The death of Tahira Ali Shah, former Vice Chairperson Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), last week in a car accident is more than merely a loss for the fisherfolk community. Her demise has dealt a blow to the efforts for mainstreaming the grassroots at a time when organised mobilisation over issues remains extremely limited in the country.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum is one of the very few people’s movements that have effectively organised the extremely marginalised local communities to become a powerful political force against elite-based policies and actions of the state. The most peculiar feature of this organised force is the heavy-duty presence of women.
Tahira Ali Shah was the founding member of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, an organisation that works along the lines of a movement to protect the socioeconomic and political rights of the indigenous fisherfolk communities in Pakistan. In the last two decades, ever since it was launched, the organisation has successfully mobilised the community through protests, peaceful demonstrations, meetings, seminars and engagement with a broad range of government and nongovernmental actors to overturn their excluded status and be recognised as stakeholders by an arrogant state and its development allies.
Their successful efforts included abolition of the contract system (that brought them in a face-to-face confrontation with the all-too-powerful Pakistan Rangers in Badin) and illegal occupation of Chutyari Lake in Sanghar; attention to the long-standing issue of detained fishermen of Pakistan and India; awareness of the significance of the restoration of Indus Delta, protection of mangrove forests in the coastal belt of Sindh, and restoration of Keenjhar and Manchar Lakes; mainstreaming the issue of the rights of peasant communities; highlighting of land grabbing Karachi creeks and islands; and most importantly the social and economic cost of the depletion of natural resources.
The people of Sindh are rather becoming used to the annual event of the PFF marking action on rivers that has the community highlighting the agenda through colourful activities all across the province.
Born in a conservative but relatively well-off Syed family in Karachi, Tahira lost her engineer father at a young age. The family adhered to the conservative norms of limited education and exposure to women. It was extremely bold of her to decide to marry Syed Mohammad Ali Shah, a family acquaintance, who despite his Syed background was not seen as a match by her family for his lower middle class status.
Due to the acute opposition from the family, the couple had to marry in the court. Challenging the tradition of the post-marriage domestication of women, Tahira took another bold step and announced to return to studies after having six children. She completed her matriculation and worked as a Lady Health Worker, a job that brought her closer to the community women at Karachi’s coastal area of Ibrahim Hyderi, where she had settled down with her husband who belonged to the fisheries trade and was a union council representative.
She and her husband went on to lay the foundation of Anjuman-e-Samaji Behbood in the early 1990s — to work for the welfare of the local fisheries community. Tahira extended the organisation to add a women’s chapter “Saareen Sath” focusing exclusively on the issues of the women in the community. The couple also stayed engaged with local civil society organisations which also included Mohammad Ali Shah’s handling of the South Asia Desk at PILER to advocate the cause of detained fishermen. PFF is the offspring of these efforts, formed to unite the struggles of fisheries community in a more systematic and integrated way.
Tahira’s most important contribution to the mass movement was bringing women at the centre of the agenda, despite fishing being a male-dominated trade with women playing a supplementing role, weaving fishnets and cleaning the catch before it is forwarded to the market.
Tahira’s task required personal engagement with the women of the community, mobilising and encouraging them to become involved in the organisation’s activities. She generously used her Syed status to her advantage, citing her own example to convince the community men to stop acting as a hindrance to women’s participation in the movement.
For her, women’s presence was not just about adding to the numbers in the rallies. She firmly believed that women were equal partners in the trade and the shrinking of their access to livelihoods is because of the decline in the fisheries sector on the whole.
At every relevant forum, she espoused the cause of employment, training, education and empowerment of fisherwomen. Her strategy was to turn women into a major stakeholder in the movement. For her, it was not only about providing space for women’s voices, but also empowering women enough to take charge and represent their issues independently.
Tahira’s major challenge was overcoming male domination both within the community and in the organisation itself. Her competence lied in bridging the related gaps that barred women’s involvement. She approached her work with an understanding that for women to be acknowledged as equal partners in the movement, they have to demonstrate comprehension of issues and brought on the same page as the leadership that was engaging high profile national and international forums to advocate the socio-economic rights of the community.
“She pursued this agenda in an organised manner. Tahira would dutifully make notes of the discussions and decisions at the PFF’s governing body meetings and take them back to the communities. She would personally interact with community members, especially women, and update them on the work of the organisation while seeking their input on the subject,” recalls colleague Saeed Baloch.
“She was not highly educated but had a sharp observation, being fully aware of the complex political, economic and social issues both at the micro and macro level,” says Karamat Ali of PILER.
Her public speeches might have been fiery but she would very meticulously articulate these issues before her constituency that paid the price of the state’s exclusionary policies but lacked an understanding of the structural causes of their plight.
Additionally, Tahira also ensured that women’s concerns were reflected in the overall agenda of the PFF. According to Saeed Baloch, the organisation became so strong in terms of women’s participation in activities that, during planning meetings, Tahira would directly challenge the organisation’s hierarchy to bring in enough number of men to match her women force.
Tahira’s role as the wife of a movement leader had another important dimension. Colleague Ercelan Aly of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum reflects: “Mohammad Ali Shah and PFF have succeeded in mass mobilisation both because of direct activism by Tahira but also because she undertook to look after home and family so that Mohammad Ali Shah could become as active as he has become. Her very modest demands include the fact that she sold her dowry jewellery, let alone ask for jewellery. In her personal life, she was a rebel when, to begin with, she married Mohammad Ali Shah from a lower middle class family in defiance of her family expectations.”
Pakistan’s civil society, despite its fine work on advocacy on socio-economic and political issues, struggles to engage the grassroots. Tahira’s demise comes two months after Najma Sadeque’s who was another powerful advocate of community rights.
Tragically, apart from the accident, the cause of Tahira’s death was the lack of rescue efforts following the crashing of her car in a water pond near Sujawal. According to her husband, after the accident, the local community rushed to help but refused to resuscitate Tahira. “She is a woman and she is a Syed. How can we touch her?” shared a teary-eyed Mohammad Ali Shah, not saying how badly this tragedy highlights the importance of breaking down the conservative mental barriers against women.