Going Gets Tough? I Say Bring It On: Reham Khan
Hers has been a chequered life. Shifting from Libya to Pakistan as a child, and then to the UK as a young bride, Reham Khan has been a survivor. Walking out of an abusive marriage with three children to care for, she built a career for herself in broadcasting until she shot into the limelight in 2015 with her marriage to Imran Khan, the now newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. In less than a year, they were divorced. In 2018, she self published her memoir about her marriage and the world of Pakistani politics to which she had an insider view, albeit for a very short time. The book will be released by HarperCollins India at the end of August.
SheThePeople.TV spoke with Reham Khan about her short-lived marriage to Imran Khan, her contentious biography that has ruffled many feathers, what drives her and the work she does for abused children and internally displaced persons under the aegis of her foundation.
There is no way you can crush my spirit. I just keep reinventing myself and find a great deal to smile about when confronted with change of any kind in my circumstances.
Your childhood saw you shift continents from Africa to Asia, what kind of a culture shock was that for you as a young girl, and what did it take you to accustom yourself to Pakistan after having lived in Libya?
Naturally, any move is disturbing for young children but this had a greater impact because the social fabric under Zia had changed dramatically. In my book, I have described in detail what the move meant for the whole family. Many ex-pats will relate to these anecdotes, for example, the circumstances of my older sister’s marriage and my own, etc. The factors influencing my commitment to protecting refugees are rooted in those early years.
My stance against racism and hate is also because of the fact that I was fortunate to be exposed to different races and religions as a child. This was of course, coupled with a well-read mother who was the best mentor one could have. I am a naturally adaptable person a trait which irritates many. There is no way you can crush my spirit. I just keep reinventing myself and find a great deal to smile about when confronted with change of any kind in my circumstances.
You were married young, and had an abusive marriage. There is tremendous courage that is needed to walk out of an abusive marriage, with one’s children. Did you, at any point feel hindered by social constraints that look down on divorced women?
Oh, all the time. I speak for many when I say that I did not have the courage to walk out earlier. Like many, we seek our parent’s approval. For my mother, it was important that I behaved perfectly or that what society dictates is perfect.
My stance against racism and hate is also because of the fact that I was fortunate to be exposed to different races and religions as a child.
I never had any romantic involvement before I got married and tried to stay in the marriage only for my mother’s approval. She could not utter the word divorce despite being so highly educated. Courage defines who we become what we achieve.
Do you think, as a culture, South Asians need to acknowledge the fact that domestic violence is a real and present danger brought about by the unstemmed power the patriarchy has over women? Have you worked in the field of domestic violence awareness after your experience?
After my first divorce, I worked in an individual capacity to attend to issues legal and emotional of women in abuse situations. I was a popular speaker at women’s rights conferences and workshops. At the time of my first job at the Legal TV, the issues around divorce, domestic abuse and child abduction were a major feature in my shows. Off air, I guided individuals both in the legal fraternity and callers to the channel. In 2015, I finally registered my charity, Reham Khan Foundation which works for women and child rights. We focus on building capacity of women to generate healthy incomes because I know from personal experience that financial independence is crucial in making empowered decisions.
After my first divorce, I worked in an individual capacity to attend to issues legal and emotional of women in abuse situations.
We set up maternity care units also, to provide prenatal and postnatal advice and care. On TV, of course, I have been vocal about abolishing child marriage and women protection bills. Sadly, I could not get Imran to propose a bill in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the province he had a government in. This was one of our major disagreements in the marriage. He just could not risk annoying the coalition partners and his right-wing vote.
Through the marriage, my TV career was disrupted and I suffered a loss in earnings. As Imran never provided financially, I struggled with the costs of my three children but I managed by selling leftover jewellery. Post divorce I had to rebuild my career. At this point the last thing I wanted to do was journalism as I knew the reality of it in Pakistan. The media in our country is only propped up to build up Imran’s status. All programs are required to have a heavy PTI tilt. I reluctantly took a job that paid well, but Imran had instructed his party to boycott my show and after a couple of months of blackmailing the channel they breached the contract and discontinued my show and withheld my outstanding salaries.
Through the marriage, my TV career was disrupted and I suffered a loss in earnings. As Imran never provided financially, I struggled with the costs of my three children but I managed by selling leftover jewellery
In these first three months, I got a lot of time to reflect and I realised that our problems are so trivial compared to the trials our poor people suffer. Mothers have to pick up their dead children on a daily basis. It seemed very selfish to me to sit and wallow in my petty grief. I channelized my energies and focused full-time on RKF travelling the length and breadth of the country. We started documenting my journeys and launched a YouTube channel. This sparked the interest of viewers overseas also leading to the commissioning of documentaries.
Reinventing your life and your career after your divorce, what were the challenges you faced both as a woman from the diaspora and a woman who had to counter the innate sexism that is part and parcel of the broadcast industry?
All my life, my biggest blessing has been the ability to constantly reinvent myself but this resilience has irked many. My opponents cannot fathom how I survive everything with a smile. I am told it’s very frustrating for them. I am a naturally adaptable person and no matter what happens I know I will not only survive it but also be fine. The reason is I travel light. My conscience is clear. My goal is never material gain. I am a fakir at heart. I want nothing and no one. If you ask me what do you want as a present or where do you want to go for a holiday or what kind of man do you want I honestly would not have an answer.
I am happy wherever I go, whatever I get. Every day I get to live is a gift. I cherish it, but equally I have no fear that I will die and not have done this or that. Post divorce the vitriol was unprecedented but it did not matter to me personally. I worried about my children but personally I don’t care what the world thinks of me. What mattered was that a man I loved had gone out of the way to malign my image by asking the media to lie about me. That hurt a bit but it was a blessing in disguise since I snapped out of a dream. I immediately threw myself back into work but found my calling in devoting my life to helping those who have much bigger problems than our break ups.
As a single working mother to three children, what have been your greatest challenges, and support systems? The system is so skewed against single working moms, how do you think we can, across the world, improve it for these women who struggle every single day?
As a single mum, the biggest issue was childcare costs while working. The system is designed to work against hard-working parents. There is no incentive to work. We work harder because we can’t afford to lose our jobs. With parenting comes responsibility but employers are less than sympathetic. As for single mums, they are seen as potential problems. There might be laws in the UK, but women will tell you that there is a silent discrimination that is hard to prove so we keep our mouth shut.
As for single mums, they are seen as potential problems. There might be laws in the UK, but women will tell you that there is a silent discrimination that is hard to prove so we keep our mouth shut.
I lost one opportunity and decided never to give employers any idea about my vulnerabilities. I felt alone. My situation was unusual since I had no family around and throughout the marriage I was allowed no friends of my own so had no support. The silver lining was that me and the kids worked as a strong team and that shows to this day. We are very supportive and involved in each other’s lives. We are genuinely friends. We prefer each other’s company over others so our friends overlap too.
You shot into the limelight after your wedding to Imran Khan, the marriage was very short lived. Were there lessons you learnt from it that you wish you’d known earlier?
Oh dear too many. It was too long, I think. A lot of people don’t know what actually happened. I should have walked out a long time before but we keep giving chances. That’s what society tells us as women we are meant to forgive nurture rescue and give chances. I wish I hadn’t. However, I think I was too naive about men, politics and life in general. I say what I mean so I think others will be the same too. But I learnt that a man can say “You are amazing” while despising you.
This is why I wrote the book. I’ve shared all that I saw all that I know because I think there are people like me too who like to lead very simple uncomplicated lives. We are unprepared for the twisted realities of others. I have become slightly more cynical and hopefully a bit more cautious. It has opened my eyes to the filthy world of politics. I could never imagine how blatantly politicians lie.
Their rhetoric is completely contradictory to their private lives and thoughts. I found this hypocrisy intolerable. I am a social activist through and through. If I say I am against racism then it means my family cannot crack a racist joke at the dinner table. I live by what I say in public. If I wear a skirt I do it on TV. I do not have a secret life.
In your short-lived glimpse from a ringside seat to Pakistani politics, do you think women in Pakistan, despite the country having had a female prime minister, will see equitable representation in the echelons of power?
Let’s be very clear that although Benazir Bhutto was and is a source of inspiration to women globally, her circumstances were very different to the rest of the women who struggle to make their voice heard. She, of course, had ability which not everyone born into a political dynasty has and I do think that this must not be held against people. However she was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, she was a rich feudal’s daughter. She had met Kissinger, Indira Gandhi as a youngster, read at good schools and graduated from Oxford. She had a supportive mother and a huge, organised political party behind her. How many women get that kind of start? Things have changed very little for ordinary women. In 2013, there were only six directly elected women to the parliament. The reserve seats were hardly representative of merit. It is a long, hard, uphill battle ahead. We must unite. Increase our numbers up there before we start to pull each other down.
Things have changed very little for ordinary women. In 2013, there were only six directly elected women to the parliament. The reserve seats were hardly representative of merit. It is a long, hard, uphill battle ahead.
Writing and publishing this book must have come with its own set of challenges. Why did you choose to self publish it?
A separate book can be written on the problems and challenges I had to deal with to publish this book. The threats were not limited to me or my staff. Publishers, PR agencies, translators, publicists everyone remotely trying to connect with us were receiving messages of what to expect if they got involved. Three publishers finally came forward but HarperCollins India were the first ones to believe in my right to express myself and support me. They were just quicker and better than the rest.
I decided to do it all alone first to prove a point that I am capable of risking it on my own and wanted to make sure the content would not be too edited or censored. When the going gets tough I say bring it on!
Child abuse is unimaginably high and complex in our communities both here and overseas. We as parents hide it. Children are told to hide it.
Tell us about the work you do in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa raising awareness against child abuse and working for the rights of the Internally Displaced People or IDPs, what got you into this field of social activism and how do you see yourself contributing more.
Saving children’s lives is the only lifelong commitment I have had. Child abuse is unimaginably high and complex in our communities both here and overseas. We as parents hide it. Children are told to hide it. In Pakistan, laws are nonexistent or poor and rarely implemented. Political lobbies are directly involved in child trafficking, labour and abuse. This of course leads to an atmosphere of fear and the problem is under reporting as well as imperfect data. With RKF our main initiative is Mashoom which focuses on preventing child abuse in all its forms. We have a three-pronged approach which we call AIM.
A for advocacy
I for implementation of existing laws
M for management i.e. rescuing children and setting up refuge and support centres
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, we have managed to get respected local clerics to talk about it in their communities. We have set up centres in Havelian, Swat and Malakand. In these centres in addition to mentoring we teach computer skills like code, languages editing, etc. We aim to upgrade to providing pre- and post natal advice and care with trained midwives in these centres. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has tried to place obstacles by denying no objection certificates but we remain focused. I don’t think a charitable organisation can or should take responsibility of the 22.7 million out of school children but I do think that social activists like myself can build model projects and put pressure on governments to spend on child protection and education by aggressive advocacy. I see my role as a constant crusader for making sure governments are made to perform or held accountable.
And finally, what has been the backlash from the release of this autobiography, did you anticipate it to be this virulent?
The backlash was expected as I was given plenty of warnings of what PTI their financiers and their backers would do. They told me directly and indirectly in person, on the phone and via emails that they would destroy my image. Character assassination of me and my two daughters would be the route they would take. They threatened to hack and release my e-mails and alleged private information about me. A film actor sent me warning emails. A cricketer close to the establishment made calls. A leading anchor told me in person to watch out. My staff was picked up, taken for a spin in the car to convey message clearly to me. To all I said this, go ahead, take your best shot. Nothing will deter me. I know I am doing the right thing. I am writing the truth. There is not even a tiny bit of exaggeration. In fact, I have only written ten percent of what I actually know. So I was mentally prepared for all and any eventuality.
Bullying a woman in any society is easy particularly in the Indian subcontinent. Someone has to stand up to these cowards.
One must remember though that paid media lobby on mainstream and social media is not representative of 207 million people. It is a small bunch of bullies. Bullying a woman in any society is easy particularly in the Indian subcontinent. Someone has to stand up to these cowards. I have taken a conscious deliberate decision. My girls and son believe in me and are fierce feminists. They cheer me on. Today, I take them head on. Tomorrow, it will be easier for another woman. I want a world where my daughters and those of others do not have to battle for basic human dignity. They should be respected not because they are mothers and daughters but quite simply because they are human beings.
Reham Khan by Reham Khan, has been published by HarperCollins India. It is priced at Rs 599, and will available online and in bookstores after 31 August 2018.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV