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Winters full of losses

January 19, 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

SINCE the turn of the century, winter months have snatched some of Pakistan’s finest women who made a difference to so many lives.

That December evening is forever etched in my mind when the news of first a suicide bomb attack on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was breaking, and then the horror that she did not survive the grievous injuries suffered in that attack. Several others, mostly her supporters, also died on Dec 27, 2007.

Just a couple of months earlier on, she had narrowly escaped a twin suicide attack in Karachi on her return home from exile. Nearly 200 of her diehard supporters who’d thrown a security ring around her were killed. Even that massive bombing did not spur the Gen Pervez Musharraf-led government to providing her adequate security.

The ramifications of her forcible removal from the political stage are being felt to this day, as few contemporary politicians have displayed her vision and grit and determination in standing up for the causes she believed in.

Not afraid to stand up and fight for their beliefs, these three women have left behind a legacy of courage.

Many of Ms Benazir Bhutto’s critics assess her role and personality with a truncated sense of history and focus solely on corruption allegations that surfaced during her two tenures in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But they forget her heroic — there is no other word to describe it — struggle against military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq during which she lost her father who was executed and suffered a long period of solitary confinement. Yet she stood tall for her cause. The restoration of representative rule owes so much to her.

They also don’t remember the well-chronicled fact that even when her party emerged as the largest single winner of the 1988 elections, despite having defeated into second place an alliance put in place by the military, she was allowed little leeway to govern.

Neither of her governments could complete their terms and were sent packing well before their term-end. There can be no doubt that many corruption allegations have stuck to the PPP leadership. Whether her spouse was ever convicted or not, in the public perception every corruption charge against him was and is valid to this day.

Tragic as it is, even Benazir Bhutto’s murder could not wash away this stain.

Then last February another giant of a woman died, taking away the hope of so many Pakistanis. Yes, I am referring to Asma Jahangir, a friend not just to me but countless others and an indefatigable fighter for truth and justice.

Her ability to call a spade a spade and a duffer a duffer was without parallel and it seems she was born without a ‘fear censor’. She was so utterly fearless it beggars belief. Threats to her life, her family, her liberty merely served to motivate her to do more for the voiceless.

Asma, the lawyer, picked up the cases of women, who’d been wronged and had no other recourse, and take them to their logical conclusion. One can think of no other individual who made such a fundamental difference to so many oppressed women; minorities were no different.

Ever since then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry made judicial activism common and ‘overreach’ the order of the day, there was one consistent voice that challenged him and that was Asma Jahangir’s. Perhaps, the only one so outspoken, almost challenging the chief justice to throw the contempt book at her.

Her public disapproval continued with the same frequency and blunt ferocity when the just-retired chief justice took a path emulating Iftikhar Chaudhry. She set aside her personal friendship with chief justice Saqib Nisar and his family and made no bones about what she thought of his actions.

A lawyer, a human rights activist and someone with a single-minded dedication to constitutional rule in the country, Asma Jahangir is irreplaceable. We are so much the poorer for her loss even if her legacy, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), remains with us.

This January, in fact the last weekend, another remarkable woman left us — compassionate, extra-ordinarily intelligent, elegant, witty and generous to a fault. I called her Safia Aunty. I first met her some 30 years ago, Safia Khairi, and she was more than a mother to me. She had the ability to bring out the best in those around her including laughter. Her home was always a warm refuge for me.

She spent her earlier years travelling the world as the spouse of one of our finest diplomats, Ambassador Saad Khairi, who after retiring from the Foreign Service, edited the Saudi Gazette before finally retiring to a life of authorship and bridge in equal measure in Karachi.

Safia Aunty joined Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s Tehreek-i-Istaqlal, for whom she always had the highest regard, and happily did grass-roots work. She remained active for a while and then seemed to grow disillusioned with politics generally and moved on.

She took up acting in TV plays in the early 1990s, had impact and did a number of serials and became a well-recognised face and name. Anyone who had seen the tall, beautiful and accomplished actor would find it difficult to forget her. She lived a full life.

Safia Aunty’s greatest attribute was her humanity and her fail-safe moral compass. I can’t count the number of time she took up cudgels on behalf of ordinary people who were at the receiving end of unfair treatment or demands by someone in a position of power.

Insane was the water, power or DHA official or the telephone technician who dared ask her for a bribe for doing their job. She was a force of nature and held her principles close to her heart all her life. She could tell right from wrong almost intuitively and walked the talk.

My thoughts are with Saadia, Umber and Babar, her children and granddaughters Sharmeen and Shallal and the rest of the wonderful family. And Rahima who called her Dadi.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2019