Remembering Pakistan's mother of minorities

Even after her death, Asma Jahangir managed to shake up a patriarchal society where women are meant to know their place
Remembering Pakistan's mother of minorities

Asma Jahangir tells a press conference in Lahore in June 2012 of her belief that Pakistan's military were trying to kill her. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

Traffic troubles were certainly at their worst on the day the funeral for Pakistan's human rights champion was held.

Prayers for Asma Jahangir were offered at Gaddafi Stadium. Ironically, the venue was renamed in 1974 after Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the likes of whom she defied fearlessly all her life. The usually busy Ferozpur Road, leading to the stadium, was blocked midway. I could see a group of protesting clerics from a distance.

Running late, I took another route, arriving moments before an ambulance arrived at the heavily guarded venue. A group of Catholic women activists greeted me at the entrance. "We were not sure if we would be allowed," one told me.

State-sponsored photos of the late icon decorated roads. Camera drones flew like birds above our heads. A group of farmers chanted slogans for Jahangir. Pashtuns wearing red caps stood nearby. Priests and Christian activists carrying bouquets greeted grieving members of civil society. "The mother of religious minorities has died," a Sikh professor told me.

Television talk shows also described extraordinary scenes of nuns, clerics, celebrities, politicians and even transgender people standing together in rows attending Muslim prayers. For most women, it was the first funeral they had attended as adults. However, the extraordinary display of harmony soon became a topic for religious debates.

Defying tradition

Some news channels focused their programs on the hundreds of female mourners. They replayed footage of women standing in the front row with men performing the ritual of Salatul Janazah or funeral prayers. This was unprecedented in Pakistani society, which is deeply and unequally embedded with patriarchal values, not to mention religious radicalization that condones the behavior of aggressors.

Attendees of Muslim funerals follow a set pattern: men in the front row, children in the second row and women in the third row. Some clerics questioned the mixed gathering and hundreds of women defying religion and tradition to attend the funeral.

A few biased TV presenters used all kinds of references, religious and political, to describe "scenes never seen before in our culture and society." Others objected to the way mourners were dressed. Even Jahangir's uncovered face was made into a controversy. "Modern seculars are not anti-religion but anti-Islam," they stated.

The brave Jahangir spent her life fighting against this mindset. I met her for the first time in 2012 at a press conference in Lahore where she demanded government protection amid allegations that personnel of the Pakistan military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency were plotting to kill her. Together we created many slogans for the feminist icon. The chants of "Dartay hain bandooqon walay ek nehatti aurat say" (Armed ones are afraid of a woman) faintly echo in my mind.

Many say Jahangir defied the discrimination against women even in her death. She was denounced as anti-Islamic and anti-state for speaking for the rights of everybody including religious minorities.

Similar allegations are being made by Punjab Home Department against organizations involved with women and human rights. In December, the Interior Ministry ordered 29 NGOs to leave the country. NGO heads fear the grip will tighten now that Jahangir is gone.

Her work is not over as women in Pakistan stay trapped as second-class citizens. In 2017, a nun who heads an organization asked me not to publish her interview simply because her superior would not allow it after reviewing it. Pakistani nuns are known for their discipline in church-run schools. I hope they become more empowered to inspire new generations.

As always, preparations are underway at Catholic Church institutes for International Women's Day events on March 8. Dedicating these events to the woman who set the standard for defending human rights can be the best tribute to Jahangir.  

Meanwhile, Pakistan is still plagued by honor killings, acid attacks, gender discrimination and violence against women. The tragedy of seven-year-old rape and murder victim Zainab Ansari is also fresh. A total of 17,862 children, including 10,620 girls, were abused in the country from 2013 to 2017, according to a report presented in the National Assembly on Valentine's Day. The popular global event itself was banned on electronic and print media.

Asma Jahangir may be gone but her ideas will stay alive. I briefly mentioned her services in my last article. Pakistan is now home to reputable organizations like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, co-founded by Jahangir. Her trained activists are working both in the church and private sector to pursue their non-violent struggle against the controversial blasphemy laws and countering religious and other types of discrimination.

Naseem George, a former nun who chaired the Justice and Peace Commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Pakistan, rightly posted on social media: "Her blood had so much passion that even after death she made women stand besides men."


Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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