A moral compass

Bravery, thy name is Asma Jahangir

By Mehmal Sarfraz
  • Published 9.03.18
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Yesterday was International Women's Day. As a Pakistani woman, it somehow felt incomplete because of the loss of one of our most iconic feminist figures, Asma Jahangir, who passed away last month due to cardiac arrest. She had only just turned 66. The news of her sudden death jolted each and every one of us. It was a personal loss not only because a lot of us knew her closely but also because she was an inspiration to millions of men and women around the world.

Asma Jahangir was a champion of human rights, an untiring campaigner for women's rights, a voice for minority rights, a democrat to the core, a brilliant lawyer and a crusader who did not bow down to pressure. There was no one like her, and there may never be another as brave and courageous as Asma ji. As Mohammad Taqi put it, she was our moral compass. If she took a position, it meant that we should do so too because she had always been on the right side of history. She was a class apart. Asmaji's energy knew no bounds. She addressed the Pashtun Long March just a few days before her death. To her last day, she worked tirelessly for all of us, for each and every Pakistani, trying to make our country a better place for the future generations.

Asma Jahangir truly broke the glass ceiling in more ways than one. She was the first and only woman so far to have been elected as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. The day she won the SCBA elections was historic. Her opponents and critics had tried to sabotage her election campaign with every dirty trick possible. Yet, she survived those despicable attacks and went on to win the elections. At a personal level, her success inspired the women of Pakistan. If Asma ji could do it, so could we. Pakistan's powerful military establishment feared her. She was maligned by her detractors and faced death threats, but she went on doing what she did. If bravery could have a name, it would be Asma Jahangir. She was neither afraid of the military establishment nor powerful politicians, religious extremists or anyone else. She was a one-woman army against all the ills of our society. As Umair Javed tweeted, "[Asma Jahangir] Took on battles no one else would touch. Faced insurmountable odds as a woman, and fought fearlessly in the dirty, patriarchal trenches of both her profession and the wider field of Pakistani politics. We have all lost a treasure, even though some may not recognize it."

Asma ji may have left us but even in death she taught us many lessons. One of the most important lessons I learnt was how she believed in engaging with everyone regardless of their views. There is a problem with a lot of Pakistani liberals, myself included, that we don't listen to the other side or engage with those we don't agree with. When Asmaji passed away, we saw people from religious parties pay condolences to her family, some of her worst critics were crying for her, and they all had personal stories to share - of how Asma ji helped them in their hour of need, or how she engaged with them regardless of her ideological differences with them. I suddenly remembered what she had said to a bunch of us a couple of months before her death. It went something along these lines: 'Activism comes with responsibility. Do not mock your adversaries. If you mock them, they will not listen to you. Engage with them. Reason with them.' This was Asma Jahangir for you. There are so many stories to tell but there are not enough words to describe the kind of woman that Asma Jahangir was. She was a wonderful daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and an amazing friend. And she was a great mentor. She took time out for everyone who asked for it despite her busy schedule. She would return almost each and every call because she did not want to miss out on anyone who needed her help. The kind of outpouring of grief at her death is a testament to the fact that she touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in one way or another.

Asma Jahangir's funeral was attended by people from all walks of life. From a blasphemy accused who said his life was in danger but he had to attend her funeral because she was the only lawyer in the country who helped him without charging him a penny to labourers and peasants whose voice was Asma ji, from an acid-attack survivor to transgender persons, from activists to lawyers, from politicians to artists, from the rich to the poorest of the poor, there were thousands of people who had gathered together to bid adieu to the one person they knew had always stood up for them, even when nobody else dared to do so. People had travelled thousands of miles just to bid farewell to their hero.

We all felt orphaned that day. Who will speak for us now? Who will raise a voice for the disempowered? Who will confront the powers-that-be? Asma ji's funeral was attended by men and women together. There was no gender segregation. It was the first time that many - in fact most - women attended a funeral prayer alongside men. Even in her death, Asmaji broke the norms. And, as always, she won.

Every single day since her death, I look at what is happening in Pakistan and I wonder, what would Asma ji have said, what would Asmaji have done? Nawaz Sharif was 'disqualified', once again, by the judicial establishment last month when he was removed as president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). His party's candidates for the Senate elections had to contest the polls as independents because as per the court's judgment, "all steps taken, orders passed, directions given and documents issued" by Sharif after his disqualification stood null and void. This created quite a political upheaval. Had Asma ji been alive, she would certainly not have minced her words. She could take on the powerful like no other for she was indomitable. Her voice will be missed, today and forever.

There is no one like Asma Jahangir but her legacy will continue to live on through her work, through the institutions she built - such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the AGHS Legal Aid Cell - through the countless women she empowered, through those she inspired, through each and every rights worker and through her family and friends. Asma ji, we will miss you. Rest in power!

The author is a journalist based in Lahore

mehmal.s@gmail.com