Always on the road

By Zubeida Mustafa

MUNIRA GULZAR wanted to be a nurse when she passed out of school. Instead she became a teacher and has loved every minute of it. Those were the times in the early fifties when most girls did not dream of a career. But to young Munira it was inconceivable that she should not work. So even before she had completed her education she started teaching in a school. Since her family was very conservative, there was so much opposition to her taking up a job. But determined as she was, she managed to persuade her father to let her work.

College teaching followed. By then she had obtained her Master’s degree as a “sweet, short, nice” reference letter (which she says she has always treasured) from Dr. Mahmud Husain, who was in those days the head of the History Department, University of Karachi. For 29 years she was busy initiating young eager minds into the mysteries of the past. Her academic world was, however, confined to the Government College for Women (Shahrah-i-Liaquat.)

When Munira Gulzar (nee Fikree) finally made her mark in her profession, it was as an administrator. In 1983 she was appointed as the principal of St. Joseph’s College for Women – a job she says she was “forced” to take by the Education Department and found “horrible” in the first year. “I asked them to let me be with my teaching. There were at least twelve teachers senior to me who could have filled this slot. I still don’t know why I was considered to be the most suitable. The authorities just would not heed my pleas, and I had to go to St. Joseph’s despite my lack of administrative experiences,“ she reminisces. By the time she retired after ten years, Mrs. Gulzar had learnt the ropes so well that she was widely acclaimed as one of the best and most popular college principals in Karachi.

It was not an easy assignment. Her first challenge was to fill in the shoes of Sister Mary Emily, the popular nun who had run the college for over 30 years, maintaining its high academic standards even in the post-nationalization period. Sister Emily’s retirement had provoked loud protests from the students. They had violently resented the appointment of another principal, a novice, who could not carry on for long and was forced to quit.

It was not a comfortable situation for Mrs.Gulzar when she was moved to this troubled premier institution of higher education. “For a week there was mass confusion. I did not even have an office to sit in, “she recalls. This was sorted out with the Directorate of College Education. The next challenge was that of winning over and pacifying the students. Anyone dealing with the youth would appreciate the skills that are required for such a job and how adept one has to be in managing human relationships. The administration work was no less challenging. “I found it very difficult because I didn’t even know the rules and regulations. It took me a year to learn them from the office clerk. In the process I had many ugly experiences too,“ she says.

Now when she looks back to those years, she seems to be pleased with herself. “The students responded positively and the teachers were cooperative,” which in itself is an achievement to be proud of, given the state of the education sector today. She has a word of praise for the students’ behaviour. They were disciplined, intelligent and not at all troublesome,“ she remarks. But quickly goes on to add that the college was not as crowded as it is today.

What was the secret of her success?

Keep the students buy and motivated. She believes that the behavior of the students really depends on the treatment they receive from their teachers. If the teachers are not taking their classes and the students feel neglected, they will inevitably get bored, will drift and lose interest. Hence, she always made sure that no class was left unattended. If a teacher was absent, the principal would be there to substitute for her. If it was a subject she was not familiar with, she would take up a related topic and conduct a general discussion on it. If need be, she would even get one of the senior students to conduct a junior class. It was an excellent experience for the students.

As she found her bearings, such occasions became rare. Soon enough, Mrs. Gulzar had developed a sense of “togetherness” with her teaching staff which enabled her to demand regularity from her colleagues and expect compliance from them. Before long they were competing with one another to be listed as the ones with the fewest off days. By giving them plenty of autonomy and respect which required her not to interfere with their teaching methods, Mrs. Gulzar exercised her influence over the teachers.

She also developed a close rapport with the students. This she did by making herself very visible and highly accessible. Her office door was never closed. Any student could go to her and was never kept waiting at the door even if she had visitors. The concern of the student came first and very often she acting as a mediator between the students and the teachers on behalf of the former. Forever on the move, you could see her checking if the classes were being held, if the teachers were punctual and what was going on inside the classroom. She took her own duties seriously and saw to it that others also did the same.

As a teacher of history, which was the phase in her professional life she had derived the most sense of fulfillment from, Munira Gulzar did remarkably well. She has throughout her career been highly motivated herself and has managed to motivate her students as well. “I had to study very hard for my lectures because in the days when I was teaching the students felt really involved in their studies and would ask many questions in class. I always wanted to be prepared to satisfy their curiosity and provide them all the information they wanted,’ she says.

For a person as devoted to her profession as Mrs. Gulzar, it is unbelievable that her debut into history was quite unplanned. After her O’Levels in 1948, she felt she had to go to college. It had to be St. Joseph’s since her schooling had been in an English medium school. St. Joseph’s College did not have a science section in those days, and Munira had to opt for humanities. With that ended her ambition to take up nursing. She went in for general history simply because her friends were going to “do” history, as the students would put it then.

She never really felt deeply interested in the subject until she joined the university for her M.A. Her encounter with Dr. Mahmud Husain proved to be the turning point in her life. “I had studied constitutional history in college but never really understood its finer points. For instance, I had learnt up the previsions of the Morley Minto reforms, the Act of 1935 and so on without grasping their implications for India and the Indian Muslims. When Dr.Mahmud Husain lectured on these subjects a new world of understanding opened up before me,” she says. For the first time she felt an inner fascination for history being kindled in her. After that there was no turning back and the late Dr. Mahmud Husain has been her role model all her teaching life.

When history became the victim of the falsification exercises of the establishment, Munira Gulzar’s intellectual honesty would not tolerate. She continued to teach what she believed was the truth. Thus there were time when long periods were dropped from the syllabi. One ruler or another became persona non grata after his tail from grace. The Ayub period got short shrift after the military dictator’s exit from the scene. True to form, Mrs.Gulzar did not skip over the decade of the sixties and included it in her lecture scheme.

Right when Munira Gulzar was in peak form in 1993, the government changed. The new government under Benazir Bhutto decided to retire all the teachers who had received an extension. Thus one fine morning in late 1993 four college principals and several teachers in Karachi were relieved or their responsibilities in one stroke.

For Munira Gulzar, it was not the time to go home into retirement. There was still a lot of energy and intellectual vitality left in her. Hence when Hakeem Mohammad Said invited her to join the Hamdard Public School as the principal she readily accepted and is as enthusiastic about her job as the principal of the secondary and higher secondary school as a person on the threshold of her career would be. Even today, when she is her mid-sixties, she leaves home at seven in the morning for a bumpy ride to the Hamdard campus way out of the city and returns home at four, after a full working day.

Life has not been all work and no play for Munira, Old timers with memories of sporting events in the days of yore would recall a petite and slim young woman in long skirts and blouses who became the table tennis national champion in 1955. Nimble on her feet and aggressive in her attacks, Munira dominated the table tennis scene for sometime. She is, however, modest about her sports achievements. She could not even recall that she was the national champion in 1955 and won the triple crown in 1964 what she retired from the game. “I had married by then (table tennis partner Gulzar Zaidi), had a baby and put on weight which slowed me down, “are the reasons she gives for her exit.

When Munira speaks of her table tennis experience today it is not a champion’s boastful litany of her victories that you get. On the contrary, you learn more about her approach to life. The first time she suffered a nasty defeat at the hands of Saeed Sultana, the Indian Number One who had migrated to Pakistan, Munira received a severe shock, “I went down in five minutes in three straight games – 21-4, 21-5, 21-4. I was the Karachi champion at the time. But I had no training and there was no coach to guide and encourage me. Yet, I found it difficult to digest this defeat,” says Munira. She got hold of a book on table up her stamina and speed up her footwork, for instant skipping a thousand time non-stop.

It was a red letter day she finally managed to beat Saeed Sultana after months of hard training. “It was at the YMCA and the hall was full when I played against her and won. There was loud applause. But I remember nothing else. In those days we used to play for the sake of playing the game. We may have been the best of friends but once at the table we would remember nothing. Once the game was over we would forget it all remember nothing about the game and who had won or lost,” she adds.

Someone who has had a long innings in teaching – Munira has been in the profession for 44 years – would have much to say about the quality of education and caliber of  the students in our educational institutions. But she is frugal with words. “Education has declined immensely,” she observes. Her yardstick is the standard of the students who have come to her classes over the years. Till the mid-seventies, the students were all well-read, knowledgeable and highly motivated. They never missed their classes and always submitted their assignments in time. Then the decline set in. They lost interest and motivation. They stopped questioning the lecturer and lost interest in their work. “Sometimes I even felt that if I were to tell them that the sun sets in the east they would accept the statement without bothering to question me,” she says.

She attributes this decline to the rapid changes in and experimentation with the education system, overcrowding in institutions, mismanagement which came with the nationalization of colleges and the grossly unfair system of examination which robbed the students of the incentive to work hard. Today, she says, we have a lost generation which has no commitment to acquiring knowledge. She recalls the occasion when the students in her college had worked hard to raise funds for Bosnia. They were talking about nothing but Bosnia. She decided to enlighten them about the historical back-ground of the Bosnia question. Hence she prepared a brief talk on Bosnia for the college assembly. To her horror she discovered that no one was interested in listening and her talk had to be called off.

Munira Gulzar is sorry that today neither the teachers nor the students are reading as much as they should have been. She suggests that the responsibility of reviving the reading habit rests primarily with the teachers. They should read to widen their own horizons and thus alone can they create an interest in books in their students. Therein lies the key to the change so badly needed to reform the educational system.

Source: Dawn (Review) 1 January 1998