Many, many years ago a friend who had abandoned his engineering training to become a historian was telling me about the time that he and other white collar officers of an electronics factory had been roughed up by protesting union workers, with some being dragged out by their ties and their hair. This was during the early 1970s, in the heady days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s pro-worker, pro-socialist government. “Those were chaotic days and many excesses were committed,” he recalled, “but you know, I have to admit that these blue collar workers had developed a confidence to challenge authority and class that they never had before. And this was a direct result of what Bhutto had done, Bhutto gave them that confidence in themselves. For the first time even a donkey cart driver from Lyari could turn around and answer back to a rich man in a big car.”
I was reminded of this story seeing pictures of Asma Jahangir’s funeral. If there are any defining visuals that could ever hope to capture what Asma Jahangir meant to Pakistan, these would be them. For the first time ever in my memory, here were hundreds of women attending the last prayers, a ritual they are usually kept away from by tradition. They did not keep away because of social mores, they were not shunted into a separate enclosure, they were not pushed to the margins. And this was at funeral prayers led by the son of Maulana Abul Aala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, it should be kept in mind.
The defining image that encapsulated the importance of Asma Jahangir may have been that of her funeral
Here is how Zahra Hayat, a lawyer, a doctoral candidate in anthropology in the US and attendee at the funeral described her experience in a social media post. “As I walked into the stadium, I initially couldn’t spot any women. I hesitated and tried to remember the logistics of death: do women even attend public funeral prayers? What if they asked me to leave? Then quickly sanity returned. Would Asma Jahangir be having these thoughts? Never, she’d charge right in. So I channeled her, then, as I know I will many times after today, stood up a little taller and walked in. And of course, there were so many women. Many were lawyers. A sense of solidarity. We asked each other where the women’s enclosure was, expecting any minute to be directed away from where her body was kept, to a separate female enclosure. There was none. Of course. As we crowded around the front, women and men, announcements began about starting the namaz and, again, we expected to finally be told to step back and form lines behind the men. But instead, the men were asked to move to the back, and the women called to the front. We prayed like that, standing next to some men, in front of others. No one objected, how dare they? It was beautiful, so fitting. How could the woman who charged alone, quite literally, into all male bar rooms, courtrooms, into all sorts of hyper male spaces, countenance that the women who came to say farewell to her, their hero, be shunted to the back? Such beautiful subversion, in death as in life.”
That is exactly what Asma Jahangir meant to millions, if not tens of millions of people across Pakistan. The confidence to stand up to regressive social norms, to call out cruel oppression and marginalisation, to question and speak boldly to authority. It is actually more than the sum of her various struggles — against dictatorships, against patriarchal mores, against the suppression of the voices of the poor and those persecuted because of their religion or ethnicity, against militaristic notions of patriotism, or for democratic pluralism. It is not something to be taken lightly.
Many words have been written and will continue to be written about the contribution of Asma Jahangir to the cause of human rights both within Pakistan and internationally, and about her achievements in working with young women denied agency to marry of their own choice, in challenging the state and military usurpers, in campaigning tirelessly for those ‘disappeared’ by the state or those denied due process and condemned to die, in highlighting the cause of the most downtrodden of the poor such as brick kiln workers and landless peasants, in arguing against provincial parochialism, in providing a public voice of conscience on politics, law and religious persecution, and in fighting the cases of those whose cases nobody wanted to fight. But the common thread that runs through all these is one of bravery. It takes a very brave person to take on any of these issues in a society as accustomed to meek acceptance and ruthless crushing of dissent, much less all of them.
Those who attempt to pigeonhole Asma Jahangir’s contributions for a just and inclusive society do her memory injustice. Because her contributions spanned across issues, because the intangible thread that tied them together was far more important. But even those who seek to belittle or obfuscate her contributions by vilifying her person, cannot deny her bravery. In fact, the only reason they seek to vilify her — someone who always championed the powerless — is because her bravery scares them. Because it gives hope and self-confidence to others.
And as Asma Jahangir’s remarkable funeral showed, bravery is often contagious.
The writer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 18th, 2018