Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rest in power, Asma Jahangir

by Ayesha Khan

Asma Jahangir's funeral, 13th February 2018, Lahore, Pakistan
Picture credits: Rabia Mehmood

The untimely death of human rights defender Asma Jahangir has dealt a body blow to the Pakistani women’s movement and the peoples’ struggle for political empowerment. Most of those who attended her funeral yesterday in Lahore were less familiar with her international human rights profile and record as a Special Rapporteur for the United Nations in conflict-affected areas of the world. Those who came mourned her passing because she had fought for each one of their causes.

Christians brought a special wreath to the funeral in tribute to her tireless defense of religious minorities and insistence upon defending those unjustly sentenced to death under blasphemy laws passed during General Zia’s dictatorship (1977-1988). Jahangir bravely critiqued the laws in view of her opposition to the death penalty and their misuse to target the vulnerable.

Her last public address was in Islamabad, just days before death, delivered to protestors at the Pashtun long march, led by young men gathered to protest against the government’s unaccountable security forces and targeting of ethnic Pathans in their fight to control militancy and push back the Taliban. For days the mainstream media and television channels dared not cover the protest and its explicit attacks on military excesses, yet Jahangir lent her voice to their gathering and support to their demands for accountability. Grief-stricken, the Pashtun nationalist Awami Nationalist Party, led by Bushra Gohar, feminist and vice-president of the party, sent a full delegation to her funeral.

As the count of missing persons has risen throughout the country, Asma demanded the state be accountable to its citizens. She offered her services for free to help trace those picked up by security forces in Balochistan, where a nationalist insurgency rages on and the military struggles to retain control. Asma worked tirelessly to help facilitate a peaceful end to the conflict in the province. ‘Balochistan is forever in your debt,’ tweeted former Chief Minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal upon hearing of her death.

In homage to Asma’s exemplary role in the women’s movement, members of the Women’s Action Forum assembled from all over Pakistan to pay their last respects. Wearing yellow dupattas imprinted with their charter of demands, they came to bury possibly the most publicly brave, articulate and unyielding advocate their cause would ever have. “Democracy is survival for women,” she once famously said, putting an end to any debates that even a liberal military leader like General Musharraf could effect meaningful gender equality in Pakistan.

Responding to the family’s invitation, women defied tradition and surged to the front of the funeral congregation gathered on an open ground next to Gaddafi Stadium as the final prayers were offered. As I walked away after the formalities were over, these images lingered in my mind – a woman survivor of an acid attack who quietly took a seat near me as we waited for the family to assemble. A Sikh who came to Asma’s house to offer his condolences. The people the state tends to forget but Asma remembered.

Today I saw a young woman’s tribute circulated on a Pakistani feminist social media group. She recalls being taught by her parents to be upright and moral – but in the private sphere – and detached and apolitical in the public. It was the gift of Asma’s example that taught her ‘insides and outsides could be the same, that yes, you should not shut up you should speak louder.’ She adds, ‘And what a gift, also, her constant lived reminders that strength is not simply the ability to do violence – as the security state would like us all to believe – but the ability to resist it.’