Leila Sheikh: Tribute to a Star

The profound pouring of grief and tributes following the untimely death of media guru Leila Sheikh goes far to reveal how highly she was regarded by members of the media fraternity, human rights activists and others from all walks of life who were touched by her work.

She called herself a ‘star’ and shone brightly during her sojourn here on earth. Leila was a force to reckon with when she was onto something be it in journalism or in advocating for women and children’s human rights. She was always bubbling with ideas, projects and strategies which more often than not she would ensure would come to fruition come rain, come shine.

I met Leila in the early 80’s when we were young journalists trying to make a mark in our chosen career of journalism. She was at the Daily News and I was working at the Tanzania News Agency (SHIHATA). It was also at a time that a handful of media women were brainstorming on forming a media association in which we could pull together our energies, skills, knowledge and the power of the media to advocate for transformation in our society and enhance the rights of women in our country. It is there that our lives touched again and became fast friends and comrades in arms.

As women rights defenders we cut our teeth during the time of the Third World Conference on Women that took place in1985 in Nairobi, Kenya. The Nairobi Conference was the culmination of the decade for women and it assessed the progress and failure in implementing the goals established by the World Plan of Action from the 1975 inaugural conference on women that was held in Mexico.

As journalists, some of the members of the group of aspirant women human rights advocates had covered the Nairobi Conference and shared with us the nitty gritty of the discrepancies of human rights of women and girls in our societies as elaborated at the conference. Issues such as violence against women and the girl child, poor access to education and lack of access to economic resources among others were quite prevalent in Tanzania.

We had begun reporting on these issues as individual journalists but we were not making headway. We thought: what if we came together as women journalists and put the force of our unity towards highlighting those issues in our media? After all, was it not our imperative as journalists to inform and educate our audiences?

In 1987, we were eventually successful to register the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA) and as a tribute to our efforts, over 30 years later it’s still going strong with new blood taking up the baton in the fight for women and children’s rights.

Back then we were idealists, as young people always are and had so many ideas and plans we thought were quite good and innovative and through our work in the media we could easily influence decision makers to make the necessary policy and legal changes which would better the lives of women in the country. We would educate the people about these problematic issues in our society and let them desire and demand for the end of these inequalities.  We were to find out quite soon that it was not as easy as a walk in the park. For many of us it would be a part and parcel of our mission in life and it was so with Leila.

She dedicated her life’s energy and efforts as a human rights defender and touched the lives of many through her zeal and dedication. She used her pen mercilessly to propound the importance of ensuring that as a democracy we have to ensure that women and girls were given equal access to education and training, to opportunities and resources and to address their special needs in areas such as health, access to leadership and decision-making positions.

Violence against women was happening all around us but few saw it as an anomaly and even when we started reporting about it our editors would more often than not veto publication as they deemed them matters private and should remain so. Sauti ya Siti, the flagstone publication of TAMWA, was launched in 1989 and Leila became its first editor. Sauti ya Siti became a voice for the voiceless women and reported on the various struggles of women and also carried success stories, policy issues and analyses. What could not be published in the mainstream media where we worked found a place in Sauti ya Siti. Leila was also the writer in residence and editor of other TAMWA publications.

Leila became the first coordinator of the Women’s Crisis Centre which was started in 1994 by TAMWA to provide a refuge for battered women, access to legal aid and counseling. TAMWA members and Leila as the coordinator of the centre cajoled, begged and enticed professionals such as lawyers, social workers, counsellors, journalists to provide free services to the women victims of violence. Indeed, the Crisis Center in Magomeni thrived under Leila’s leadership and became not only a refuge but a beacon of hope for women who had passed through a rough time that it was possible to live their lives without violence.

Men who were called to the Crisis Centre to account for beating up their wives or neglecting to support their families trembled when they came to the centre

As years passed and members saw a felt need to institutionalize TAMWA, the choice of Director fell upon Leila once again. With great zeal and dedication, Leila helped transform TAMWA into a fully-fledged organization. She had a Midas touch in fundraising and was able to raise millions of shillings to fund the organization’s strategic plans dedicated to enhance the human rights of women and children.

Leila took to social media like the proverbial duck to water. She was a dedicated blogger and also administered a number of WhatsApp groups, Facebook platforms and was active on Twitter. When she started  her blog Leila’s Café, she pondered on what the blog would be about.

Leila’s Café, I decided should focus on issues that matter, issues that would make a difference, which would impart information and also be a platform to do advocacy for Social Justice. Hence, the debut of Leila’s Cafe is dedicated to Social Justice”, she wrote on her blog.

Many who heard about her death on June 13, said that she had been active online commenting and posting on her various social media platforms on that fateful day. She saw social media as a powerful tool of communication and used it effectively in her work.

Leila, like a well-formed gem of the first water, had many facets. She was a brilliant person and had a great memory. She could recall many escapades that we had encountered together in our early years as disruptors of the paternalistic social order. We would reminisce and chuckle about those good old days. Indeed, she was the institutional memory of TAMWA and we are at a loss for her departure.

I remember in the early years I would observe her in awe how she could charm a media executive to give us free airtime for TAMWA programmes or cajole a village chairman in Shinyanga to join hands with TAMWA in condemning the killings of old women on unjust accusations of witchcraft.

For many years, TAMWA lobbied on laws to protect women from violence. The outcome of that work are the gender desks that have been established in nearly all police stations. As a result of working with the police force she was in first name terms with many of the commanders. In the course of years of lobbying, Leila coordinated the lobby for the Sexual Offenses Special Provisions Act, (SOSPA) 1998.

We had little money for this activity and when the Bill went to Parliament TAMWA members and its partners camped near the National Parliament for days until the bill was passed. She had roped in the Red Cross Society to provide us with tents and staff to set them up for us at the College of Business Education (CBE) grounds near the Parliament buildings in Dodoma. I do not even recall how we got the permission to use the CBE grounds. Leila would have recalled on point.

As coordinator, Leila was responsible for getting in inputs from lawyers and other NGO’s to work with TAMWA on the proposed bill. Although the Act was dubbed as the ‘Sheria ya TAMWA’ it was indeed an effort of many people and organizations that provided their valuable time and expertise free.

Leila also mentored many young journalists as one of the objectives of TAMWA was for experienced journalists to be role models and mentors for upcoming ones. They will surely remember her for dedication for research and detail when writing journalistic pieces.

She did everything with great vigour. One could actually feel the energy pouring from her skin. No task was small or big for her. They all got the same attention and dedication. Her life was packed with activities, with plans and with strategies on social justice.

Late last year, she brought a number of us together on a WhatsApp group she had opened to brainstorm on forming an organization that would produce audio visuals on social justice issues. The discussions were intense and names, objectives and even registration of the organization were discussed. Should it be a company or a not-for-profit. The discussions pattered out around April this year maybe because the lead instigator, Leila, was occupied with other endeavors. We may never know, but most agree it is an idea worth following up to honour her memory.

Another facet of Leila that perhaps many of her acquaintances may not have privy to is that she was a hafiza, meaning the protector of the Holy Quran, having memorized the whole text and could recite it by heart.  A few years back she started a WhatsApp group on religious matters called Muslimat and as usual she roped me in.

I saw another facet of Leila as a highly learned Muslim scholar. Every day, she would send dua’s and explain hadith on various issues of faith. She also invited in a number of well learned ladies in Islamic scholarship who have assisted some of us who were in great need of such guidance.

Leila was also hard headed and at times we batted heads that left us each sulking in our own corner. I learnt soon enough that for her part Leila would recover fast enough and take off on a different tangent while you remained sullen. To her it is done and over and it is time for more action.

Yet despite all her bravado, Leila had a vulnerable side. She also had a vivid imagination and would at times draw from the air all sorts of scenarios regarding people’s attitudes or behaviour towards her. She would then lash out and many a perplexed person has been subjected to her ire without knowing the reason why. I used to tease her if she ever penned a novel, it would be a best seller due to her expansive imagination! Of course, that gave her food for thought. Who knows, there might be some manuscript laying down somewhere waiting to be published.

Leila was a beautiful woman and that fooled many a people who thought she was just a pretty face masquerading as a human rights activist. They would soon be dissuaded once they spent a few moments with her and learnt to respect, admire and seek her counsel due to her intelligence and quick appraisal of issues.

Personally, I feel enriched by having been touched by her life and I hope I too was able to influence her life. We were like the Ying and Yang in Chinese philosophy. There is no guessing who was the flamboyant,  charmer between us. I was the balance, the cool and restrained one who would take time to appraise a situation before making a decision. Perhaps the voice of reason vis a vis the impulsive nature of Leila.

Leila has left us in the prime of her life. Yet if one takes count of her life’s achievements, she has indeed lived several lifetimes over and has left an indelible mark in the social history of this country. Few people can grudge her claim to this feat. In the words of the writer Edward J. Stieglitz – “And in the end it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.” Fare thee well my sister and friend until our paths cross again. 

Pili Mtambalike is a veteran journalist and human rights activist. She is also one of the founder members of TAMWA who include Fatma Alloo, Edda Sanga, the late Leila Sheikh, Valerie Msoka, Elizabeth Marealle, Rose Kalemera, the late Jamilla Chipo, the late Nellie Kidela, Rose Haji, Ananilea Nkya, Halima Shariff and Chemi Che Mponda.

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