Equality, My Personal Journey

Fighting from women’s rights in Pakistan

History and family reached out their long fingers to grip and squeeze my heart in the early hours this morning.
The tribal areas of Pakistan is one of the hardest areas in the world to be a woman. In two of the poorest and most conservative areas of the world – Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunhwa province (formerly know as the North West Frontier province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – women are traditionally powerless, often abused, only 3% can read and they have one of the highest chances in the world of dying in childbirth.

But out in this war-torn part of the world women are helping women, trying to climb out of the abyss and improve the quality of life for the women and children in the area.

Khwendo Kor is a small grass-roots organization founded in 1993 by Maryam Bibi, who grew up in the Tribal areas, and four of her friends. This group of brave women and their volunteers raise money from donors for projects focused on improving education, health, training and micro-credit as well as being advocates for democracy. And it is a tough task they have taken on.

I’ve known about Khwendo Kor before… but this morning, reading their newsletter, I felt the threads of time pulling me.

Opening this month’s FROK newsletter (the UK friends of KK) I saw a picture of my grandmother!

After the rush of emotion at seeing her unexpectedly, I was inspired that her work in the Tribal regions is, even now 60 years later, still recognized. As the wife of the region’s Governor before Partition, my grandmother could chose to live the life of bridge and gin and tonics, or get involved and try to improve the lot of the women around her. She did both.

My grandmother founded the All Pakistan Women Association – for the “Educational, Social, Cultural and Economic Advancement” of the regions women. She was a smart, Cambridge educated woman (although she could not be granted her degree because she was not a man), caught up in the Raj which was a man’s world and she was clearly determined to make a difference.

And she did… not only in the moment but also down through time. When Maryam Bibi finally decided to defy her family her first job was with the All Pakistan Women Association. The FROK newsletter article asks “Can it be just coincidence that these aims [of AWPA] correspond so closely to KK’s? Or did the ideals of the APWA continue to echo for Maryam Bibi, as she continued into the 21st century the work with women which Lady Dundas (my grandmother) started in the mid-20th?”

I wonder how my grandmother felt, having worked hard to change the lives of the local women around her, to be leaving to return to England and back to the stifling English society of the early 1950s. When I was a little girl she talked endlessly of India (the region had been part of India back then). I think she missed it terribly. And as a child I assumed she missed being the High Commissioner’s wife and the status that came with that. But talking to my mother and reading the papers about their time in what is now Pakistan I wonder. Was that the place she was actually the most free?

The words of the final farewell address by the APWA to my grandmother are inscribed on a silver scroll case, cherished by my mother, and could have been written also about Maryam Bibi, KK’s founder:

“We have always found you anxious to do something for the betterment of the lot of the women of this Province…..It was the result of these efforts that today we find social relations amongst the women of Peshawar which did not exist earlier…

“You always made it a point to go round the refugees inhabited area to see for yourself the condition of the refugees and always insisted on their being provided with the necessities of life. But for this personal interest and supervision the lot of the refugees would not have been what it is.”