She was born in Durban, the largest city in what is now KwaZulu-Natal Province, into a family of nine, where her father, a newspaper editor, instilled in her a consciousness of the racial discrimination that existed in the country. She completed her schooling at the Durban Indian Girls High School and subsequently attended the University of the Witwatersrand where she was a member of a Trotskyist group and the University of Natal, where she completed a Masters degree in Sociology.
In 1946, Meer joined many other South African Indians in a passive resistance campaign against apartheid, during which she started the Student Passive Resistance Committee. She also helped to establish the Durban District Women's League, an organisation started in order to build alliances between Africans and Indians as a result of the race riots between the two groups in 1949.
After the National Party gained power in 1948 and started implementing their policy of apartheid, Meer’s activism increased; she was one of the founding members of the Federation of South African Women, which spearheaded the historical women's march on the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. As a result of her activism, Meer was first "banned" in 1952 ("banning" was a government practise that, amongst other things, limited the number of people a person could meet at any one time as well as a person's movements and also prohibited a person from being published).
In the 1960s, she organised night vigils to protest against the mass detention of anti-apartheid activists without trial. During the 1970s she was again banned and later detained without trial for trying to organise a political rally with Black Consciousness Movement figure Steve Biko. She narrowly survived an assassination attempt shortly after her release from detention in 1976 when she was shot at her family home in Durban, but luckily not harmed. Her son, Rashid, went into exile in the same year. She was attacked again and blamed the second attack on the Black Consciousness Movement.
She was a strong supporter of the Iranian Revolution and boycotted Salman Rushdie's trip to South Africa in 1998 claiming that he was a blasphemer.
Meer was on the staff of the University of Natal from 1956 to 1988 and was also a visiting professor at a number of universities in South Africa, the U.S., India, Mauritius, the Caribbean and Britain. She is also a fellow of the London School of Economics. She has also received two honorary doctorates for her work for human and women's rights.
Portrait of Indian South Africans
Apprenticeship of a Mahatma
Race and Suicide in South Africa
Documents of Indentured Labour
The South African Gandhi: The Speeches and Writings of M.K. Gandhi
Resistance in the Townships
Higher than Hope (the first authorized biography of Nelson Mandela, which was translated into 13 languages)
Screenwriter, The Making of the Mahatma, a Shyam Benegal film which was based on her book The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma; the film was co-produced by India and South Africa.