Former Pakistani Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan with Hollywood actor James Stewart and Begum Ra'ana Liaquat in Lahore, 1951 | Photo by
Former Pakistani Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan with Hollywood actor James Stewart and Begum Ra'ana Liaquat in Lahore, 1951 | Photo by

She has been a familiar sight over the years, in photographs published of days observed, institutions opened, welfare centres launched. And occasionally, a small news item mentioning her as the recipient of yet another international award. In the public eye for the last four decades, first as the consort of one of Pakistan's founding fathers, and later in her own right, she has been, in a sense, the one known factor in a fast-changing environment.

This image has been reinforced by her style of dressing. Fashions have come and gone and come again, but hers has remained constant: a gharara (adopted as the national and Muslim dress for Pakistani women decades ago when the crusade for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims was first launched) and a net dupatta over her always immaculately coiffured head.

The dream of the homeland may have undergone many changes, but her faithfulness to the gharara continues. An anachronism now, this as much as anything else she has done is proof of her grit and determination to carry on with what she believes in, regardless of criticism — from the pulpit and the rostrum and even from sections of the press .

A trained social worker who founded the All Pakistan Women's Association and various other institutions and organizations, and an active long-serving member of the ILO committee of experts, she has turned a deaf ear to the muttering and continued with her welfare schemes for the women and children of Pakistan.

She has been blamed for many things: for leading Pakistani women astray: for encouraging them to leave the safety and confines of their four walls; for being a 'begum' and founding a 'begum's' organisation (a charge she has never denied); for not doing enough and then again for doing, or saying, too much on affairs where the powers that be would have preferred her to keep her own counsel.

She has seen much, done much, achieved much. Not for nothing has she been called the 'dynamo in silk'. She has also paid a bitter price — the loss of a husband through an assassin's bullet, a loss that the nation shared with her.

Avowedly, non-political ("I have been a political mystery all my life"), she continues to demand justice for her husband's murder — and has been threatened in the process. She continues, too, in her own inimitable style, to issue strongly worded press statements against what she sees as encroachments on women's rights.

Photo by
Photo by

She realises the increasing futility of her mission but ploughs on nonetheless. A born fighter, even confined to a wheelchair, as she is now, she refuses to lay down her cudgels. "I would do it all over again, ten times over, and now even more so that they are against us altogether."

Already honoured with countless international awards, medals and citations, on December 11, 1978, she received her highest international accolade. Helped by Dr. Kurt Waldheim, then UN Secretary-General she ascended the steps of the United Nations General Assembly rostrum to become the first, Asian woman to receive the prestigious Human Rights Award. The citation read: "Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, the leading Pakistani womens' rights activist, economist, educationist and diplomat ... known for her outstanding contribution in the field of human rights."

Afsheen Zubair. As one of the persons deeply involved in the movement for independence, how, in your opinion, does the Pakistan of today relate to the dream of 1947?

Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan. The idea of Pakistan when it first started was totally different from what we see today. There was no question of religion coming into politics. Everybody was free to follow or worship as they pleased, nobody interfered, it was between you and your God.

We never dreamt that things will come to this pass where we are being spied upon for not saying our prayers, and the result is that people have become more dishonest. I don't see any change. Religion is something that should never be thrust on people; it should come naturally. We never talked of religion; there were Shias, Sunnis, we didn't know who was who, we were just working together.

Afsheen. But Pakistan was visualised as a Muslim homeland.

Ra'ana. Yes, but not the religious one of this type; it was a more liberal kind. Quaid-e-Azam himself said the basis was religious but Pakistan was visualised as secular and democratic. Today Pakistan is out and out a theocracy and under that garb, every vestige of personal freedom is snatched away. We are ruled with injunctions and ordinances as to what we should do, how we should dress, how we must relate to each other.

The army is dictating political and constitutional changes which it has no right to do. So where is ideology on which Pakistan was founded? Would the Quaid have permitted chopping of limbs and flogging of citizens, and that too of women? Would he have enforced the covering of heads, the shrouding of women in ungainly chaddars, the segregation of women in separate universities ...

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Afsheen. Can you throw some light on why political institutions didn't take root in Pakistan and how the bureaucracy came to wrest control of the state machinery?

Ra'ana. The moment we came to be we were rudderless; the bureaucracy was all that we possessed. Even Zafrullah Khan had been sent for by the Quaid-e­-Azam to come and join us. We were very short of trained people, politicians, there were more bureaucrats ready to grab whatever was there.

The bureaucracy wrested control of state machinery almost immediately after partition, at the time of the Quaid-e­-Azam, in fact, because there was no one here. Also Pakistan came into being so soon, we weren't expecting it. Mountbatten did it thinking it won't last, so did Nehru and Gandhi, that's why Partition was rushed through, the reason was so obvious.

Afsheen. So the politicians were totally unprepared?

Ra'ana. Totally unprepared. Unpreparedness was our terrific misfortune; every organisation that had been formed for hundreds of years was left in India. Everything had to be started anew here.

Afsheen. Were you doing any social work in India?

Ra'ana. Yes, I wrote a thesis on women labour in agriculture in one of the big­gest provinces in India, U.P., and naturally I then saw the poverty, the need.

Afsheen. Reverting again to the political arena, people say that if there was a clear vision of principles and ideas regarding Pakistan, why did it take so long to frame a constitution when India took only a year to do the same.

Ra'ana. Provincialism was one factor; you had to be so careful what you were trying to do for each province. From the beginning India was settled, there was no comparison between their civil service and ours and between their politicians and ours. You can name so many of the Indian politicians but where were the Muslims?

They did try, the Prime Minister did try and he was killed on his election tour. A constitution is not something you make at once. The Quaid-e-Azam died only a year after. Liaquat was working for the constitution, for elections.

Afsheen. Why do you think the Muslim League started disintegrating so soon after independence?

Ra'ana. It was all provincial. Each one thought he'd be something. Political institutions didn't take root due to provincialism; the disintegration of the Muslim League was also due to that.

Afsheen. Would you say, then, that in a way, internal differences and the disintegration of the Muslim League were responsible for the assassination of Liaquat?

Ra'ana. I think so. There were so many reasons for the assassination. Each one thought that he should be the top man. You see, they didn't expect an honest, incorruptible man. How could they fill their pockets with Liaquat at the top. That was the main curse. Corruption in the ranks was there even when Jinnah was alive. They had to look into the ministers' accounts and things. It's a character of the nation.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Also, some people didn't like the Quaid-e-Azam appointing Liaquat as his successor. Jealousy was rife. There was also provincial bias against him. Personally, I think that so. many people were involved, political people, that if you say something about one, it will come up about the other and so on, so that's why it was hushed up. There was never any real attempt to find out either.

Afsheen. How precisely would you define the ideology of Pakistan in view of the many different interpretations being propounded now?

Ra'ana. There was no question of theocracy. There was to be freedom of thought and action. Quaid-e-Azam's idea of La-ilaha-il-lal-lah was not what is being interpreted now. It was more unity and liberalism that was involved.

Afsheen. Do you feel that the present ills of our system can be traced back to the traumas and manipulations of the early period and that things would have been different had the Quaid-e-Azam and Quaid-e-Millat lived a little longer?

Ra'ana. If they had been allowed to live, their honesty would never have been tolerated; they would have been bumped off. They would not have been allowed to practice or preach what they believed in. Had they lived, their policy was quite clear. I'm talking mainly of religion and their belief that it should never enter politics. Had that policy continued people would have got used to it. The ills flow from that, from linking religion with politics.

Afsheen. One major criticism levelled against Nawabzada Liaquat is that his non-acceptance of the Moscow invitation gave our relations with the Soviets a bad start. It is rumoured that he cancelled his visit at the last minute under pressure. Can you clarify?

Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, talks on "Women of Pakistan" at Town Hall, New York | Photo by
Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, talks on "Women of Pakistan" at Town Hall, New York | Photo by

Ra'ana. I don't think it was under any pressure. I was all ready for Moscow with my warm coat and everything, and I had asked Begum Shahnawaz to accompany me. The trouble, what I was told at that time, was that they gave a date that didn't suit us, it was near our Independence day, something like that, so we refused, saying that any other time but this would suit us.

But then I think it fizzled out. So many of us were prepared to go. You see, when you are a leader and a big one, everything you do or say is attacked and meanings are put into every action. But I'm sure of this that this incident didn't sour relations. I've been to Russia after that, they've invited me.

Afsheen. In February 1949 when you called the first All Pakistan Women's Conference in Karachi and thus laid the foundation stone for APWA, did you foresee the opposition, slander and criticism you would have to contend with?

Ra'ana. The opposition was already there from religious groups that women shouldn't come out. They attacked what I was doing because I immediately formed the Pakistan Wo­men's National Guard. That was because our women were useless at defending themselves, or at helping their neighbours. Pasha Haroon, Razia Nazir Ahmed were active participants.

I also started the Women's Naval Reserve for the same reason, to activate the women and specially if they were going to the hospital to work, to teach them the value of time; they didn't know what time was, they didn't know what discipline was.

Having seen all the butchery and the confusion after partition, what was plain was that we needed nurses but there were no Muslim nurses, only Hindu and Christian. Nursing was looked down upon. I appealed to Muslim parents, told them they must see what was happening and let their daughters come forward to help. I sent 28 girls to London for training in nursing. All that required a lot of thinking and planning for the women.

Afsheen. After all your years in social work and aloofness from the political scene, what made you accept ambassadorship to the Netherlands and then Rome, and later the governorship?

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Ra'ana. Mine was not a political appointment as ambassador. After Liaquat's death they didn't know what to do with me, so they tried me out as ambassador. I was hanging about in a sense; the Prime Minister was no more. At that time the members of the cabinet had sympathy and regard for me and they thought this would be a good job for me because there's a queen in Holland who's a social worker and they thought we would get on well together. That is why I was appointed, not for any political reasons.

Also, I wanted to get away for a while. The situation was very tense, people talking to my children about why and how their father was killed, so I thought it was better to be away. The governorship from Bhutto's point of view, was political, but not from mine.

I didn't know it then, but because of the language problem that was going on at the time, they thought the best person to put in that post would be a woman from the minority (Muhajir) community. I was not expected to play a political role, but I thought I could help cement relations. The minorities in Karachi were very happy. It didn't have a negative effect on my social work. I carried on with APWA work.

Afsheen. As one of the pioneers of women's emancipation in Pakistan, how do you view the status of women in Pakistan today?

Ra'ana. We are regressing. We had gone to a certain peak when women were trained to do certain jobs and there was no trouble at all. But now we find women being pushed back and told that their place is in the home and they're not to come out. Education from the beginning has been on a very slow wicket. Now it all depends on unity among women. So many women have been bought up by the government, in the Shoora and elsewhere. They are not representing anybody, they are hand-picked.

Afsheen. How do you feel about the proposed law of qisas and diyat?

Ra'ana. I don't know much about theology and all that but common sense tells one this religion is so liberal, so universal and then you pick one or two things which are not at all important and bring it up and say this is Islam. Islam from the very beginning thought well of women. What about Hazrat Khadija? This goes back to the Prophet's time so I don't know with what face they can come up with all this now. And how our people are demoralised ... They are putting a nail in the coffin of women's (rights) and what can women do except unite.

If half of us are going to be bought over and toe the line then I'm afraid there's no salvation. We (APWA) have expressed strong objection to section l0(b) of the proposed law in which the evidence of women is excluded. There is no basis in the Holy Quran or Sunnah for excluding the evidence of women for Hadd.

APWA and eight other women's organisations have also filed a Shariat petition against the four Hadood Ordinances where the evidence of women has been excluded in cases of Hadd punishment. The petitions are pending before the Federal Shariat Court. It is also deplorable that the basic and fundamental right of women to equal diyat has not been accepted.

Afsheen. There are so many different women's organisations. Do you feel this diversity reflects lack of unity?

Ra'ana. It's a good thing to have different organisations, not petty ones. As a matter of fact, I was the one who started WAF, because I really feel they can do a lot by writing, getting the women's point of view and being a pressure group. But I'm not very much in favour of marching on the streets. I've never believed in it, neither did the Quaid-e­ Azam.

Afsheen. Then how will they make themselves heard?

Ra'ana. Through government channels, through the press. Though the press is so low, so chaotic and immoral, but we should really have done it through the press.

Afsheen. It is often said that the women's movement is restricted to the urban elite and doesn't touch the rural masses, especially the women. How do you view this charge?

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Ra'ana. This has to be so because in the villages the woman is dominated by the zamindar, by the man, by the husband. She has no views of her own. To begin with she's illiterate. Whatever she's told of religion, she's supposed to believe. There's no reason for her to be free in speech or action. From morning to night shes a slave doing all the work and how do you expect the women there to do anything. We should be there helping with education, health, whatever.

The government should help as eighty percent of our population is still in villages. Literacy the government has to sponsor and push, no organisation can do it. The women's division, the status of women's commission, the only impact they are having is in the urban setting, which means nothing.

Afsheen. How would you assess all that APWA has done or tried to do all these years. Where would you say your biggest successes have been — and your failures?

Ra'ana. Well, we've not succeeded at all in doing village work and that is obvious because without roads, without electricity, without transport, what can we do? And there's been no government help to work in the villages either. It's very sad. I would like APWA to focus its attention now on the village; on the importance of the woman in the economic sector both in the home and in the village as a bread-earner.

Afsheen. Are things becoming more difficult for APWA now. Do you have enough volunteers?

Ra'ana. Yes, it is becoming more difficult. The tragedy is that there are not enough young volunteers. Times have changed, there are no servants, the woman has to be in the house looking after children and the rest. There's no transport, things are so expensive. And then how can you expect voluntary work.

People have to make a living, so there are all these problems. We had envisaged APWA as a mass organisation dealing with all aspects of women's problems. But how can you expect a woman to be involved when she has to do everything at home. And young women are getting jobs, that's what we expected and worked towards.

Afsheen. How do you visualise the future of Pakistan?

Ra'ana. Very bleak. I don't see any change for the better, we're going down and down. I only hope it remains one nation. I don't see any political leader either, acceptable to all the provinces. But the talk going on now, questioning the very basis of Pakistan is not helpful at all; it just creates more bitterness. People like us should feel why we created Pakistan, but we don't question the basis, not at all.

It was the thing to do then, to create Pakistan, provided it was carried on and really made an example of what Islam and how it should be practised in a modern polity, by being generous and kind to minorities. Why is everybody running away from here? They're fed up of what's happening. Young people don't even know enough about the country, or about their leaders and their qualities.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Afsheen. You have received innumerable international awards and recognition. Do you feel your work has been appreciated equally at home?

Ra'ana. No, I don't think so at all. After all, I am the leader of a certain section of women and they can't very well interfere there, though I'm sorry to say they're trying to take away women from here and there in our organisation. I think the people realise what I've earned but they know I'm not in the good books of the authorities so they're not going to talk in my favour.

It's very sad about the women. During our time, I thought we were getting on, making progress. Younger women were coming out and I advertised then in all my speeches that no girl should get married until she has a profession. I constantly said that. Now I feel everything I worked for, believed in, is being undermined.

Afsheen. If you had your life to live over again, would you do things differently?

Ra'ana. Times have changed, you have to do things according to the times. We can't do what we did 35 years ago be­cause at that time even the men were with us. It was a more liberal atmosphere. I appealed to women with houses, cars, servants who could afford to give the time and come and work for their less fortunate sisters. At that time they were all willing. Now the government wants it (APWA) to be done away with; if you have your own ideas, you've had it.

The press has been told not to publish (my statements) and the press means a lot. Naturally they're afraid of having their (newsprint) quota stopped. But one has to go on, one has to believe in a God. I would do it all over again, ten times over, and now even more so when they're against us altogether. I'd fight harder but you need backing, from the people, from the press, you can't do things alone.

It's not my age that bothers me, it's my walking that worries me. I've got a dropped foot. In the operation (for a shattered hip) they cut a nerve. Without a splint I can't walk. I still work, what else is there to do, but I feel more and more that women must concentrate on unity because without that, there's no hope.

This was originally published in the Herald's October 1984 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.