Begum Hamida Habibullah (1916-2018): Leader and enabler of women’s education in an eventful age

Born in 1916, she led a life and played a role that were not only unusual but also a testament to the times that made it possible.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: March 14, 2018 3:21:57 am
Begum Hamida Habibullah

Begum Hamida Habibullah, who would have been 102 years old next November, died in Lucknow Tuesday. A woman with an unusual profile in an eventful period, she was a leading political figure and an enabler of education for women. Born in 1916, she led a life and played a role that were not only unusual but also a testament to the times that made it possible.

The daughter of Nawab Nazir Yar Jung Bahadur, once acting Chief Justice of Hyderabad High Court, Begum Hamida spent her childhood and early years in Hyderabad. A gold medallist from Osmania University, she also did a two-year teachers’ training course from Whitelands College (Putney), London.

Her marriage and work took her to Uttar Pradesh where she was among the founders of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA); she worked hard to get it through the early years, long before it became a well-established brand.

She was married to Major General Enaith Habibullah, who fought in World War II, including in the battle of El Alamein in North Africa, and was also the founder commandant of the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla.

Begum Hamida’s active political career began after her husband retired in 1965, when she was elected as an MLA from Haidergarh (Barabanki). She was minister for social and Harijan welfare, national integration and civil defence during 1971-73, and tourism minister during 1971-74.

These were times when the Uttar Pradesh Congress was among the most powerful committees in the country, and Begum Hamida served as a member, executive committee, of the UPCC until 1980. She was also elected to the All India Congress Committee from 1969. She headed the Mahila Congress in UP during 1972-76. Later, she went on to become a Rajya Sabha member from 1976 until 1982.

Furthering women’s education in the region is what is recognised as her true calling. She was the president of the Avadh Girls’ Degree College (AGDC), Lucknow’s first English degree college for girls, from 1975. She was also president, from 1975, of Talimgah-E-Niswan College, an institution of 3,500 catering to the education of Muslim girls and founded by her mother- in- law, the late Begum Inam Habibullah.

Her grand-nephew, writer Omair Ahmed, recalls how she represented an era when the Indian subcontinent was in the throes of the anti-colonial struggle but one could drive from “the military base in Rawalpindi to Srinagar”, where her husband was posted.

Omair Ahmed remembers how Begum Hamida casually mentioned the “beautiful drives” from Rawalpindi to Srinagar that she and “Bubbles” went on. “The ‘Bubbles’ she was referring to was her husband, Major General Enaith Habibullah. He was given the nickname because Habibullah sounds a bit like ‘hubble bubble’, the British slang for a hookah.”

Begum Hamida’s son, Wajahat Habibullah, is a former bureaucrat who served in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO and retired as India’s Chief Information Commissioner.

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