March issue 2011

By | People | Profile | Published 13 years ago

Mai Jori’s name was first heard in March 2010 when, after the assassination of Sardar Rustum Khan Jamali, by-elections for his seat PB-25 were announced. Mai Jori was one of the contenders.

An illiterate hari woman, she was offered an Awami Party ticket, and was put up against tough opposition: Nasir Khan Jamali and Mir Atta Ullah Buledi. How and why she was nominated is an interesting story.

In the village of Goth Ghulam Mohammed Jamali, Jafarabad, the villagers convened a meeting to decide who should stand from among them. With issue-based politics as its motto and the working classes as its candidates, the Awami Party found support in the village that had been a part of the Hari Tehreek, and where its inhabitants did not look to the feudal lords for a solution to their problems. Their leader must come from among them, they believed. However, with contenders like Buledi and Jamali, who could possibly stand up against them? It was then suggested that a female candidate be fielded, the reasoning being that a male contender was most likely to be kidnapped or killed, while a woman would be spared because killing one for political reasons would bring disrepute to the feudals.

A few names were suggested but for various reasons, those women could not contest. It was Mai Jori’s husband who came forward and volunteered her for the position. Mother of nine, with one daughter with a disability, Mai Jori’s journey and campaign was not an easy one. Hailing from an extremely poor household, in which very often there was not a meal to eat in the day, starvation did not deter her — in fact, it fuelled her political ambition. “Main apni bhook se election mein khari huwi hoon,” she remarked. But election campaigns require money, and there she was without enough to even pay for her family’s sustenance. That is when she embarked on the ‘Jholi Chanda Mohim’ (fund collection drive) at the suggestion of some of the villagers.

She went from house to house — sometimes on foot and sometimes on a donkey cart — beating a drum. People filled her lap with whatever they could give, and women came out and joined her in raising slogans, one of the popular ones being, “Na chori ka, na zori ka; vote hai Mai Jori ka!” (Neither from plunder, nor from threat, this vote belongs to Mai Jori). By the end of it, she managed to raise Rs 25,000-30,000 through her campaign. On one occasion, her rival, Atta Ullah Buledi paid her a visit, and in a traditional show of appreciation, and to commend her on her bravery, placed an ajrak on her head.

Alongside, Buledi was trying to score political points against Mai Jori’s other opponent, Nasir Khan Jamali, who wasn’t half as gracious. In fact, Jamali and his men tried to dissuade Mai Jori from running for the seat. From issuing threats of opening cases against her husband, to offers of giving him a job in the city and providing the family with a house there — they tried it all. At one time, narrates Shaheena Memon, member of the Awami Party, Nasir Jamali even staged a whole scene where he got a woman to dress like Mai Jori and had her announce that she was stepping down. Such measures were resorted to as eliminating her by force was never an option.

Says Ramzan Memon: “Some criminal elements who like to curry favour with the feudals told Zafarullah Jamali we can take care of her (meaning kill her), but he forbade them saying, ‘You don’t know the media and civil society; I won’t be able to enter Islamabad after that.’” But as head of the Jamali clan, he decided to take care of her another way. He decided to pay her a visit and ask her to step down. The villagers were faced with a dilemma: on the one hand was their pledge to fight the fight and not step back, and on the other were cultural norms that required them to accede to the request of the head of their clan when he called on them. So they devised a plan of their own: they decided they would hand Zafarullah Jamali a gun when he came and tell him to kill Mai Jori and her husband. That way, they wouldn’t have to retract from their stand, and neither go against their customs. And a clever plan it was, because when Zafarullah Jamali got wind of it, he cancelled the visit altogether — exactly what the villagers had wanted.

Eventually, political clout ensured the victory of Nasir Jamali, whose men had secured every polling station. However, Mai Jori received the maximum votes at the polling station in her village and became a symbol of hope and pride. “She proved that though poor and destitute, if a person who has been subdued and oppressed is given the smallest opportunity, they will seize it to make a change,” says Shaheena.

The feudal lords, it seems, have still not recovered from the setback they faced from Mai Jori’s entry into the largely male-dominated arena of politics. They are always finding ways of getting back at her. Ramzan Memon reveals that after the floods, several attempts were made by the party to deliver relief goods to Mai Jori’s village. But since the relief efforts were facilitated by the state and the feudal lords are part of the state machinery in the province, they prevented any aid from reaching Mai Jori and the villagers, as punishment for their earlier defiance of them.

But this is a struggle Mai Jori and the villagers have carried on all their lives. Denied the right to land, water, sustenance, health facilities and education, fighting deprivation is an age-old issue. And this is why she decided to step into the tricky/dirty/murky world of politics in the first place: to ensure that the rights of the downtrodden were given to them — especially to the women.

Newsline would like to credit the following people for the compilation of this profile: Khadija Parveen (Shirkat Gah), Shaheena and Ramzan Memon (Awami Party) and Attiya Dawood (documentary filmmaker).

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.