Jennifer Musa (1917-2008): The Queen of Baluchistan

Posted on January 12, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, People, Women
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Adil Najam

A friend recently sent me a two year old obituary of Jennifer Musa (today is her second death anniversary). I must confess, I had never heard of her. But the tag line of the article from London’s Daily Telegraph was enough to send me on a search for more information on her. The line read:

Irish nurse who became head of a tribe in Baluchistan and dedicated her life to its interests

As if that was not enough, the second paragraph of the same article had me running to find out more. It read:

“Mummy Jennifer”, as she was known, married the scion of a noble Pathan family that played a key role in bringing the oil-rich province of Baluchistan into Pakistan after its creation in 1947. She founded an ice factory, became the first woman member of the national assembly from her province, and later acted as an intermediary for rebels who staged an armed uprising against the federal government.

What I found was a remarkable story that deserves to be shared with others.

The most detailed account is in the obituary itself (from January 2008):

Jennifer Musa, who has died aged 90, was an Irishwoman of modest stock who took over from her husband as head of a tribe in the remote borderlands of Baluchistan; unveiled and uncompromising, she dedicated her life to the conservative Muslim tribesmen among whom she lived for 60 years until her death….

Far from being a colonial figure who “stayed on”, and despite having been dubbed “the Queen of Baluchistan”, Jennifer Musa was a tough-minded, unassuming nurse who arrived at the parched fringes of the Indian subcontinent a year after Partition. When she arrived there, as she later recalled, locals believed that the British monarchy had gifted the “London lady” to their chief in return for killing a tiger.

She was born Bridget Wren at Tarmons, Co Kerry, Ireland, on November 11 1917, the daughter of smallholding farmers. She had four sisters and two brothers and received a Roman Catholic education. Known as Bridie, she later changed her name to Jennifer and left for England to train as a nurse. In 1939 she met Qazi Mohammed Musa in Oxford, at Exeter College’s May Ball.

Qazi Musa, who read Philosophy, was a ward of the Governor-General of Baluchistan and the eldest son of the prime minister to the Khan of Kalat, Baluchistan’s princely state. Jennifer took the Muslim name of Jehan Zeba and they married in 1940, despite some opposition from his otherwise “liberal” family.

Qazi had been married off to his first wife when he was 14 years old amid fears that he would be killed, most likely poisoned, by clan rivals. The marriage produced four sons and one daughter. Jennifer and Qazi’s first wife, a member of the neighbouring Kansi tribe, remained neighbours and friends in later years.

Qazi’s father had been a key figure in the Pakistan movement and the couple arrived there from England in 1948. The family stronghold at Pishin, a dusty, baked plateau 30 miles north of Baluchistan’s capital, Quetta, is a far cry from the banks of the Shannon. For centuries it fell under the suzerainty of tribes from the neighbouring city of Kandahar, where the Qazis once wielded influence before being expelled by the British. The area, which is hemmed in by russet mountains and tormented by dust devils and temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius, was retained within the borders of British India after the Second Afghan War in 1881.
Jennifer donned the shalwar kameez, but without wearing a headscarf or the all-encompassing burqa, and lived the rarified life of the frontier sardars (tribal chiefs).

In a land of camels, her family owned the only car; despite the austere surroundings, they lived in relative security within the thick, mud-walled, colonial-era home that was festooned with daggers, tigers’ heads and photographs of her extravagantly whiskered in-laws.

Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, stayed for several nights at the house, from where they often forayed across the border to the fashionable, Francophone court of the Afghan king at Kabul. But the idyll ended when her husband died in a motor accident in 1956. Despite her wish to return to Ireland, her husband’s family persuaded her to stay in Pishin with their 14-year-old son, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi [later to become Pakistan’s Ambassador to USA].

Her independence of mind, often attributed to her “Irishness”, led her to enter politics. She joined the now-defunct National Awami (Freedom) Party (NAP) of the Pathan nationalist Wali Khan. At what are often called Pakistan’s “first and last free and fair elections”, in 1970, she won a seat in the national assembly. Her flaxen hair, grey-blue eyes and fair skin caused unease among its more bearded members.

Jennifer served as a parliamentarian for seven years, during which time she demonstrated her empathy for the underdog. She founded the area’s first women’s association and its first family planning clinic. “You can’t liberate women until you liberate men,” she said. More famously, she resisted strong pressure from the overbearing prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to water down autonomous rights for Baluchistan.

Perhaps apocryphally, Bhutto was reputed to have mused whether she thought she was “the Queen of Baluchistan”. Then he added: “Fix that woman.”

She was a proud signatory of Pakistan’s 1973 constitution. But when Bhutto savagely crushed a Baluch insurgency during the 1970s Jennifer acted as a conduit for messages from the rebel leadership and jailed fighters to their families, because their women were cut off from public life as they were in purdah.

Democratic politics in Pakistan, and Jennifer’s political career, came to an end with the imposition of martial law at the end of the 1970s, and she turned her focus on her family home and lands. She grafted a rose garden among its pomegranate and pine trees. During the 1980s she worked among Afghan refugees who flocked to Pishin due to the fighting in the anti-Soviet jihad; she set up and managed an ice factory in a land that lacks refrigeration and electricity; and – to the chagrin of the mullahs – she promoted literacy for women.

But it was in her capacity as a traditional tribal administrator that she made her mark. She dispensed favours, settled disputes and signed chits for tribesmen who gathered at her gate. “You have to be astute dealing with the Baluch,” she remarked.

Her emphasis was on education, health and hard work. A local superintendent of police recalled how, when he was a schoolboy, Jennifer pinched his ear for missing class. In such a way she inspired a generation of local professionals who lived in fear of being “whacked”.

It remained a mystery to her family how she managed. She had little grasp of the local language, Pashto. A family retainer was amused to overhear the somewhat whimsical explanation for the town’s name of Pishin that she offered to a visitor – she said, erroneously, that it was derived from the Pashto for “cat”. When angry, her smatterings of Urdu and Pashto gave way to pure English.

Purposefully vague about when she “became Islamic”, Jennifer did not feel bound by religion, preferring to remark on the similarities of the various faiths.

She retained a faint Kerry brogue, but said she knew more about Pakistan than Ireland, which she last visited in the 1960s. She was an unfussy Irishwoman with a twinkly sense of humour who felt “very much at home” at Pishin. In Ireland, she noted, the women did not mix much with the men.

In her later years visiting foreign journalists mused about how the wild, tribal frontier, where women are in purdah and even goatherds carry Kalashnikovs, was an unlikely place to find an elderly Irish widow serving afternoon tea. The area has lately become a stronghold for the Taliban, and is generally out of bounds to foreigners.

Jennifer died on January 12. Her funeral procession was attended by thousands of burly, turbaned Pathans (many of them allied to the Taliban) who raised cheers of “Mummy Jennifer!” in her honour as the cortège passed through a shuttered Pishin. She was buried at the Qazis’ ancestral burial ground near the tomb of the family Sufi saint, Sheikh Farid Baba. President Pervez Musharraf telephoned Jennifer’s son, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, to offer his condolences for the death of a woman who, in one of her last interviews, said: “Mummy has had her innings.”

If that has perked up your interest, here are some more nuggets from a 1992 story about her in The New York Times:

“The word when I first came here – that was 1948 – was that the Queen gave my husband a London lady because he shot a tiger for her,” recalled Jennifer Musa, her brogue rolling easily within the yard-thick mud walls of her rambling house. “Well, that was what it was like then” …

“I came in January 1948, and everybody was crazy then,” Mrs. Musa remembered. “It was the beginning of Pakistan, you know. We were about the only people who had a car and everybody was very poor.” Less than a decade later, though, her husband died and Mrs. Musa confronted the decision whether to return to Ireland with her young son, Ashraf, or remain a widowed European woman in a deeply traditional Islamic society. “We were sitting at this table here,” she said, her long fingers massaging the table’s deep mahagony grain. “My parents said come back. But Ashraf [her son] said no, this is my country. I want to remain. And so we stayed.” And, as she raised her son, she did what any single-minded Irish woman would do in a male-dominated society – she went into politics.

When Pakistan staged its first general election in 1970, Mrs. Musa ran for a seat in Parliament, from where she waged a vocal battle for Baluchistani rights against the authoritarian socialism of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. “Everybody said it was the first and last free election,” she said. “Bhutto got no seats from Baluchistan, so he dismissed the government here. He didn’t like the opposition party. He sent the army in after dismissing the government. Bhutto had a second election and it was a hellishly rigged election. And that is when the fighting started.”

For four and a half years, Baluchi nationalists, idealistic students and political opportunists staged guerrilla raids and ambushes against Pakistani troops, in pursuit of an improbable and elusive independence. Mrs. Musa, the Queen of Baluchistan, took the fight to the floor of the National Assembly. “I was elected unopposed,” she said. “I joined thinking I could do something for Baluchistan and something for women. But you can’t liberate women until you liberate men. They expected a woman in a burka,” the tentlike garment worn especially in rural and remote areas in Pakistan. “So when I arrived, they were a bit surprised.”

During the seven years she served in Parliament, her relations with Mr. Bhutto deteriorated from the merely frosty to the positively glacial. In his quest to craft a constitution for the country, the Prime Minister required the votes of assembly members from all parts of the country, but he would not concede to Baluchi demands for certain amendments. “Bhutto told my brother-in-law to work on me,” she said, the memory of the ancient confrontation even now stirring her ire. “He said, ‘get her vote.’ He thought the weakest link was a woman. He’d never been to Ireland. In the end, Bhutto gave in. He never forgave me.” The imposition of martial law in 1977 scuttled democratic politics in Pakistan until 1989, and brought to an end Mrs. Musa’s political years. “That’s when I started my garden, my house here,” she said.

Journalist Kaleem Omar has the following, more personal take, to share about Jennifer Musa. Importantly, he also explains that “the late Qazi Musa of Pishin… was the elder brother of the late Qazi Muhammad Isa, who Mr Jinnah had chosen back in 1938 to organise the Balochistan Muslim League, and who later served as our first ambassador to Brazil (1951 to 1953)”:

Jennifer Musa is a great lady and one of my favourite people. She is from Ireland, but has spent the last 60 years in Pishin, near Quetta, where the Qazi family had settled in the late nineteenth-century – after Qazi Musa’s father Qazi Jalaluddin, the hereditary Qazi of Kandahar, was sent into exile by the British for leading the charge of the Afghan cavalry against the British guns at the Battle of Maiwand.

Aunty Jennifer, as we in the family call her, was a member of Wali Khan’s National Awami Party, and was elected to the National Assembly from Pishin on a NAP ticket in the 1970 election. The Bhutto government was keen that National Assembly should adopt the 1973 constitution unanimously, with not just the PPP MNAs but also all the other MNAs voting for it.

Eventually, through a mixture of coercion, inducement and persuasion, all the MNA’s agreed to sign on the dotted line – all, that is, except Aunty Jennifer. She said she wouldn’t sign because the proposed constitution didn’t contain enough safeguards for provincial autonomy – a key demand of the people of Balochistan. The Bhutto government tried everything to persuade her to change her mind, but she wouldn’t budge.

Ashraf [Jehangir Qazi], her only child, was serving as a junior officer in our embassy in Cairo at the time. The government summoned him to Islamabad and told him that unless his mother changed her mind and voted for the constitution, his future in the Foreign Service could be in jeopardy. But Aunty Jennifer still wouldn’t budge, telling Ashraf that he should resign from the service.

Pakistani politicians of all shades and hues paid lip service to provincial autonomy. In the end, however, the only one who stood up for it was a lady MNA from Ireland. Exasperated with her intransigence, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto was said to have once remarked, “She just wants to be Queen of Balochistan.” The irony of the situation did not escape Aunty Jennifer, and she still recalls the episode with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eyes.

This account does seem to be at odds with teh obituary earlier quoted – which describes her as a “proud signitory” of the 1973 constitution. I am still not clear on whether she did actually sign it, or whether changes were made to the draft because of her stand and she eventually signed. If any readers know the answer, do please let us know.

Here is yet more about her in her own words, from an article that appeared in Dawn in 2006:

Jennifer Musa is such an engrained part of this parched wilderness that she is widely known as the “Queen of Balochistan” and once saw Kalashnikov-wielding feudal lords meekly bow to her will. “I feel very much like I am at home here, they have always treated me like one of themselves. I couldn’t have gone back to Ireland,” the frail Mrs Musa says, the faintest trace of an Irish brogue still clinging to her words. “I know more about this place now than I do about my home.”

If her memory is starting to fail at times, her 113-year-old colonial home in the dusty town of Pishin serves as a museum for a life that has mirrored her adopted nation’s tumultuous history. A white tiger skin, with a bullet hole marking where her brother-in-law shot the beast, hangs on a whitewashed mud wall near the mounted heads of a leopard and another tiger, killed at Bhopal, India. In the 1940s Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah spent two nights in the four-poster iron bed that dominates the room next door. Four antique sabres ring a photograph of Jinnah in an astrakhan hat. Outside is a manicured rose garden shaded by pine trees — the only green visible in every direction in the south-western province of Balochistan — and a neglected orchard.

“I came with my husband because he belonged here” … “We met at his college, at a party – you know what students are like. I was a Catholic, he was a Muslim. I think I became Islamic at the time,” she says with a smile, wrapping a shawl around her traditional shalwar kameez. “There is no difference in any of these religions except some people believe in one god, some in another and some in lots of gods.”

“I never wore a veil. Because it was only worn by people who believe in the system,” she says. “I married into a progressive family, they never asked.” Her independent streak – she makes several wry, twinkly-eyed references to Irish republicanism – soon found expression in her involvement in Pakistan’s notoriously fiery politics… It was a move that earned her the enmity of then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “Bhutto was a clever fellow but a strange chap,” Jennifer Musa says reflectively. “He was his own worst enemy. I found it difficult to get along with him.”

Meanwhile she also started to mediate in the feuds that often erupt between the heavily armed Baloch tribes, earning her the unquestioning respect of turbanned feudal chieftains. Among them was Nawab Akbar Bugti, a tribal lord of her own generation who rebelled against the government in recent years and led an insurgent campaign that ended in his death at the hands of the army in August 2006. “A rowdy, nothing else,” Musa says dismissively when asked about his death. “He wasn’t clever or anything. If he was clever he would have cooperated and got his own way just the same. He thought he could be the big man all the time. “You have to be very astute dealing with the Baloch,” she adds conspiratorially.

A longer version of the same interview, had some interesting parting thoughts:

“I don’t think I will ever go back to Ireland. I haven’t anyone living there any more. If I were to go home I would fell absolutely strange,” she says. “Even now as I sit here in Pishin I feel I am home. They don’t put me on a pedestal, that would be terrible,” she says.

Servants now turn away many of the callers who once came seeking the “Queen’s” signature on a chit to win them preferment or quick treatment at the hospital. But she says her old nickname was “just a joke” and that these days the locals all call her “Mummy Jennifer”.

“They all call me mummy. Even the mummies call me mummy,” she says. “But mummy has had her innings.”

30 responses to “Jennifer Musa (1917-2008): The Queen of Baluchistan”

  1. Imran khan says:

    I m not sure whether she was called mummy or mam jennifer… she was considered Muslim and was buried accordingly… one of my relative (whose father worked as gardener at her place)was supported by her in getting education and he got to high rankings in police department.. great lady.. RIP..

  2. Rehana Safia Abdi says:

    Wow!What a story?
    Adil keep it up for people like us,I knew a bit but not in such detail.
    My son Hashir sent me the story ia Face Book.
    Here I am quoting what Jihad is and means?
    Not the jihad these talibans wage of murder and violence but what God says in the Quran.
    25:52.Aur kufr karnai waloun ka kaha na maan aur is=Quran sai kabira jihad kar.
    Jihad is juhd ie effort=koshish to wipe off all ills from a society by the Quranic verses not going on a killing spree.
    22:78.Wajihadou fi Allah haq e jihad a hee.
    2:218.Wa hajirou wa jihadahou fi sabil Allah.
    Hajirou=hijrat karou Quran mein aur jihad karou Allah ki rah mein Quran ki ayaat sai.
    I wish and pray the Media quotes these Sura:Ayat over and over again to expose these Talibaans and their mentors.

  3. Asma says:

    What a wonderful story.

    Bravo Adil Najam, for letting us know of such a strong and great woman.

  4. Benawa says:

    Good idea Nusrat! But why did you suggest Mira Nair? Why
    not one of our own very talented directors? Shohaib Mansur,
    Maureen Jabbar, Ayesha Khan, and many more…

  5. Proud Pakistani says:

    If only our other Pakistani rulers, politician and PEOPLE in general worked honestly for Pakistan rather than stealing the country’s wealth, torturing the local tribesman especially the opposing tribes, challenged the government forces etc. etc. The list can go on. May be they should learn something from Jennifer Musa.
    What a great woman.

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