“She had tears in her eyes,” says Sherry Rehman of Fauzia Wahab’s first day in the National Assembly 10 years ago, when both Pakistan Peoples Party colleagues were freshman Parliamentarians. “I asked her why she was welling up, and she said, ‘I have dreamt of this moment most of my adult life, to become a legislator.’”
Wahab died at the age of 55 from post-op complications on June 17 in her home city of Karachi. She got an early start in politics: she was elected class representative in the fifth grade at school in Germany. At Karachi University, where she read international relations, she led the leftwing Progressive Students alliance and met future political players like Husain Haqqani. By 1993, Wahab had caught Benazir Bhutto’s eye and soon came to lead her party’s human rights cell. She made it to Parliament in 2002 and again in 2008.
Her political rivals concede that Wahab was courageous, in a meaningful way. After Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination in March 2011, Wahab and her friend Farahnaz Ispahani shamed their colleagues in the National Assembly to stand up and observe a minute of silence to mourn the catholic Bhatti’s killing. “It worked,” says Ispahani. “She knew right from wrong, and lived it.” Ispahani says Wahab had an energy, cynicism and humor that were quintessentially Karachi. She spoke against human rights abuses and religious extremism and was frequently threatened by militants. Wahab had also lobbied for reforming the blasphemy laws and pushed hard for pro-women legislation. “She was fearless,” says Ispahani, “and a roomful of politicians and journalists could never cow her.”
In her refusal to cow down and in her single-minded defense of her party and its government, Wahab was shouted down on cable talk shows by male anchors and politicians alike. People somehow thought that they had the right to be rude to her because she was a liberal, a politician, a defender of what they considered indefensible, an unworthy woman fighting an unworthy cause. She kept her cool, even when she shouldn’t have, and peppered her own and her party’s detractors with rapier repartee. She didn’t take guff from anyone, and maintained a civility and generosity that Pakistani politics is poorer for after her death.
Staying true to her convictions came with a price. In early 2011, she was sacked as her party’s central information secretary after she said what no one wanted to hear about U.S. contractor Raymond Davis, who shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore. “Having read the Vienna Conventions, I maintain that he was entitled to diplomatic immunity,” she later told Newsweek. “We could have saved ourselves the drama and just given it to him.” Despite the loss of party office, she continued defending the PPP on television. Months later President Asif Ali Zardari promoted Wahab, naming her his deputy political secretary.
Wahab was a realist, to the very end. “It was difficult to see her, she couldn’t talk, she was on the respirator, and in pain,” says Sharmila Faruqi, a party colleague who accompanied Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to see Wahab at hospital. “I held her hand as the doctor told the prime minister that she was out of danger and would be home soon. She just looked at us and shook her head as if telling us that it wouldn’t end happily.”
The government announced 10 days of mourning to mark Wahab’s death. She is survived by her second husband, Dr. Athar Hussein, and four children from her first husband, journalist Wahab Siddiqui, who died in 1993.
Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, the president’s daughter, remembers Wahab’s enthusiasm for change and her good humor fondly. “The last time we met we were speaking about ways to engage the youth and women using social media and blogs, since our own media distorts the truth so frequently,” she says. “She made me laugh with her razor sharp wit.”
Wahab’s personable wit kept her sane through tragedies and trials. When the editor of this newsmagazine sent Wahab flowers after her removal last year from the party’s information-cell position, she rang him up. “Thanks for the flowers, who died?”
From our June 29, 2012, issue.