Three female candidates, belonging to parties of widely divergent cultures and politics, are contesting elections in Southern Sindh to woo people of the little-known Mirpur Sakro.
Sassui Palejo, Marvi Memon and Heer Soho share their names with three famous heroines of folk mythology – but how much do they have in common with their namesakes? Unlike the protagonists of the legends, the three politicians have their own standing without the male hero who is so integral to folklore narratives.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate Marvi and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) candidate Heer are pitted against each other for the NA-237 seat of Thatta, which the Mirpur Sakro Taluka is a part of. They will possibly be contesting against another female PPP candidate, Shams Nisa Memon.
Sassui is not directly contesting with Marvi and Heer, but the PS-85 constituency which she is planning to contest from also comprises Mirpur Sakro. She won the same constituency twice, with a landslide, in 2002 and 2008 against her male rivals.
Celebrated Sindhi poet and mystic Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai has written about both folk heroines Sassui and Marvi. So how are they different from the modern day political heavyweights?
Sassui was Bhittai’s favourite character, to whom he dedicated five chapters of his famous Risalo. The daughter of the rule of Bhanbhor, Sassui was abandoned by her parents after they were warned by astrologers that she was a curse and would bring a bad name to the family’s prestige. She grew up as the adopted daughter of a poor labourer and later fell in love with Punhoon, the Prince of Makran.
Punhoon’s family took him away, leaving Sassui struggling alone in the mountains in search of his beloved. On her way, the land split and devoured her when she prayed to the heavens to save her from the lust of a shepherd. Punhoon, on returning there to seek her, met the same fate.
Marui, as spelled in Sindhi, was a poor village girl of Thar’s Bhalwa village. She was kidnapped by the king of Umerkot Umer Soomro, because of her celestial beauty. Marui stood firm and denied everything offered by the king. Her struggle was so incessant that it forced the king to return her back to her village. The well from where Marui was kidnapped according to legend still exists, and people from near and far often come to visit it.
The story of Heer Ranjha is the most famous Punjabi love story. But Heer of the MQM’s story has no such drama. In Sindhi, ‘Heer’ means a soothing breeze.
Interestingly, the location at the heart of the contest between the three women is closest to the lengendary Bhanbhor, once a thriving city which now lies in neglected ruins.
Although Sassui Palejo bears little resemblance to Bhittai’s soormi (heroine), her mother, Akhtar Baloch, has a story that can be considered stuff of legend. Akhtar was just 19 during Ayub Khan’s regime when she was arrested for protesting against the infamous One-Unit system, when the dictator merged the four provinces of West Pakistan in a bid to attain parity with the-then East Pakistan. Now Bangladesh, back then in 1950s East Pakistan was more populous than the western half of the country in its entirety.
Akhtar remained incarcerated for more than a year – soon, Sindh regained its historic identity for which it struggled against Ayub.
The modern-day Sassui has played her own role in reviving Sindhi culture – she has set up a museum in Bhanbhor, built a rest house there and arranged the Bhanbhore International Conference. New editions of classic Sindhi literature have been published and efforts have been made to revive historical places like Makli, Kotdiji and Khudabad.
Marvi too has little resemblance to Bhittai’s Marui. The PML-N candidate was previously in the PML-Q, a party supported by former president Pervez Musharraf and served as a director for the ISPR. But while Marvi may be ahead of MQM’s Heer in the election race, she is a weak candidate compared to contestants from the PPP and the powerful Shirazis in the region.
For the provincial assembly seat, Sassui is facing a similar herculean task in trying to overcome the Shirazis and the Malkanis, who have joined hands to defeat the PPP. Political observers point out, however, that Sassui is still holding out as one of the few provincial ministers who did not forget her constituents, which may help her win for a record third time.