Sindhi women, taking initiative, established Ladies Clubs in Hyderabad and Larkana where nobody could even imagine having the clubs exclusively for women in those days.
By Nasir Aijaz
The first half of the 20th century proved to be an era of turning point for Sindhi society, or can well be described as ‘an era of social and political awakening’ when the women of Sindh had accepted the challenges and started actively taking part in various movements – the independence movement, social reforms movements, promotion of female education, and the movement for the equal rights of the women. Their awakening can be judged from the fact that Sindhi women were well-connected with world organizations of women and the prominent female figures striving for the gender equality and rights in their respective countries. Hosting the 18th session of All India Women Conference (December 28, 1945 to January 1, 1946) in Hyderabad, attended by over 500 delegates from across the India besides prominent women activists from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Ceylon, UK and Australia, testify the height of social and political awakening among Sindhi women.
However, here I would confine myself to an instance of social awakening among Sindhi women, neglected so far – and that is establishing ladies’ clubs for uniting the women at social platforms.
It was in fact a ‘Dark Era’ of the ‘Civilized World’ when women were not allowed to become the members of clubs established by British men across the India. Even the women membership was prohibited at historic Sindh Club, established on 25th May, 1871 in Karachi under the chairmanship of Sir William Merewether, for catering to British Army officers, professionals and other Europeans.
Similarly, three clubs established earlier and described as ‘the aristocracy of the clubs of India’ – the Bengal, Madras and the Bombay in 1827, 1831 and 1833 respectively, did not allow women to enter in the bar at all. They had to remain in the ladies’ annexe known as the moorghikhana (hen run), except on Armistice Day in 1918 when they were kidnapped from the annexe and made to serve celebratory drinks.
The Madras Club’s refusal to admit women prompted the founding in 1890 of an almost equally beautiful club – the Adyar, with an octagonal cupola and riverine gardens, which people were encouraged to join ‘to escape the austerities of the Madras Club’. The Adyar Club gave membership to women. Originally started as a Europeans-only club, the Adyar Club started admitting Indians as members in 1960, later it was merged in 1963 with “Madras Club”.
In such a scenario, Sindhi women took initiative and established two Ladies Clubs – one in Hyderabad and the other in Larkana, the cities of Sindh where nobody could even imagine having the clubs exclusively for women in those days. Both the Ladies’ Clubs however have a long chequered history.
The historic building of Ladies’ Club in Hyderabad is situated just besides City Gate Hotel, in Hirabad area in the neighborhood of Amil Colony. The idea of establishing Ladies Club was conceived way back in 1929. The plot for the club was acquired in 1932. But it took six years to lay the foundation stone. In 1938, Collector U.M. Mirchandi laid the foundation stone for the club, but construction did not begin until 1940. The delay was due to raising adequate funds for construction and some of the funding came in the form of donations.
The Nari Sabha club was built in memory of a Hindu lady named Chatur Bai Advani. The lion’s share of the cost incurred on the construction of the building was borne by Chatur Bai’s son. The plot, furniture and fixtures were acquired through donations received and collected up to 1940. In all, 153 members were enrolled and the club became functional on its present premises in 1941.
Leelawati Harchandani alias Dadi Leela (Born on 20 December 1916), a highly respected educationist, was the last living founding members of this historical monument till her demise on September 14, 2017.
The Ladies Club, a single-story building displaying the architectural features of the pre-partition era, contained a hall, a stage and two rooms, with a small ground in front of the building. A long corridor led to another stage.
After the partition, the Ladies Club became defunct. For the past several years, Khursheed Memon, an educationist and social activist, has been running a school in the building but the future of this building is in peril just like the heritage of the building as the builder mafia has fixed eyes on it for taking control of the building to demolish it and raise a multi-story building.
The Gomibai Jawaharmal Ladies Club in Larkana too has almost similar story, but despite ups and downs, it still exists and is functional.
The significant feature of Larkana’s 89-year old heritage is that it had hosted some famous guests in its time. It regularly played the role of host to various cultural activities organized by Hindus, Christians and Muslim women before Partition.
This club has been focal point of ladies having educated background and social nature as this was a beautifully built building with vast area having lush green lawns, terraces and jogging paths which served as venue for their gatherings where they can easily do exercise, walk, and jog along with discussions about their social, personal, political affairs.
Initially, it was customary to appoint the wife of Larkana’s Deputy Collector/Deputy Commissioner as the chairperson of the club but, later, the members decided to become more democratic. They started holding elections after every two years to elect office bearers and governing body members.
There two different versions of the history of this club. Some people say that the club was built by a Hindu Sindhi Deputy Collector, who named it after his sister Gomi Bai. On January 3, 1934, the club was inaugurated by R.E. Gibson, the wife of a senior British bureaucrat. The club reportedly then had around 107 members and ran without any financial support from the government.
As per other version, narrated by Javed Shah Jilani, a local journalist, the land measuring 15000 sq. ft. was donated by Smt. Gomi Bai, wife of Jawaharmal, a philanthropist, who herself got the club building built.
Gomi Bai Jawaharmal Ladies Club, as is inscribed on its plaque fixed over the gate, is located at railway phhattak (gate) road adjacent to historic Tajjar Bagh (Renamed as Jinnah Garden after the partition 1947). By the passage of time, the club fell victim to the human hands and underwent many ups and downs including the encroachments by the local people.
This area, when selected for construction of this club, must be attractive for its healthy atmosphere, but unfortunately, it turned a very congested with passage of time, and growth in population, construction of buildings, shops and other trading offices and restaurants, making its surrounding area one of the congested part of the city.
The Ladies Club, which hosted the Lady Mountbatten (1941), Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of first Prime Minister of Pakistan, wives of Sindh’s first chief minister and other bureaucrats, remained inactive during the military regime of Gen. Zia from 1977. However, at later stage, it resumed activities. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had planned to develop this club and got a project prepared but couldn’t materialize as unfortunately her government was dismissed. However, when the local government system was restored by Gen. Musharraf, the District Government of Larkana, headed by Khursheed Junejo, spent one million rupees on development of the club. His sister Dr. Fakhru-Nisa Junejo had become active in those days who formed a committee to run the club.
In the meantime however the Gomi Bai Club lost some portion of its land to the land mafia. The historic club was saved from further encroachment when the citizens challenged the land mafia in Supreme Court, but failed to vacate the occupied parts where some shops were built.
In 2004, the government had decided to sell the club and the plot to a builder, but later abandoned the idea when members of the club formed a citizens’ action forum and launched a campaign against the decision.
In 2015, media had reported that the club had lost three acres of its land to a hotel set up by a local mafia. The court had sought the records of the case and issued notices to multiple institutions, including the revenue board, directing that all illegal buildings be torn down but no action could be taken. Few years back, the then Club President Dr. Sabiha Mughal was quoted by media as saying that ‘two of our shops have been occupied and the land mafia has become active once again to grab this precious plot and historical building’.
The Gomi Bai Jawaharmal Ladies Club elections are held every two year. Currently Ms. Fareeda Pechuho is the President of the club and Ms. Sakina Gaad is the Secretary besides a managing committee to run the club, which has over one hundred members who regularly visit the club and organize various social activities.
“We have maintained the historic structure of club built in 1934 in its original form besides building a well-equipped modern gym for our members. The club has also formed a Legal Council with prominent lawyers and legislators to protect its interests,” Ms. Sakina Gaad told on phone.
“We also organize social gatherings and other programs on special days including Dewali, Pakistan Day, Women’s Day etc. and became very active in carrying out relief activities during last year’s torrential rains to help the affected people,” she said.
Ms. Sakina Gaad told that Gomi Bai Club has planned a grand function on March 1, 2023 in connection with International Women’s Day falling on March 8. “The theme of our program is ‘the role of women during the recent monsoon rains,” she said adding that on this occasion students of various girls’ schools and colleges of Larkana will participate in debate competitions besides Meena Bazaar will be organized for the women.
“We also have planned to honor the women members with Life Achievement Awards who had devoted their life to this club. Awards will also be conferred among the medics and paramedics who played important role in organizing medical camps for the flood-affected people,” Ms. Gaad said.
Nasir Aijaz is a Karachi-based senior journalist and author of nine books on literature, languages and history. He can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org