Marriage, mysticism, mystique

Imran Khan's third wife is deeply religious and private, and that adds to her mystery

PTI2_19_2018_000035B Partner, guide: Imran Khan with his wife and spiritual mentor, Bushra Maneka (veiled) | PTI

The Sutlej River was once a zariya (medium) for followers of 13th century Sufi saint Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar to reach his shrine, situated close to its banks. As the ferry across the river became popular with pilgrims, the ancient village of Ajodhan got its new name—Pakpattan, meaning pure dock. Millions of pilgrims visit the shrine every year, and it is called the seat of the Chishti order of Sufism in Pakistan. Its religious significance being evident, Pakpattan today has also become part of the political discourse in the country. For, prime minister-designate Imran Khan, 65, has been a frequent visitor to the shrine in the past couple of years. But, his zariya to the Sufi saint and his teachings was a pirni (faith healer)—Bushra Maneka—whom he married earlier this year.

Murmurs of Imran’s third marriage to a pirni first began this January. The murmurs soon became memes on social media, and jokes in cricket lingo—’Imran Khan’s hat-trick’—followed. Imran had no choice but to come out with a statement, saying that he had only proposed to his spiritual mentor, Bushra, and that she had asked for time to consult her family, including her five children, before making a final decision.

On February 18, Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), released a photograph of his nikah with Bushra, 50. And, social media had a field day, again. There was enough curiosity online about Bushra even before the official announcement; the wedding photograph of a fully veiled Bushra only added to it.

Mehwish Abbasi of Daily Awami Awaz said that though most Pakistanis don’t care about Imran’s third marriage or wife, a section of liberals and feminists are against Bushra because of her attire. “They say we are not living in the Taliban era or in Afghanistan—how can Imran Khan ask his wife to have such a typical religious appearance, they ask,” says Abbasi. “But, there are also people who say it is her right to dress the way she wants to as she comes from a religious background.”

Bushra Maneka belongs to the Wattoo clan—Manekas are a sub-clan—from Punjab, Pakistan. Originally a Hindu Rajput clan, its members are said to have been converted to Islam by Baba Fariduddin. Some reports say the conversion took place during the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq (14th century). Bushra and her first husband, Khawar Fareed Maneka, are ardent followers of the Sufi mystic. The Manekas stay close to his shrine in Pakpattan. Bushra, also called ‘Pinki pirni’, is a well-known Sufi scholar, and it was Imran’s interest in learning more about the Sufi saint and his teachings that led him to her.

“Bushra’s background is completely different from that of Imran’s previous two wives,” says Ejaz Ali of Lahore-based BOL News Network. Imran married British socialite of Jewish descent Jemima Goldsmith, 44, in 1995; a year later he founded the PTI. The couple separated amicably in 2004 as Jemima found it difficult to adapt to Imran’s political life. In 2015, Imran married former BBC presenter Reham Khan, 45, who holds a dual British-Pakistan citizenship. The marriage, however, lasted only 10 months, and it seems to have ended on a bitter note, going by the allegations Reham makes in her upcoming memoir. Imran, too, didn’t mince words when he recently told the Daily Mail that his second marriage has to be the biggest mistake of his life.

Imran was introduced to Bushra around three years ago by her sister, who is a PTI member. Bushra was still married to Khawar then. Imran said he sent his proposal only after she and Khawar, a senior customs officer, parted ways. And, Imran said he saw her face only after their wedding, the r eason being she always covers her face in presence of all men, except her husband.

In an election year though, the personal is the political, and in the age of social media, all news get views. When the rumours of his wedding were doing the rounds, Imran was criticised for breaking the Maneka family. Khawar, whose father was a former federal minister, however, said that their reasons for separation were spiritual.

There were also reports that Bushra had a dream where Prophet Muhammad told her to marry Imran, which would ease his way to become prime minister and also usher in a golden era for Pakistan. Abbasi, however, said they were not true. “Bushra didn’t say this,” she says. “She has never given any statement to the media or spoken to the people.” Agrees Ali: “These reports are not from authentic sources; they are just sensational news.” Social media users went to the extent of comparing Bushra to Melisandre, the Red priestess in Game of Thrones, who advises and aids Stannis Baratheon in his campaign to seize the Iron Throne. There were also reports that Bushra had left Imran’s Bani Gala villa in Islamabad because his dogs were interfering with her rituals and also owing to disagreements with Imran’s sisters. Another reason stated was that Imran was unhappy with the prolonged stay of her son at the villa. Abbasi and Ali, however, said that Imran and Bushra were still together. Ali said Bushra was lucky for Imran. She sure seems to have lived up to her name, meaning good omen.

Imran told the Daily Mail that his interest in Sufism began 30 years ago, but Bushra seems to have made him more religious. “The night he announced his victory, he had tasbeeh (rosary) in his hand, which was never seen before,” says Abbasi. “He also offered namaz and nafls (optional prayers) in a few public places, perhaps to show his religious side. That got him the support of religious people. The youth took it as a positive sign; a majority of them voted for him. But, liberals and feminists say that he is following the Taliban, and not his wife.”

Whatever be the reason behind Imran’s third marriage, as Abbasi said, the people of Pakistan care more about his performance as prime minister.