“Watch out Ami, lest you fall into water”, cautioned one of the PFF members standing in the boat. “If I succeed in my struggle of water rights of Rivers Indus, I don’t dread falling off the boat and into water, I don’t dread scarifying my life”, replied Tahira Ali Shah, as she stood in a small wooden boat packed with people during a flower-tossing ceremony organized to pay homage to River Indus on March 8, 2015 at district Thatta. The ceremony was part of a 14-day-long campaign of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) ahead of the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14, 2015. On the very next day, March 09, 2015, Tahira Ali Shah lost her life in a road accident when the car skidded off the road and fell into deep water. She was on her way to district Badin for an event for protection of Delta & River Indus.
Tahira Ali Shah, in her early 50s, was the wife of Muhammed Ali Shah, Chairperson of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and Co-chairperson of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP). One of the founding members of the PFF, she also remained PFF’s senior vice-chairperson. Afterwards, she became the founder of NOORI, an organization working for fishermen’s rights.
The fisher community along the coastal belt of Sindh and Balochistan in Pakistan is well aware of the leading role she played in different movements, including one against Rangers in Badin; against illegal occupation of Chutyari Lake in Sanghar; a long-standing issue of detained fishermen of Pakistan and India; struggling for restoration of the Indus Delta; protecting mangrove forests in the coastal belt of Sindh; restoration of Keenjhar and Manchar lakes; campaigning for the rights of peasant communities; campaigning for climate justice; struggling against land grabbing at Gizri Creek, Karachi; illegal sale of islands along the coast of Karachi, and others. She led the historic People’s Caravan under the Campaign of “Keep Rivers Free” On March 14, 2012, in which PFF launched a year-long campaign for the restoration of the River Indus and the Indus Delta on the eve of International Day of Action for Rivers.
Tahira infused the spirit of struggle for their rights into the fishing and peasant communities whose voices were muffled amidst the oppression they faced. Her daring oratory and slogans gave them words that they did not have, the thoughts that were only a wisp of their imagination. Tahira Shah gave them the political will that paved their struggle. She made them come out of their homes, raise their voices about issues that cost them their bread and butter, their sons, and the melodies of a free life.
Her struggle for the rights of fishing communities started in the year 2004 when para-military forces known as Rangers in Pakistan illegally occupied the freshwater bodies in the coastal district of Badin in the Indus Delta region. The deprived fishermen of Badin approached Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum to help them in ending the illegal occupation of their waterbodies since their life was dependent on them.
When PFF leadership asked these fishermen to take their women on board for the struggle against the occupation, they denied, saying taking their women out of their homes was against their ancestral traditions. They said they were ready to sacrifice their own lives but taking their women out of homes was against their age-old traditions. Being a rights activist and mature leader, Tahira Ali Shah understood that they were confined in their mental jails when it came to women. She knew that until and unless she herself took to the streets to demonstrate, these fishermen would not let their woman be at the forefront. Tahira then took the initiative of mobilizing and persuading the stubborn men adamantly, and in no time she succeeded in making them believe that letting their women be shoulder to shoulder with them in their struggle against Rangers was the prime need of the hour. With the massive support of fisherwomen of the region, the illegal occupation of freshwater bodies ended and the Rangers finally retreated. Tahira Shah’s struggle in empowering the suppressed fisherwomen became the torch that guided the less privileged in every dark corner they faced. Tahira became their leader, their love and their torch-bearer.
Breaking the Taboos
The place where she grew up was a male-dominant society where women are deemed to be nothing more than housewives. Moreover, she hailed from the SYED family, which is prominently known for strict ‘PARDA’ (veil) when it comes to the females. Women of this family background are stringently confined within the premises of their homes. Breaking all such societal and family taboos, Tahira Shah accompanied her husband Muhammed Ali Shah through thick and thin during the struggle for water rights. Upon her stepping out of the home for the cause of poor masses, she faced a lot of criticism from her family and relatives. But she remained consistent since she strongly believed that women – especially the ones whose voices are suppressed – must be prodded into action. Her struggle for the rights of rural women, especially fisherwomen, is incomparable and will always be so.
Laurels for the Great Lady
Tahira Ali Shah had a sort of unconditional love for roses. Leading the massive crowds amidst her struggle for water rights, whenever she threw rose petals in the flowing water of rivers and lakes, the surroundings would echo with slogans of the crowd around her. The rose petals that fell off her hands were a sight for the sore eyes of the poor fishing communities throughout the country. Her picture with a garland of roses around her neck, the smile and the fragrance of those roses shall always remain a reason behind the struggle for the rights of deprived fishing and peasant communities in every nook and corner where poor people live. The seeds of an untiring struggle for water rights that she has sown shall surely blossom as buds of bravery and as the flowers of freedom of Rivers. These flowers will then spread a fragrance around. Tahira Shah is a flower and a fragrance too. A flower can stop breathing but the fragrance shall always remain in the firmament. Human rights activists, her friends and fans believe that Tahira Ali Shah is a martyr for water rights. Her daring struggle for the rights of fishing and peasant communities of the world shall always reverberate in memory. Today, tomorrow and forever Tahira Ali Shah shall the rule the hearts of the deprived communities.
- Roshan Bhatti is a young human rights activist in Pakistan. He is a Monitoring & Reporting Offider at Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.
- Founded in 1998, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) is a unique civil society organization which works for advancement of social, economic, cultural and political rights of fishing and peasant communities in Pakistan. PFF enjoys mass support and has membership of more than 70,000 members in Pakistan including Sindh, Punjab and Baluchistan. During its struggle of more than 16 years, PFF has achieved a number of accomplishments which have propelled its status to few of the dynamic mass movements of Pakistan. PFF being one of the biggest social movements of the country representing marginalized fisher folk and peasant communities has striven through a true political and democratic process. Its struggle mainly targets a wide array of issues which are directly or indirectly associated with about 4 million fishers in Pakistan.