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A life worth celebrating

Kaniz Yusuf, an educationist who challenged the ivory towers of intellect, remained an activist till the end

A life worth celebrating
Kaneez Yusuf with Nusrat Bhutto.

Despite worldly road blocks, male chauvinism and religious bigotry, a number of women gained prominence in the political struggle for Pakistan and the post-partition politics. The same was not true for professions. It took the rise to power of the left leaning government of the PPP, and the space created by the 1973 Constitution, that a woman was appointed vice chancellor of a university. This woman was Dr (Miss) Kaniz F. Yusuf, who breathed her last in her house in Islamabad last week at the age of 95.

I first had a glimpse of her in the mid-1960s in the geography department of the Government College, Lahore which was then housed in the main tower. A geographer herself, she was visiting fellow professionals. What intrigued me was that she talked about everything but geography as we students knew.

She had specialised in political geography and in time spoke and wrote on geopolitics and geoeconomics with a lot of fervour. Her book, Unipolar World and the Muslim States, is an example. She thought the end of the mighty dollar was nigh. When I disagreed, she asked me to contribute to this edited volume. Another volume she asked me to contribute to was Riba: Commercial Interest and Usury. She believed “there is no chance of an innovative, contemporary interpretation of Riba.”

The group of intellectuals she interacted with most included Hanif Ramay and Fateh Muhammad Malik. They were inspired by the Iqbalist school of Islamic socialists, championed by Ghulam Ahmad Parvez. She wrote a whole book, Iqbal aur Asri Masail, when she got upset by the views expressed by the writer-critic Wazir Agha. In her view, something like Bharat and Pakistan had always existed in geography and culture. Iqbal’s Allahabad address was a plea for political recognition of “a consolidated north-west Indian Muslim state.” Aitzaz Ahsan’s Indus Saga falls in the same genre. I have heard our Principal at Government College, Lahore, Professor Ashfaq Ali Khan, express similar views.

With these very Pakistani thoughts, she became the Vice Chancellor of what then was the University of Islamabad. It was a postgraduate university devoted only to physics, chemistry, biology and economics. She introduced Pakistan Studies as an interdisciplinary degree. I was invited to teach economic rationale of the struggle for Pakistan.

On the birth centenary of the Quaid-i-Azam in her tenure, the university was renamed by Z.A. Bhutto himself. Despite opposition, especially from the Economics Department, she opened the doors to other social sciences. What she had in mind was made explicit later in a conference on social sciences organised by the Higher Education Commission in Islamabad in 2003: “On a large university campus, where intensive and creative study is being carried out in a large number of disciplines and a large number of accomplished teachers and serious students live and study in a social environment of reverence and informality, intellectual interaction is uninhibited and frequent. It is this intellectual interaction which is the focal point of university education.”

In Kaneez Yusuf’s view, something like Bharat and Pakistan had always existed in geography and culture.

She was extremely energetic. Many will remember her biking to Lahore College for Women and walking briskly around the university campus. She was the guiding spirit in her family. She did not wear gender consciousness on her sleeves, but you could see her walk it without talk. Soon after the partition, she was part of the women groups visiting India to recover missing women. She had many stories to tell about women who refused to join their families. In Lahore College for Women, she personally protected a student from her family who were after her inherited property. The activist in her never died. In 2006, she joined Ahmad Faraz, Abid Hasan Minto and others to sign a statement protesting the military operation in Balochistan.

Also read: An intellectual who stood her ground 

Kaniz Yusuf lived a life worth celebrating. She was a restless soul, challenging the ivory towers of intellect and spearheading action where angels fear to tread. May her soul rest in peace.

Dr Pervez Tahir

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