The iron lady of Wali Bagh: Begum Naseem Wali

“It seems that the Awami National Party (ANP) is once again leaning towards joining the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). As we know, workers are the real strength of the party. I have reliable information that they are not happy and they are opposing the move. Will you join the government despite their profound resentment for such a decision?”

It was in 1998 that I posed this hard question to late Begum Naseem Wali Khan during a gathering at former party district general secretary Jehanzeb Khan’s residence in Swabi. I asked her the question because I was curious since a few days ago, then NWFP chief minister Sardar Mehtab Ahmad Khan Abbasi had confidently told me that “if the ANP desires to re-join our government it would be on our terms, not on their terms”.

Begum Naseem burst out in her own unique political style, “How do you know how the ANP workers feel?” I pompously thumped my chest with my right hand and proudly replied, “I am your worker too.” This softened her and she gave me a warm smile, remarking “this is the reason you are sticking with me.”

Begum Naseem Wali passed away at Wali Bagh, Charsadda on May 16. ANP stalwarts called her the ‘iron lady’ but she was widely known as Mor Bibi in party circles. She was the first woman ever in the history of the country to become a member of the National Assembly.

Although she was born into a political family, with her father Ameer Mohammad Khan being one of the dominant figures of the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement, she was the only woman from her family to join politics when ANP’s survival was threatened. She married Khan Abdul Wali in 1954.

She saw her share of hardships as one does during their political career, with the 1970s being particularly tumultuous. Her husband, Wali Khan was jailed for his role in the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case; while his party, National Awami Party (NAP), was banned by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government. The political scenario was also very heated, with the nine party alliance forged against Bhutto was calling the 1977 election fraudulent. Despite the hardships, Naseem Bibi was able to carve a place for herself and offer the necessary support to the party, while locking horns with Bhutto and eventually the following dictatorship. It hardly helped that she was one of the first women working in an entirely male-dominated field but with an iron will she prevailed. It was her efforts that helped pull her husband, Khan, and other senior politicians from jail as well.

“My rivals in ANP were of the view that I should return to my normal life at home as the key purpose for me joining politics had been fulfilled [with Khan’s release],” she said in an interview.

“Party colleagues who were opposed to my political career thought that being a Pakhtun woman; I should not participate in public meetings and other political gatherings with men. However, Khan always snubbed the handful of people and defended my active role in ANP.”

Many people were disgruntled when she first entered the political arena, with many wondering how a woman will lead a political party in the conservative Pukhtun society, while waiting for the move to backfire. In fact, various political pundits were of the opinion that the Wali Bagh leaders only allowed her to come on board so that the reins of the party stay in the family. Some also questioned her tilt towards her father and her own family, the Hotis of Mardan.

But Naseem Begum was not one to back down easily and she forced many to step back and change their opinion about her political prowess. She was not one to be dictated, something she proved all too well when she stood up against general Ziaul Haq to restore democracy in the country. She motivated women and young people alike, both through her leadership and by example while staying true to the philosophy of no violence propagated by her father-in-law.

Being firm in her beliefs, she was also the person who called for a separation from her step son Asfandyar Wali Khan when they developed differences in 2006, after which she launched the Awami National Party-Wali. This was also perhaps one of the two political defeats she suffered in her career, as many party bigwigs looked at Asfandyar as the actual leader of the party and pulled support from her.

The second defeat she suffered came in the form of her party not awarding her a senate ticket in 2012. She was glossed over for her old age and the party’s parliamentary board gave the ticket to Zahida Khan from Upper Dir.

Despite these setbacks, Naseem Begum had an illustrious career where she broke many barriers, particularly for the women of KP who may venture towards politics. She is counted among the greats from Wali Bagh such as Bacha Khan and her husband Khan Abdul Wali Khan. As we say goodbye to yet another strong and fearless leader, we can only hope that another woman dares to cross the Wali Bagh threshold and ventures into the murky world of politics, so that the fire that Naseem Begum started, can stay lit for years to come.