Nothing gold can stay
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
- Robert Frost
Aunty Munawar's smile is forever etched in my heart, as she was a truly beautiful lady. Words cannot adequately express the many feelings I have for her.
She was my mother's classmate from childhood. It was one of those friendships that cannot be measured in time, shared heritage, or life experiences.
During a visit to London with my father to explore university options, I had my first meaningful conversation with Aunty Munawar. At the time, we were posted in East Germany of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), while Aunty Munawar and Uncle Humayun Khan were posted in London as our High Commissioner.
I was nervous and all over the place, but her steady advice and gentle guidance calmed me and have stayed with me ever since, becoming a beacon of warmth, wisdom, and confidence.
I cherished the time spent with her, enjoying her company and love.
Returning to Pakistan
A few years later, Aunty Munawar returned to Pakistan to pursue her passions and tending to her ancestral lands in Mardan.
She did so independently, breaking cultural norms while staying rooted in Pukhtun traditions and Bacha Khan's principles. Related to the great icon of the region, she walked his principles with ease and conviction.
Aunty Munawar effortlessly embodied determination, simplicity, and moral clarity.
Raised in traditional Mardan with progressive parents, she exuded elegance and power. Whether in the village or at high tables in Geneva, London, or Moscow, she welcomed friendships from all over the world.
A diplomat's spouse who was always on the move to some corner of the globe, she always pined for home. She, though, managed to balance her husband's demanding career and build her path.
The 'fulcrum' of her family, as recounted by her nieces, Aunty Munawar, was not only loved by her younger siblings (a brother and four sisters) but also deeply respected.
She also deeply cared for every family member and felt responsible for them.
Uplifting rural communities
When Aunty Munawar finally decided to pursue her path away from the diplomatic corp and shifted to Peshawar, she joined the fledgling Rural Support Programme, dedicating 33 years of her life to voluntary and dedicated public service.
She truly understood the essence of the rural support programmes' ethos that people can and must participate in their development and harness (the poor/disproved) their potential with a little guidance
In 2001, she took over as the chairperson of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) as a founding member of its board as she put into practice the belief that people should participate in their development, the core ethos of the rural support programmes.
She truly understood the essence of the rural support programmes' ethos (championed by Shoaib Sultan Khan in 1980); that people can and must participate in their development and harness (the poor/disproved) their potential with a little guidance. She worked untiringly to fine-tune what we today refer to as social mobilization in development parlance.
Aunty Munawar passionately explained this model to donors, development partners, villagers, and women, sharing stories of successful ventures and transformed villages.
I loved hearing her recount stories from the wonderful communities she visited and the amazing people she met. She paid great attention to detail in every conversation.
A colleague recalled that she was an extraordinary individual who had devoted over 33 years of her life to voluntary and dedicated public service. Known as a selfless, upright, and humane person who lived up to the highest ethical and moral leadership standards, she did not seek power, privileges, or reward from her position. Rather she led a simple and dedicated life devoted to her organization's mission.
Another looked back at her role during the dark days of Peshawar between 2008 and 2013 when the province was in a vice grip of terrorists with threats, bombings and kidnapping, a daily affair with an air of despondency and depression.
SRSP, under Aunty Munawar, played a prominent role in managing Internally Displaced People (IDP) from Swat. She again mobilized SRSP during the Swat floods to help alleviate people's suffering.
Dr Humayun Khan would often ask Aunty Munawar and SRSP why they always seemed to be full of enthusiasm and remain so positive.
Aunty Munawar would explain that even during those days of distress, their work was reaching those suffering, which generated positive feelings and hopes amongst SRSP staff. In contrast, those who sat outside only saw the negative parts of society.
Aunty Munawar believed this to be true in everything worthwhile and at the heart of opportunities for better lives. She would talk at length about how a little assistance in skills development, training, or access to finance can open opportunities to transform lives and had many stories of transformative change in villages.
Her work was not just a job; it was a way of living, a means to turn disappointment with our society, government and leaders into self-action and hope. Aunty Munawar was a great listener and respected those around her, standing out for her kindness and generosity.
I think that is what made her stand out.
I had no idea at the time how supportive Munawar would become of our work and take a keen interest in what RSPs were doing - Shoaib Sultan
Her passing left a deep void in the lives of those who knew her, and her memory will always be cherished. She lived a remarkable life, finding solutions and pushing back cultural barriers with grace and determination.
"I met Munawar for the first time in 1961 at the Nicholson House in Bannu, where my wife's cousin, Humayun and my batchmate in civil service was a deputy commissioner," Shoaib Sultan recalls, "I had no idea at the time how supportive Munawar would become of our work and take a keen interest in what RSPs were doing and even agree to my request to become chairperson of SRSP."
He continued that Munawar was kind, generous and loving and gave her the best advice when he was beset with problems.
"Words fail me the loss and sadness I feel at her passing away so suddenly. I simply cannot believe she is not there."
Another incredible tribute to Aunty Munawar came from Babar Ali: "She was an outstanding social worker with commitment and total integrity. SRSP has lost a devoted and loyal colleague".
Aunty Munawar could understand, learn, and recognize ground truths, system failures, and cultural barriers and then adopt a no-nonsense solution. I think her direct solution-oriented approach to life was refreshing.
Aunty Munawar found ways to push back against these cultural straitjackets with a smile and firm determination
The most intransigent can come around if one is respectful and willing to find a middle ground.
Her generation, and women even more so, were brought up demure, polite, with an everything-under-the-carpet approach to serious challenges.
Follow, don't lead. Speak, but don't rattle.
Aunty Munawar found ways to push back against these cultural straitjackets with a smile and firm determination. She did not challenge traditions but rather saw beauty in them, and turned them effectively, wore them with such elegance and grace.
When I think of her, I smile. She showed so many how to remain steadfast in chaos. A calm, determined progressive path in times of deep confusion. Always an optimist, stoic and personification of strength.
On July 23, 2023, the phone call I did not want came. Aunty Munawar, who had been battling an unforeseen illness, joined her equally distinguished partner in the hereafter.
As we mourn her, the words of a friend ring in my ear: "Death and grief are for those left behind."
She will be deeply missed, but her legacy will continue through her family, especially her daughters Shandana, Amina, and Ayesha.
Rest in eternal peace. Our love and prayers go out to her family during this difficult time.