Begum Zaib-un-Nissa (transliterated Zeb-un-Nissa, Zaibunnissa, Zaibun Nisa, Zaibunisa, Zaib-un-Nisa, Zebunnissa, Zeb-un-Nisa) Hamidullah (Urdu: زیب النساء حمید اللہ) (December 25, 1921 - September 10, 2000) 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 and political commentator. Zaibunnisa Street in Karachi was named for her..
Before Partition, she wrote for many Indian newspapers, and was the first Muslim woman to have a column in an Indian newspaper. After Partition, she became the first female political commentator in Pakistan, because of her column in the Dawn. After she left Dawn, she became the founder and editor-publisher of the Mirror, the first social glossy magazine in South Asia. Due to her status as Pakistan's first female editor, she became the first woman to be included in press delegations sent abroad. On one of these delegations, in 1955, she became the first woman to speak at the ancient al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Zeb-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 the well-known Urdu poet Iqbal into Bengali, and was an avid Bengali nationalist and writer. She had two brothers, and one half-brother from her mother's second marriage. She grew up in a tightly-knit Anglo-Indian household filled with Bengali thinkers and philosophers of the age, as her father's house at 48, Jhowtalla Road, was something of a meeting place for the Calcutta literary circle. She started to write at an early age, and received considerable support from both her English mother and Bengali father. A lonely child, Zeb-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 Loreto House.
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.
K.M. Hamidullah, her husband, belonged to a well-known family of the Punjab. His father, Khalifa Mohammad Asadullah, was the librarian of the Imperial Library in Calcutta. Hamidullah was the head of Bata's operations in Pakistan, and was sent to head Bata in Ireland in 1972. All Zaib-un-Nissa's books were dedicated to him, proof of their devotion to one another. They had two children: Nilofar (b.1943) and Yasmine (b.1949).
After moving to the Punjab in 1942, Zeb-un-Nissa was shocked. Raised in an Anglo-Indian household, she 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.
The Mirror became very popular, and Zeb-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 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 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, ZA 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".
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 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.
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. After 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.
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.
She was plunged into sadness following KM 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.
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."
Even though the first part of her name is now accepted as 'Zaib', there is still some confusion, with various transliterations popping up. Zaibunnisa, Zaibunnissa, Zaibunissa and Zaibunisa are the most common errors.