Liaquat Ali Khan, Begum Rana and their sons, Akber and Ashraf | Photo from the book
Liaquat Ali Khan, Begum Rana and their sons, Akber and Ashraf | Photo from the book

The last few years have seen a distinct rise in global conversations about female rights. It is heartening to see the trend in Pakistan as well, with more people ready to attend marches and bring attention to issues specific to women. And while a significant portion of the community is engaging in fighting issues that affect women directly, the other side of the fight includes highlighting all the amazing women who have already been doing so in the past. One of those women — who not only played a part in building Pakistan’s future, but who was there when the country came into existence — was Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan.

The Begum is co-written by two women living across the border from each other. Indian author and translator Deepa Agarwal writes the first half of the biography, from the period of Khan’s birth up until Pakistan’s creation. This section is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Khan, wife of former prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, was actually named Irene Ruth Margaret Pant until her marriage to Pakistan’s first premier. She was born into a Christian family of Brahmin origin in 1905 and Agarwal creates an absorbing narrative of the events leading up to her birth, going far into the past to include her grandfather’s conversion to Christianity from Hinduism. Using multiple primary resources as well as secondary contacts, Agarwal creates a detailed look at the life of Irene, who exhibited all the signs of her compassionate spirit even at a young age. Accompanying her mother on visits to those in need, Irene frequently carried packages of food, earning her the title of ‘Little Angel’ by those whom she helped. Growing up, she was an intelligent and warm-hearted child, well loved by her teachers and friendly with those around her.

In those times, the political climate of the subcontinent was one of discontent and turmoil. The after-effects of the 1857 uprising were still fresh in most people’s minds, and Hindu and Muslim relationships were slowly becoming a larger part of the political conversation. Worse still, the aftermath of World War I had caused heavy casualties for Indian soldiers who had supported the British during the war, and there was an increasing burden of taxation by the government to make up for the war losses. It was inevitable that Irene, intelligent and active, would take part in ensuring that the rights of her countrymen were protected. She had already proven her grit by not only completing her Bachelors — a feat rare for Indian women of the times — but also by pursuing her Masters in the male-dominated field of economics, where she routinely faced persecution from male classmates in the form of caricatures drawn on blackboards and deflated bicycle tyres.

A must-read biography of Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan pulls in material from both sides of the border to paint a comprehensive portrait of Pakistan’s first first lady

But Irene refused to be cowed by such attempts; not only was her thesis on ‘Women’s Labour in Agriculture in the United Provinces’ considered the best of the year at the university, it also foreshadowed her interest in the rights of her female compatriots. It was also while she was studying at Lucknow University that she heard her future husband, Liaquat, speak passionately against the 1928 Simon Commission, which had recommended constitutional reforms for the subcontinent without including a single Indian in the commission. The couple would eventually meet when Irene was teaching at Indraprastha College for Women in Delhi, and fall in love. And while the much older and Muslim Liaquat was already married and had a son, their respect and consideration, as well as their warm regard for each other, meant that soon Irene sent her family notice of her conversion to Islam and adopted the name Gul-i-Rana.

Together the couple played a significant role in the country’s history, most importantly in convincing Mohammad Ali Jinnah — who had gone into voluntary exile to the United Kingdom in 1930 after becoming disheartened at the state of affairs — to come back and re-join the fight for independence. Jinnah’s return to the subcontinent meant that the couple’s life became more hectic, as the two men grew involved in fortifying the Muslim League as well as in negotiating with the Congress and the British to look out for Muslim interests.

Khan, who would soon have two young sons as well as a household to run, supported her husband fully, often helping him in typesetting, handling the League’s correspondence and ensuring that their house served as a focal meeting point for the numerous people engaged in the effort for self-rule. Through multiple changes in the political scenario, from the Government of India Act 1935 to the Nehru Report, the Muslim-Hindu relationship continued to erode, and Jinnah and Liaquat — secular liberals who believed in Hindu-Muslim unity — began to lean heavily towards the Two-Nation Theory.

Liaquat steadily rose through the ranks during this time, from his appointment as honorary secretary of the Muslim League in 1936, to his eventual position as the first prime minister of the new country, to being given the title of Quaid-i-Millat [Leader of the Nation]. His wife, who had always been by his side, joined him in the new country with the passion and zeal required to deal with the nascent country’s multiple problems.

But with Jinnah’s death within a year of independence and her husband’s assassination in 1951, Khan was left with a huge burden to bear. She was not only a widow solely responsible for her two boys, but also negotiating the various complexities of arranging support systems for refugees.

The second half of the book, written by Pakistani author Tahmina Aziz Ayub, deals with Khan’s life post-Partition, detailing the significant role she played in providing support to migrants. Khan called upon women to come forward and help collect and distribute medical supplies and food, help train nurses and set up shelters for the newly migrated families. She set up the Pakistan Women’s National Guard (PWNG) and helped establish the Pakistan Women Naval Reserve (PWNR) — initiatives which faced a lot of backlash from segments in society that believed women should stay within their homes. Khan, however, was adamant that the women come out of their four walls.

Throughout her life, up until her death in 1990, Khan played an important role in the country’s political and social climate. She was the first female governor of Sindh, appointed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973, and also the first chancellor of the University of Karachi. One of her major achievements — the non-profit volunteer organisation All Pakistan Women’s Association (Apwa) — still has major presence in all Pakistani cities and continues to play an active role in promoting the social and economic welfare of Pakistani women. Founded in 1949, its initial goal was to handle the refugee crisis, but branches spread nationally as well as internationally, in both rural and urban areas. The organisation as well as its founder received numerous awards from all over the globe and were lauded for their work as well as their commitment to the cause.

Organisations such as Apwa, as well as Khan’s valiant services and constant efforts for the empowerment of women, earned her the title of Maader-i-Pakistan [Mother of Pakistan]. This story of her life deserves to be read by everyone in the country. Writing sharply and concisely, both authors of The Begum ensure their narratives never lag and keep the pace of the action fast while never losing touch with the focus of their account.

Even when historical events — which feel very male-dominated in the political sphere — are discussed, there is a constant circling back to how they affected Khan’s life and how she responded to those events. Since Liaquat Ali Khan was such an integral part of most of the subcontinent’s history, Khan was also very deeply involved in almost all the machinations that led to independence. Even after her death — as Aziz Ayub’s half of the account details — she continued to play a major part in the country’s outlook, especially in all matters related to the women of the country. As such, this biography is a must-read.

The reviewer is an editor of children’s fiction

The Begum
By Deepa Agarwal and
Tahmina Aziz Ayub
Penguin Random House,
ISBN: 978-0670091188

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 21st, 2019