With her head carefully draped in a dupatta and no hair showing, her uncovered face is an aberration in a culture where women have to adhere to strict purda (veil). The aristocracy is apparent. Ayla Malik, mother of two daughters, is in her mid 40s. A black-belt holder in martial arts and an expert shooter, Ayla’s target right now is to spread Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) message of change in the hitherto not-so-enlightened, conservative areas of Kalabagh, in Mianwali district.
During the campaign, her average day consisted of 15-20 corner meetings in remote villages. Ayla would wave back to the ebullient crowds with a smile, the crowds mostly the youth.
PTI Chairman Imran Khan is also contesting from his native town Mianwali’s National Assembly constituency NA-71. While Imran remained on a countrywide campaign for his party, he left his own campaign in this constituency to Ayla, the granddaughter of Nawab Malik Amir Muhammad Khan. Imran addressed this constituency only once during the ongoing campaign on April 30.
The royalty factor
Mailk Muhammad, commonly known as Nawab of Kalabagh, had been an influential political figure and served as governor of West Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s military regime.
For many, Ayla is a glamorous female figure; they want to have a rare chance of seeing a woman of the Nawab family in person. For others she is a beacon of hope, like Imran himself.
“We’d get dozens of requests every day for her to attend corner meetings. PTI candidates of adjoining constituencies requested her to show up at their meetings for a few minutes just to wave to their supporters, if she does not have time to make a speech,” said one of her coordinators.
The family of Nawabs of Kalabagh was not different from other such families of rulers of princely states.
Till a few decades back, all the male subjects of Kalabagh had to turn their backs when the royal women passed. Some say this was an expression of respect, while others claim they had to comply with strict orders of the Nawabs, when women of their family passed through the towns with royal entourage.
No other women of their family ever come out in the public. Even the male servants of the Nawab family –reduced in numbers now but still over 1,000 – are barred from entering the family residential compound. The royal place is spread over hundreds of kanals.
Ayla is at number three in PTI’s priority list of reserved seats for women and would be declared MNA if the party secures more than 15 general seats in the May 11 general polls.
Ayla and her elder sister Sumaira Malik entered public life when they became MNAs on reserved seats for women in 2002 from the platform of their maternal uncle Farooq Leghari’s party National Alliance which later merged into Musharraf’s PML-Q.
Light in the dark alleys
The dark alleys of Kalabagh in the old narrow bazaars of the town are just five feet wide with dangerously dilapidated mud and wooden structures on both sides. These bazaars are called ‘dark alleys’ due to their archaic but unique architecture.
In these dark alleys where sunlight can hardly enter live hundreds of families under extremely impoverished conditions in tiny, near-collapsing houses.
When Ayla Malik would hold meetings in these areas, the youth would gather in multitudes, singing and dancing to the tunes of Mianwali’s folksinger Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi’s election songs for Imran Khan and PTI in local Seriaki dialect. “We want change. We are with Imran Khan and Ayla Bibi for change” the youngsters who had turned up from neighborhoods remarked.
Ayla’s promises to her people are of education, health and other basic facilities if PTI comes to power.
The ‘Qila’ is the Nawab family’s winter residence. “We had never seen this building from inside before Ayla Bibi declared it PTI’s office and opened it for the public” said a young man. For many locals who acknowledged that their forefathers served like slaves of Nawabs, access to the compound is a sign of change.
“Sir ji, we do not have any surgeon in our tehsil headquarters hospital. The normal doctor appointed to serve at the hospital is hardly ever available,” said Muhammad Rafiq, a local.
Tuberculosis, hepatitis and kidney diseases are common. “We cannot afford costly treatment,” said Asad who earns Rs250 a day through his cycle-rickshaw.
Narcotics are a common business here. Locals claim that some get an extra 5 to 6 kg of hashish these days from influential drug peddlers to distribute it for free or on rebate to make sure that they vote for a particular candidate.
It is yet to be seen what substantive improvement will come about in the lives of the inhabitants of Mianwali who hope for a change.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2013.