she rebelled against the limited scope of the feature, declaring that women should have the right to comment on every subject, including politics. Mr. Altaf Husain, then editor of the Dawn, eventually agreed to give her a wider scope. He recognized the merit of her work by giving her a new assignment – that of a columnist appearing on the editorial page. Begum Hamidullah thus became the first female political commentator of Pakistan. Her column established her reputation as an honest columnist who was not afraid to voice her opinions. It was also a huge step for the women's rights movement in Pakistan.
In 1951, she left Dawn, after editor Altaf Husain demanded that she focus her writing on "issues relating to women," and not tackle political developments. Hamidullah founded a monthly magazine called the Mirror, and became its editor and publisher. She thus became a businesswoman as well, and the first female editor and publisher in the nation. Her glossy social pictorial, with its courageous and sincere editorials, was an instant success.
The Mirror became very popular, and Zaib-un-Nissa soon became quite famous as a journalist and editor. The Pakistani government included her in numerous press delegations during this period.
She was one of the founding members of the Pakistani Working Women's Association, as well as a close friend of Fatima Jinnah, sister of Qiaid-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan. Some of her other close friends were Hakim Said, Salima Ahmed, Ardeshir Cowasjee, Hashim Raza, Shaista Ikramullah and Jahanara Habibullah.
She was a founder member of the Karachi Business and Professional Women's Club, and served as its first president. She held this position for two consecutive terms. She was also the first president of the Women's International Club of Karachi, a member of the Horticultural Society and first woman President of the Flower Show Committee. Another organization Begum Hamidullah played an important role in was APWA, founded by her friend Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan.
In 1955, as part of a press delegation to Cairo, she became the first woman to speak at the ancient Al-Azhar University. Her speech was controversial, as she discussed Pakistan's Kashmir issue. However, it was a great distinction for her.
In 1956, Begum Hamidullah wrote a travelogue entitled 'Sixty Days In America', about her trip to the USA as part of a 'World Leaders Program', during which she befriended people like Marilyn Monroe and Jean Negulesco, and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. This travelogue consisted of columns she had written for a newspaper, The Times of Karachi, during her trip. The editor, Z.A. Suleri, gave her permission to reprint the columns in book form as a travelogue, and she proceeded to do so.
The following year, she represented Pakistan at the UN sponsored seminar on "Civic Responsibilities and Increased Participation of Asian Women in Public Life".
In 1957, her outspoken criticism of the harsh regime of Major-General Iskander Mirza and the forced resignation of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, culminated in a six-month government ban on the Mirror, issued on November 9. This ban, she was privately informed, would be withdrawn if she publicly apologized. She refused to do this and, on the advice of the well-known lawyer A.K. Brohi, appealed to the Supreme Court.
After Brohi's intervention on her behalf, the Supreme Court passed judgement in her favour. Holding the order of the Central Government illegal and unconstitutional, the government awarded costs to Begum Hamidullah. This incident made journalistic history, and gave her the distinction of being the first woman journalist to have won a case in the Supreme Court.
In 1958, she published an anthology of her short stories, "The Young Wife and Other Stories", which was so popular that second and third editions were printed in 1971 and 1987 respectively. Eminent critics, from newspapers and periodicals both Pakistani and foreign, called some of the stories in it "the most significant literary productions of Pakistan". It was during this period that her editorials started to become a major feature of the Mirror, and this increased the popularity of both her and her magazine.
In April 1961, Begum Hamidullah opened her own publishing house, Mirror Press. Mirror Press, and its subsidiary, Mirror Publications, were charged with printing the Mirror from 1961 onwards. They also did other jobs, but the publishing house remained small.
The Mirror became a highly controversial magazine in the '60s, mainly due to Begum Hamidullah's editorials, which were highly critical of the government's authoritarian form of rule. As her magazine became more and more risqué, Begum Hamidullah began to feel that her, and her family, could soon be in danger. Highly critical of Ayub Khan and his government, Begum Hamidullah dropped out of governmental favour. As such, the Mirror lost government advertisements and patronage.
During this period, she wrote a series of very critical editorials about Ayub Khan's style of government, starting with 'Please, Mr. President!', a very emotional open letter in which she pleaded with Ayub Khan to stop ordering the police to harm students taking part in demonstrations. Ayub Khan replied to the first editorial with a letter in which he dismissed Begum Hamidullah as 'rashly emotional', the tension steadily increased. The Mirror came close to being banned many times, and was banned twice. However, this period of her career came to a climax in the February 1969 edition of the Mirror, in which she published both 'Please Mr. President!' and a new editorial, 'No, thank you, Sir!'. She claimed that the situation had not improved and that "Pakistanis from Peshawar to Chittagong are crying 'out with Ayub!".
Ayub Khan soon abdicated, ironically doing exactly what she'd advised him to do. However, she continued to write critical editorials whenever she felt the government was in need of a rebuke.
Begum Hamidullah was Deputy Leader of the Pakistani delegation to the United Nations General Assembly from 1970 to 1971. In 1971, after civil unrest and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh, Zaib-un-Nissa sent a telegram congratulating the new government but chose to remain in Pakistan.
In 1971, Begum Hamidullah's husband was transferred to Ireland, to head Bata operations there. As neither of her two daughters was willing to take over the magazine, she closed it down, and sold off her publishing house, Mirror Press.
For most of the '70s, she and her husband lived in Dublin, Ireland, where he had been transferred. Zaib-un-Nissa put her career on hold to be with her husband, and visited Pakistan regularly. She returned near the end of the decade and began writing a column entitled 'Thinking Aloud' for the Pakistani magazine MAG, part of the large Jang Group.
In the early 1980s, she served as president of the All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA), an organization she had played a major role in since its inception. Still writing columns for the Morning News of Karachi, she continued to comment on the socio-political aspects of Pakistani society. However, she was becoming increasingly reclusive.
In 1983, Zaib-un-Nissa's husband had a heart attack, and he died the next year. On the day of his funeral, she wrote what was to become the most famous article of her later career. This introspective piece was published in the Morning News the day after her husband's death.
She was plunged into sadness following K.M. Hamidullah's death, and soon retired from an active writing life. Disenchanted with the new generation of Pakistanis, Zaib-un-Nissa fell into seclusion and soon moved in with her daughter, choosing to spend her remaining years with her family. She retired from an active career, and only wrote occasional articles in the '80s.
In 1987, however, she was plunged into the public eye once again, when her book of short stories, The Young Wife and Other Stories, was republished due to popular demand. Yet this late fame did not last very long, and she soon went back into seclusion.
Begum Hamidullah died on 10 September 2000, at the age of 78. She had been rushed to hospital on the 9th, but died in the early hours of the 10th, due to water in her lungs.
An obituary in Dawn said "even her detractors admired her for the courage of conviction and the strength of character she displayed throughout her life." Another newspaper obituary said "She will be long remembered for her pioneering role in a certain genre of journalism in Pakistan, and as a powerful and courageous writer."
In the 60s the government named a major street in the Karachi city centre after her: Zaibunnisa Street.