What would Asma Jahangir say on the “dam fund?” She would have been scathing, incisive and above all witty. Would it have put an end to the “dam fund” and the arrogance and silliness coming from the Court room no. 1 during the tenure of the former Chief Justice? It would not have; however it would have made it harder for those defending and more embarrassing for those maintaining silence. Most importantly, the record would have shown that this era of arrogance and egomania did not go unchallenged (Fittingly, the most clear-eyed indictment came from her comrades at Women Action Forum).
She would have had great fun with the “department of agriculture” and the shenanigans leading up to July 25, 2018. Would even the mighty Asma Jahangir been able to thwart the scriptwriters? No, she wouldn’t have but it would have made the attempt more transparent. She would have had much to say about a media that has been intimidated into silence and had enough substance and “star power” for the media to give airtime to her comment on its silence.
“What ifs” of history are fascinating but ultimately fruitless at most times. However, much of the speculation is unavoidable whenever I deliberately choose not to turn the television on, and each time I cringe at an editorial and can imagine the writer cringing even more. Every confrontation with misogyny, prejudice, Sheikh Rashid and unintelligent parochialism makes one acutely aware of her absence, this means all day, every day. In playing this game, I also risk, disregarding one of her primary lessons which was to always be suspicious of unmitigated hero-worship (Full disclosure, the personal and professional debts that I owe Asma Jahangir are all-engulfing).
Implicit in this thought experiment is the assumption that we had “outsourced” our fight with totalitarianism, autocracy and ignorance to Asma. Now, one year on since she has left, the position remains vacant. This is as much about Us as it is about her.
No one comes to mind as Asma Jahangir’s successor and that is not a reason to despair. Asma was a product of the era of her formative years and the uniquely horrifying challenges of that time. The misogynist totalitarianism of General Zia-ul Haq produced many of these larger-than-life women and while Asma was undoubtedly the brightest star, she always had sisters in the struggle when the first punch was thrown and the first lathi inflicted.
It is tempting for us to believe that there was something inherently different about Asma and that she was “completely fearless” and other such unqualified epitaphs; however, that will be reductionist. She was often fearful and fretful and embraced and overcame the fears. She conscientiously spent a lifetime of making simple, difficult and often painful decisions. It was a grind rather than a fit of inspiration. In the context of the women’s rights movement of the 1980s till the present, while Asma was the best and most representative example, she was not an aberration, she was part of a large and extraordinary sisterhood of courage upholding the tradition of speaking truth to power.
In April 1986, the headline announcing Simone de Beauvoir’s death in Paris read, “Women, you owe her everything”. Our version of this headline is that “We owe these women everything”. Not a lot, not significant bits but everything. Asma Jahangir, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Malala, Women Action Forum and millions of other women represent everything that is worthy here; intelligence, wit, irony and courage. Asma’s seat like Shaheed BB’s seat is always going to be vacant but there are legions of successors, generations of women holding the torch.
The assault on clear language, and in the Orwellian analogy clear thinking, today is another constant reminder of Asma. Euphemisms now have euphemisms of their own (“Khalai makhlooq” for the euphemism “Establishment” being one example). Many of our public intellectuals think their primary responsibility and skill is to inject nuance, particularly in moral and political questions which require clarity, not “complexity” (increasingly a euphemism for “obfuscation”). Regardless of the language she was speaking in, she always spoke it in the Punjabi of Lahore with all its warmth, unapologetic emotion and boldness. The right answer to a judge of the Islamabad High Court issuing judgments on Valentine’s day is not always a discussion of Rousseau and Montesquieu sprinkled with eighteen “My Lords” but simply that “he is not fit to be a judge and should apply to be a Khatib at a local mosque”.
She had no time or patience for throat clearing, feet shuffling search for the most inoffensive word to not convey what is staring directly in the face. And that made the misogynists and the tin pots mad. She was already unacceptable as the “angry woman” and by being herself she denied them the malicious attempt at confining her in their tiny little box of “western agenda,” even her beedi was subversive at multiple levels (although she smoked it for the mundane reason of liking it).
One year down the line, the full accounting of the loss of Asma’s presence is still not done, it continues to hit us in waves and will do so for the foreseeable future. Asma became a national monument, a phenomenon whose existence we took as a given and also for granted. She fought so we didn’t have to.
One of the most remarkable achievements of Asma was not being on the wrong side of history in any significant political question of her life (the only other example that I can think of is the great Mr. I.A. Rehman). She was unequivocally opposed to Nawaz Sharif’s Shariat bill and unambiguously condemned the October 1999 coup of General Musharraf. Her principles were simple, as most principles are, and here adherence to them was unconditional. On the contrary, the unsure, hedging intellectualism of our times means to be wrong on all questions at all times.
There is another way that the memory of Asma remains inescapable. A few days ago, on the Mall Road on a rare smog-free afternoon after a drizzle, two women on motorbikes talking to each other, beaming passed my car and I remembered Asma, this time not with a sense of loss but of gratitude; for playing her part in enabling this seemingly ordinary yet extraordinarily courageous act, a basic function of any civilized society.
One is reminded of Asma as her law firm continues to represent victims of sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence. Every now and then, I play “yeh tana bana badlay ga” to remind myself of Asma as she was: life-affirming and a symbol of hope. One year down the line, it is inconceivable that there will be another Asma Jahangir and there will not be. However, millions of Asmas are fighting everyday for equality, dignity and freedom and in “the” Asma Jahangir there is a shining example of what is possible.
Asma Jahangir passed away on Feb 11, 2018