Pakistan: Who is Bushra Bibi, the mystical wife of Imran Khan?

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) walks with his wife Bushra Bibi as they arrive to appear before Lahore High Court to get bail in Al-Qadir trust case in Lahore, Pakistan 15 May 2023.
Image caption,The couple, pictured arriving at court in May 2023, married in 2018

The rumours about Imran Khan’s third wife did not take long to start swirling.

For a start, Bushra Maneka – as she was known before her marriage to Pakistan’s former cricket captain-turned-politician – was quite different to her two glamorous predecessors. While British socialite Jemima Goldsmith and journalist Reham Khan graced the covers of magazines and television screens, she stayed hidden behind a veil.

In fact, Khan would tell the Mail on Sunday proudly in 2018 that he “did not catch a glimpse of my wife’s face until after we were married” – something that he said would have been “unthinkable” back in the 1980s, his heyday on the London nightclub circuit.

It was, he said, Bushra’s intellect and character which drew him to her. But that was not what really got people talking – it was, instead, the mystical powers she was credited with.

The woman now known as Bushra Bibi was, in fact, a faith healer with a small following who respected her as a spiritual adviser.

On Wednesday the couple were both sentenced to jail and fined more than $2m each in a corruption case – news that had readers round the world googling her name to find out more about her.

Some say Bushra Bibi’s attached to the Sufi tradition, but that is disputed by others. Often described as Islamic mysticism, Sufism – which her husband says he has been interested in for more than three decades – emphasises the inner search for God and the renunciation of worldly matters.

It’s a far cry from his cricketing years when he developed a reputation as a playboy before settling down to a society marriage that was never far from the limelight.

In 1995, at the age of 43, he married the 21-year-old British heiress, Jemima Goldsmith – the daughter of one of the world’s richest men at the time. The marriage lasted nine years and produced two sons.

A second marriage in 2015, to journalist and former BBC weather presenter Reham Khan, lasted less than a year. She alleges she was bullied by his supporters and wrote a tell-all memoir.

By contrast, Imran Khan’s 2018 marriage to Bushra Bibi was a low-profile ceremony. Observers say the match plays well with his public shows of devotion to Islam.

Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi sign surety bonds for bail in July 2023
Image caption,Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi, seen last July posting bail

It’s rumoured Khan turned to the mother-of-five for advice after they met at a 13th Century Sufi shrine. At the time she was still married to her first husband.

Bushra Bibi, it was whispered, then saw in a dream that the only way Khan would become prime minister was if they got married. And so, the couple wed – and six months later Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister.

Bushra Bibi, who is reportedly now in her 40s, was quick to rubbish the story in her only television interview to date, in October 2018.

She did, however, assure the interviewer that Pakistan would soon improve under Imran Khan’s leadership.

That did not come to pass: during his tenure, the economy collapsed, the cost of living soared, many of his political opponents were jailed, media freedoms were curbed and human rights violations and attacks against journalists increased.

As a politician, Imran Khan built his success by publicly upholding liberalism, while at the same time appealing to Islamic values and anti-West sentiment. He was also said to be close to Pakistan’s military, with whom he subsequently fell out of favour.

Within four years of becoming PM, Khan’s political career had begun unravelling. In 2022 he was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence and the following year he was arrested and jailed as court cases piled up against him.

Now, Pakistan’s former first lady is also jailed, serving a 14-year sentence after they were both convicted of illegally profiting from state gifts while he was in office.

She has other legal problems too.

Her former husband, to whom she was married for 28 years before their divorce in 2017, is pursuing her through the courts.

Khawar Maneka – a civil servant and son of a well-known politician – filed a complaint alleging “fraudulent marriage and fornication” in November, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. Days before, he had told Pakistan’s GeoNews that he had come forward because he was “exhausted from holding it in”.

The courts threw out the fornication charge but the fraudulent marriage case has been allowed to proceed.

Under Muslim family law, women are prohibited from remarrying for a few months after their husband dies or they are divorced. It is alleged that Bushra Bibi married Imran Khan before the completion of the stipulated time following her divorce from Khawar Maneka.

Bushra Bibi’s precise role in the state gifts case – in which sentencing came just over a week before national elections in which her husband is banned from participating – is unclear.

She and her husband were accused of illegally selling gifts – including perfumes, dinner sets and diamond jewellery – through their aides in Dubai during Khan’s time in office. According to Reuters news agency, these gifts were worth more than 140 million rupees ($501,000; £395,000).

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has dismissed the cases against him – which Khan’s lawyers say number in the region of 170 – as being politically motivated.

Bushra Bibi’s sentence was another attempt to put pressure on the former prime minister, the PTI’s acting chairman and lawyer Gohar Ali Khan said.

“Bushra Bibi has no link to this case,” he told a local television network, according to Reuters.

That, of course, does not change the fact that Bushra Bibi – who handed herself in shortly after the sentence was delivered – now faces the prospect of years as a prisoner.

A government notice late on Wednesday said she would be held under house arrest at her residence in Islamabad until further orders.

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