In Tharparkar, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a Hindu. If you happen to be a woman then you’re automatically at the lowest rung of the social ladder, regardless of your caste or creed. For the women of this region, standing for elections is a distant dream, and most are not even allowed to cast votes. Now, one determined woman hopes to change all that. Meet 32-year-old Hajiani Lanjo, a lawyer and social activist who is the first woman in the history of Tharparkar to stand for elections.
It won’t be an easy fight. Contesting for the coveted NA-229 constituency from the platform of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT), Hajiani will be going up against political heavyweights like former Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Faqir Sher Muhammad Bilalani.
“She may not be a winning candidate, but I salute her courage,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar, health coordinator of the Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), which works closely with local communities on gender issues.
Hajiani, despite the odds, is confident about her chances. “Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” she says. “But I have faith that if the elections are free and fair, I will win without a doubt. I have worked for my people and they will vote for me – the women, the youth, the civil society.”
This isn’t the first ‘first’ for her either. The daughter of an uneducated farmer, Hajiani was the first person in her family to gain an education. Growing up in a small village some 18KM from Mithi, she recalls how hard it was to convince her father to send her to school.
“I would pester my dad to send me to school, but nobody was even willing to buy me a book,” she says, her eyes moist at the memory. “I kept insisting and my father finally gave in. I started by going to learn the Quran in the mosque and then joined the small school of the mosque.” Most people thought that would quench her thirst for knowledge, but in fact it only whetted her appetite. Despite poverty and the pressures of patriarchy, she found her way to college and then university.
“Learning the Quran is enough for girls, why do they need more education?” she says, recalling the kind of comments people made.
During this time, her tilt towards activism surfaced and she started to work in different NGOs and finally got in touch with members of the Sindhiani Tehreek (Sindhi women’s movement), which was formed in alliance with the QAT. Here she met women from all social stratas, from farmers’ daughters like herself, to educated professionals. The QAT’s leftist and progressive ideology filtered into the kachehri (get-together) sessions, and Hajiano proved herself an apt pupil indeed.
“People are searching for life on Mars, but the child of Tharparkar is still malnourished, our women are still dying during childbirth, we still have no clean drinking water. How long will this continue?” she asks with obvious passion.
Already a Masters in Sociology from University of Sindh, Hajiani has just completed her LLB. “There are very few female lawyers in Tharparkar. Male advocates often cannot relate to a woman’s plea and this is where I step in,” she says.
Luckily, she can also count on her husband for a helping hand. “He is uneducated but very supportive. He understands the cause,” she says.
In her gentle voice, this woman of substance gives a warning to politicians. “My message to the political leaders responsible for the mess that we are in is that you need to get your act together or the people will take matters into their own hands.”
Hajiani is in this fight for the long haul “I trust God, myself and my intentions. In the past, Pakistan has not chosen the correct leaders due to fear or greed. But we can no longer afford to do that,” she says.
Her biggest dream is to change the fate of her people through education, and especially the education of women. “Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha
(If a man is educated, an individual is educated. If a woman is educated, an entire family is educated).”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2013.