The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani woman
(Oxford University Press, Pakistan)
By Syeda Abida Hussain
This highly readable and well-written memoir is a refresher in the history of Pakistan but through Abida Hussain’s prism. It starts in the latter part of Ayub’s rule, and draws to an end with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, Hussain’s own life story nicely interwoven with it.
Born to Syed Abid Hussain, one of the most prominent landlords of Punjab, and Kishwar, the daughter of a successful businessman of Lahore, Abida was gifted by nature with exceptional beauty and a razor sharp mind. With all the love showered on her as an only child, it made for an imperious and patrician personality, not lacking in either confidence or courage. She needed both when she was deprived of her father at the tender age of twenty-five, and had to establish her fiat as his heir in the conservative and patriarchal society of Jhang.
In this dispassionate account of Pakistan’s politics, the author lets the words and actions of the protagonists reveal their role in the unfolding political saga, letting the reader draw their own conclusions, rather than imposing her own opinions. Since Abida, and her life-partner and sheet anchor Syed Fakhar Imam, knew the main actors in Pakistan’s political world personally, it gives the narrative a sense of immediacy.
Ziaul Haque looms large in the narrative as he inaugurates his rule with what is commonly regarded as the judicial murder of Zufiqar Ali Bhutto. However, his isolation as an “international pariah” is short-lived, as Pakistan became a frontline state for the USA in the war against the Soviet occupation in 1979. Abida describes how the Afghan jihad transformed Pakistan as millions of Afghan refugees poured in, and a pernicious, intolerant and violent brand of Islam began to spread all over the country, and took root in her district of Jhang. By the late 80s, they were spreading sectarian hatred in Jhang, and when their leader was murdered, the crisis took a violent turn as they went on a killing and burning spree. Since then she has countenanced threats to her life with an admirable coolness.
She discusses the rough and tumble of constituency politics, becoming the first woman Chairperson of the District Council, and later the first woman to be elected to the National Assembly from a general seat. The husband and wife team, supported by their allies, gave spirited opposition to Zia’s legislation after the non-party polls in the National Assembly, but it cost Fakhar his Speaker’s chair. When Bugti and Benazir Bhutto are assassinated in the Musharraf era, she loses two friends. She poignantly declares that the effect of Benazir’s death on her family was that, “we were politically wrecked”.
Given her varied experience and reputation as a strong nationalist, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was instrumental in sending her as Pakistan’s ambassador to the USA. The Afghan war was over, the Americans did not need Pakistan anymore, and the pressure to roll back the nuclear program was at its peak. She has an interesting vignette about the meeting between the COAS General Asif Nawaz and the Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney. In a meeting at the Pentagon, Cheney asks to speak alone to Asif Nawaz, and tells him that Nawaz Sharif is not indispensable as Prime Minister, and the US would support a military takeover if they roll back the nuclear program.
The book makes for enjoyable reading about a woman who pushed boundaries, lived an interesting and full life, and played a significant role in Pakistan’s recent tumultuous history with grace and dignity.
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