November issue 2002

By | People | Q & A | Published 19 years ago

“I think the world of politics is pretty sleazy”

– Jemima Khan

The transition from Sloanie teen princess to conformist Pakistani wife couldn’t have been easy for the daughter of British millionaire industrialist-politician James Goldsmith.

But Jemima Khan has made it appear almost effortless.

It helps, of course, that she manages to spend a great deal of time ensconced within the bosom of her adoring family in England, and, judging by the coverage in British tabloids, in more social pursuits with her premarriage circle of friends, comprising Britain’s ultimately tony set. But equally, what has made the transition easier, says Jemima, is the fact that she moved from her extremely closely-knit family unit to that of Imran’s — living in his joint family set-up for five of the seven plus years she’s been married.

Not that it’s been smooth sailing all the way. Imran’s political opponents have sought to discredit him by unleashing vitriolic attacks against his wife, accusing her of everything from being a Zionist agent to smuggling antiques out of the country. The latter forced her to remain out of Pakistan for almost a year, until the matter was finally resolved.

The accusations must sting, but Jemima doesn’t lose much sleep over them. Remarkably composed for someone not yet 30, she shrugs off the charges as par for the course in Pakistani political life. In fact, she demonstrates remarkable resolve in other ways as well. Not content to merely have converted to Islam, Jemima actively practices her new faith and continues to study it.

That apart, there is also something intangibly endearing about Jemima.

Unaffected and quintessentially casual, she is both shy and forthcoming. And whether she’s mingling with the haute monde in London, or the hoi polloi in Pakistan, she’s clearly comfortable in her skin.

In their unassuming, amply lived-in home in Islamabad, with Imran sitting in and occasionally pitching in, Jemima spoke to Newsline about the life she’s chosen — and made a visible success of.

jemima-khan-2-nov02Q: Do you see yourself as a Muslim Pakistani woman, a Britisher living in Pakistan, a citizen of the world?

A: Well, I have Pakistani citizenship and I have British citizenship, so I’m a dual national. I still have my roots in England, but I feel quite tied to Pakistan. I live here, my children go to school here. My life is in Pakistan now.

Q: What is the hardest thing about life in Pakistan?

A: For me personally… I’m very close to my family and it’s not having my family around. That would be the same anywhere. It probably helped me in one sense that I came from a similar extended family set-up in London — I’ve got a huge family. I was still living at home, and I moved to Pakistan and straight in with Imran’s extended family — his father, sisters, brothers-in-law and nephews and nieces. A lot of people said, ‘Oh my god, you live with your in-laws’ — and it was for five years — but actually, it probably really helped me initially to settle in here and adapt.

Q: What apart from your family is it that you miss most about Britain?

A: Family and friends. But my mother visits, and I feel pretty settled here now. I’ve kind of got a good balance between my life here and my holidays in London. I go and see my mother regularly; I see her for the summers and go in December as well.

Q: The general perception is that you spend long stretches of time away…

A: No, it’s only twice a year. That’s my routine now with my children in school. I spend my children’s two major holidays in London — June, July, August, and then a couple of weeks in December.

Q: You don’t socialise much in Pakistan, and it’s said that apart from Imran’s friends, the only real friends you’ve made here are foreigners, that you’ve kept yourself at a distance from the ‘locals.’ Is that by design?

A: Distance…no. I’m not very social here and Imran himself isn’t a wildly social person. I don’t go to a whole number of parties in Islamabad or in Lahore. Having said that, I’ve got a close circle of very good friends here now. I’m very close to Imran’s sisters, but I also have lots of good Pakistani friends outside Imran’s family.

Q: What constitutes a day in the life of Jemima Khan?

A: It depends on what’s happening. There’s no average day at all. It depends where I am and at what point. For example, if you’d asked me in January, I was in the process of closing down my fashion business and finishing my university degree which I never completed after I got married. So, I was busy with academic work. If you’d asked me in March, I was involved with my charity for Afghan refugees, which I’m still involved with. If you’d asked me last month, I was involved with Imran’s political campaign.

I’ve never had a set routine in my life. I couldn’t tell you ‘I get up at nine and I do this at 10.’ It just doesn’t work like that for me. Some days, some weeks, some months are incredibly busy, and I’m rushing about like a maniac. Other months or weeks, I’m spending more time with my children, my family and friends.

Q: How independent is your lifestyle here. For example, do you drive by yourself?

A: I do drive, but I’m actually a bit lazy about driving here because we get spoilt having drivers. But I’ve been driving for years in London.

I would be comfortable driving here — though I’m not too sure Imran would be since he hates my driving.

Q: Imran’s detractors have hurled endless allegations against you. How do you cope?

A: Well, it depends on what it is. The recent spate of allegations during the election campaign… on the one hand, yes, it was quite demoralising at times, but on the other, I was well aware that it was politically motivated and the typical stuff you get in Pakistani politics. I suppose that’s some consolation. The fact is that people couldn’t really level any attacks at Imran… he’s a clean politician, which is fairly rare here, fairly unusual. So I think they used me to get at him. But it doesn’t really make it easier; it did get a bit much the last month.

Q: How informed are you about the local political scene? Do you feel you’ve been thrown in the deep end?

A: Obviously I’m not as involved as Imran in local politics; I don’t have any official position in the party. But sitting on the periphery, as I have done now for the last four years, I’ve picked up quite a lot. I know most of the political names, what happens and what is happening. I’m pretty involved. In fact, I find it fascinating now. I wasn’t as interested in politics when we got married, but now I’m really interested — and not just in Pakistani politics, also in global politics.

Q: How do you view the rise of the fundamentalist forces in the country as evinced by their unprecedented electoral showing in the elections?

A: Well, a lot of people have been asking for democracy in the country and I guess this is part of democracy — people have voted for them. I also feel that once they’re inside the assembly and the system, perhaps that will actually moderate their views, or force them to be more moderate. I think whenever people are disenfranchised, they become more extreme.

Q: Women members of the Tehrik-i-Insaaf have been heard maintaining they’d like to see you playing a more proactive role in the party and its activities. Is this going to happen in the future?

A: I can’t say… possibly. At this point I can’t really say how I will be involved, but maybe there will be [a greater degree of] involvement. But I certainly wouldn’t ever take any kind of official position within the party, because one, I wouldn’t feel qualified for it; two, it would just be nepotism of the worst kind. And three, sometimes it’s kind of easier to be effective outside the party. I do my own thing, I’m involved with various projects outside.

jemima-khan-1-nov02Q: How did you feel about Imran joining politics in the first place?

A: He was quite open about it. I knew about it when we got married, so I wasn’t surprised. I knew that in order to be effective in Pakistan, you can’t really do it through social work. Unfortunately, you have to be involved in the political system in order to make any kind of effective change. Having said that, I think the world of politics is a pretty sleazy one, here and everywhere… and it’s certainly not ideal for family life.

Q: To what extent are you involved with the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust (SKMT)?

A: I was more involved before I had my children. And now that we’re in Islamabad, I’m not involved on a day to day basis — it’s mainly with the fund-raising part.

Q: And are you continuing with the charity you launched for Afghan refugees?

A: Yes, I still have my charity that I started about a year-and-a-half ago. At the moment I’m trying to organise a distribution of blankets and warm clothes in the [Afghan] camps in Pakistan because of winter coming on.

Q: What is the scope of the charity’s activities?

A: It’s basically the provision of basic relief items; [catering to] basic needs. It started with Jalozai, when there was no aid going into that particular camp. So I set it up as an emergency appeal to bring in money in order to get basic items such as food and shelter — they didn’t even have tents at that point. And then the situation changed; Now Jalozai has closed down, they’ve all been shifted, and now there’s much more of a refugee set-up. They have the World Food Programme, they’ve got UNHCR going into those camps. But there are certain things [these organisations] are not doing, and my charity tries to fill the gap, for example providing warm clothes and blankets.

Q: Is your charity a totally local outfit or are you networking with foreign organisations, and where do you get your funding from?

A: It’s very small, I do the admin myself. I have one girl in London because its UK registered — I raised all the money in the UK so it has to be. And I work in conjunction with a couple of NGOs here. We’ve set-up maternal health clinics providing mainly post and pre-natal care and paediatric clinics, in Jalozai and Shamshatoo originally, now they’re in Shalman and Bajaur. I fund these clinics. They see patients everyday — 80 patients a day sometimes.

Q: How often do you visit these locations personally?

A: I wanted to go next week, but I just got a call from the man who runs the clinics at Shalman, which is right near the border, saying it’s not possible for me to go at this time because the security situation is bad there.

Q: How fluent are you in Urdu and Pashto, and how difficult an undertaking was it learning the languages?

A: I speak Urdu communicatively, but I should be a bit better. I really need to go back to my lessons and start getting clear on the grammar. I said a few lines in Pashto at one of the jalsas we went to in the Frontier, but I’m not fluent at all. It wasn’t that difficult to learn Urdu — I’m fluent in Spanish and French and the grammar’s not that different. It’s the written Urdu I haven’t learnt yet and I’d really like to. That’s the next step — being able to read the Arabic script and progress beyond just speaking phonetically.

Q: Do you feel you have managed to alter or shape perceptions in Britain about Pakistan to any degree?

A: That, I don’t know. I can’t really say; you’d have to ask people there. But in the situation at the moment, it’s a tough job, because Pakistan is represented as somewhere that’s dangerous and hostile to the west. It’s quite an uphill struggle to try and present it as anything else.

Q: Do your family and friends visit?

A: All the time. My mother comes to visit and I’ve had lots of friends visiting. My brother’s probably coming across in January.

Q: Do you have any ambitions of pursuing a career — at one stage you’d reportedly said you wanted to become a journalist…

A: Well, it depends how you define career. At times I feel I’m too busy to do anything else. I have my fashion business which I’ve suspended and which I hope to restart — but in a different way, partially from Karachi, and partially with the same people in Lahore. I suspended it because of the problems relating to September 11. My New York buyers cancelled all their orders. It was a pretty full-time job running a proper business; it was a profitable, successful business and all the profits went to Imran’s hospital. I also write. I do quite a few articles for The Telegraph and The Times. I write quite regularly, and on just anything, from the post-September 11 situation and the ramifications for Pakistan, to my experience on an aeroplane that nearly crashed. It could be anything I feel strongly about. Plus, I’m a mother of two small children, I’ve got my charity, I’ve just finished my Bachelors and I’m going back to university to do a Masters next September.

Q: Which university?

A: The details haven’t been sorted out yet. Since it’s a research degree (in comparitive religion), I won’t have to be on campus, but I will be doing it through an English university.

Q: Would your adopting a career — especially something that may be off the beaten track — be acceptable to Imran?

A: I think he’d like it. I think he’d be quite happy about it, as long as I’m busy.,

Imran intercedes at this point to say: “As long as it’s something that’s a passion with her… I mean there are careers and there are careers. There are careers you really want to do and in which you grow as a person. And then there are careers which are just nine to five jobs. In Jemima’s case, clearly she doesn’t need to work. But if she wants to work and it’s something she feels passionate about, I would go along with it.”

Q: How would you like to raise your sons?

A: My boys will grow up here. They go to school here; we live here. But I’d like them to be respectful of both cultures. Once children go to school in one culture, naturally that culture is prioritised. I think I’d like them to still have their connections with England — but they’ll be brought up here. So, effectively I guess that means they’ll be Pakistanis.

Q: Do you feel secure and at peace in Pakistan?

A: I’ve been here seven-and-a-half years now, so yes, this is my home now.