Khan, Begum Liaquat Ali (1905–1990)

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Khan, Begum Liaquat Ali (1905–1990)

Pakistani diplomat and much-beloved women's rights activist who in 1954 became one of the first Asian women to serve her nation as an ambassador. Name variations: Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan; Rana Liaquat Ali Khan. Born in Almora, India, on February 13, 1905, as Miss Pant; died in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 13, 1990; grew up in a Hindu Brahmin family but converted to Islam when she married; earned a degree in economics from Lucknow University; was second wife of (Zada) Liaquat Ali Khan (1895–1951), the first prime minister of Pakistan; children: two sons.

Played a crucial role in organizing the All Pakistan Women's Association (1949); appointed delegate to the United Nations (1952); served as an ambassador (1954–66); appointed governor of Sind by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1973); resigned (1976).

During a 1952 visit to Pakistan, Eleanor Roosevelt was told by the president of the All Pakistan Women's Association, Begum Liaqat Ali Khan, that the human rights of women were highly respected in her country, asserting, "to us it is of great pride that the human rights principles are the very basis of Islam" and that these concepts had been adopted by the nation's Parliament. Although that ideal has often failed to measure up to the realities of daily life for the great majority of Pakistani women, the life of the begum continued to provide inspiration that one day women would be able to enjoy full equality in an essentially patriarchal society.

Born in 1905 in Almora, India, the daughter of a senior government official of the then British Indian administration, the future begum, then known as Miss Pant, was raised a Hindu in a prominent Brahmin family. Fortunately, her father believed that women should be exposed to higher education if they desired careers; as a result, she was able to earn a degree in economics from Lucknow University. Upon graduation, she became a lecturer in economics in Delhi. At this time, she met and fell in love with Liaquat Ali Khan, a Muslim lawyer from an affluent and aristocratic Punjabi family. A lawyer and rising political star, Liaquat Ali married Miss Pant in 1933; she became his second wife and also converted to the Islamic faith.

Determined not to play the role of a traditional Muslim wife, and encouraged by a husband whose outlook was secular and modern, the Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, as she was now known, worked together with her husband to achieve the independence of the Indian subcontinent from British rule. While on honeymoon in London, she and her husband encountered Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a leader of the Muslim League, who had migrated to England because of his frustrations with the political infighting in the Indian independence movement. Both the begum and her husband pleaded with Jinnah, then practicing law in London, to return to India immediately in order to revitalize the Muslim League. Not completely convinced, Jinnah suggested that upon their return home they sound out the leaders of the organization. This was done, and Jinnah did in fact go back to India to become, along with Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the key leaders of the successful struggle for independence. Within the Muslim League, the role of Liaquat Ali Khan was comparable to the one Nehru played to Gandhi—that of a trusted friend and collaborator.

As her husband's career advanced—he became general secretary of the All India Muslim League (1937) and was named finance minister of the interim government of India that prepared for independence (1946)—the begum too became more active in public affairs. Convinced that true national independence required greater emancipation for women, she advocated social and economic advancement for Muslim women, arguing that their talents and energies would be crucial for social and economic progress once political freedom had been realized.

Tragically, the achievement of independence from the British in August 1947 brought not peace and prosperity but bloody massacres as Hindus and Muslims butchered each other across the subcontinent. Millions of Muslims fled India, arriving destitute and traumatized in the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The begum's husband Liaquat Ali Khan became the new nation's first prime minister. While he tackled the country's immense economic and political problems, the begum worked to bring assistance to the refugees, persuading the rich to donate significant sums for relief programs. She personally visited the refugee camps to see that food and other necessities were being fairly distributed, and the Pakistani public, and many refugees, began to call her the "Florence Nightingale of the camps." But the begum was aware that the weakest and most vulnerable members of the refugee population, and indeed of Pakistani society in general, were the women. Thus, she played a key role in founding the All Pakistan Women's Association in 1949. Over the next decades, this organization would help millions of desperate women escape from the worst aspects of poverty and discrimination.

In October 1951, personal tragedy transformed the life of the begum. While addressing a public meeting in Rawalpindi, her husband was assassinated. The grieving begum was able to find solace by devoting her energies to several programs for the poor. These included helping set up the Pakistani Cottage Industries in Karachi, and the Health and Nutrition Association, as well as sponsoring industrial and health centers for women throughout the country. As a result of the begum's lobbying, Colleges of Home Economics were also established during this period in Daccam, Karachi, and Lahore. The many organizations she helped create or push forward in their reform agendas included the Pakistani International Women's Club and the Pakistani Federation of University Women. Concerned about the need to improve public health conditions, she spent considerable time as the chief patron of the Pakistani Nurses Association as well as with the Liaquat Memorial Hospital. As a member of the management committees of a number of important social welfare organizations, she was often called on to deliver persuasive speeches. The begum was also a skilled journalist, often writing articles for the national press.

Regarded as a radical feminist by many conservative Muslims, Begum Liaquat Ali Khan minced no words in her opposition to laws and traditions she saw as discriminatory to women. In 1949, while her husband was prime minister, she had been appointed a brigadier in the newly formed Women's National Guard. This organization, based on the notion that Pakistani women should be permitted to participate in both the defense and the modernization of their new nation, was viewed with suspicion from the start by Islamic fundamentalists, particularly hard-line mullahs. Some years after its creation, the Women's National Guard was disbanded. To dramatize her firm belief that the advancement of women's social, political and economic rights was fully compatible with the tenets of Islam, in 1952 she helped organize and presided over the first international conference of Muslim women, which was held in Pakistan that same year.

In 1952, the begum became Pakistan's delegate to the United Nations (as well as to the International Labor Organization), then only the second Muslim woman to have served in this capacity. Starting in 1954, she began serving as her nation's ambassador to a number of nations including Italy, the Netherlands, and Tunisia. Her diplomatic career ended in 1966, and she returned home to continue her activities on the social and economic front. From 1973 through 1976, the begum served as governor of Sind Province. During this period, she received national recognition during the silver jubilee celebrations honoring the All Pakistan Women's Association, which by that time had been able to render significant assistance to over one million women. In 1979, her reform efforts brought her international recognition when she received the Human Rights Award of the United Nations.

Greatly beloved by both Pakistanis and those who met her abroad, and affectionately called Begum Sahiba in the final decades of her life, this remarkable woman could display charm and grace, but was also tenacious when advocating a cause she deemed just and necessary for her nation's advancement. In the last years of her life, she struggled with ill health but continued to play a significant role in Pakistani public life. The begum was particularly incensed when the dictatorial regime of General Zia ul-Haq made attempts to erode the hard-won women's rights. She minced no words in attacking the discriminatory legislation, allegedly inspired by the spirit of the Koran, that became a central theme of the fundamentalist Pakistani political agenda beginning in the 1970s. In her view, the legislation was profoundly inimical to the true ideals of Islam. Using her immense prestige as a founding mother of the nation, she spent her final years attempting to halt the spread of those elements and ideas she was convinced were not only un-Islamic in their religious content but profoundly bigoted in their attitude toward one of Pakistan's greatest and often under-appreciated resources, its women. Begum Liaquat Ali Khan died in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 13, 1990.


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Haq, Mushirul. "Liaqat Ali Khan (1895–1951)," in Siba Pada Sen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 2 (1973). Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies (1972–1974), pp. 411–412.

James, Michael. "Islam Rights Told to Mrs. Roosevelt," in The New York Times. February 22, 1952, p. 3.

"Raana Liaquat Ali Khan," in Deborah Andrews, ed., The Annual Obituary 1990. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1991, pp. 378–379.

"Raana Liaquat Ali Khan," in The Times [London]. June 22, 1990, p. 14.

Reber, Karin. "Women in Pakistan," in Swiss Review of World Affairs. November 1993.

Wolpert, Stanley. Jinnah of Pakistan. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia