Champion of Choice

Welcoming the Girls

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We have all questioned the luck of the draw that shapes our destiny, examining how fate favors one girl born into a wealthy family that gives her every opportunity versus another girl who comes into this world as chattel to be traded for cattle. Although there are as many theories for shaping personality as there are philosophies and religions—from karma to reincarnation to environment to genes—for those who believe in the influence of the stars, we must consider what it means to be born a Leo, the lioness of the zodiac.

On the eighteenth of August, 1929, Iffat Shoaib gave birth to the couple’s first child. The baby was a girl, a situation that normally would have prompted grief and condolences in most traditional Indian households, but not in this one. After the Shoaibs christened the newborn “Iffat,” like her mother, they always called their daughter “Nafis,” meaning “precious or extraordinary.”

Following the child’s birth, acquaintances all asked the proud parents: “Does the baby have light skin?” referring to a desirable trait in Indian culture. No, she did not. The infant’s gender and complexion had both failed to pass the mark, because Nafis had dark skin and a temperament to match. However, her family—particularly her grandfather—adored the child all the same.

The patriarch of Nafis’s family, Mohammed Abdulla, had left his village in the United Provinces in eastern India and moved to Jaunpur, located about two hundred miles west of Calcutta, to practice law. There he built an impressive estate surrounded by gardens and fields, which would serve as the home of three generations and dozens of extended family members. He ran an open household where a constantly changing diorama of characters came and went: servants, sons, their wives, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, and relatives with such a tenuous thread to the family fabric that no one could quite remember how they were woven in. The visitors arrived with their baggage and bunked in spare rooms, the children’s rooms, wherever there was room. They stayed for weeks, months—sometimes long enough to get a college education. It was the patriarch’s concept of noblesse oblige that prompted his generosity, a concept his son would later emulate.

A private inner courtyard served as the heart of Mohammed Abdulla’s whitewashed brick house. It was surrounded by the numerous rooms of the family’s private residence, which included separate quarters for his sons and their wives and children. A broad, shady verandah rimmed the second story.

As his legal practice thrived, Mohammed became such a respected member of the community that he designed a special room to receive guests who came seeking advice and favors. He made his headquarters a study that had an outside courtyard, and on the door to these chambers the gentleman placed an enormous photographic portrait. The subject was an unlikely representation for such a grand work: a one-year-old baby Nafis, with a couple of teeth and a shaved head—the shearing a practice that was thought to encourage a lush, full head of hair upon regrowth.

Nafis’s grandfather died when she was just seven years old, struck down by kidney failure. As was the custom of his generation, Mohammed Abdulla had not kept track of his age, but his family believed him to be in his sixties. Nafis remembered that “he always had his arms outstretched for me to run to him.” He doted on his granddaughter, bragging about how clever she was and prompting her to recite for guests. Perhaps this was because his two female babies had died in infancy and a third daughter had succumbed to tuberculosis in her twenties. Nafis’s grandmother had wailed, “There are no girls in our family!” Thus when her son Mohammed produced a daughter, the baby was joyously welcomed into the family. This fact was unusual in a society where the news of a girl’s birth was frequently greeted with pity: “Maybe you’ll have better luck next time.” Instead of being treated as a second-class citizen, Nafis was celebrated for her gender; as she grew up and went about the world, she found the absence of this fact in other households as unnatural as she did intolerable. On the global stage she would spend the rest of her life promoting her family’s vision of the fundamental worth of girls.

 

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An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

©Cathleen Miller 

 

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