Soul companion: Bilquis Edhi

By Zubeida Mustafa

Conventional wisdom has it that “behind every successful man in a woman”. In Abdus Sattar Edhi’s case, the woman is not behind him. She is there right beside him and now she is equally well-known. Today Bilquis Edhi has a public stature in her own right and not simply as the wife of Pakistan’s greatest social worker and humanist.

It would appear paradoxical that in a milieu where the female presence is virtually non-existent, a woman should have carved an exalted niche for herself. Mithadar, the downtown neighbourhood of Karachi from where the Edhis operate, is predominantly a male preserve. You hardly ever see a woman treading its narrow and unpaved lanes. Yet this is Bilquis Edhi’s kingdom. For more than 30 years, she has worked quietly without any fuss looking after distressed women and children while her husband collected the accolades.

When asked to whom should the credit be given for what the Foundation is doing, the Maulana replies spontaneously but with profound insight, “Bilquis does most of the work because women and children, as the worst victims of poverty and social oppression, need the most help. Bilquis is better placed than I am to reach out to them. Being a woman herself, she has the sensitivity and compassion to understand their problems and can extend a helping hand.”

On her part, Bilquis gives the credit to Edhi who set up the Foundation in the first place and continues to be its driving spirit. She had joined the Edhi centre as a volunteer trainee nurse way back in the early ‘60s when she was in her teens. Then came the days of the Indo-Pakistan war when Karachi had also come under attack. The injured were brought in to be nursed while the dead had to be shrouded and buried. There was enough work for a teenager whose only aspiration was to work and serve humanity.

“I had always wanted to be a woman in uniform – either an airhostess or a nurse,” she told me when I asked her how she landed up with the Edhis. She opted for nursing because that is what her mother was doing and deep within her Bilquis had a passion for helping those in pain. As a child, she remembers picking up injured birds and looking after them and burying the dead ones.

It is this humanism that has shaped her entire life and marriage. Bilquis was born on the same day as Pakistan – August 14, 1947 – in a village in Bantva in Gujarat state. Communal riots drove the family to Bombay from where they migrated a few months later to Pakistan – to Mithadar. “You know my real name is not Bilquis,” she confides with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I was named Fatima after my grandmother. But my father suggested to my mother to call me by another name. He didn’t like to see my mother scold me while using a name he cherished as his own mother’s. That is how I became Bilquis,” she explains.

Her father, a trader by profession, died while she was still very young. Her widowed mother was left at an early age to bring up her three children – a girl and two boys. She took up the challenge – quite a creditable thing to do in the early years of Pakistan when not many women ventured out of their home to work – and went to work at Edhi’s. Bilquis followed in her footsteps. School by day and Edhi Centre by night – and that became her life.

Bilquis loved this life. If nothing else, it provided her an escape from studies which she found tedious. “I never liked to study though my teachers at the Ronaq-i-Islam School loved me, and begged and pleaded of me to do my work,“ she laughs as she mimics them. But they just could not get her interested in her books and not surprisingly she failed in her matriculation examinations.

As a nurse she worked hard looking after the women and children who came to Edhi. Work was a passion with Bilquis – nasha is the work she uses to describe how she felt about it.

It was this approach which won her Edhi’s attention and affection. She attributes her marriage to him simply to a divine decision, “qismat”. But she also admits that the plus point which weighed in his favour was his devotion to work. She felt assured that as Edhi’s wife she would be allowed to work as much as she liked, and that was what she wanted to do. Hence, she consented when he proposed.

Bilquis did not enquire what Edhi would give her, six girls before her had rejected his match, each of them on the grounds that he had nothing to offer. In his autobiography scripted by Tehmina Durrani, Edhi recalls how he was reputed to be a tyrant. The remarks about him ran, “What life will this old maulvi give you? He’ll lock you up and enslave you. “Our husbands will take us for picnics and sightseeing. Yours will take you to visit graveyards. We will be beautifying ourselves while you will be embalming and scenting the dead.” But these comments did not deter Bilquis.

Edhi was fascinated by her devotion to her work – and also her looks, she naughtily adds. Even at age 51 plus she is an attractive woman, I note. “She is my first and last…” Edhi declares vehemently, as he sat through the interview, taking it upon himself to answer my questions.

But I didn’t mind his presence. In fact, he could explain many aspects about his work better, as Bilquis Edhi is not at all articulate. Her forte lies in her practical skills rather than her power of expression. If you go through the list of Edhi’s achievements, you can’t fail to miss the Bilquis stamp on them. 450 ambulances (to be controlled shortly by a radar-operated mechanism in Karachi), 17 homes for the homeless, 50 dispensaries, three maternity homes, two cancer hospices and a 12-month nurses course which produces about 80 nurses every year.

What gives you the most satisfaction and sense of fulfillment, I ask, “Training the nurses, working with the destitute women and caring for the abandoned children,” comes the prompt reply. As I talk to her, I realize that silent waters run deep. She has profound wisdom concealed behind that simple and unassuming exterior. Her philosophy is not to help by doling out charity to the needy; she aims at making a woman who comes to her self-reliant. Hence, the emphasis on training. For her it is a source of pride to see her “girls” dispersed all over the city helping out in their neighbourhood. They all have the Edhi approach characterized by self-sacrifice and hard work. If they lack these qualities they cannot continue, and are relieved of their responsibilities.

Bilquis’s profound empathy for women and children is writ large on her work. No sooner than I had finished the interview that she invited me upstairs to see the kids. There were nearly 25 – 30 of them of all ages and all sizes. As we weaved our way through the neat rows of cradles, she would pat one on the cheek, caress another on the chin or pick up a wailing infant to soothe him. All of them are in due course given for adoption. She personally interviews the couple who apply for an abandoned baby. The adoptive parents are asked to come again and again for interviews as she assesses them.

“I want to be certain that the home environment is positive. Why should they mind waiting – after all Nature makes parents wait for nine months,” She remarks. For five years after he is given for adoption, she monitors the progress of a child. But the irony is that no one wants the Edhi chhaap on a child, hence no one ever discloses the fact that a child has survived because of Bilquis Edhi’s benevolence.

Her deep concern for a woman in trouble is pretty visible. It was her idea to place the cradles outside the centres so that women could leave the unwanted babies there unobserved. According to her estimate at least 22,000 children have been placed with foster parents, courtesy Bilquis Edhi. A notice entreats, “Don’t kill, Leave the baby alive in the cradle. Don’t kill the baby. Don’t do another sin to keep secret the first one.” She lowers her voice and says. “I will not speak ill of the women. They are one of us.”

Her empathy for women is touching. Bilquis is first and foremost a mother. With four children of her own, she feels indebted to her own mother for the support she received from her throughout her life. The old lady helped Bilquis rear her two sons and two daughters and also managed her house when she was away at work. Her death four years ago has been the biggest loss Bilquis says she has suffered.

What is most striking about the remarkable woman is her subtle sense of humour and the contentment she exudes. How can she be at peace when the world is in turmoil? “Saadgi aur miyanaravee” (simplicity and moderation), she declares emphatically to be the philosophy of her life. It has served her well because fame and money have not corrupted Bilquis. The Edhi Foundation grows and grows, but Bilquis and Abdus Sattar continue to lead a simple life in the congested environs of Mithadar just as they did more than 30 years ago when they were beginning their ascent to the pinnacle of fame.

Source: Dawn 21 Jan 1999