Zainab Asvat, daughter of EI Asvat, came under the tutelage of her father as a young girl. She accompanied him to political meetings and became fully conversant with the political situation in the country. It was in the 1940s that Zainab became politically active. At the time she was studying medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand but she took a year off and went to Durban to be part of the Passive Resistance Campaign.
On 13 June 1946, resistance group members set up camp on the plot at the corner of Umbilo Road and Gale Street. They proposed to live there in tents until such time as they were arrested. There were eighteen resisters, six of whom were women: Zainab Asvat, Zohra Bhayat, Amina Pahad, Zubeida Patel of Johannesburg and Mrs Lakshmi Govender and Mrs Veeramah Pather of Durban. Dr GM Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and MD Naidoo, Secretary of the NIC, were the leaders of the group. Zainab’s sister, Amina (Asvat) Cachalia, and her school friends came after school to sing and cheer on the campaigners.
On the night of Sunday, 16 June, white hooligans overran the camp, took away all the tents and some of the blankets. Zainab, Amina Pahad and Mrs Veeramah Pather were injured when tents fell on them. The hooligans kicked two of the women and one of the men. After this attack, the leaders asked the women to leave the camp but they refused to go. Only Mrs. Veeramah Pather, a veteran who had served in Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign, was not allowed to remain as she was sixty years old. On Monday night, a meeting was called at the camp and Dr Naicker explained what had happened and praised the women for their bravery. Mrs Lakshmi Govender spoke at the meeting making light of the attack. Zainab Asvat also addressed the crowd. She made a fiery speech in which she denounced the violence, denounced discriminatory laws, affirmed the resisters’ commitment and appealed to the people to remain calm but to take note of all that was happening.
On Saturday 28 June, Zainab was arrested and released later the same night. On Sunday, she addressed a meeting of 800 women at the Avalon Cinema. According to an article in The Leader of 29 June 1946, she said, “The prime minister, General Smuts, ”had provided the stimulus for concerted resistance by passing the “Ghetto Act”, and the Indian people had struck for freedom.” Zainab’s courage and determination were inspirational and several women joined in the campaign as a result. Other women who addressed this gathering were Mrs Veeramah Pather, Miss Khatija Mayet, Dr K. Goonam and Miss Zohra Meer.
In July, Zainab led a batch of resistors, was arrested, sent to prison for three months and released in early October. Later in October, Zainab, Mrs PK Naidoo and Miss Suriakala Patel, were elected to the Transvaal Indian Congress Committee. They were the first women ever elected onto the TIC Committee. Mrs PK Naidoo was made a Vice President. All three of these women had served prison sentences during the passive resistance campaign.
After 1946, Zainab returned to medical school to complete her studies. She married a fellow student and in the nineteen fifties, would focus on her medical practice and her family. At the end of 1956, she became politically active again. The arrest of one hundred and fifty six activists in December 1956 led to great hardship for their families and Zainab set about organising a network of support. She raised funds, collected goods and distributed food, blankets and clothing to the families of the accused. Zainab also organised meals for the accused during trial sessions. This meant arranging supplies of groceries, meat and vegetables from merchants and storekeepers, getting women to prepare the meals and delivering the food to the Drill Hall where the trial was being held.
Then in December 1963, Zainab organised a women’s march to the Union Buildings to protest against group areas relocations and the establishment of the Indian National Council. Mostly Indian women from Johannesburg and Pretoria joined in this march. Unlike the previous marches to the Union Buildings, on this march the women were subjected to violence. The police turned dogs on them and baton charged them. Soon after this, Zainab was banned for five years. After her banning expired, Zainab and her husband Dr Kazi who had also been banned, took exit permits and went to live in London.