Back in the bonds we were freed from | Pakistan Today

Back in the bonds we were freed from

  • Where do we stand?

Legend goes that there was once a small fishing settlement on the coast of the Arabian Sea. It was home to a community of fishermen and their families, one of them a fisherwoman named Kolachi. It is unknown whether Kolachi was born there, but she settled in that fishing settlement, started a family and in time the settlement was named Kolachi Jo Goth which in Sindhi, the language of the people of the area, means ‘The Village of Kolachi.’

Kolachi Jo Goth grew into a small walled city with two gates, Kharadar (salt gate) and Mithadar (sweet gate), referring to the seawater and freshwater that those gates faced. Under the British the gates were torn down in 1860. Even without the gates, however, the names Kharadar and Mithadar survived to identify those localities where the gates had been, at the core of a newer, larger city called Karachi.  Kolachi Jo Goth itself disappeared long ago.

The 14th of August is the day of the birth of this nation. But it should also be the day we assess how- having been born, we mean to carry on, truly free as Independence Day suggests and as Islam meant us to be, or back in the bonds of oppression, ignorance and cruelty– the ones it tried to free us from.

A few hundred years later the city became home to another woman, this one born on 14 August 1947 in Bantava in the State of Gujarat now in India. Her name was Bilquis Bano. Later, her family moved to Karachi in Pakistan– the country that shared her date of birth.

Karachi had morphed into the capital of the province of Sindh, the largest city of Pakistan and its commercial hub. It is also now the seventh largest city in the world, but that is beside the point, except to stress the fact that Bilquis lived in this city which had a population of– at that time- over seven million.

Meantime Abul Sattar Edhi who was also born in Bantva lost his mother in 1947, the year Pakistan came into being. Edhi’s mother had encouraged him to be charitable ever since he was a small child by giving him one paisa to spend in school and another paisa to give in charity every single day. After her death Edhi and his family moved to Karachi. Edhi worked as a pedlar and sold clothes here until, in 1951, with donations from the Memon community to which he belonged, he laid the foundations of his philanthropic empire with The Edhi Trust, starting with a small dispensary in Mithadar in 1951. Whichever of those over seven million people needed its services, was free to avail of them as well as anyone from the rest of the country.

The dispensary grew and more nurses were needed. Edhi hired some. Bilquis Edhi was one of these nurses. She went through a six-month training programme to learn the basics of midwifery and healthcare, after which Edhi put her in charge of the nurses at the dispensary. He was not blind to her interest in her chosen profession, and her dedication to charity. She in turn admired him for his dedication and his faith. In time the two were married when she was just 17 and he about 20 years older. The couple was blessed with two sons and two daughters, and the country was blessed by their joint efforts to serve its people and to alleviate their misery.

The Edhis also set up the Edhi Foundation entirely funded by private donations, its goal to help anyone regardless of status, ethnicity or religion, and Edhi renamed his Trust the Bilquis Edhi Trust. Every single day of their existence the Trust and the Foundation set up by Edhi and run by him and his wife, and when he was ill by his wife and their children, has ‘made a difference and changed lives forever.’

The Foundation grew to include shelters for destitute women and children, dispensaries, food kitchens, a volunteer fleet of ambulances which is the largest in the world, rehab centres and other services. It also donates and helps wherever needed around the world. Bilquis Edhi and her husband were partners in these ventures every step of the way. They lived among the people they were helping, and dressed like them, not in a fancy house in an expensive neighbourhood.

In 1986 the Edhis were awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. The citation with the Award mentions how the Edhis took no government assistance, and no salary for their work, and lived a life of service to humanity in the true spirit of Islam.

And yet not everyone thought so.

Edhi was very often most severely criticized for his undiscriminating service to humanity, because he helped people regardless of who and what they were. He came under fire from terrorists as well as far-rightwing persons who felt this service should be restricted to Muslims alone. Some political figures resented his popularity too, and his selfless devotion to welfare. Edhi responded to all these by saying that ‘people had become more educated but not yet human,’ and he and his wife carried on with their work.

Abdul Sattar Edhi died in 2016 of renal failure. His last wish was for his organs to be donated; because he had been so ill however only his corneas were able to be donated.

His charitable organisations are now run by his wife Bilquis and his son Faisal.

Pakistan has therefore been blessed in many ways, by several men and women among whom the Edhis stand out prominently, people who serve humanity and make us proud to be Pakistani, Muslims and human beings. Unfortunately it has also been beset by problems that make us hang our heads in shame.

Independence day, the birth day of Pakistan as well as of Bilquis Edhi, is a good time for us to muse on both: on what Islam really means and what it means on to people like those who criticized the Edhis for their undiscriminating service to humanity. It is time also to think of Jinnah’s famous speech where he said that people were free in this country to go to their temples, their mosques or any other place of worship. Are people really free to do that in Pakistan?

Think also of what was said almost 1500 years ago by someone whose name now has so many appendages after it that only his words need to be quoted, that “ All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black or a black any superiority over a white except by means of piety and good actions.”

Independence Day is a time to appreciate the contribution of the women of Pakistan, predominantly women like Bilquis Edhi. To weigh this against the harassment women face every single day in this country in the name of religion and tradition, Malala Yousufzai standing out as a representative.

The 14th of August is the day of the birth of this nation. But it should also be the day we assess how- having been born, we mean to carry on, truly free as Independence Day suggests and as Islam meant us to be, or back in the bonds of oppression, ignorance and cruelty– the ones it tried to free us from.

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at