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My Aunt Overcame Pakistan’s Repressive Laws to Stay True to Her Muslim Faith

5 minute read
Amjad Mahmood Khan, an expert on religious freedom in the Islamic world, is an adjunct professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles

Honor and glory be always with thee
God’s blessings shower down on all
Thy beneficiaries, patients and workers

My aunt, Dr. Nusrat Jahan, penned the above lines of poetry in 2003 for the inauguration of the Begum Zubaida Bani gynecology wing of Fazl-e-Omer Hospital in the desert-turned-village of Rabwah, Pakistan. Today, the poem hangs in the wing’s waiting room.

From 1985 until her sudden death a few months ago at the age of 65, Nusrat was a gynecologist at the self-funded hospital that was built in 1958 to serve the indigent in rural Pakistan. She served more than 100,000 women and delivered more than 10,000 babies for free. Many knew Nusrat as an exceptional surgeon who cared deeply about women’s reproductive health. But what really set her apart was her unbridled altruism despite having a perpetual target on her back.

Nusrat was born an Ahmadi Muslim in Karachi in 1951. Granddaughter of Zulfiqar Ali Gohar (brother of Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, two of India’s most revered Muslim nationalists), she was the fourth child of a family and lived in the small quarters of a mosque for most of her adolescent life.

Despite meager means, she earned top marks at Fatima Jinnah Medical College and membership into England’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

After her father, Abdul Malik, an Ahmadi Muslim imam, died in a car accident, Nusrat turned down lucrative job offers in England, returned home to Rabwah and dedicated her life to being a surgeon for the poor.

Ahmadi Muslims recite the kalima (a Muslim’s principle creed), pray facing Mecca five times a day and assiduously follow the Quran. However, unlike other Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims also believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1889, is the promised Muslim mahdi and messiah the Prophet Muhammad foretold would come to guide Islam back to its true path. That belief is criminal in Pakistan.

Under Pakistan’s constitution and criminal codes, Nusrat was not legally “Muslim” and could never publicly self-identity as such without facing fines, imprisonment or capital punishment. She told me that under Pakistan’s notorious anti-blasphemy laws, she could easily have been arrested for “posing as a Muslim.” Indeed, the same laws that threatened her life keep Abdul Shukoor, an 81-year-old Ahmadi Muslim optician, in prison today.

Today, at least 600,000 Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan face the same grim risks. In Rabwah, local police have tortured Ahmadi Muslims to death, and extremists have gunned down others, including Nusrat’s colleague, American doctor Mehdi Qamar. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the global leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who guided and inspired Nusrat’s humanitarian work, was forced to leave Rabwah in 2003 and now lives in exile in England.

Ahmadi Muslims cannot legally vote or obtain passports as “Muslims” without expressly denouncing their founder. Local authorities ordered the word “Muslim” be erased from the tombstone of Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate and Ahmadi Muslim physicist, Dr. Abdus Salam.

Although the Government of Pakistan could try to strip Nusrat of her Muslim identity, it could never strip the Islam in her. Her life’s mission to heal and to provide reproductive care and cancer treatment to Muslim women could never be suppressed. Unfazed by harrowing stories of religious repression, she exhibited courage under fire. Nusrat never refused care to anyone who needed it, including those who would oppress her people.

She spoke about how the wives of high-ranking government officials would travel to her in the night to seek care and would disappear by morning because they did not want to be seen in the company of Ahmadi Muslims. Nusrat would help heal them while also pointing out that the best Muslims were those who liked for their sisters what they liked for themselves. In an era where observance of hijab is under siege, she proudly donned the veil even as she led surgical teams of men and women and undertook complex surgeries.

In 2013, while visiting California, Nusrat toured a state-of-the-art fertility center to glean ideas for a similar center in Rabwah. When she walked in, fully veiled, the hosts did not expect her to end up educating them on the latest fertility techniques. Behind the veil was a woman who was equally comfortable discussing roller coasters as she was discussing Mark Twain and in vitro fertilization.

Nusrat’s grave sits next to her mother’s with the words “Dr. Nusrat Jahan” (literally, “helper of the world”) fittingly blazoned on her epitaph. Her patriotic service for Pakistan against all odds provides a powerful repudiation of Pakistan’s repressive laws.

The final words of Nusrat’s poem for the hospital are her most beautiful: “May the spring kiss laurels and never a fall.” Never a fall indeed, by God’s grace—and never will we forget you either, my dear aunt.

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