Rani Atiqa Of Hunza As An Agent Of Change

She does not rise from disempowerment, but chooses to empower the less privileged - and her success is evident in GB

Rani Atiqa Of Hunza As An Agent Of Change

Could there be a gender-equal world? A world devoid of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination? A world characterized by diversity, equity, and inclusion? A world where differences are not only accepted but also celebrated? These are but a few inquiries that pervade the mind and soul, particularly each year on Women's Day.

Looking for chinks from where the light might enter, researching the work of agents of change, we come across real-life heroines. Some of them are lauded while others remain unsung. But it seems that on some, the universe smiles eternally.

One wonders what characteristics make them so fortunate! "Well it's a continuous struggle and nothing short term. It's consistency, apart from the will to bring a positive change," elucidates Rani Atiqa, expounding upon her life philosophy.

With tresses framing her aristocratic countenance and a placid tasbih in her fingers, she speaks with measured pauses, exuding grace as she sits beside me on the sofa—the last Queen of Hunza.

Born in Lahore to a family that had migrated from Gurdaspur across the border, she was one of six daughters of a businessman, the proprietor of Oberoy Transport. Educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary alongside her sisters, she encountered her first hurdle of inequality upon completing her college education at Lahore College. Atiqa was informed that she could not attend a coeducational university, as the male members of her family opposed it. Citing their sisters' “dignity and honour,” they hesitated to permit their attendance alongside unfamiliar boys. 

At such a time, Atiqa, fortified by her elder sister Nargis, confronted the injustice. “We both convinced our family that just because there was no segregated system of university education available at that time, it was unfair to the young ladies to deny them higher education.” After several debates, the family relented, allowing Atiqa to enrol at the University of the Punjab, where she pursued Political Science in her graduate studies.

Having learned the principle of balance from riding yaks, the lessons learned on this journey enabled her to pursue ambitious objectives, fostering welfare initiatives for women and children in Gilgit-Baltistan

With a familial background steeped in business and politics, Atiqa was always interested in civics, social phenomena and the role of politics in shaping  civilization. As a child she remembers having books to read. "I had a wooden bookshelf in my room, and we had magazines, and anthologies of poems by Ghalib, Mir and others. My sister Nargis used to read and explain poetry to us. Since the beginning, I developed a taste for good reads and became later a connoisseur of books. These books broaden my intellectual horizons and help me with decisions in life.”

During her studies, she encountered Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan, the last King of Hunza, which fostered familial acquaintance, culminating in their union in holy matrimony. Whether it was the open-mindedness of the Mirs of Hunza or the lack of religious biases within Atiqa's family that facilitated sectarian harmony, their marriage remains a compelling example for all. To nurture peace and prosperity, prejudices must be discarded, and bridges, not walls, erected.

As they journeyed back to their matrimonial home in Hunza—an odyssey spanning a year, employing various modes of transportation from airplanes to yaks to finally traversing on foot—Rani Atiqa reminisces with laughter about their honeymoon spent atop a horse. She perceives such experiences as opportunities for personal growth and community enhancement. This protracted voyage afforded her insights into the local culture, traditions, languages, and livelihoods, fostering consciousness, forging relationships, and facilitating collaboration within and beyond communities, navigating through conflicting ideas, resolving disputes, and fostering trust.

Having learned the principle of balance from riding yaks, the lessons learned on this journey enabled her to pursue ambitious objectives, fostering welfare initiatives for women and children in Gilgit-Baltistan, setting a national and international precedent. Her unwavering commitment to empowering women economically, socially, and politically prompted innovative measures, commencing within the household before extending to broader platforms.

These journeys, among others, cultivated deeper connections between the populace and the Mirs. It proved challenging to raise awareness about the perils of child marriages driven by the need for labour. Undeterred, Rani Atiqa challenged societal norms and expectations by establishing craft bazaars, providing artisans, predominantly women, with avenues to sell their handicrafts to local and international tourists. These centres not only generated economic opportunities but also empowered women to secure and retain their earnings.

From a feminist perspective, empowerment is perceived as a remedy for unequal power dynamics. It involves rejuvenating traditional handicrafts to explore novel avenues of progress and innovation for women. When Rani Atiqa championed her cause, she was advised otherwise by elders and the community – who advocated for charity instead. Atiqa vehemently rejected this idea, understanding that it would only encourage individuals to become dependent in the manner of beggars. 

Access to quality education, particularly through private English-medium schools, remained elusive for the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) community due to affordability issues. Recognizing this gap, Rani Atiqa established the Royal Academy in Hunza, the region's inaugural English-medium school. Personally designing the curriculum, she enlisted her sons, who were students at Aitchison College, to teach and engage with local students during their vacations. Subsequent endeavours saw negotiations with the government to incorporate college and university-level classes within the Karimabad school premises, expanding educational opportunities for GB's youth.

Despite limited resources, Atiqa initiated the first transport and hotel business from home, creating employment opportunities and providing training for the people of GB for their better future

Later on, Rani Atiqa negotiated with the government for the establishment of a college within the Karimabad school, initiating university classes to be conducted after school hours in the same facility. Apart from educational, skill development, income-generating, and awareness campaigns, the last Queen of GB fully participated in national and international politics. She represented GB at the federal level, remained an elected Northern Area Council member, and obtained representation in Majlis e Shura on reserved seats for women in the GB assembly. Rani Atiqa presented a paper on the status of women at the Zari Sarfaraz commission.

In the mid-1970s, as Atiqa drove her way through the rugged mountains, people would exclaim, "It must be her!" (“woh hi hogi) 

Her focus has always been on generating finances, which she views as the mother of all solutions. Economic growth fosters policies that support gender equality and agency for women in both public and private spheres. Economic empowerment grants individuals bargaining power in the household, including policies addressing cases of divorce and advocating for better welfare for women. Atiqa redirected resources for an exclusive women's hospital in GB. Economically empowered women have control over resources such as property rights, although land is limited in GB. Nevertheless, knowing and practicing rights is a human right.

Despite limited resources, Atiqa initiated the first transport and hotel business from home, creating employment opportunities and providing training for the people of GB for their better future. Her project, Darbar Hotel, utilised available rooms in her own residence, introducing the bed and breakfast concept. Atiqa's initiatives are yielding long-term benefits. Today, when traveling to Hunza, one encounters women entrepreneurs running small and large restaurants, cottage industries, and hospitality businesses independently and in groups. Proud of their trade and crafts, they hold their heads high, with control over their destinies. GB boasts the highest education rate in Pakistan, with a 95% education rate, resulting in the lowest crime rate—a byproduct of law enforcement by the local jirga system, awareness, and openness.

Recently, Rani Atiqa has been troubled by the high rate of suicide among women in Hunza. Alongside other concerned individuals, she is actively addressing the issue.

It is said that for one to be empowered, one must come from a position of disempowerment. But Atiqa acknowledges that she has been blessed with support since day one by Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan Sahab, her husband, her entire family and friends. She does not rise from disempowerment, but chooses to empower the less privileged. Her success is evident in a developed GB, leaving an undeniable mark on risk management and the improvement of women's well-being.

Though raising awareness and building relationships may seem like modern concepts, Rani Atiqa has been practicing them unconsciously for ages, and the fruits of her labour are ripe now. If you want to bring change, you must be the change!