The following obituary for my mother, Najma Sadeque, was printed in the March-April 2015 issue of the Aurora magazine, part of the Dawn Group. It was written as a tribute to her from long-term, close friend, Afsheen Ahmed.”
Najma Sadeque: A Mix of Fire and Honey
By Afsheen Ahmed (Printed in March-April 2015 issue) of Aurora
Najma Sadeque is no more – but her legacy lives. Reams have been written about her as a journalist, activist, opponent of the multinationals agenda and the introduction of genetically modified crops (GMO) in Pakistan. In fact, she was one of the first to research and then crusade against GMOs; she began to work on the concept of small scale organic farming and the endless possibilities of growing one’s own vegetables, even in boxes and crates and composting.
The number of publications that Najma had published through Shirkat Gah, (one of the several organizations that she helped establish as a founder member, and remained involved with till the end), should be shared more widely in high schools and colleges and libraries and other institutes across Pakistan; they will help explain important concepts in a simple way. They range from how money is managed – and by whom; agricultural hoaxes, who runs the world, etc. The amount of research that she was continually doing, and her wealth of knowledge, and information, on matters economic, political and social, was mind boggling. She was a prolific writer on these issues.
Of course, I never thought of all this, not in this manner, while Najma was around. She was simply the oracle you called when you needed information. It was taken for granted, or I did anyway. As were the daily doses of emails, on matters political and otherwise she sent out. Many articles were written by her, many others she must have sifted through and collated, before sending. It must have involved so much work and taken so much time to do this daily. This, too, was taken for granted by most of the recipients. It was only post-death, and after Mariam Ali Baig, editor of the Aurora magazine ( part of the Dawn Group), and also a very close friend of Najma, asked me to write an obituary for Aurora, that I started to compile my thoughts about her.
For as long as I can remember – and this is going back decades – Najma was someone I knew of. It was a family connection – her father and my grandfather were professors at Dhaka College in the 1930s. My grandmother was a friend of her mother – Dr Syeda Fatima Sadeque, the first and only Muslim woman from undivided India, to have a double PhD from the UK. Whenever Dr Fatima came to Karachi, I would tag along with my grandmother. It was on one such occasion I met I first met Najma in the 70s. She looked busy and intimidating and we didn’t talk much. Her mother was warm and a wonderful cook – once when I had taken my grandmother to Dhaka, after many years, she came over with food and special homemade sweets for me, warning me against the shop bought ones.
I only got to know Najma in her own right as a journalist when I started working at the Herald and she was writing for the Star (the evening newspaper published by the Dawn group). Along with other journalists, she was a regular at the Herald, visiting with Razia Bhatti, the editor, (who drew people to her) and the crew. It was noisy, there were ongoing debates and disagreements – and endless cups of tea to soothe tempers. Najma, when moved to righteous indignation, would argue anyone down or wear them out – whichever came first; this is what I will always remember about her – how she never did anything half heartedly. It was all or nothing. That trait made her some staunch friends and supporters – and others less so.
Najma also worked for the Dawn group and the Jang group. She implemented projects, and was a speaker at international conferences. She was driven. My first personal interaction with Najma took place in Washington D.C. in 1984; we were attending different events and organized to meet for lunch. This was, for both of us, our first experience of ordering food in the US. We ordered sandwiches. When they came, we were taken aback. “Which giant will eat this? This is gluttony and waste” declared Najma. It was; we couldn’t finish even one plate between us!
Najma was not averse to making fun in print, so she mentioned this episode in one of her columns – and compared it to another regular feature at Herald, where an aged, fallen-on-hard-times gentleman would be a regular visitor with his small bag, but too proud to ask to eat or drink anything, so the peon was instructed to put whatever was available on a plate – and a cup of tea – and just leave it near him. He would drink the tea, say thanks, and on the way out, quickly put whatever was on the plate, in his bag. We never did get his life story, and that kind of walk-in-as-you-please visitor would be unthinkable in today’s security conscious environment. Najma relished hearing of and collating stories like this. And doing something about it.
If there was anyone in need of medical treatment or money for essential expenses, Najma was the first to take up the cause. She would shoot off emails, contact people she knew could help, and get whatever it was that was needed. Few people would go to the lengths she did to help, often totally unknown people, if she knew their cause was genuine. That was Najma – a mix of fire and honey, the only way I can describe her.
When my mother passed away in November 1999, and my world fell apart, Najma was one of the few people who gauged the extent of my loss and how bereft I was, though I seemed unable to express my shock and grief. Najma understood, in a very intuitive way, just what I needed. Although she hardly came over before (though she was close to my mother), she was now one of the few regular visitors. Her presence I found nurturing and caring and she wrote one of the most moving obituaries to my mother in a special section of The News. I later asked her to join the Executive Board of the Pakistan Voluntary Health and Nutrition Association (PAVHNA), a consortium of like- minded organizations, set up by my mother. PAVHNA was to implement hugely successful projects, which Najma followed up on closely, reading the reports and keeping track – and taking up cudgels when required!
I’m not sure when we got to a stage of such comfort with our friendship that we could – and did – call up at any hour of the day or night – asking for which antihistamine to take, where a certain type of paintbrush was available, how to get from here to there, and so on.
At one point, when Najma was in full crusade mode for some haris (farmers) from interior Sindh, who were living on the footpath in front of the Karachi Press Club, she galvanized her friends to set up a rota to provide food and essentials to the families there. One day I was enlisted to organize the tea. As they had a kerosene stove, I brought a kettle, the press n’pour, milk, teacups, spoons, sugar, snacks, and boxes of tea bags. The next day Najma called up to ask what was I thinking of! It turned out that the urban/rural divide and the lack of understanding (on my part anyway), showed up in the matter of the tea bags! The village folk did not know what they were and resorted to slicing them open with their teeth. Najma never let me forget this episode.
In the hundreds of emails received by Najma’s very talented daughter, Deneb, who is a documentary film maker, and the numerous accolades showered on Najma at memorial meetings held in Islamabad and in Karachi, her friends, colleagues, admirers, representatives of groups and of people she struggled for, spoke of their interaction with Najma. This included many, hitherto unknown, anecdotes as well. As Deneb remarked, “I had no idea my mother knew so many people or had done so much.” My feelings exactly.
I knew of Najma the painter, the activist and crusader, the mother who encouraged Deneb to make her beautiful tapestries, the over protective mother, the superb cook – and the only friend with whom I spoke Bengali, and could discuss things knowing it would never go into another ear. Najma, in whose house I would drop in unannounced to find her in a kaftan, calling out to her son, Baba (Haroon), to make ‘Auntie Afsheen’ a cup of steaming tea and ‘get the goodies’!
Having said all this, Najma was not an easy person. Her greatest strengths were her stubbornness and refusal to compromise. They were also her greatest weakness when it came to herself. She had been unwell for over a year. “Chest infection”, she would say, coughing and wheezing, whenever asked. “Have you seen the doctor?” “Yes, but the medicines are not working.” “Please see another doctor.” Non-commital reply. Probably her last public appearance was to attend the wedding reception of my older son on November 22nd last year. It must have taken a lot of effort for her to get ready and come to the venue, but she was always very fond of my children.
Meantime, as Deneb kept complaining, her mother was becoming weaker and weaker – unable to even walk properly. But, despite her very public persona, Najma was a fiercely private person. Very few knew her life story and she preferred it that way. Towards the end, she drew the curtain even tighter around her and visitors were to discouraged. She finally consented, at her daughter’s insistence, to let another doctor see her at home in the third week of December 2014, and have essential tests done. Perhaps it was too little too late. On January 1st when the results came in, her doctor insisted she be rushed to hospital. Mariam, while getting her admitted, fetched her a bottle of water, and in true Najma fashion, recalls Mariam, she objected to it being Nestle! Friends and well wishers tried to get her the best medical advice and course of treatment. Sadly, after a few days in intensive care, the fight went out of our feisty fighter and she passed away in the early hours of January 8th.
The sense of shock and disbelief, as the news spread, was almost palpable, and the stream of people, from all walks of life, who streamed in to offer their condolences, is testimony to the number of people whose lives she touched.
As for me, I lost (once again), a mentor, a very, very good and wise friend. She is irreplaceable. May Allah bless her. Najma has gone, but her legacy, through her work, the people and the causes she supported, will always live on.
- Afsheen Ahmed is Director, PAVHNA, and a former senior journalist at the Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org
Najma Sadeque: A woman who wore many hats
By Sheher Bano
When I shifted from The News International Islamabad, to The News Karachi, in 1992, I got to know senior journalists like Najma Sadeque, Kaleem Omer and Gul Hameed Bhatti. However, I developed a personal rapport with Najma in no time. She was not my boss, but I worked with her on many special projects in Shirkat Gah, an organization she founded, and remained associated with till her last breath. Najma wore many hats – a dedicated journalist, a zealous activist, a passionate social worker, a prolific writer, a beautiful artist, an environment advocate and a dedicated daughter and mother.
She used to travel extensively for her stories which were well researched and at times, would invite the wrath of the authorities. According to her daughter, Deneb Sumbul, once in Zia-ul Haq’s era, Najma wrote about a baby who was left outside the mosque. A mob, on a mere suspension of it being an illegitimate child, stoned the baby to death. After that incident, and Najma’s story regarding it, there was a firestorm among the nation. Thus, Najma was taken by the police for interrogation.
Working for true causes, especially the ones that benefit people, Najma was highly passionate about taking a stand for those in need. Once, while she was working with cancer patients, she came across Dr Saira S. Khan, who was the founder president of the Medical Aid Foundation. At that time Dr Saira had recently opened Rahat Kada, the first terminally ill cancer patient’s hospice in Pakistan. One meeting was enough for the empathic Najma to realize that more involvement on her part could make a difference for the ill. Besides doing a big feature on the hospice in her magazine WE, Najma practically started fund raising for the project.
Her workshops, which she conducted from time to time, were like post graduate studies for us, with dozens of people sitting dumbfounded listening to her lectures. At one of the workshops, she spoke about genetically modified food, and the harmful effects of pesticides caused to the human body once the modified food is consumed. At another workshop, she spoke on food security. To explain the effects consumption of improper food could cause to the body, she brought with her a short heighted woman. I still remember the grief and sympathy me and others in the workshop felt as the grim faced Najma explained the woman’s plight, who could not reach her normal height due to malnourishment.
Najma Sadeque was an institution in herself. And as the news of Najma’s death broke, condolences of friends and colleagues started pouring in. Here are the comments of some senior journalist and activists.
One from the heart
Najma Sadeque’s death is, for me as well as many others, a personal loss besides being a huge loss for human rights activists in Pakistan and all around the world. Najma was a fighter climbing the barricades wherever and whenever necessary, especially where human rights were at stake.
Her friends and colleagues are all in grief as it is hard to believe that Najma’s calmness and perseverance will no longer enrich our meetings. And now we will not be able to benefit from her experience and wisdom.
She was a brave soul and fought against her illness till her breath. She was committed to her work and we never heard “I am not up to it, not feeling well, can’t do it.” She always delivered on time. She used to send us emails on a regular basis but before her departure we stopped receiving her emails which was a clear indication that there was something serious.
The list of her professional achievements and articles that she wrote on socio-economic, political and environmental issues is long and has been published everywhere. Najma will be remembered for her work, which she carried out dedicatedly. Her defining characteristic has always been respect – respect for the individuals walking into her office to seek advice and respect for the law and human rights. According to one of her colleagues, “She was selective about friends and people around her and would keep liars and hypocrites at bay.”
At Shirkat Gah, the non-governmental organisation that she founded with seven other like-minded women in 1975, she would discuss and translate many developmental papers for various organizations and put words according to the required draft. Over there she was a different Najma, who used to entail an enormous challenge of facilitating access to marginalised communities. Her contribution in writing provides a paralegal guide on debt and credit, human rights, women issues and education with accurate and insightful ideas and solutions to the most critical issue.
Najma was loved and admired for her enduring commitment to work, responsibilities and life in general. Najma, you will never be forgotten.
– Farhat Anis
Tahira Abdullah, development worker:
We mourn the loss of our beloved Najma Sadeque. At the same time, we must also celebrate her life – as a gift to us all. We usually pay tributes to our icons after they pass away. I am happy that I did so in Najma’s lifetime. I wrote: “It is important to acknowledge friends and veteran activists like Najma Sadeque, who has been in the vanguard of writing, filming and speaking up especially for the agriculture sector.” Najma, you will be missed immensely.
Karamat Ali, Executive Director of PILER:
The issue of marginalized workers was so close to Najma’s heart. She did many stories on them. She wanted to do another piece on contract system and only last month we had decided to discuss it. But I was travelling and we weren’t able to meet. I came back last week, only to find that she was seriously ill and was in the ICU. We all hoped that she would recover, as she did many times in the past, but little did I know that she would leave us without completing this project. She was a versatile person with commitments to a large number of interconnected issues. It’s hard to find a committed person like her.
Sheen Farrukh, senior journalist and activist: Media freedom was Najma’s great concern. She hated the way people misused it. In one of the Shirkat Gah’s workshops in Bangkok, where we were together, she termed the present day freedom of media as fictitious. She also believed that the electronic media had further deteriorated it. Despite being unwell for some time, she never gave up working. That was the extent of her determination and dedication for creating a better world. Recently, she wanted to discuss an online media project with me. Since I was traveling to Denmark and couldn’t meet her at that time, I promised to contact her after my return. However, due to certain other commitments of mine, we weren’t able to meet. Now that she is no more, I think that many projects will remain incomplete without her.
Attiya Dawood, drama writer: I knew Najma since I joined WAF in 1989. Her possessiveness towards WAF was very strong – it was her romance. She would make her presence felt in the meetings through her positive contribution. As a Green economic advocate, sometimes, she would teach us to judge issues through gender lens. That really opened my mind and helped me think of things in a different way. Once she invited me to a workshop in Abbottabad for drama writers. Her aim was to convince them to include environmental issues in their scripts as it could greatly benefit the country. The issues she bought forward there opened my eyes. Now I regularly touch upon environmental themes in my scripts.
Zofeen T. Ebrahim, senior journalist and activist: We met less but communicated often through the Internet. I would write to her often, seeking advice, information, and guidance about subjects that were difficult to tackle. For example, had it not been for her direction, I would have given up on writing on genetically modified seeds and foods as fewer people had the in depth knowledge that she had. A real gentle soul, she responded to my never ending queries with utmost patience, never exasperation.
Thoroughly professional, I found her reliable, honest as well as modest. She was someone with oodles of energy. She continued to write on subjects that were not ‘sexy’ enough because she believed it was her professional duty to address them. Despite the serious issues that she would write on, there was a funny and fun-loving streak in her as well. I would often get emails from her that were truly hilarious.
(Published in The News, You Magazine 20 January, 2015)