Zahra Shahid Hussain: Politician who worked for a better Pakistan

She was known to many young women as ‘big sister Zahra’; they looked to her for advice

The politician Zahra Shahid Hussain, who was shot dead outside her home in Karachi, spent much of her life trying to help the less fortunate people of Pakistan.

She was born into a life of privilege and relative ease, something she never denied or tried to hide. Once, as a young woman, walking across a Karachi beach with friends, she said that while a luxury hotel would turn away a poor man even if he was wearing shoes, someone looking “respectable” would always be permitted entry even if they were barefoot. To prove her point, she slipped off her shoes and breezed into the city’s Intercontinental Hotel. The friend who lost the bet paid for everyone’s coffee.

Born Zahra Ahmad, Hussain was an educator and lecturer, an activist and mentor. She also pursued with academic fervour an interest in Pakistan’s handicrafts and textiles, writing on subjects as specialist as the Kashmiri shawl. Later she entered politics and became an important figure in the party of Imran Khan, the Pakistan Teehreek-e-Insaf. Whatever she did was fuelled by a belief in her country and a certainty that even during the darkest of times, change for the better was possible.

This may have been driven partly by what her family was forced to give up at the very hour of her nation’s birth. Born in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as the second of five siblings, her parents moved to Karachi at the time of Partition, one of millions of families whose lives were torn apart by the brutal division of the subcontinent.

Hussain’s father was an officer with the Pakistan air force. The family first lived in the Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society neighbourhood, where her nickname to friends was “BG”. She studied at the University of Karachi then did postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics, from where she received an MSc in International Relations in 1968.

Through her father she met the man who would become her husband, a handsome, affable Air Force officer, Shahid Hussain, who had once served as Pakistan’s air attaché to Tehran. The couple moved to the Defence Housing Association area of the city, where they were known as generous, easy-going hosts. For several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s she was a member of the visiting faculty of her alma mater, the University of Karachi, lecturing in international relations.

Hussain had a passion for arts and literature and classical music, was a regular face at cultural events in the city and was an excellent networker. She also composed her own poetry, examples of which she would read out to her students, one of whom, Husain Haqqani, would go on to serve as Pakistan’s envoy to Washington. She once acted in an advertisement for a mobile company in which  she had to pretend she was stuck in a lift. She also loved Tarot cards.

For more than a decade Hussain worked with the Institute for Development Studies and Practices in Baluchistan on a series of education projects for a region devastated by a separatist insurgency and the subsequent military crackdown. During one meeting with victims of violence during the 1990s, she recited a poem she had composed for them. “Mother, sisters, daughters and wives, Bereaved and bereft...”

Hussain was not a founding member of Imran Khan’s party, but when the former cricketer held his first political meeting in Karachi in May 1996 at the home of a mutual friend, Naeem Ul-Haque, she was among those who attended. The following year she campaigned for the party and went on to hold several executive positions within its women’s wing.

Hussain had a fondness for elegant clothes – trouser suits, shawls and sunglasses – and bouncy conversation. Her timbre was low, even a little husky, but even in the most contentious political debate she never raised her voice. When her husband died of a heart attack in 1997 she was left to raise her two daughters by herself; she had a knack for remembering the names of the children of her friends.

Young women in particular, who called her “big sister Zahra”, looked to her for advice. Most recently Hussain had been teaching at Karachi’s Lyceum school and then the L’Ecole for Advanced Studies. One of her students cherishes memories of discussions about philosophy and morality, often related to Pakistan’s future: “She was an inspiration to us. Somehow she was always positive.”

The belief that change was possible was behind her willingness to throw herself into the campaigning for Khan’s party during the country’s recent election.

On the day she was shot dead by gunmen – allegedly sent by Khan’s political rivals, though the allegation has been denied – she was to have visited polling stations where a revote was being conducted amid allegation of rigging. As it was, Khan’s party won the revote.

From an early age, Hussain developed a love of swimming and one of her daily rituals was to visit the Defence Authority club near her Karachi home, where she would lap in the pool. On the day of her murder her driver had just taken her home and had let her out of the car when gunmen approached on a motorbike, walked up to her and fired. She is survived by two daughters, Basma and Nezihe, a sister, two brothers and her mother.

Zahra Ahmad, politician: born Budaun, India 26 December 1943; married Shahid Hussain (died 1997; two daughters); died Karachi 18 May 2013.

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