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Formidable Pashtun Lady

by Salim Saifullah Khan
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Kulsum Saifullah Khan with her husband, Saifullah, in Japan, 1962.

Kulsum Saifullah Khan with her husband, Saifullah, in Japan, 1962.

Kulsum Saifullah Khan (1923-2015).

In her 20-year career as a politician, Kulsum Saifullah Khan never lost a race. She was elected to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly twice and the National Assembly three times. In 1987, already a widely acclaimed businessperson and social worker, she became Pakistan’s first woman federal minister. She was also an effective campaigner for her politician sons: my brothers Humayun and Anwar and I.

Born on Dec. 7, 1923, in Parachinar, my mother passed away on Jan. 26 in Islamabad. Until her last breath, she remained a source of strength, and inspiration, for her five children, 22 grandchildren and many, many great-grandchildren. On her death, Pakistan’s president and prime minister paid tribute to her, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called her “a formidable lady.”

Married at 17 and widowed at 40, my mother took up the political and business work of my barrister-politician father, Saifullah Khan. Their marriage was a union between two important families of South Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Her father, Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan Khattak, O.B.E., was an assistant political agent in Kurram famous for rescuing Molly Amis, a British woman who had been taken captive by Ajab Khan Afridi; and his father, Khan Sahib Faizullah Khan Ghaznikhel, was chief of the Marwat tribe and one of the richest landowners and contractors of Bannu.

With my father’s sudden passing on April 4, 1964, my mother began looking after his Lakki Marwat constituency, which had elected him to the National Assembly. She also assumed charge of the businesses he had set up, including the Frontier Dehydrating Company and K.K. & Company. She expanded the business, setting up the Bannu Flour Mill and then, in 1968, the Kohat Textile Mill. These companies are part of our Saif Group, which she oversaw as chairperson for several years and whose diverse portfolio today includes power generation and oil and gas exploration and production.

It was unique and challenging for a Pashtun woman in Pakistan of the 1960s to be so engaged in politics and business, but Kulsum Saifullah Khan persevered—and inspired countless others with her grit and courage. By 1970 Lakki Marwat had become dominated by the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party. So the odds of her getting elected to the National Assembly from there were tough. My mother, who had worked with the All Pakistan Women’s Association and its founder, Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of the-then prime minister, campaigned to get out the women vote. She urged them to take charge of their destinies and participate in the political process. Women voters turned out on polling day, and my mother won her seat. Even after she retired from politics in 1990, she stuck by the poor of Lakki Marwat, helping them build their lives.

In 2011, she published her memoir, Meri Tanha Parvaz (My Solo Flight). The book, replete with her characteristic candor, came down hard on Pakistan’s former military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who had once jailed her. She also criticized Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, another political leader she had worked with, for imperiling his own life by issuing threats from jail.

The Zia regime was sensitive about all things Bhutto, even after his execution. In 1980, Lt. Gen. Fazl-e-Haq, governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, called my mother demanding to know why the family was hosting memorial services “for Bhutto.” With her customary grace, she replied: “General sahib, I thought you were a well-informed governor. Don’t you know that my husband died on the same day 15 years prior to Mr. Bhutto?” This put the general to shame and he apologized for his outburst.

In 2008, then-president Pervez Musharraf conferred on her Pakistan’s highest civilian award for her contributions to business, politics, and social welfare. After the ceremony in Islamabad, the congratulatory calls came in from far and wide. A family friend in Karachi rang to say that by accepting the award it was she who had brought honor to the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, not the other way around. This was hyperbole to only those who didn’t know her.

Khan, a former senator, authored this piece with his son, Assad Saifullah Khan. From our Feb. 7-14, 2015, issue.

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4 comments

arifkhatak February 10, 2015 - 8:06 pm

She was indeed a great lady. A person who makes her people proud.

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edwizio February 10, 2015 - 11:37 pm

A beacon of light for all…

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Qadar Khan February 14, 2015 - 11:54 pm

Very few women not in Pakistan, but in the world out there with the calibre and several qualities of Begum Kulsoom Saifullah Khan. May Allah (SWT) rest her soul in peace. Her empowerment of woman, and helping the poor and less fortunate members of society are legendary.

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Zarwaid March 5, 2015 - 1:23 pm

A legendry politician, who was a stalwart of independence movement. She was an icon of generosity, grace, and humbleness. RIP begum kulsoom.

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