Asma Jehangir was no short of a superhero for Pakistani women who wanted someone with grit to show it to The Man. Be it the military’s overstepping, the popular autocrat’s absolute power or the sitting Democrat government’s chest thumping. She was ready to push them all back – considering she was a woman of small frame you’d expect her to be meek, but she made up for it with her gutsy voice shouting things like – come get me if you can dare – her shoulders back. Her duppata falling to the side of her shoulder as she’d wave her arms at the police or army in any public protest. This woman refused to be socialized into the expectations of what it meant to be a woman or a Muslim woman. She defined it on her own terms.
To fully understand the obscurantism that Asma Jehangir – lawyer par excellence and human rights activist like no other – was up against, look at what was said after she passed. Some of Pakistan’s most right-wing TV channels said that the women who showed up in large groups from across the country in solidarity at Asma Jehangir’s funeral should not have. That it is improper for women to participate in what is a men-only social and religious rite. They said that Asma Jehangir’s face should have not been visible at the funeral. It violates tradition. They said men should not have stood side by side with me at the funeral prayers.
The Amina Wadood women-led prayer movement in the US is in our recent memory, but a rabidly patriarchal system like Pakistan’s does complete segregation of women and men when it comes to the religious domain and the hierarchy is defined. Women come after men. They stand behind men. They follow. Men lead. Women have no business doing religion.
They also find ways to discredit her power by saying that she was an Ahmedi Muslim. This is the last resort of anyone who wants to diminish the credibility of anyone in Pakistan because the Ahmedis sect Muslims have been systematically disenfranchised from both the political sphere – so much so that there is vile hate and attempts to mob and rob them into subservience and ultimately exile.
No matter how much the vile reaction to her passing, her life has shone too brightly across Pakistan and internationally for any of the smear attempts to catch on.
I had heard of Asma Jehangir, but her true political prowess came to dawn on me in 2005 when in the General Musharraf military dictatorship she defied local edicts by the religious party, the MMA, and decided to run in a mixed –marathon in Lahore. She did this to bring attention to the then mounting violence against women in the country – over 1000 women are honor killed in Pakistan on average according to the Human Rights Watch.
When Ms. Jehangir started to run on the streets of Lahore, the Punjab police were given clear instructions for her to be taught a lesson. They manhandled her, harassed her, pulled her by the hair and dragged her into a police van and in the process tore they violently tore her clothes. They attempted to humiliate her. To shame her.
She was bigger than that effort. Like a woman who understood power dynamics, she refused to be shamed and said no thanks to it. The violence she was protesting to become the embodiment of what they did to her that day. She was relentless then, and since then taking on fights one after the other. She may not have run that marathon, but she won the race, the battle and the war that men wage on women. She turned the tide. People started talking about women rights on mainstream forums.
For women like myself who dabble in women’s rights and work to promote the sheer brilliance of this country’s women, she was like a general I’d look up to. She was like a strategist. Like an anchor when all around us lose their heads. Armed with the law and an acidic and truthful tongue she possessed both the zero damns given by an older woman and the ferocity of a young girl. It was a lethal mix.
She’s been the recipient of numerous awards, local and international, but these accolades meant less to her than the moral authority she commanded around her. When she walked into a room, her presence tore through the machismo of heads of states, military men and the traders of religion alike.
Even as a lawyer and the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, she’d steer the direction of the country, based on where she turned her chin.
In her passing, Pakistan has lost a fantastic icon of moral righteousness – not the majoritarianism kind, the kind that served the underdog, the downtrodden, the women. The kind Islam has demanded.