Women at work: The Moor Bibi of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

Begum Naseem is the first woman who won a parliamentary seat from K-P in 1977.

Mureeb Mohmand November 02, 2014


History bulges with the names of men considered to be behind many great and vile acts—a masculine mass which squarely squashes down the ‘second sex’. Over the decades, women fought for and successfully created precious space, but their names are mostly relegated to the backrooms of forgotten archives.

Even with her reprisal, Begum Naseem Wali Khan’s impact on the past and the future is drowned out by the alpha-history roaring at the fore.

For some, Begum Naseem is the first woman who won a parliamentary seat from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) in 1977. But to those familiar with Awami National Party (formed in the 80s) and regional politics, Begum Naseem was also a formidable power broker; her current standing weakened after an almost-decade long hiatus broken in 2012.

A powerhouse

As it often happens with women in Pakistan, Naseem was plucked from one household into another at the age of 21 in 1954, some years after Wali Khan lost his first wife Taj Bibi to childbirth.

When Wali Khan was released from prison in 1953, he was a widower with three children—two daughters Parveen and Nasreen (the latter the mother of Amir Haider Hoti) and a son, Asfandyar Wali Khan, the inevitable heir apparent for ANP.

Begum Naseem tells The Express Tribune that Bacha Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) was comfortable with the union of the daughter of trusted Khudai Khitmatgar member Amir Muhammad Khan and his son, made the ‘suggestion’. However, many present day ANP loyalists share how later, Bacha Khan would come across as not too happy with his daughter-in-law.

Begum Naseem shares how her family was quite against the marriage and her mother even tried to resist the decision. “But Baba (Bacha Khan) was the spiritual father of all Pukhtuns; my father was not going to be the one to ignore the proposal,” she says.

“They, my family, were worried how I would manage a household with three children from another woman,” she recalls. “And the Bacha Khan home was no ordinary one; it was a political one and it was a tough job.”

Lingering over the details of what was a turning point in her life, Begum Naseem says, “I had met Wali Khan and Ghani Khan before, when Bacha Khan had come to Markaz Alia in Mardan and my father had taken us there to meet him.”

Begum Naseem Wali Khan. PHOTO: FILE

But, “the idea of marrying each other had not crossed our minds before all this.” Young and with only her secondary school certificate examination under her belt, Begum Naseem began whittling away at norms to create a powerful space for herself in the Bahram Khan family.

Arming with education

Begum Naseem, who was born in 1933, studied in a coeducation primary institute before she joined a secondary school in Mardan. “After I passed my grade eight exam, my family was not happy with me going to school.”

There were multiple reasons behind that, she explains. “My father was in jail at the time and there were no girls schools where I could ‘appropriately’ study alongside women.”

But Amir Muhammad Khan, “being a follower of Bacha Khan wanted to educate me.”

Begum Naseem talks fondly of how she outwitted the system to gain an education. “I decided to complete my secondary exams. Because I had to take the exam in a boys school, I pretended I was going to a friend’s house.” Instead, Begum Naseem was at the hall, taking an exam she passed.

“The result was announced in the newspaper, that’s when my family learnt I passed my Matric.”

Marrying into the Bacha Khan household was a free pass to study more. “After I married Wali Khan, I enrolled at Home Economics College at Peshawar University; I would go to college with my children who were in school there.” After passing her FSc, Begum Naseem went to London with her husband and was all set to take her BSc exams there. “But the college administration did not allow it, saying I was there for a political purpose.”

At the men’s table

She tells The Express Tribune how she won a general seat from K-P in 1977 and became the first woman to do so. “I ran from Swabi and Charsadda and won both with a high margin but the Pakistan National Alliance started its agitation after most of its candidates lost across the country.”

Begum Naseem was prominent in the PNA, a grouping of nine right-wing political parties. The alliance emerged before the 1977 elections as a counterforce to the leftist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but did not do well in the polls. It also did not last very long. The PNA split up soon after Ziaul Haq’s coup and subsequent dictatorship, pursuing individualistic goals.

Wali Khan had a rocky relationship with the PPP. Begum Naseem recalls how Wali Khan was sent to jail by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1975 on charges of treason. Bhutto had also banned the National Awami Party (NAP). She remembers at the time Bhutto said he had killed Bacha Khan and his family in the arena of politics, “and that was a very provocative statement for me, prompting me to take part in politics.”

Begum Naseem contends her entry into the arena as a prerequisite demanded political anointment—from a male. “I went with Ghulam Ahmed Bilour and met Wali Khan in jail, asked for his permission and he gave it.”  And on the ashes of the NAP, the National Democratic Party (NDP) was formed with Begum Naseem taking an active step in its activities. Sherbaz Khan Mazari was appointed NDP’s president. “After forming NDP, my first political appearance was at a Mazdoor Kissan Party convention in Karachi.” The Mazdoor Kissan Party was formed of members originally from the NAP. “I chaired a session of the convention and also addressed students at Karachi University.”

However, what happened in Karachi, stayed in the city by the sea. Even with the permission of Wali Khan, as a woman in the erstwhile NWFP, Begum Naseem was not at liberty to just head to corner gatherings and rally crowds.

She recalls after her trip to Karachi, the Peshawar Bar invited her to address an event. “I had to consult Wali Khan’s brother-in-law and it was decided that I participate but not address the bar.” But when the Pukhtoon Student Federation (PSF) invited her to give a speech at Chowk Yadgar, she did and it is still considered by many as historic.

A decade after the 1977 polls, Begum Naseem also won a provincial seat from Charsadda.

Her role in the party expanded soon and she was elected as the NDP provincial president in 1975 and remained in office till 2004. That was the year she was ousted by her stepson, Asfandyar Wali Khan claims.

Supporting Zia

Talking about military dictator Ziaul Haq, Begum Naseem chooses to sidestep her role in the imposition of Zia’s martial law. As her husband went in and out of prison, at times at the behest of Bhutto, Begum Naseem became a harsh critic of the late PPP leader.

The clash between the PNA and Bhutto post 1977 polls was the primer for martial law. She says she was an honorary member of the PNA committee as Sardar Mazari was the official NDP representative. After the PNA was delivered a final blow in the poll results, it drafted a demand document on the back of its public agitation. Demands, which included repolling under the judiciary and army and a new chief election commissioner, were never truly accepted, she says. “One of our advocates showed us, every second clause was deleted from the document.”

Begum Naseem said she protested the alterations, at which point her motive was questioned by Mufti Mehmood who was on the negotiating committee. “He said I was more interested in getting my husband released, but I told him ‘If we accept this, we will never be allowed back into K-P or Balochistan because the provinces were ignored in the new demand document.”

Her standing in the PNA was not diminished by her gender, something Bhutto understood. Her confidantes told her Bhutto wished to meet her to discuss K-P and Balochistan with her but “I refused”. She says she knew after the documents were changed that there was no longer any point in talking. Begum Naseem and Mazari boycotted the agreement and that night Zia imposed martial law, she recalls. A dictatorship which the once-formidable woman now brushes off as a thing of the past which she does not see herself responsible for.

Women everywhere

“Yes, some of my family and many others were against my education, and later against my becoming a politician.” But, she says, “In my opinion women must take part in politics as they are a major part of society. Ignoring women means ignoring the majority of society.”

Begum Naseem admits she had to revolt against her own family, and Wali Khan’s family to participate in politics; “I still face resistance from within the party but women have to play a role in every walk of life.”

Moor Bibi

For Begum Naseem, one of the greater honours bestowed on her was the title of ‘Moor Bibi’ by the PSF when she was just starting parliamentary politics. “I still feel happy being called by this name, I definitely prefer it over the title of ‘begum’.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2014.


Stranger | 7 years ago | Reply

A role model , indeed.

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