With Malala Yousufzai’s global popularity before and after her Nobel win, it seems that the international media has left behind countless Pakistani women, who paved the way for Malala’s brave will. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Khawar Mumtaz, herself a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2006, in her office at the National Commission on the Status of Women located in a leafy district of Islamabad. Mumtaz serves as the chairperson of this organisation. She was dressed in a full-sleeved shalwar kameez in red, tan and blue print, with a white embroidered dupatta draped across her shoulders. Her jewellery — silver and gold rings and turquoise bangles on her left wrist — was neither ostentatious nor modest, but elegant. To her left, near the window, hung a framed image of Benazir Bhutto peering skywards in front of clouds of rising smoke. In an age where the English-speaking media is so often focused on a few select stories, it seems prudent to remember the youth of a pioneering Pakistani women’s rights activist like Mumtaz.
Mumtaz was the first born to her Indian parents. Like many Muslim families now in Pakistan, hers relocated to the country as a toddler shortly after independence in 1947. She has a younger sister as well as two younger brothers. Her father was a banker, so her family moved around all over Pakistan whilst she was growing up as he was opening new branches of his bank in different towns. In retrospect, she finds it great to have lived in different places in all the provinces. She eventually lived in Karachi, where she finished high school, and then Lahore, where she established her own family of three children and now three grandchildren.
Her immediate family is rather bohemian and her maternal grandfather was an Urdu poet. Her husband, Kamil Khan Mumtaz is an architect, who was trained in London during the 1960s and today works in Lahore. Mumtaz’s youngest son, Murad Khan Mumtaz, lives in the state of Virginia where he reads for a PhD and is a miniaturist painter with a New York gallery. Her sister did her PhD in Canada and lives in Karachi where she works with the Aga Khan Medical University in the community health sciences department. One of her brothers is a pilot in the Pakistani Air Force.
As a child and teenager, Mumtaz was very active and into sports. She coordinated team sports such as netball and softball and her sister made many records at district level. She always wanted to sing and swim, but could never really get into these activities because she was too self-conscious as a youngster. She jokingly claimed that the Mediterranean was the only place she could swim. As a teenager, she would have loved to learn dancing, but her father didn’t approve. She remembers that she couldn’t even think of asking his permission in this regard since her father came from a highly conservative family.
Although her mother’s family was more tapped into their creative side, both her mother and father came from the same stock, as it used to be in those days for marriage. Both sides of her family migrated to Pakistan from north India. From her father’s side, Mumtaz was the first woman to go to university, where she shone as a discus thrower following on from her athletic childhood. Apart from sports, she led a very linear academic path in which she studied international relations and specialised in the French language. Mumtaz later also held a French teaching position.
Soon after she did her Master’s, she got married and moved to Lahore. She did not move to Islamabad until she took up the government post of chairperson at the National Commission on the Status of Women in January 2013. In Lahore, she worked as a teacher, researcher and journalist. She was assistant editor of Viewpoint when founder Mazhar Ali Khan was the editor-in-chief and began writing columns for the Herald in 1981. She remembered that the Viewpoint office in Lahore was practically a shed at the time. Mumtaz researched for 10 years starting from the 1970s until 1983 at the Centre for South Asian Studies where she focused on foreign policy and India-Pakistan relations.
Mumtaz became a founding member of the working committee of the Women’s Action Forum, also in 1981, during General Ziaul Haq’s military rule, in which she and other women began to challenge gender discriminatory laws for the first time in Pakistani history. Mumtaz and other courageous women like her paved the way for young women like Malala to begin to question authoritative Pakistani legislation and cultural norms. Mumtaz has dedicated more than three decades of her life to fighting for greater women’s rights in Pakistan, which the millennial generation and the media should not forget.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2014.