Tell us about your foray into the field of education and spearheading parliamentary debates in your institution. How did it all begin for you?
My aspirations were very humble when I was young. I just wanted to be a good housewife but I was always interested in debates and working with the younger lot. I loved teaching and from there, of course, I began encouraging my students into debates as I felt it would open their minds. I began teaching when I was widowed and that happened in my 60s. So my career began very later on in my life. I couldn’t take up teaching when my husband was alive as he wouldn’t have approved. He was a Pathan and you know what that says. I also never worked when I was unmarried, even though my father was a very liberal and a very educated person. As a person, I was and still am quite vocal, assertive and insisting on butting in. Debates are a very interesting activity and I felt they would be good for children as it would help them argue. There are some things that they don’t believe in but it’s healthy when they see the other side too. I thought it’d be a very good experience for them to go through. I gave them topics that would be challenging for them and it involved boys and girls both.
Did you ever notice girls shying away from a competition that involved boys being more vocal and assertive with their opinions?
If I ever saw that happening, I would encourage the girls and would support them.
You have an entire debating tournament named after you The Sonnu Rahman All Pakistan Under 17 Debates Championship. What are some of the guidelines you always give to the participants in order to help them become good debaters?
I knew some girls were very good and had a lot in them. They were very clever and intelligent. If they ever became diffident or shy, I would encourage them to write down what they think, not be frightened and say it and would be amazed at how people take it. I told them that everyone has their own opinion and they must not be afraid to voice theirs and fight for it.
How about now? Have you completely bid farewell to being a part of debating championships?
I am retired but I insist on butting in, because I love it and I hold on to the debates, where they’re taking place. Sometimes I’m an honorary guest and sometimes I’m just part of the spectators because I love to see what I’ve nurtured.
What according to you has been your biggest achievement so far?
I suppose to have achieved the status of being called a liberal, I help open minds and the fact that I’m worth listening to. The fact that I’m respected is a great achievement. Without even aspiring for it, I ended up being a highly respected person, with children and my old students coming up to me. I love it.
I always told my students that everyone has their own opinion and they must not be afraid to voice theirs and fight for it
Have you ever contributed to a charity or a social cause that you felt very strongly about?
I’ve contributed to the SOS. There was a lovely lady called Mrs Karamatullah who ran a non-governmental organisation called Family Welfare. I was very much a part of it for many years. It held a mela at the Lahore Gymkhana.
If you were made PM for a day, what three things would you do first?
Something that I really believe in and I feel is very necessary is a liberal state, where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are free to do, think and talk and not feel persecuted. That would be my idea of a free society. In England, institutions like Cambridge and Oxford offer that. You come out being a person of liberal ideas. Not too liberal but a reasonable and a sensible person with great ideas.
After your husband passed away, how did you join the education industry? Were you offered to teach by an institution or did you simply apply yourself?
After a year or two after my husband’s passing, I wasn’t doing anything and I just thought it was time I got going. So I went over at Bloomfield as I thought they were the kind of people I could work with. They seemed very happy to have me and so from there I started off. They were liberals and imparted the kind of education I had acquired.
Tell us about a memorable moment in your career.
I suppose when I realised I could teach. When I realised that my students love me and I could reach out to them. Just to know that I could do that remains quite memorable.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
I want Pakistan to be a secular state and perhaps become the Lahore of the 1920s which was a remarkably free society. Being Pakistani for me means that I should be true to myself, because only then I could be true to this country in whatever little way I can be. I’ve never aspired to do something big for my country but I feel if you live a decent life, promote education or whatever your field is, it matters a lot.
Are you content with how your life has shaped up or do you have any regrets?
I only wish that I could’ve gone into teaching a little earlier.
We at Today’s Muslim consider you one of our national heroes. Who are some of yours?
Florence Nightingale, Edmund Hillary, AJP Taylor, Rani of Jhansi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
EDUCATIONIST PAR EXCELLENCE
Sonnu Rahman has been the president of the Debating Society of Pakistan and is a pioneer of parliamentary style debates in the country. She taught World History to A Level students at the Lahore College of Arts & Sciences for a long time.
Sonnu Rahman has been honoured for her contribution to academia by having a debating competition named after her; The Sonnu Rahman All Pakistan Under 17 Debates Championship.
GIVING BACK TO SOCIETY
She has been an active patron of the SOS and the Family Welfare organisations.