Hamba kahle, Dr Zuleikha Mayat

DR ZULEIKHA Mayat with her famous cookbook, Indian Delights

DR ZULEIKHA Mayat with her famous cookbook, Indian Delights

Published Feb 4, 2024


Durban — Author of the famous Indian Delights cookbook, activist and founding member of the Women’s Cultural Group (WCG), Dr Zuleikha Mayat, was buried on Saturday at the Westville Soofie Mosque Cemetery.

Mayat, 97, died at her daughter's home in Westville.

Her son, Aslam Mayat, said when he visited his mother on Friday afternoon she was talking and of sound mind.

“She passed away peacefully a few hours later,” he said, “It was only six months ago that she stepped back totally from being actively involved in the WCG," said Aslam.

Mayat is survived by her two sons, a daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Below is a tribute penned by Professor Saleem Badat of the University of the Free State

Few Indian South African women achieved wider recognition than Dr Zuleikha Mayat. An honorary doctorate in Social Sciences in 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iqraa Trust in 2019 and a Women of Influence Award in the same year are just some of the awards bestowed.

During a life spanning over 97 years, Dr Mayat has been a remarkable pioneer, evocative writer, public commentator and speaker, active civic, cultural and community worker, human rights champion and philanthropist. A public intellectual who has not been afraid, in Palestinian Edward Said’s words, to “speak truth to power”.

Mayat was born in Potchefstroom, the third-generation child of shopkeepers of Gujarati origins. She learnt from her grandfather that mingling across social divides and boundaries was important, as was “learning the languages and folkways” of other social groups.

The young Dr Mayat read voraciously, aided by a Chinese friend who kept her “perpetually supplied with magazines and books”. She read to her and her sisters and “loved to discuss literature”.

Other pastimes included horse riding, swimming, fishing and tennis.

Racism denied her the opportunity to attend a school of her choice and to study further. She attended Potchefstroom Indian Government School until Grade 6 but there was no secondary school for Indians. None of the schools designated for whites would permit her to enrol.

Patriarchy also played a role: boys, like her brothers, were sent to continue secondary education in other towns or cities, but sending daughters away was almost unheard of. And so, her ambition to become a doctor was thwarted.

At age 14 she discovered that she had a gift as a writer, an intellectual orientation, and a capacity for expressing strong views. A correspondence course boosted the English in which she would write prolifically. Later, she achieved a certificate in journalism.

1944 was a turning point. An 18-year-old Dr Mayat posted a letter signed “Miss Zuleikha Bismillah of Potchefstroom” to the editor of Indian Views, M I Meer, the father of Fatima Meer.

He published the letter, in which she argued for higher levels of education for girls in a “style that revealed not only a principled passion concerning this matter, but also her sharp wit”.

The letter would stimulate correspondence with a suitably impressed young Wits medical student, Mohammed Mayat, a classmate of her brother who occasionally visited the Potchefstroom family home.

They married in 1947. Mohammed Mayat “was forthright, never avoided speaking the truth”. He was also well ahead of his time, and supported her interests and encouraged her ”to spread her wings”.

Dr Mayat observed that in the 1950s every woman was supposed to be a perfect housewife.

“But now, we wanted something more than being just a housewife.”

She noticed many talented young brides languishing in domesticity and felt the time was ripe to gather them to do something collectively.

In 1954, aged 28, she invited friends to her small flat in Durban’s Casbah. After supper, 13 of them began the WCG. Political activists Dr Goonam and Fatima Meer attended.

For Dr Mayat, “our fight has always been not only for gender”. “Our fight was also against different things: against the government, against politics, against our own backwardness, and against orthodoxy”.

Beyond the WCG, Dr Mayat worked with the Black Sash, and Fatima and Ismail Meer roped the Mayats into their revolutionary activities. When Nelson Mandela needed a safe house during his underground activities, the Mayat home was one of those at which he slept overnight a few times.

Dr Zuleikha Mayat.

As the only woman with some journalistic experience, she became the editor of Indian Delights, a book on Indian cookery. The book literally flew off the bookshelves, “like hot samoosas at a buffet”.

Between 1956 and 1963 Dr Mayat contributed a weekly column to Indian Views, a newspaper published in Gujarati and English. She was just 30 and raising three children aged between 1 and 4 To command her own column was a great achievement.

Her column, Fahmida’s World, “brought a signature liveliness and humour, as well as a sharp moral eye to bear on topics that ranged from childcare to apartheid, from unemployment to the launching of Sputnik”.

Her columns criticised social hierarchies, attacked ethnic and class prejudices, called out racist and inhuman conduct and commented on daily life. She condemned bias related to the complexions of Indian women, drew attention to the plight of Africans seeking city work and to the underpayment of retail assistants.

She urged Muslim Indian South Africans to root their identity in other sources than just religion and their original homelands. Her national home was firmly South African and she identified as such.

Dr Mayat was involved in numerous institutions and organisations, including the McCord Zulu Hospital, Shifa Hospital, Black Women’s Convention, South African Institute of Race Relations, the Natal Indian Blind Society, the Arthur Blaxwell School for the Blind, Darul Yatama Wal Masakeen, Sanzaf, the Orient School, oldage homes, various mosques, Albaraka Bank and the Iqraa Trust.

Apart from Indian Delights, in 1966 Dr Mayat compiled Qur’anic Lights, a book of prayers. In 1981 she released Nanima’s Chest to promote traditional Indian textiles and clothing and encourage their preservation and wearing.

In 1996 came the semi-autobiographical A Treasure Trove of Memories – A reflection on the Experiences of the Peoples of Potchefstroom that recounts growing up and life in Potchefstroom.

History: Muslims of Gujarat was published in 2008, the result of inner urges that kept impelling her to probe into her past, with its roots in Gujarat in north-west India. A year later came Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: The letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989, based on 75 letters exchanged between the two that covered culture, politics and religion.

In 2015, a memoir of travels over the years was the subject of Journeys of Binte Batuti. At age 95, Dr Mayat published The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans, an enthralling and expansive narrative told by a consummate storyteller.

Post-1994, Dr Mayat maintained her principled fight for equity and social justice. She spoke out and marched against various injustices locally and globally. She was a staunch supporter of Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli apartheid.

Dr Mayat embodied principled, faith-based, socially committed, inspired leadership. She was mindful of people’s needs and troubles, with the courage to challenge the status quo.

She did not remain aloof but looked outwards, aware that for many the world is an inhospitable place. Like Mandela, she sought justice for all, peace for all and work, bread, water and salt for all, for people to be freed to fulfil themselves.

She intelligently navigated and negotiated tradition, granting respect to the elder generation but also prodding them to support opportunities for women. It was her ability to balance tradition and modernity, freedoms with duty, the Qur’an and culture and knowledge, reason and experience that were the key to her success as a leader.

Dr Mayat upheld the dignity of all with whom she associated. Asked in 2019 what is one thing for which she should be remembered, she replied: “For being someone who interacted with everyone, no matter who they were, without prejudice.”

Sunday Tribune