Earlier this month, Krishna Kumari Kohli and her family waited impatiently in front of a television in their small house in a remote corner of the southern Pakistani province of Sindh.
March 3 was a special day for the Dalit, or untouchable, Hindu family. A group of 168 lawmakers in Sindh’s legislature were set to vote to elect 12 new members to the Senate, the upper house in Pakistan’s federal parliament. When Kohli’s name flashed on the television screen, her family in the village of Nagarparkar were elated.
“It was a dream come true,” she told Radio Mashaal about becoming the first low-caste Hindu senator in the Muslim-majority country.
Her election as a representative of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 104-member house is being hailed as a good omen for Pakistan’s religious minorities, whose members often report discrimination and oppression.
The journey for Kohli, 39, from her time as a bonded laborer in Tharparkar to the corridors of power in Islamabad is remarkable. She says her parents, four brothers, and two sisters are peasants.
“All of us, along with my uncle’s family, worked in the fields for a landlord,” she said of her childhood. “He falsely claimed we owed him money, so we had to work for him as bonded laborers.”
Kohli’s was a second-grader at the time. She says that after toiling in the landlord’s fields for two years, her family won back their freedom. She was married before she finished high school. But her husband, also a student, encouraged her to continue her education, and she went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology.
After completing her studies, she became involved in activism by joining the PPP and providing free legal aid and counseling to victims of sexual harassment. “The PPP has always helped the Hindu community and has a great history of upholding its secular beliefs,” she said.
Kohli rose through the ranks of rural Sindh’s politics, dominated by rich land holders, spiritual leaders, and businessmen. She was elected to a post in the local government in Tharparkar. “Finally, we are seen as humans,” she told The New York Times. “It is like for the first time in history that we have been taken out of a ditch.”
Kohli is ready to play a prominent role in Islamabad’s political arena, where she intends to speak up for Pakistan’s estimated 1.8 million Hindus and millions of others from religious minorities. “Now, my community has a voice. Nobody wanted to listen to them even locally, but now I will raise their issues in the national parliament,” she said.
Most of Pakistan’s Hindus live in Sindh, where their vulnerable members often face forced conversions. In some cases, young Hindu girls are reportedly abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and then married off to Muslim men. “I want to work for women’s rights,” Kohli said. “I will work for the prevention of child marriages.”
She has made her father proud. She says he glowed with pride as her neighbors distributed sweets to celebrate her election. “My father thinks I have landed a good job in Islamabad. He does not know what a senator does,” Kohli said.