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RIP Begum Nasim Wali Khan; An Interview From A Few Years Ago

An exemplary embodiment of women empowerment, wife of late ANP founder Khan Abdul Wali Khan, veteran politician Begum Nasim Wali Khan passed away this Sunday. A well recognized power broker, thrice elected to Provincial Assembly KPK and a former provincial president of ANP, Begum Nasim Wali has left behind an ever lasting legacy which will inspire generations of women politicians. Here is an interview (with slight changes) that Zaman Khan conducted with her a few years ago. 

Zaman Khan: How you came into politics? Was it by design or default.

NW: It was an accident. My coming into politics is an accident. During Bhutto government when Khan Sahib was arrested, Asfandyar was booked, brother Azam fled and Baba was detained, after that it looked vacuum and vacuum. Detractors would spread the rumour that it was end of NAP. That time it was NAP. In those conditions I accepted it as a challenge. It was an accident and I joined active politics. Although I had (a) relation with politics due to my parents and in-laws but in active politics, I came during Bhutto era. It was courtesy of Bhutto.

Q: The women in Pakistan in general and Pushtoon society in particular face lot of problems. They do not want to approach Police and courts, some women say under the present milieu Jirga system is best for them. What are the problems faced by women?

NW: In the beginning I would like to say it is not only the women who are oppressed, everyone is facing problems (of their own) in our society. When somebody asks me what you have done for women rights, I reply that first I have to fight for human rights and then I will struggle for women rights. In this male dominated society of ours women face a lot of problems. The only biggest problem of man is that he is bread winner but all the other problems are faced by women; she looks after the house, rear the children, look after their health, care for their education, clothing, ironing, cooking, washing, tailoring – all the jobs are thrust on the one woman. God bless the male, they say ‘we brought money and rest is your responsibility’.

Early morning a woman gets up and there is pressure that she has to prepare breakfast for the husband and children, side by side she has to do cleansing and make future programmes for the noon. So she is to face physical as well as mental pressure. Unfortunately, she has been made to believe to be inferior than the male. Allah has not said anything about discrimination, inferiority or superiority of genders. If I talk of equality, male exhibits (physical) power, women cannot exhibit power. There are many things which male can perform very well and there are many things which female can perform better. So if male and female help each other and cooperate then we cannot call it women problems. Instead, we ought to call it the problems of the society.

Q: You must have observed that women hesitate in approaching Police and courts. They think that Jirga system is good to redress of their grievance?

NW: I think that with the passage of time there has been a notable change in women. It is not true, as they have gained consciousness. There may be some women in the far-flung backward areas who may prefer Jirga system and leave their fate in the hands of men. But by and large today women go to Police station to get a case registered. If she is unable to do so, it is because there is a pressure on her, her family, home, forcing her will. And due to pressure from the father, brother, son, or husband, she may not take any step to modernity but I think there is lot of change now.

Q: You have rightly pointed out that here is lot of change in the women. They do not confine themselves only to home. They take part in every walk of life and they are facing new problems but still the men decide their fate. What are your suggestions that women become their own master and take their destiny into their own hands?

NW: I think first of all women should be involved in the family decisions made at home. First she should take part in decision-making at her home. The male should involve on all domestic matters and involve her in decision making at home e.g. the marriage of sibling, off shoots, problem of education, their jobs. So there should be the beginning from home. So that woman gets the training and learns the ability to make decisions. If in a society where the women’s lips are sealed and her hands and feet are tied and they have been also given the impression that ‘you are not fit to do anything and (that) you cannot do anything’- If in this situation she is entrusted with the job of decision making she may not be able to deliver. The beginning should be, first the home. A brother of a sister, husband of a wife, mother of a son, daughter of a father – all should create such an atmosphere and involve the women in decision making. I think, at many places this is being done in society. Women are being taken into confidence at many places. Their counsel is sought and their decisions are respected. After that she should also be included in other decisions. Women have to do a lot of struggle. If a woman does not attain a position in the society, her decisions are not respected. A woman may like to make decisions, but without a particular position, she cannot do so – be it in politics or judiciary. The women by taking initiative from the home, slowly and gradually, coming out of home, enter in every walk of life and attain such positions where they can make decisions.

Q: Bibi you took part in the open general elections. Some people think that there should be reserved seat for women in the national assembly and in the local bodies and their number should be increased to 33%. ZK: I think there is no restrictions on the women participation in the open general elections.

NW: According to the constitution of Pakistan any woman can participate in the open general election as I had been contesting elections since 1977. But the difficulties women face particularly in this province, in Punjab there are old traditional families, Balochistan is behind us, Sindh interior is worst. Now when there are no more reserved seats for the women in the constitution, now you demand that suddenly women should be given 30/33%-reserved seats. If the women could not win then what will happen? So under the present circumstances, when there is no representation of women as such, and so till that time, women can maintain their representation, i.e. in the interim period there should be reserved seats for women.

Q: Even at the local bodies?

ZK: I think at the local bodies level women are participating. I have observed in the most conservative areas, I went last year to Bunier to attend a public meeting, an old poor woman came. I was told that she participated in the local bodies election of her ward and won. Like this slowly and gradually, if the men don’t restrain them, they would be gaining consciousness. They will have to start from the bottom. If somebody is to contest national assembly elections, she has to start from the local bodies, union council level. If we look into the base of our national leaders they also started from the bottom and followed the same process. If the women are encouraged that they take part in the local bodies and through local bodies process they can reach to the national level. Even if there are no reserved seats, I would like that they should be encouraged to take part in local elections.

Q: Don’t you think that the number of reserved seats should be increased?

NW: I am not aware if there are reserved seats for women at the local level. If there are reserved seats for the women at the local level then its number should be increased. If the percentage were increased they would gain more experience. If their percentage is 2/3 % it will not have an impact. If their percentage is increased to 15%, and a woman takes part in local elections in one mohalla, she would inspire women of other mohalla, by that it will find roots in society. If the reserved seat quota is not sufficient then it should be increased.

Q: Let us come to your party. Do you have a women wing in your party? How many women are in your party?

NW: We do not have women wing in our party. I am proud of that because it is the only secular party in the democracy and being secular, democratic party it has no women wing; that would have been a contradiction, on the one hand you claim to be secular and liberal and then you keep a women wing. According to the party constitution there is no women wing in the party. But unfortunately the society has not progressed so far. I will not talk of society, I’ll particularly talk about Awami National Party because in ANP the members even do not belong to middle class. Now for a poor woman, politics is a luxury. She cannot afford to participate in politics. A woman who is so much burdened that she has no time to think how she can find out time for politics. This is the biggest tragedy. Those women who take politics as a fashion, women of drawing room politics, they are not being influenced, attracted by ANP.

There is a girl in Mardan, she is trying to organise the women, (as a result) there has been good membership (growth). If there is no women wing, we are trying that there should be relaxation in the constitution and there should be a women wing in the party. Our society is not yet that advanced and enlightened. It took me 25 year to attain a status. Woman who is hard-pressed does not want to struggle, she should be provided a better women friendly atmosphere.

Q: As you have claimed that your party is secular and liberal. Don’t you think that if you reserve a quota in your party in the central executive and all levels it will encourage the women?

NW: It is not in the constitution. I stand corrected there is reserved quota in the party constitution. There is a provision that there should be five women in every provincial committee. It is unfortunate that there are not five women in working committee of any province. In NWFP we are only two.

There is provision that there should be five women in central working committee. But unfortunately we have not been able to find women.

Q: But don’t you think you should try to find out more women?

NW: I must admit that by becoming provincial chief of the party I have totally forgotten women.

But now we are thinking that some thing should be done either there will be women wing or women’s presence is felt.

Q: What are your views about the government Women Division? Is it productive or just a show piece?

NW: You know better about the utility of Women Division. Paasban of Jamaat e Islami organised a function. I lamented Secretary Women Division being there. I asked, ‘what was your contribution? Do you think by the establishment of women Police stations, women had achieved their rights?’ Nothing is being done for women in Pakistan.

Q: Don’t you think for the promotion of women rights in the country the political parties should have close cooperation with women organizations?

NW: I tell you frankly I have not been able to find any genuine organization which is serious about this problem. We talk a lot, NGOs, and our party also talks a lot. Women division pays lip service as does Ministry of women but up till now, it is mere talk, practically nothing has been done for women.

Q: What about women cooperation across the party line?

NW: I think we should have a big hearted woman, who has a lot of money and ample time. If I claim that I shall be able to do something for the women, it would be wrong because I have to devote a lot of time for party affairs. If some time I am absolved of the party responsibility and free from politics, I may become social worker but this should be done.

Q: How the women could be involved under the changed circumstances in the decision making level in the government and parties?

NW: As I have said earlier, the women have to undergo a process and reach to a stage where they can make decisions and that is a lengthy process. The claim of literacy percentage is totally false. They are not given real education. The educational standard has deteriorated further. There is no programme for the women education. If we exclude the role of donor agencies then there would be hardly one percent women literacy rate. Every primary education scheme is being run by the donors. If the government is not serious in providing education to the women, no progress will be made.

Q: Across the border in Afghanistan they have a totally different outlook regarding the women rights and its negative impact must be felt here. What difficulties do you find here about women rights?

NW: The influence will definitely reach here. By the way the influence of the Talban is increasing in the tribal belt, they had attacked the cinemas and broken TVs etc. If the government does not take appropriate measure to counter, it can create problems.

What is going on in Afghanistan in the name of Islam, I think, Islam is being maligned. In fact Islam is a liberal religion and it has given maximum liberty to human beings including females. In the name of Islam, the rights of women are being usurped and government will be responsible for that.

Q: What is your opinion about the law introduced by General Zia ul Haq regarding women, like Hudood ordinance and evidence act?

NW: Half evidence was strange. Somebody asked once from Wali Khan about the half witness of women according to Quran. I do not accept it because I am a Muslim and I am a Muslim because I have given evidence for myself by reciting Kalma. That is sufficient prove of my being Muslim. My evidence is considered half otherwise and I must look for another evidence for myself. If a woman could be accepted as a Muslim on her own evidence then her evidence could not be half.

Yes I am a Muslim and a believer in the Prophet and Quran. Yes in some circumstances where a woman is afraid and might have lost her senses, in such circumstance someone else is required to help her.

Q: Do not you think there should be a fixed quota in the government and private services for the women?

NW: Yes, quota in jobs for women should be fixed but there should be first such number of qualified women who could fill the slot. My basic point of view is that under the deteriorating educational standard and declining literacy rate among the women, we do not have qualified women to acquire the job even if you fix the quota. The women should be given proper education and training (so) that they could occupy the relevant positions.

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