KARACHI: After making history as Pakistan’s youngest lawmaker from the northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan earlier this month, Suraiya Zaman credits her time in Saudi Arabia and “lots of sweet memories” for her successful foray into politics.
“Growing up in Saudi Arabia allowed me to meet people from different cultures and walks of life,” Zaman told Arab News on Sunday. “It has given me a sense of pride and appreciation for my own country. I spent my childhood in Saudi Arabia, and I consider the Kingdom as my second home. I have a lot of sweet childhood memories.”
Zaman was born in Oct. 1993 in the scenic but conservative Darel Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan’s Diamer district. She moved to Saudi Arabia with her family in 2004.
Her father, Dr. Muhammad Zaman Khan, was a physician at Al-Hada Military Hospital in Taif and she studied at Saudi Arabia International School Al-Hada until grade 10.
“I remember visiting Makkah every weekend for Umrah and the weather and mountains of Al-Hada,” Zaman said, reminiscing about her “beautiful life” in the Kingdom. But there was nothing specific that she missed about Al-Hada because it was so similar to Gilgit-Baltistan.
“Both are mountainous areas and the weather and fruits are the same. Even we are the same!” she added, explaining how life in Saudi Arabia had affected her family.
“Most of our extended family eat spicy food, but we cannot eat it. We mostly cook and eat Saudi cuisine, especially mandi even though it does not taste the same. We wear abayas and other Saudi outfits and sleep late and wake up late on weekends.”
Zaman returned to Pakistan in 2013 for higher studies, while her family moved back in July this year.
She enrolled at Islamabad’s National University of Modern Languages to study English literature and linguistics. She speaks English, Urdu, Shina and Khuwar.
Zaman was elected as president of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s women’s wing for the Diamer-Astore division in Gilgit-Baltistan in February after her father, a PTI leader, convinced her to join politics.
Gilgit-Baltistan is not an officially recognised part of Pakistan, but forms a part of the disputed Kashmir region that Pakistan controls. Both India and Pakistan have claimed ownership of Kashmir since 1947 and have fought two wars over the territory.
Elections were held on Nov. 15 for 23 seats in Gilgit-Baltistan’s third legislative assembly with as many as 330 candidates, including four women, contesting the polls.
Zaman, who was elected on the PTI ticket, did not expect to win but wants to use her newfound status to improve the education sector in Daimer, where religious extremists destroyed 14 schools, mostly for girls, in Aug. 2018.For that goal, she said, she would look to her experiences in Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia treats its citizens as a mother would treat her children – very fairly. They are given free medical care and education, which relieves a huge burden from the shoulders of its citizens. I want something similar to be implemented here in Gilgit-Baltistan.”
Daimer’s Darel Valley has a 12 percent literacy rate for girls, the lowest in the entire province where 42 percent of girls and 66 percent of boys between the age of 10 and 15 attend school. Zaman found this statistic worrying.
“Female education is one of my priorities. I want to play an important role in promoting it in Gilgit-Baltistan, especially in my district. I want to unite, educate, empower and engage the youth of different backgrounds to ensure the decision-makers hear their voices.”
For that to happen she hoped to encourage parents in Daimer to give their children the basic right to education and send them to school.
“There are many parents who are willing, but they do not have enough funds to support their children’s education. So scholarships will be given to such children.”
Zaman was also hoping to seek help from the Kingdom for her cause.
“It’s my second home. I hope they help us in the development of Gilgit-Baltistan.”