Maryam Hussain


The progressives are mourning the passing of Asma Jahangir. For many the loss is personal, a friend has gone. It follows the loss of Lala Rukh and Nigar Ahmed last year and brings home once again, the enormity of losing Shehla Zia over a decade ago. Though Asma was more visible, and her fame undeniable, the connections are clear.


These were the women who took on Zia, these were the women who carved out a framework for Pakistani feminism as we recognize it today. They parted ways with APWA to become something else, the times required something else. For a small group of us who were teenagers in the 80s they were the ‘aunts’, irascible, sarcastic, argumentative, horribly unconventional, but solidly there. It was a strange group then, the divorcees with children, the working women with families, the single women, short haired, khaddar wearing, unbejewelled, these women were different. So unlike the other mothers lined up outside school at the end of the day; because they were not ‘normal’, we the children perforce were also not, and this was not a comfortable thing especially when two worlds moving in opposite directions ideologically and performatively collided at the school gates. We were the children who attended the meetings after school, who were taken to the protests; we listened with half an ear to the debates, the arguments, and the stories, still in our sticky end of the day school uniforms. While our friends were learning other things, we learned how to make banners and placards, we learned how to be careful with the words we used, and to understand their importance. We learned that as individuals we were still inescapably part of a greater whole, that we carried public responsibility, and that our actions mattered, everywhere and all the time. We were there when the songs emerged- not many of them could sing, but they did anyway. There is a smirk some of us exchange, now tinged with nostalgia, whenever we hear Ye Tana Bana Badle Ga, there is an instant memory of reedy tuneless singing, the aunts and the new faces, not middle class, and deeply unfamiliar in this country of class divides.


Somewhere in the middle of growing up Zia, we also grew up feminist. Not just feminist, but with an education that the schools did not provide. For many of us, the children, we went away to study, we came back, and saw the changes and the shifts within the same groups. We worked with some as adults, and saw first-hand the cracks and the flaws, and the conflicts of interest alongside the broad strokes of the importance of work being undertaken. We saw the NGOization of activism, the corporatization of the NGOs and also the demise of something essential. We saw the friendships remain and strengthen, but also how these connections translated into an elite capture of a different kind as many ideals fell in essence by the wayside to the greater endurance of interpersonal memory and connection, and at times to the lure of power and the benefits of being established and establishment within new paradigms of cultural resistance. We saw how rhetoric can be separable from personal purpose and action in real terms. These were in effect, our parents, and as our parents, they became fallible. Our motley crew of rag tag aunts had grown in stature, and with that many had succumbed to the pitfalls of stature.


Yet, despite all this, something critical endures and lights the way; nothing can compare to the enormous privilege of being witness to their strength, and nothing can compare to the protection they provided and continue to provide. Nothing can compare to their relentless energy. One by one, they leave us, and we are no less orphaned for being adults in our own landscapes of impossibility.


As things grow darker today, in many ways darker than we could have imagined in the 80s, many of these are still the people who can be relied on to be there at protests against the violation of rights, they are still the people who will take on the cases that no one else will touch, these are still the people who will be there in court, these are still the people that can provide the most solid advice when our friends are disappeared, and when our generation is called to action; they are still the people who have the capacity to instinctively and methodologically be on the side of human rights and citizens rights when the chips are down. These are still the people who think nothing of danger and personal risk. These are still the people who will stare down the mullahs and the army when others weigh the consequences. These are still the people who have experience, direct experience of cause and effect, and deep knowledge of the history that we are all living today. I speak now not only of the aunts but also of the men. People like IA Rehman now 86 years old and heartbroken at the loss of one more of his ‘children’. These are still the people who are solid and solidly there, for me and for many others these are still the ones who have answers and clarity born of a lifetime of resistance. These are still the people who have scored pathways across class divides, across gender, across religious and ethnic divides, and allowed us see that it is possible in Pakistan to be human, first and foremost.


Our debt to them as a country is enormous, without them, we would have perhaps only one frame of reference. We would perhaps be completely engulfed by the right and the far right, we would perhaps be possessed in body and mind entirely.


In the midst of eulogies for Asma Jahangir, well deserved and well earned, I am reminded strongly of the teachings of those we now seek to remember and honour, and those who are still here. In our desire to honour a woman who many knew as a person and as a symbol, we should not reduce her, or what indeed she stood for. We are mythmaking, and that is antithetical to what these women and men stand for and have stood for all their lives. What we are doing is dangerous. When we say Asma was arrested in 1983, or that she was lathi charged, or that she was the only voice that dared, when we imply that Asma was her own phenomenon, when we imply that her courage was an anomaly, when we say that she was the sole embodiment of our ideals we misrepresent the truth, we undermine historical fact, and we dismember the collective. When we say ‘ab koi nahi raha’ (there is no one now), we remove hope from all those who have been disappeared, from all those who are vulnerable, and those who are disenfranchised today; we also remove our own responsibility to act and speak. All of what we say may indeed be true, for a particular value of truth, but in our grief, we should also remember that we are still alive, and that we should not strengthen the hands that would silence us by saying that we are no more; that without Asma we no longer exist. We should not undermine what Asma came to symbolize.


We all understand the danger of reductionism, the danger of the absence of real analysis, we understand the enormous potential of fiction to remove the ground on which we stand. Our historical landscape, the one constructed by the state, is populated in equal measure by heroes and villains, each one two dimensional, our Jinnahs are transparent, cardboard cut outs, representative now of a history that never happened. Our mythological landscape of gods and demons, shadows and silhouettes has removed our capacity to engage with the real, we as a Nation seek two dimensionality, this is where we are most comfortable. We deify, and then we defend our gods, irrationally, loudly and in essence ineffectively; we police the border of blasphemy and treason even when we define the parameters of what these words mean ourselves. We of the left also have a tendency to become the spectacle and the worshipful mass beneath an Olympus of our own creation, we have our own doctrine of signatures.


So I will say this. Each time Asma was arrested, dozens more were also arrested, each time Asma spoke, she was a voice among many others, her voice may have been loudest but she was part of a susurration, each time Asma was in court as a lawyer, dozens stood with her, we should not forget that Asma was part of a chorus. That thousands have stood, and marched, and spoken over the decades, that many have been dispossessed, tortured and murdered for their refusal. Asma did not happen in a vacuum, she was not sans context, she was not a prophet or an anomaly. She was one of many.


The Women’s Action Forum is and was against leaders and icons, in fact there has never been a director, a single representative at any time in this group’s history. Each person within it contributes their skills, each one has responsibility in equal measure. This was a decision taken for a reason. Whereas we do at times need a face, a tangible thing around which our collective concerns can coalesce, we need at times an object that anchors our empty signifiers to the real and makes action, any action, possible, there are also pitfalls that come with the assigning of a single face to a cause. Icons also diminish the real, leaders, especially enduring ones reduce debate and growth, they remove the necessity for individual thought and responsibility, leaders become corrupt, leaders die and in doing so make movements instantly ghosts. When we enable our ideals and purpose to be embodied in a single person outside of ourselves, we are instantly protected and instantly devolved of personal responsibility. We become like the proverbial Djinns who keep themselves safe by keeping their life force elsewhere. We become entirely vulnerable when that object is threatened.


Our imaginary needs our heroes and our saviours, we do. We here need our Ches, our Bacha Khans, our Mandelas our Gandhis, our larger than life creatures who can challenge those larger than life constructs on the other side. We need increasingly the possibility of Davids when Goliaths are multiplying. We need our Davids to also now face off against the newly minted Davids of the far right, the Mumtaz Qadris of this world. But we also have to remember that here and now, our personal responses to the loss of Asma are simultaneously also political and public. We must take the present moment into account but also recognize that we are making history when we speak, that we are constructing narratives and truths which will be of great importance to those coming after who will like us be seeking a firm place to stand somewhere down the line in their darkest hours. At the time when our loss is most palpable we have to remember that firm places to stand are born not from myths, from superhumans, or from gods, but from the historical truth of flawed human beings living in less than perfect times.


It is a balancing act, so we must choose our words carefully. We need our Asmas to remain real in memory because we need to learn from their mistakes and failings as well as their successes and strengths. We need to be able to criticize that which we love, and continue to love that which we can criticize. With Asma there is enough there to acknowledge her contribution and her worth without resorting to fictions and tropes. We do not need more gods, we do not need more hyperbole, we do not need to make more effigies.


So, today I raise a glass to the streets. To the ideologies- to pluralism, to fundamental rights, to equal citizenship, to freedom from fear and from violence, to freedom of speech and thought, to the idea that some of us should have a little less so that all can have a little more. Today I acknowledge my gratitude to all the Asmas both living and dead, male and female. Today I acknowledge that the only place I will ever feel at home is on the Mall, under the Peepal trees, in the middle of a failed revolution but armed with the idea that it matters that we try, it matters that we stand, it matters that we speak, and it matters that we speak the truth no matter how unpalatable.



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