In Depth

Woman of Steel: The legend of Zoona Bibi Mujahid

By marching down the streets with dissent tunes, the schoolgirls lately created nostalgia about Kashmir’s ace dissenter of yore—Zoona Bibi Mujahid—who still assumes an unforgettable legendary stature in Kashmir’s dissent history.

Some 70 years before the likes of Tawakkol Karman, a 32-year-old woman activist would pressurise the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, long before Tunisia’s revolution started a domino effect in the Arab world, a fiery Kashmiri woman would mount the same pressure on the Dogra ruler of Kashmir, from the sprawling lawns of Hazratbal.

Her words were no different from the Tunisian revolution: ‘The people want the regime to fall.’

That was the time when Kashmir was rallying behind Quit Kashmir Movement against the Dogra rule. The last monarch Hari Singh responded with Sheikh Abdullah’s incarceration. It was then, that a peaceful revolution across Srinagar started. Emotional supporters came out in droves to support the movement aimed at ousting the Dogra Raj.

A Dogra soldier watching over Muslim Kashmiri women with a rod in hand, during beggaer (forced labour). The Dogras were Hindu rulers over a majority Muslims Kashmir, who forced people into labour. (Photo: Archives)

At the heart of the woman revolt was Zoona Bibi Mujahid, who took significant strides toward democracy, including becoming a foot soldier of the Plebiscite Movement. She advocated against the policies she felt threatened the Kashmir’s democratic ideals. By the time she died, Bibi Mujahid had become a symbol of the power of peaceful popular movements.

Born in Pathar Masjid area of Srinagar near Mujahid Manzil (MM), National Conference’s erstwhile HQ, Bibi Mujahid grew up with the spirit of protest coursed through her veins early in life. As a girl in early-19th century Old Srinagar, she would play with children outside of the Pather Masjid. By the late 1930s, she encountered Sheikh Abdullah in MM circles. Along with fellow women protesters, she became Abdullah’s regular audience.

Later as these supporters paced up their ‘Go Dogra, Go’ campaign, police arrested them. Even after facing tough detention, she continued her activities. Amid World War II, Zoona emerged a key figure in the NC circles, who would press the central committee to kick-start the movements in 1940s.

For most of the medieval Kashmir especially between Afghan and Dogra rule women were disempowered. (Photo: Archives)

Fondly known as Zoona Goor Bai, children in parts of downtown grow up listening to stories of this audacious woman who actively volunteered to fight against the atrocities faced by Kashmiris from time to time. But her cousin, Ghulam Ahmad Beigh, 68, living in Dalal Mohalla, says the exceptional lady “never got her due”.

Sunning in his courtyard, Beigh, sporting a snow-white, recalls his cousin’s legend by striking resemblance with his Aryan-faced grandson, Tariq. “She looked like him — beautiful, brawny, brave,” he says. “One should have seen her. Her scream would discipline people on roads. She was a truly brave lady.”

The elder recalls the time when Zoona would address women in Dargah. “She would ask them—women—‘stay modest but fight against the atrocities’,” he says.

Even who’s who in power corridor weren’t unmindful of her influential stature. “In fact,” Beigh says, “the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was impressed by her prowess.”

Bibi came from the physically handsome clan of the Sher Gujri, a sleepy hill hamlet on city suburbs. Her father Ghulam Rasool Beigh along with his brothers, Amir Beigh and Haji Sober Beigh, had migrated to old city in early 19th century.

Protest demonstration in Kashmir demanding a plebiscite as ruled by the United Nations.

After she became orphan at a very young age, it was her uncle Amir Beigh—father of her cousin Ghulam Ahmad Beigh—who raised her. She was married off at the age of 15. In 1927, she became mother of a son. But her family hardly eclipsed her activism.

Years later, as Bibi Mujahid turned the virile old women dressed in old loose pheran without teeth, her defiance continued.

“I certainly did not think I would find a women freedom fighter especially one who was known and respected until my last day in the valley in 1983 when I met Zoona Bibi Mujahid,” writes Bilkis Taseer in her book Sheikh Abdullah. “She was 73 years of age and still sparkling with vitality. She said that she started working for People’s Freedom movement in 1939. She was inspired by the programme of National Conference that was to uplift the poor and oppressed Kashmiris. She participated in processions and demonstrations along with men and tried to persuade other women too to join.”

Bilkis, who converted to Islam and married Taseer Ahmad (former Principal Amar Singh College), writes Bibi Mujahid was a legend in the valley and could enter any house because of respect and reverence she commanded. “She had sacrificed her whole life for the freedom movement right from the Dogra Raaj.”

But she suffered massively for upholding her cause. She became a frequent prisoner, Bilkis writes. “Some Kashmiris living in Pakistan now may remember protesting with her in their youth in Habakadal, Srinagar.”

Bibi Mujahid’s belief has some stark resemblance with many women freedom fighters of the world. She was a “plain housewife” akin to Corazon Aquino who led the Philippines’ 1986 “people power” revolution. And like Angela Davis of the United States, Bibi Mujahid was a political activist to a core.

After baptized in politics at Mujahid Manzil, she was leading freedom—right to self determination—campaign by the late ’60s against the different regime. By then, Bibi Mujahid had become the political matriarch, who preferred a low-key life over the pompous politicking.

In fact, in the “good old” NC cadre, fighting for Plebiscite Movement, Bibi Mujahid was akin to Vilma Lucila Espín—the “First Lady” of Cuba’s communist revolution. Like Espín, she was the most vividly embodied spirit of the rebellion that NC spearheaded then.

“My politics is based on the twin belief of liberty or death,” she was once quoted as saying. “Either way, I am going to get one.” But her conviction had costs.

She was divorced by her husband and disowned by her family. And as a mother, she lost her only son in police shootout.

“And now,” says Beigh, her cousin, “nobody from her immediate family is alive today.”

Her end came in mid-eighties when she was admitted to Srinagar’s SMHS hospital, following her escalated chest ailment. 12 days later, an unceremonious funeral of the Kashmir’s legendary lady was taken out from the lanes of Pather Masjid.

“I have never seen any women like her,” Beigh continues. “No one today can match her aura.”

That Bibi Mujahid was Kashmir’s Joan of Arc is an old admission. Like that French peasant girl, she dreamt “to take up the fight against the occupation”. And like Joan, she was redeemed by the history. Though Bibi Mujahid cannot be forgotten, but the merits of her methods—carrying out public demonstrations and resorting to violent activism—are still being debated.

But then, “well-behaved women rarely make history”. And in Kashmir, perhaps none embodied that expression better than Bibi Mujahid.

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