Friday, 19 April 2013

Zari Sarfaraz: Crusader for the Pakhtuns

This profile of Zari Sarfaraz 28 July 1923 – 27 April 2008 was published by the DAWN magazine circa 2002

By Intikhab Amir

There aren't many Pakistani women who can claim to be renowned
politicians as well as astute businesswomen. In fact, one would
assume that the number of such successful ladies would be negligible
in a male dominated society like ours.
Fifty years ago, our society was much more orthodox than what it is
today. It can be assumed that the atmosphere could not really have
been very conducive for women to undertake political struggle. And as
for business, there were fewer still, attempting to enter the field
let alone conquering the arena. In the North-West Frontier Province
(NWFP) things were more difficult than in other provinces of the
country and much more complex.

The concept of females going out of their homes to earn or even just
to work for their own satisfaction was considered improper. Even now,
the situation has not really changed that much, but despite all the
restrictions, the women of NWFP though handful have managed to pursue
noble causes.

One such lady is Begum Zari Sarfaraz, the elder sister of the late
Mir Afzal Khan former chief minister of NWFP - and the eldest of the
three children of Khan Bahadur Sarfaraz Khan, a leading landlord of
the Pakhtoon dominated Mardan area of NWFP. She has played an active
role in furthering Muslim League cause during the Pakistan Movement
while running her own business in the mid 1940s.

"I entered politics and also started taking care of the family's
financial concerns at the age of 17, after the death of my father,"
says Begum Zari Sarfaraz who is now in her late 70s and still has the
verve to speak for hours and hours on politics and business.

Be it the existing crisis faced by the country's sugar industry or
the menace of prostitution; the difference between the past and the
present day politics, or the Wali family's stand on the rights of
Pakhtoons or ZA Bhutto as a politician; she has a clear perception of
each and every issue. She expresses herself in a straightforward
manner without caring much about the controversies attached to the
statements she makes. She has been known for her forthright attitude
in the political circles ever since she embarked on her political

Enrolled at the Presentation Convent School, Srinagar, Begum Zari
Sarfaraz aspired to become a doctor. She instead became one of the
leading businesswomen of the country, still successfully running more
than one sugar mills owned by her family group.

Her father's early death made it necessary for her discontinue her
studies. "After all, someone was needed to look after the massive
landholdings and, above all, to keep intact the family's political
reign which was at stake after the death of my father," notes Zari
Sarfaraz. So being the eldest, she had to sacrifice her personal
goals. Unlike any other Pakhtoon family she was made the figurehead
of the family. Her mother, Kaukab Sultan, wanted her to oversee all
family matters till the time her brothers Mir Afzal Khan and Khan
Aziz Sarfaraz Khan both younger to her completed their studies and
took over the political dynasty left by their father Khan Sarfaraz

Sarfaraz Khan had always been an active member of Muslim League and
she too had that inherent love for the party. Her father used to take
her to all the important party meetings and she was also present at
the 1940 resolution meeting at Minto Park where the famous Lahore
resolution was passed.

It was a test of her political clout when in her early political
career she was asked to arrange a meeting of the women of Mardan in
October 1945. It was certainly an uphill task, keeping in mind the
orthodox society of Mardan fifty-five years ago.

The president of the All India Muslim League (women wing) Begum
Nusrat Haroon, the wife of Mr. Abdullah Haroon, was to address the
gathering. "It was not possible to arrange the gathering at any other
place other than my own house," she remembers. So, invitations were
extended to the ladies of the area through the Naee [the person who
was paid to deliver invitations and inform people all the relevant

She asserts that her strong family background was pivotal in giving
her a strong political foothold by allowing her to carry out all
political activities and enabling her to organize the Muslim League
at Mardan, back in 1945. But her own grit and diligence cannot be
denied either, because how else could she have challenged all the
narrow minded norms of the area, spurning the outrage (which could
easily have been life threatening) of all the other Khan families of
the area as well.

Zari Sarfaraz remained a crusader of the rights of women and the
unfortunate classes throughout her political career. And while she
did dismiss petty chauvinism she was never defiant of the
conservative Pakhtoon traditions which concerned family norms.

"In view of the strict norms and traditions of the area, when I asked
Begum Nusrat Haroon and other female members of her delegation to
visit us, I emphasized that they must be veiled and should stay that
way while travelling from the Nowshera railway station to Mardan and
when they visited the area to address a women's gathering," recalls
Zari Sarfaraz. During that first meeting, Zarin Sarfaraz assumed the
role of a translator for Mrs. Abdullah Haroon who at the end of the
meeting appointed her as the general secretary and her mother as the
president of the Mardan Muslim League's women wing.

Two years later Zari Sarfaraz was elected president after her mother
stepped down from the office on health reasons. She pursued politics
fervently but always remained within the parameters of the culture
and traditions of the area. It was only in 1965 when she, for the
first time, made an appearance without a veil in a men's gathering at
Peshawar's Chowk, Yadgar. "It was the first time that I was
addressing a gathering of men and I was the lone female speaker in
that rally," she muses.

"We generally used to hold women's meetings in-door whereas whenever
we had to attend a public meeting there used to be a specified
separate space for females from where the female speakers would
address," recollects an elderly Begum Zari while narrating the
hardships she used to undergo while pursuing politics.

Her eyes twinkle and her face creases into a smile when she recalls
her meetings with the Quaid-i-Azam whom she met on five occasions
last time on his deathbed.

She appears to be critical of the controversy attached to the death
of Mohammed Ali Jinnah as she firmly believes that Mr. Jinnah died
after being given proper treatment at his official residence in
Karachi. She says, "I am a witness to this. When I reached the
Governor General's residence, a nurse was sitting beside Mr. Jinnah.
By then he had expired but he had been duly given every medical
treatment possible at the time. I still possess the three empty packs
of Cromin injections the doctor had used to boost him up," absolutely
refuting the charge that Mr. Jinnah died at the Karachi airport or
without being given medication.

After partition she was the first female to be elected to the NWFP
legislative assembly. Later, she also remained a member of the West
Pakistan and the National assemblies.

She was responsible for blocking the resolution moved in the West
Pakistan Assembly for shifting the 'red light area' of Lahore,
considering it to be against the rights of the women who were victims
of circumstances.

"In an attempt to understand their position and problems, I
personally arranged a visit to the area and interviewed the girls
there," says Begum Zari, adding, "one of them even told me that it
was because of the men that they had ended up in a brothel."

In 1952 when she was a member of the NWFP legislative assembly she
was assigned the job of rehabilitating some 42 girls of NWFP who were
recovered from different brothel houses of Punjab. After their
recovery they were accommodated temporarily at Nowshera. "I, along
with a DSP categorized these girls into three groups age wise and
then advertisements were published in newspapers for the marriage of
these ill-fated girls. The suitors, who turned up on the day of the
interview, were also divided into three categories and later each one
of them was introduced to a girl of his age group. Wedding
arrangements had also been made on the same day at the end of which
all the couples left for their homes," recounts Begum Zari.

She believes that though the state of women in the Urban areas of the
country particularly concerning education and freedom of movement has
improved, the amount of respect previously enjoyed by the women folk
has diminished to a great extent, for which she holds the religio-
political parties of the country responsible. "These parties have
sown hatred in society and have encouraged people to throw chemicals
on women passing through markets and bazaars, in the past."

Begum Zari maintains that the increasing intolerance, with respect to
the man-woman relationship, would get reduced if the co-education
system is promoted in the country. "I had made this suggestion in the
1985 report of The Pakistan Commission on the Status of Women of
which I was appointed chairperson by President General Zia-ul-Haq
back in 1983."

She comments that she had great hopes of improvement taking place in
the status of women when Benazir Bhutto came into power, "but
unfortunately Ms Bhutto failed to deliver on this front." Now,
General Pervez Musharraf has made great promises. But the success of
his claims would only be proved when a good number of women are
appointed on important posts. Though the federal and provincial
cabinets contain one female member each, how many women get top slots
would prove the reality of the General's promises.

Being strongly supportive of the idea of renaming NWFP to give an
identity to the people of the area, she believes that the Wali family
always compromised on the rights of Pakhtoons. "Before Partition I
waged a struggle for Pakistan's independence, later, I focused my
attention on the well being of my area as a result of which I was
called Pakhtoonistani by the leaders from Punjab and then I became
the first person from NWFP to oppose the establishment of One Unit. I
was the first person who took up the issue of renaming the province
52 years ago when I conveyed this demand to Prime Minister Liaquat
Ali Khan. I advised him to rename the province and to put an end to
this controversy once and for all."

It stands to reason that if the other three provinces are identified
from the name of their province then what is wrong if the people of
NWFP are also given their identity?

"The new name could be devised on the same pattern on the basis of
which the name of the country [Pakistan] had been developed. Renaming
of NWFP is not the question of only giving identity to Pakhtoons
rather it should be taken in a broader perspective considering all
the linguistic groups living in the province. Had they [ANP] been
sincere to the cause of Pakhtoons' rights they would have adopted
Pashto as the medium of instruction when they were in coalition
government led by Maulana Mufti Mehmood in the early 1970s," she

Continuing on the topic she feels strongly about, Begum Zari
emphasizes, "The government of Sindh did the same by declaring Sindhi
as medium of instruction, but the Wali Khan group did not do so. They
had the stand that it would hurt feelings of other linguistic groups
including Hindko speaking and the Seraiki speaking, but they could
have easily adopted Pashto as the medium of instruction, at least, in
the Pakhtoon dominated areas," reiterating that Pakhtoons have always
been taken as a threat by other races of the sub-continent because
they had been the rulers. And rulers are seldom liked.

After 20 long years of being a parliamentarian and a prolonged stint
as a politician, Zari Sarfaraz abandoned active politics in 1970 on
her brother, Mir Afzal Khan's advice. "Mir Afzal advised me to call
it a day as the politicians who were at the helm of affairs in the
early 1970s were not the ones I was used to working with."

She contends that the process of the existing condemnable state of
politics and disharmony in the society started in the late 1960s, for
which primarily, Z.A. Bhutto is responsible. "Z.A. Bhutto did one
good thing to this nation and it was to make them aware of their
rights. Besides this, the man is responsible for all the ills
presently faced by the country," asserts an emphatic Zari
Sarfaraz. "He never infused in them a sense of responsibility,
causing an unending gulf between the landlords and the farmers and
between the industrialists and the labour. This has caused an
irreparable damage to the society."

Sensing that change, Begum Zari decided to leave politics, as it was
getting difficult for her to adjust with people without worthy

She reminisces, "During our days, we used to spend from our own
pocket for any political cause at hand, now, politics has become a
business. That is why there is always the problem of maintaining a
quorum in assemblies as elected representatives hardly care about
their original job, which is to frame laws. Rather, the existing lot
only takes care of their monitory interests while sitting in the

She believes that an ideal politician should be first a social
worker. "How can a person serve the people while sitting in the
assemblies when he/she has not done any social work?"

Being a democrat, how did she feel when Abbas Sarfaraz, her nephew,
joined an un-elected and military government? She rationalizes the
issue by saying, "No democratic minded person would ever support any
military government, but tell me, was there any way to bring about a
change of government before Oct. 12, 1999? It was so-called democracy
but all the powers were concentrated only in one person. After the No
Confidence motion was blocked due to the 14th amendment, there were
only two ways of removing that man (Nawaz Sharif) either by a bullet
or through the army."

She strongly believes that only the politicians are responsible for
the army's taking over again and again. None of the successive
governments addressed the important issues concerning the country,
rather, each one of them made things more complex making it
imperative for the army to take over each time.

-article via the DAWN group, republished for educational purposes.
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