Two women who got elected to the Pakistan Senate last month have created history in their own way. One, Krishna Kumari, is a former bonded labour and the second Hindu woman senator (after Ratna Bhagwandas Chawla), and the other is an accomplished political figure, Sherry Rehman, who has become the first woman Leader of Opposition in that country’s Senate. Incidentally, both are Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leaders.
Krishna’s story is an extraordinary case of achievement by a backward class woman, who initially appeared to be destined to live a life of a wretched person. Now a popular human rights activist, she, along with her other family members, was sold to a landlord to work as a bonded labour. She was hardly a 10-year-old child at that time. But luck began to smile on her when her entire family was freed from the clutches of the landlord during a raid in the Tharparkar desert area in Sindh’s Umerkot district to punish people who kept bonded labour.
Born in a family belonging to the Kohli community, she got admission in a school where she would get much respect from her teachers owing to being a brilliant student. Her parents, however, got her married when she was just in the ninth class (hardly 16-years-old). But her early marriage did not come in her way of acquiring as much education as possible. Her husband supported her at every stage in her pursuit of higher education.
Krishna continued her education till she became a postgraduate in sociology. A public-spirited person, she decided to make a mark as a human rights activist, helping the uneducated, poverty-stricken and marginalised people living in remote areas in Tharparkar. Now 38 and a household name in Tharparkar, Krishna has launched a drive to ensure that there is no bonded labour in her area and no woman gets exploited. But her mission is a very challenging one as her drive involves taking on the powerful landlords.
Sindh is well known for a cultural practice called “vani” which involves teenage or ever younger girls getting married off forcibly by an informal social court with a view to punishing an entire family if any male member is found to have been involved in an incident of crime. In such a situation, no one can muster courage to question the socially sanctioned system though it is clearly an illegal activity.
According to media reports, Krishna’s brother, Veerji Kohli, who too has been a human rights activist, is in jail for having launched a movement against the illegal practice of bonded labour. His activism led to many victims of bonded labour getting freedom from their tormentors — all powerful landlords. But these powerful land sharks ultimately got Veerji implicated in false cases, resulting in his conviction by a court and getting jailed.
Among Veerji’s supporters are Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and prominent human rights activist Jibran Nasir, and they have alleged that Veerji has been punished for helping the poor in escaping the clutches of the powerful landlords. The treatment meted out to Krishna’s brother clearly indicates how challenging her mission is. But she does not seem to be scared.
An accomplished politician and senior leader of the PPP, Sherry Rehman has added a new feather to her cap by acquiring the status of the first woman Leader of Opposition in her country’s Senate. Her own party leader, the late Benazir Bhutto, had a similar distinction of being the first woman Leader of Opposition in Pakistan’s National Assembly (Parliament). However, Benazir’s case was different in the sense that she also headed the party founded by her illustrious father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Of course, the achievement of Sherry Rahman (real name Shehrbano Rahman) is nothing compared to that of Benazir, whose rise to the position of Prime Minister led to a major controversy. Some religious diehards raised a sensitive question: How could a woman be accepted as the Head of Government in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? The controversy died down when those who stood solidly behind Benazir mentioned the case of one of the revered wives of Prophet Muhammad, Hazrat Aisha, who headed an army ready for a fight against armed forces led by her own son-in-law and the fourth Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Ali, owing to some misunderstanding caused after the murder of the third Great Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Usman. That the issue was resolved without the two sides getting involved in an armed conflict is a different matter.
Coming back to the case of Sherry Rehman, her political journey to become the first woman Leader of Opposition in the Pakistani Senate is remarkable. She provided enough proof of having leadership qualities of a high order during her tenures as a minister and an ambassador. She is considered a great asset for her party.
Asserting that the PPP would be making history again, party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said while congratulating Sherry Rehman on her victory, „Election of Sherry Rehman as the Leader of Opposition in the Senate was in line with the PPP’s inherited policy of empowerment of women and providing them equal opportunities to play their role in every sphere of life.»
Born on December 21, 1960, in Karachi, she did her graduation at Smith College there and post-graduation in art history from the University of Sussex in the UK.
Her candidature was challenged by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, headed by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, which fielded its own candidate for the Opposition leader’s position in the Upper House of Pakistan’s Parliament. The PTI made considerable efforts to get the PPP candidate defeated in the race for the Senate’s top position but in vain. PTI leaders met the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and Jamaat-e-Islami representatives besides senators from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in this regard but without success.
A former journalist and human rights activist, Sherry joined Herald magazine as its Editor in 1988 and remained associated with it till 1999. In 2002, she was elected to the National Assembly of Pakistan. She got opportunities to work closely with Benazir Bhutto.
Sherry is one of the 20 women lawmakers in the 104-member Senate of Pakistan. Highly respected for her intellectual capabilities, she has brighter future ahead.