First Lady : Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan

She needs no introduction. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was a master of ‘firsts’: first Muslim woman ambassador and doyen of the diplomatic corps in the Netherlands, first Muslim woman to become the governor and chancellor of a university, first Muslim woman delegate to the UN, first Muslim woman to win the human rights award and the list goes on. A sociologist and trained economist, she was one of the most industrious, far-sighted and progressive women of her time. Her charismatic personality married the mannerism of a prime minister’s wife with the accessibility, confidence and sincerity of a social worker, a mother, a wife and a diplomat.

Begum Ra’ana established a vast number of organisations to mobilise women and promote social welfare activities in the country. She is most fondly known for her dedication to the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) which she founded and also won for it UN recognition as a non-governmental organisation.

The "The incomparable first lady" book, which includes Begum Ra’ana’s speeches from 1947-79, is an updated version of a short biography Dynamo in Silk written by her life-long companion Kay Miles and a collection of her speeches and APWA’s proceedings printed in “Challenge and Change”. The forward and preface from the first book and a succinct biography from the second make this edition accessible to both local and foreign readers. The wide array of speeches is preceded by a brief introduction to their respective contexts. Editing and the inclusion of sub-headings render cadence and conciseness to the text. In addition, two pictorial sections, albeit appearing indiscriminately, allow readers to journey through different facets of the Begum’s life such as moments of family intimacy, meetings with foreign heads of the states and her diplomatic efforts to strengthen APWA after the tragic assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan. The pictures also present some of the leading figures who helped lay the country’s foundation such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sir Aga Khan III and Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar and highlight the socio-political scenario of the time.

Begum Ra’ana stressed that the role of men and women is complimentary in society, not contradictory. Speaking to a representative women’s meeting at the College of Home Science she said, “We have no desire to wage a sex-war, or forget or forgo our rightful duties as wives and mothers, but we do wish to pull our own weight, in our own way, and with our own and proper status.”

She encouraged girls to work as nurses during the post-independence influx of refugees and faced the critique of prejudiced people who thought that nursing was a profession for impious women. She promoted home economics as a proper science and showed people that it was a field that involved more than just trial and error cooking. Begum Ra’ana argued that educating women was not an end in itself.

Education for women that is geared towards the advancement of their socio-economic needs was essential. She favoured co-education at college and university level. In her opinion, women living in “ivory towers” cannot prove themselves as national resource material to build a progressive society. She wanted women to obtain expertise in the field of science, health, architecture, housing, town-planning, marketing, finance management and law.

Sharing her impressions of a visit to USSR in 1969, she commended their network of urban and rural crèches, the high ratio of women in the labour force, and Moscow Central Pioneers’ Youth Palace’s social service through free classes in fine arts, science and sports. She expressed the hope that such dreams could also be practicalised in Pakistan.

In 1952, she represented Pakistan on the Third Committee of the United Nations on the article in the covenants on human rights. She represented her delegation’s response to the critique that individual and collective rights should not be the subject of the same covenant and upheld the right of self-determination of nations.

Ra’ana Liaquat Ali’s speeches pertain to our present social problems. She worked to rehabilitate handicapped children to turn them into efficient workers. She spoke against charity given to beggars because of its role in increasing the exploitation of women and children. She emphasised vocational training, creation of employment and development of cottage industries to put the citizens’ energies into positive use. She also actively campaigned for family planning awareness.

Addressing the Young Men’s Christian Association in 1954 she said, “Both Christianity and Islam have been betrayed by their own followers, for the fault lies not in the principles of either but in the malpractices of both.” She stressed the Islamic principles of tolerance towards minorities, respect for the less privileged and sharing to eradicate social evils.

Begum Ra’ana was an advocate of extra-curricular activities in schools and language learning to increase Pakistan’s participation in the global world. In one of her speeches she said, “To us, language is no ‘gimmick’ but a functional need.”

Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan is no more among us but her words and activism are a living legend. If one woman in every house could become like her, we would be able to counter Pakistan’s socio-economic problems and make it a true welfare state.

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