That the untimely death of Asma Jahangir has created an intellectual vacuum is to say the obvious. Even more conspicuous was the presence of women at her funeral, showing that Asma Jahangir has created a lasting legacy that other women, and men, are ready to carry forward.
Looking at the seven-decade history of Pakistan and thinking about the bravest and most conscientious personalities we have had — both men and women — one struggles to present a long list. There are not many who had the guts to challenge the dominant narrative, and those who did were ready to sacrifice their lives.
No matter how short the list is, at least seven women will find their prominent place in it. To begin with, the first woman that comes to mind is Fatima Jinnah. Irrespective of the merits and demerits of the Two-Nation Theory, let credit be given where it is due. Fatima Jinnah was the woman behind the father of the nation, MA Jinnah, and sacrificed her entire life for the cause her brother stood for. Sadly, her role in the Pakistan movement has been severely marginalised and almost neglected.
During the dictatorship of the self-appointed field marshal, General Ayub Khan, an entire generation of politicians had been eliminated from the political scene. Ayub Khan’s disgust for political leaders and parties was gushing out from his deeds and words; he had no scruples in destroying and marginalising politically sagacious personalities such as Abdul Ghaffar, HS Suhrawardy, and dozens of other who were striving to make Pakistan a democratic country. General Ayub Khan had all but succeeded in turning Pakistan into an intellectual and political barren land, had it not been for Fatima Jinnah to stand up to him with courage and valour.
In the mid-1960s, Fatima Jinnah was already in her 70s but it did not deter her from espousing a democratic cause. She travelled tirelessly across both East and West Pakistan, leading miles-long processions of people who craved for democratic rule. As usual, the natural allies of the dictator were civil and military bureaucrats, and most of the so-called religious scholars who opposed her for being a woman. The dictator who is projected as an ‘enlightened despot’ in Pakistani textbooks, utilised the misogynist religious sentiments against Fatima Jinnah.
The people of Pakistan rejected the general who massively rigged elections in 1965 to declare himself elected, and Ms. Jinnah secured for herself an enviable status as the first woman who challenged the dictatorship.
Next in line is of course Asma Jahangir who was in her teens when she took up the mantle of her father against the dictatorship of General Yahya Khan. She and her family have an unparalleled distinction of having fought against all four dictatorships in Pakistan right from Generals Ayub and Yahya to Generals Zia and Musharraf. Not only that, she is perhaps the only person in Pakistan’s history to have personally advocated the cause of human rights, minorities, political leaders, and women in the courts of law at almost all levels from district courts to the supreme judiciary.
Her courage was exemplary in challenging the establishment including the holy cows of army and judiciary. From Women Action Forum (WAF) to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), her mark is indelible and her footprints are a guiding path for future generations in Pakistan. During General Zia’s bleak and brutal dictatorship, she fought against discriminatory laws that the general introduced in the name of Islamisation. Asma defended the poor and persecuted throughout her life; from the case of the blind victim of rape, Safia Bibi, to the sit-in calling for justice in the case of Naqueebullah Mehsud, Asma was never conspicuous by her absence.
The women of Bhutto family, Nusrat and Benazir, are the pride of this country. No other mother and daughter light up the mind when it comes to a prolonged struggle against dictatorships; no other woman can claim to have seen all their male family members i.e. husbands, sons, and brothers implicated in false cases, incarcerated, maltreated, or put to death extra judicially and in cold blood. Moreover, enduring all this both suffered long imprisonments and even physical attacks. The notorious photo of Nusrat Bhutto — with her head bleeding during a protest on the roads — is etched in the memory of democracy-loving people of this country.
Before Benazir, it was Nusrat Bhutto who challenged dictator Zia. When almost all male friends of ZA Bhutto had ditched him, it was Nusrat who led the PPP workers. In the darkest times for her party, she didn’t let the democratic torch die. During the MRD Movement in the early 1980s, Nusrat Bhutto, as the party chairperson, overcame all odds to ignite the democratic flame. Any other woman would have collapsed after the judicial murder of her young husband who was just 51 when he was put to death.
Finally, it was the murders of her two young sons that took their toll on her and she withered emotionally, physically, and psychologically during her last years.
Benazir Bhutto would have been the greatest woman in the history of Pakistan, had she not compromised on various occasions of her political career. Still, her relentless resilience is unmatchable. From leading millions of people on the streets of Lahore in April 1986 to her return to Pakistan with the Charter of Democracy and a dream for political reconciliation, she proved herself the strongest woman in the politics of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the mistakes Benazir made in the beginning of her career, by the time of her assassination she had emerged as a well-respected statesperson internationally and the most loved politician in the country.
She had the unique charisma to enthrall not only her audiences in rallies and conferences but also at homes of common workers and friends whom she made it a point to visit personally. Even her enemies and diehard opponents in journalism appreciate her courage and sagacity. She was the most potent threat to the establishment in Pakistan; she was assassinated in 2007 at the age of 54.
Parveen Rahman was perhaps the only woman in Pakistan who took up the standard of challenging land mafia. After graduating from one of the most prestigious engineering colleges in Pakistan, Parveen could have become a prominent and prosperous architect had she decided to pursue her career in corporate sector. Instead she chose to join the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) to work in slum areas of Karachi that were also simmering with ethnic conflicts in the 1980s. For almost three decades she led the struggle against land mafias in different parts of Karachi. She was assassinated in 2013 at the age of 56.
Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated for her insistence on providing the people of Pakistan a platform to discuss topics declared taboo by the establishment and by the religious and sectarian outfits. For over a decade, Sabeen defied the ire of the forces of obscurantism and establishment. When Mama Qadeer was leading a long march for the missing persons, there were not many who supported him vocally and offered him a platform to speak up, Sabeen Mahmud did. When the Lal Mosque episode was unfolding and sectarian fanatics were threatening anyone who opposed them, Sabeen Mahmud did. She was assassinated after an open discussion on Balochistan at her forum called The Second Floor in Karachi. She was just 40.
Finally, the youngest in our array is Malala Yousafzai, an outstanding girl of courage and prowess. In her early teens she saw the ruthless occupation of Swat by Taliban. Malala became an active advocate of girls’ education against the decrees issued by religious bigots. She wrote letters, articles, and gave interviews to international media. By the age of 15 she had become a voice of the voiceless women in Pakistan. Malala was shot at in 2012, survived and became the most prominent face of Pakistan in the World. In 2014, she became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner in the world and the first Pakistani girl to win this award.
To conclude, we may highlight a couple of common streaks in the seven outstanding women here. Though there is no dearth of talented men and women in Pakistan, those who challenge the dominant narrative are few and far between. If we divide the 70-year history of Pakistan into two equal parts, in the first half i.e. from 1947 to 1982 we could only show three women i.e. Fatima Jinnah, Asma Jahangir, and Nusrat Bhutto. In the second half i.e. from 1982 to date we have — in addition to Asma Jahangir — Benazir, Parveen, Sabeen, and Malala.
All these women were unique in the sense that they stood out in the face of adversity, endangering their own lives; strived to challenge authority, were targeted directly by the establishment or by its proxies. These women were never afraid of coming out on to the streets with common people; they associated with the masses and the marginalised. Their courage puts to shame all those who change their sides at the slightest turn of events; be they politicians or the so-called leaders of civil society. Whenever the peace-loving majority wins in Pakistan, history textbooks will have chapters on these women rather than about the warriors that we have now.