She was known to many young women as ‘big sister Zahra’; they looked to her for advice
The politician Zahra Shahid Hussain, who was shot dead outside her
home in Karachi, spent much of her life trying to help the less
fortunate people of Pakistan.
She was born into a life of privilege and relative ease, something
she never denied or tried to hide. Once, as a young woman, walking
across a Karachi beach with friends, she said that while a luxury hotel
would turn away a poor man even if he was wearing shoes, someone looking
“respectable” would always be permitted entry even if they were
barefoot. To prove her point, she slipped off her shoes and breezed into
the city’s Intercontinental Hotel. The friend who lost the bet paid for
Born Zahra Ahmad, Hussain was an educator and
lecturer, an activist and mentor. She also pursued with academic fervour
an interest in Pakistan’s handicrafts and textiles, writing on subjects
as specialist as the Kashmiri shawl. Later she entered politics and
became an important figure in the party of Imran Khan, the Pakistan
Teehreek-e-Insaf. Whatever she did was fuelled by a belief in her
country and a certainty that even during the darkest of times, change
for the better was possible.
This may have been driven partly by
what her family was forced to give up at the very hour of her nation’s
birth. Born in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as the
second of five siblings, her parents moved to Karachi at the time of
Partition, one of millions of families whose lives were torn apart by
the brutal division of the subcontinent.
Hussain’s father was an
officer with the Pakistan air force. The family first lived in the
Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society neighbourhood, where her
nickname to friends was “BG”. She studied at the University of Karachi
then did postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics, from
where she received an MSc in International Relations in 1968.
her father she met the man who would become her husband, a handsome,
affable Air Force officer, Shahid Hussain, who had once served as
Pakistan’s air attaché to Tehran. The couple moved to the Defence
Housing Association area of the city, where they were known as generous,
easy-going hosts. For several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s
she was a member of the visiting faculty of her alma mater, the
University of Karachi, lecturing in international relations.
had a passion for arts and literature and classical music, was a
regular face at cultural events in the city and was an excellent
networker. She also composed her own poetry, examples of which she would
read out to her students, one of whom, Husain Haqqani, would go on to
serve as Pakistan’s envoy to Washington. She once acted in an
advertisement for a mobile company in which she had to pretend she was
stuck in a lift. She also loved Tarot cards.
For more than a
decade Hussain worked with the Institute for Development Studies and
Practices in Baluchistan on a series of education projects for a region
devastated by a separatist insurgency and the subsequent military
crackdown. During one meeting with victims of violence during the 1990s,
she recited a poem she had composed for them. “Mother, sisters,
daughters and wives, Bereaved and bereft...”
Hussain was not a
founding member of Imran Khan’s party, but when the former cricketer
held his first political meeting in Karachi in May 1996 at the home of a
mutual friend, Naeem Ul-Haque, she was among those who attended. The
following year she campaigned for the party and went on to hold several
executive positions within its women’s wing.
Hussain had a
fondness for elegant clothes – trouser suits, shawls and sunglasses –
and bouncy conversation. Her timbre was low, even a little husky, but
even in the most contentious political debate she never raised her
voice. When her husband died of a heart attack in 1997 she was left to
raise her two daughters by herself; she had a knack for remembering the
names of the children of her friends.
Young women in particular,
who called her “big sister Zahra”, looked to her for advice. Most
recently Hussain had been teaching at Karachi’s Lyceum school and then
the L’Ecole for Advanced Studies. One of her students cherishes memories
of discussions about philosophy and morality, often related to
Pakistan’s future: “She was an inspiration to us. Somehow she was always
The belief that change was possible was behind her
willingness to throw herself into the campaigning for Khan’s party
during the country’s recent election.
On the day she was shot dead
by gunmen – allegedly sent by Khan’s political rivals, though the
allegation has been denied – she was to have visited polling stations
where a revote was being conducted amid allegation of rigging. As it
was, Khan’s party won the revote.
From an early age, Hussain
developed a love of swimming and one of her daily rituals was to visit
the Defence Authority club near her Karachi home, where she would lap in
the pool. On the day of her murder her driver had just taken her home
and had let her out of the car when gunmen approached on a motorbike,
walked up to her and fired. She is survived by two daughters, Basma and
Nezihe, a sister, two brothers and her mother.
Ahmad, politician: born Budaun, India 26 December 1943; married Shahid
Hussain (died 1997; two daughters); died Karachi 18 May 2013.