Quite a number of sons and daughters of Kerry have gone out from Ireland and made significant marks in their adopted countries but few underwent the transformation that a young nurse from Tarbert experienced after she met and was smitten by the son of a chieftain from India. Few got to represent their people in government, run successful companies or earned the love and respect of her adopted people as Jennifer Wren, later Jehan Zeba, did.
Born Bridget (Bridie) Wren in Ballinoe, Tarmons, Tarbert during World War I, Bridie went to England to study to become a nurse and adopted the name Jennifer in what may have been an act of expressing her independence. But she was shortly to leave behind the glamour of Britain to adopt a lifestyle, culture and religion that was far removed from what she had been use to as a child when she was one of a family of small farmers that included four other girls and two boys.
In 1939 she met Qazi Mohammad Musa, the son of the Khan (leader) of the Qalat District in Balochistan in what would later become Pakistan when the country won its independence. Qazi Musa was studying philosophy in Oxford at the time. His brother, Qazi Mohammad Essa was a prominent member of the Pakistani Movement and the All-India Muslims. The man regarded as the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah stayed with the family from time to time. ‘We met at his college, at a party – you know what students are like,’ she recalled later, ‘I was a Catholic, he was a Muslim. I think I became Islamic at the time. There is no difference in any of these religions except some people believe in one god, some in another and some in lots of gods.’
Qazi Musa had been matched with a wife in Pakistan when he was fourteen (that might have been something with which Jennifer could identify) and his family was anxious about the new woman in his life but they married in 1940, Jennifer now becoming Jehan Zeba. There were five children in the earlier marriage but relations between the new union and Qazi Musa’s previous wife remained cordial and she continued to live nearby. There had been worries that those opposed to the new marriage – and the unconventional nature of it – might lead to someone employing poison on one or both of them. This concern passed in time, however. She tendered her respect to the ways of life and the religion of the people and they responded with admiration for her.
Qazi and Jennifer settled in Balochistan in 1947, the year after Pakistan had achieved her independence. They had one son, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. Despite being the country’s largest province, it had the highest poverty rate and lowest literacy rate of the four into the 1970s. Its arid conditions were described by the Daily Telegraph: ‘The area, which is hemmed in by russet mountains and tormented by dust devils and temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius, was retained within the borders of British India after the Second Afghan War in 1881.
Having been brought up near the banks of the Shannon, Balochistan’s hot conditions must have been an enormous change for Jennifer. The couple’s home was described as a ‘thick, mud-walled, colonial-era home that was festooned with daggers, tigers’ heads and photographs of her extravagantly whiskered in-laws.’
Tragically, Qazi Musa lost his life in a road traffic accident in 1956 and Jennifer remained in her husband’s home town, Pishin. Having initially considered returning to Ireland with her son, now aged 14 when Quzi Musa died, she remained in Pakistan and paid a visit home to Ireland in the 1960s but found no cogent reason to leave the country in which she had made her home and which had warmly embraced her as a citizen. She had also now been away for a considerable period of time. People speaking English to her were still able to detect the remnants of the accent she brought along with her from Ireland.
Bridie joined the National Awami (Freedom) Party and won a seat in Pakistan’s first parliament (National Assembly) in 1970. While she proudly signed the new Pakistan Constitution in 1973, she continued to agitate for ‘her’ people and contended that there were insufficient safeguards for the community of Balochistan. She also clashed with the government with her refusal to cover her head with a veil or wear the burqa. It was a defiant position to take in a time of political turmoil and she also aggravated sections of the country by espousing education, particularly for women. She also displayed her courage when she acted as a go-between the groups which had taken up arms in resurrection and the government.
She was never a lady who was afraid of taking risks if she though that they provided the best course. The imposition of martial law ended her seven-year term on the National Assembly but she remained the tribal head in her region, continuing to irritate the government through her promotion education and setting up both the first women’s association and the first family planning clinic in the region. ‘You can’t liberate women until you liberate men,’ she remarked. For the tribesmen, she always remained ‘Mummy Jennifer’.
Jennifer ran an ice plant for a time and also provided assistance to Afghan refugees who had fled the Soviet invasion. In her later years ‘visiting foreign journalists mused about how the wild, tribal frontier, where women are in purdah and even goatherds carry Kalashnikovs, was an unlikely place to find an elderly Irish widow serving afternoon tea.’ The area later became a stronghold for the Taliban, and since then has been generally out of bounds to foreigners.
Jennifer (Jehan) Zeba died at the age of 90 on January 12, 2008 and her funeral through Pishin was attended by thousands while the doors and windows of the town remained shuttered up. She was laid to rest in the traditional Qazi burial ground and President Pervez Musharraf telephoned Jennifer and Qasi Musa’s son, Ashraf, to convey his condolences on her death. Ashraf became a senior diplomat and served as Ambassador to the United States for a period.
Extract from ‘A Century of Politics in Kerry: A County Kerry Compendium’ by Owen O’Shea and Gordon Revington (Merrion Press, 2018) www.merrionpress.ie