An antique car exhibit in Karachi spotlights an underappreciated historical figure

01 November 2017

One day in the early 1990s, Mohsin Ikram coaxed the watchman at Mohatta Palace—the former residence of Fatima Jinnah, the youngest sister and closest confidante of Muhammad Ali Jinnah—to let him in. The palace is one of the most striking buildings in Karachi, with turrets and domes made of pink and yellow stone, but it lay empty and abandoned at the time. Fatima’s clothes, Ikram said, were still hanging in a bedroom cupboard, and some of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s were in a suitcase nearby. The watchman told him he could take as many pieces of clothing as he wished, as long as he paid him 100 Pakistani rupees per item.

But Ikram had come to see the cars: a 1966 Mercedes, parked in the shade of a tree and, inside a padlocked garage—the watchman claimed he had never seen it open, but was soon persuaded to break the lock—a 1955 Cadillac convertible. “It looked as if all it needed was a good wash and a full tank,” Ikram said of the Cadillac, when he met me in his Karachi home in late August.

In 1995, the government of Sindh purchased Mohatta Palace and, by 1999, turned it into a museum; the cars were hauled to the Sindh archives nearby. They were not cared for well there. Ikram, a 53-year-old automobile enthusiast who has restored about 100 antique cars, watched in dismay as they rusted in the sea air, and wheel caps and other parts disappeared. He said he even wrote letters to the government, offering to restore the cars for free.

In early 2016, Ikram heard back from the provincial government, with news that he had been awarded a contract to restore the vehicles for 23 million Pakistani rupees. The project, which employed ten workers, took about a year. The cars, now fully restored, are awaiting their official presentation, which is expected in a couple of months. When it opens, the exhibit will be an opportunity to acknowledge Fatima Jinnah, whose political contributions—including throwing down the gauntlet before a sitting dictator—often go unremembered in Pakistan today.

Fatima, born in 1893, attended dental college at the University of Calcutta and then ran her own dental practice in Bombay. In 1929, after Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s wife died, Fatima moved into his home in Karachi, and was his advisor thereafter. In 1947, she formed Pakistan’s Women’s Relief Committee, spearheading crucial relief and refugee rehabilitation efforts. And in 1965, while Pakistan was under the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan, she led a ragtag alliance of political parties against him, raising opposition to heights unequalled in his six years of autocratic rule. Caught off guard, the regime accused her of being both an Indian and an American agent. “They call her mother of the nation,” Khan reportedly sneered. “Then she should at least behave like a mother.”

Today, Fatima is still often lauded as Mader-e-Millat—mother of the nation—and Khatoon-e-Pakistan—the first lady of Pakistan. Her name adorns promenades and parks, schools and dental colleges. But despite these honours, the public memory of Fatima remains superficial, sentimental and somewhat sterile. “The state completely appropriated her, so she came looking like a supporting figure, as if she was there just to help her brother,” Rubina Saigol, an independent researcher, told me over the phone in September. “Her identity as a professional, as a politician has been completely erased to feed the national narrative.”

This erasure began in her lifetime. After Muhammad Ali Jinnah died in 1948, Fatima began delivering radio addresses to the nation on his death anniversary. “At the moment, the mind sees his warning finger,” she noted in 1961, referring to her brother. In 1962, she cautioned that the people “must not be mute spectators of what is being done in their name.” Although she did not hold a formal position in the government, she was considered her brother’s spiritual heir, and her political outspokenness made the government nervous. Her speeches were reviewed beforehand. On at least one occasion, the live transmission was interrupted.

According to Mohammed Reza Pirbhai, a history professor and the author of the first scholarly biography of Fatima, published earlier this year, it is common for people to remember her in sanitised, apolitical terms. “As a Jinnah, she is caught in a strange place: the state wants to make her into an iconic, saintly figure—when in fact this was a woman who was a chain-smoker, who never held back on her political views, who was fiercely critical of the civilian and military leaders of her time,” Pirbhai told me over the phone. “The state would rather not account for her commitment to a democratic state, a welfare state, full citizenship rights—and contemporary Pakistanis may not even realise the extent to which she espoused these progressive values.”

Fatima’s legacy as a woman in politics, several experts told me, may have paved the way for the election of Benazir Bhutto. Pirbhai said that the movement Bhutto led against another dictator—General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, in the 1980s—followed directly in Fatima’s footsteps. Even so, Saigol said, women’s-rights activists in Pakistan have not attempted to “reclaim, reiterate or reconstruct Fatima Jinnah differently.” She said that one reason for this may be that Fatima’s foray into politics was supported by the religious right, including by the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami. But that, Saigol reasoned, was a strategic political association—one that even caused the ulema to concede that women could become heads of state.

In 1929, after her brother’s wife died, Fatima left the dental practice she ran in Bombay and moved into his home. She was his close advisor and companion thereafter.

Zahid Mayo, a 30-year-old artist based in Lahore, also lamented how Fatima’s importance goes unacknowledged in public memory. “I don’t remember ever answering a question about her in any exam,” he told me. In a recent exhibition in Karachi, he displayed a work that interprets Fatima as the central figure from the iconic nineteenth-century American painting “Whistler’s Mother.” In the original, the artist’s mother sits in profile, exuding forbearance. In Mayo’s stylistically rougher, more melancholic version, Fatima’s face is angled towards the viewer. On the back wall hangs a picture of her and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a glass in his hand—containing “a forbidden drink,” Mayo said, which he included to critique creeping religious conservatism in Pakistan.

One afternoon in early September, I visited Fatima’s cars’ current home—the garages behind Karachi’s National Museum. Rain had lashed the city over the past few days, and the path was muddy and puddled. Ikram’s son Ahsan, who turned his father’s passion for automobile restoration into a viable business, was there to greet me. He showed me the Cadillac: a cream convertible with chrome fixtures and tailfins characteristic of its era. When they retrieved the cars, Ahsan said, they discovered that someone had painted the Cadillac green. We wondered whether this was intended as a display of patriotic fervour.

Remnants from the restoration lay scattered inside the car: a tool here and there, a huddle of four glass cups, stained with tea. The car’s interior was still incomplete—it will be fitted right before the presentation ceremony, when both vehicles are driven by the chief minister and other dignitaries to a permanent home at the Quaid-e-Azam Museum. “It’s a good thing,” Ahsan said absent-mindedly, inspecting the car’s cobwebbed fender. “People should know about Fatima Jinnah as a person in her own right.”

His father, when I spoke to him, had more immediate concerns: he hopes the cars run smoothly on the big day.

Alizeh Kohari is a Karachi-based journalist. Her piece was facilitated in part by the Coalition for Women in Journalism.

Keywords: Pakistan Ayub Khan Muhammad Ali Jinnah Fatima Jinnah