‘Mummy Jennifer’, the Kerry nurse who championed women’s rights in Pakistan

Jennifer Musa defied local traditions by refusing to cover her head with a veil

Jennifer Musa photographed in 2005. The one-time nurse from Co Kerry was the poverty-hit province’s first female MP, once ran an ice-factory and defied local traditions by refusing to cover her head with a veil. Photograph: AFP

Jennifer Musa photographed in 2005. The one-time nurse from Co Kerry was the poverty-hit province’s first female MP, once ran an ice-factory and defied local traditions by refusing to cover her head with a veil. Photograph: AFP

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Kerry nurse Jennifer Musa became a widely loved peacemaker in Balochistan, now one of the four provinces of Pakistan. She promoted women’s rights in the remote region where illiteracy was almost universal. On her death in 2008, thousands of Kalashnikov-wielding tribesmen cheered “Mummy Jennifer” as her funeral procession moved through the city.

She was born Bridget Wren in November 1917 in Tarbert in Co Kerry. She trained as a nurse in England, changing her name to Jennifer.

At the 1939 May Ball at Exeter College, she met Qazi Mohammad Musa, a philosophy student from Balochistan. His family were tribal elders, exercising considerable autonomy under British rule. When Musa and Jennifer married in London in 1940, she took the name Jehan Zeba. They had a son, and left for Balochistan in January 1948, six months after Pakistan took dominion over the area. Straddling the Bolan Pass, the gateway to south Asia, the region was of huge geopolitical importance.

Qazi Musa replaced his brother at the head of the Balochistan Muslim League. The city of Pishin is within 50 miles of Afghanistan; the porous border allowed the couple to avail of European society in Kabul. Then in 1956, Qazi Musa died in a road accident, and his wife considered returning to Ireland. In deference to their 14-year-old son’s wishes to remain with his extended family, she decided to stay.

The Qazi family had always been progressive Sunni Muslims. Jennifer Musa wore tribal dress but refused to wear a headscarf or burqa. She assumed her husband’s role in tribal politics, mediating disputes. In the 1970 Pakistani national elections, she stood unopposed for Pishin. She joined the National Awami Party (NAP) led by Wali Khan. She recalled: “I joined thinking I could do something for Balochistan and something for women. But you can’t liberate women until you liberate men.”

The NAP was allied for a time to Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, and it became a vehicle for Baloch hopes of greater autonomy. Musa vocally represented her chronically underdeveloped region, where mineral resources and irrigation schemes were exploited by elites from the Punjab and the Pakistani military.

But the US-supported regimes in Afghanistan and Iran feared any return of Baloch territories. Bhutto pressurised Musa’s son, a rising diplomat in Cairo, to return home and convince his mother to support the new constitution. Musa held fast, extracting concessions to autonomy; Bhutto quipped that “she just wants to be queen of Balochistan”.

Bhutto imposed central rule in late 1973. The ensuing insurrection saw 70,000 government troops flood the region. Musa acted as an intermediary between the insurgents and the federal government. Disillusioned by the increasingly corrupt practice of politics, she lost her seat in the 1977 election, widely held to be rigged.

Musa turned to social work. She founded a type of girl guides and also the Pishin Women’s Association to promote female literacy and education. She established an ice factory in the early 1980s, providing employment and producing a source of refrigeration. The rose garden she planted at her home was a marvel to visitors in the arid region.

Assisting refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Musa promoted female rights wherever she could. Her stature allowed her to speak to the powerful, deeply conservative tribesmen: “I speak a mixture of Pashtun and Urdu, but when I get angry I go down to English and they understand me,” she told the New York Times in 1992.

The Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89), the rise of the Taliban, and the war in Afghanistan from 2001, took their toll. As Pakistan remained a crucial American ally, Balochistan was a hunting ground and safe haven for competing forces. As ties of tribe and family pulled in various directions, Musa sought to protect her extended family and people. Known as “Mummy” to locals, she was an enormously popular figure, and was often visited by Western journalists; the resulting articles were invariably headlined “the queen of Balochistan”.

She especially disdained the rise of Wahabi-influenced Islamicism, negating gains in women’s rights and education. In a 2001 interview she noted: “Pakistan created this situation by supporting the Taliban. Now it’s even more intractable than the Irish situation. What can the Americans do? … Even if they destroy bin Laden and the Taliban, a new Taliban will come along.”

Musa last visited Ireland in the 1960s, calling Pishin home until her death on January 12, 2008, aged 90. She was buried in the Qazi ancestral graveyard near the tomb of a family Sufi saint. Her son’s diplomatic career blossomed, with several ambassadorships. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi also served as the UN secretary general’s special envoy to Iraq, and to Sudan from 2007-2014, supervising the UN’s peacekeeping force.

Based on Turlough O’Riordan’s biography of Jennifer Musa (edited for this Extraordinary Emigrants series for Irish Times Abroad by Clare McCarthy) in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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