Remembering Asma Jahangir, Carrying Powerful Possibility Forward
Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer, and social activist passed away on 11 February 2018. With heavy hearts, three members of AWID staff share their memories of her.
“She laughed…she was one of us… Breaking barriers of patriarchy…And yet in her fierceness, there was a generosity, a groundedness…
With her life, Asma rewrote the history that many of us were told as women… Asma changed the world…She changed it in Pakistan…and she changed it in our imaginations…”
Argentine feminist and sexual rights activist, and Director of Programs at AWID
In 1999, travesty activist Lohana Berkins and I went to Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council for the first time. We went to expose the violence against trans communities in our country, Argentina. It was cold. We got lost once and again in corridors that felt endless. People spoke in acronyms we could not decipher. Everything was as formal and uncomfortable as our (borrowed) clothes. And then she came, then everything changed.
She was the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions but she smiled at us in the cafeteria and broke her muffin, passing it around to share. After hearing the figures of the dead and the arrested, she asked how we were fighting it.
She laughed at our most innovative tactics, gave us new ideas and described her own fights, so similar to ours – her law practice in Lahore, a shelter for women fleeing abusive or unwanted marriages. She was one of us, an activist shining her own light in the greyness of Geneva. I was interpreting for Lohana but halfway through the meeting, my words were almost redundant. She was Asma, the first Rapporteur who addressed trans murders in her reports. I met her on many other occasions throughout the years. Her bravery and laughter will never cease to inspire me.
Feminist activist and Program Manager at AWID
Breaking barriers of patriarchy and standing fearlessly against injustices is never easy but to speak truth to power, live to see another day, and do it again and again, well that is almost unfathomable. Or at least that is how it felt to me growing up in the same country as Asma did, a country rife with violence justified by false gods and entrenched by military rule.
By the time I met Asma, her reputation already preceded her, the woman who opened up the first all-female law firm, the first woman to become president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, the woman who represented those who had been condemned for simply being women, or minorities or poor. And yet in her fierceness, there was a generosity, a groundedness.
There are those who widen the cracks where the light shines in and those who make you see that even the darkest of walls can be broken. Asma’s funeral was a testament to how she lived her life. For the first time women stood alongside men, people of different religious or ethnic identities stood together embracing the radical yet simple notion that we are all human beings deserving of the same rights, the same justice, the same treatment and the same compassion.
Diasporic desi feminist, AWID’s Communications team
While they can be places of great creative growth, diasporic communities can often cling to oppressive orthodoxies as a way of maintaining a sense of collective identity. We look back to our places of ancestry to guide us, and too often the first, loudest voices we encounter are the ones that tell us we cannot, we should not, we must not. Firmly, loudly, clearly, Asma told us the opposite.
With her life, Asma rewrote the history that many of us were told as women: that we should not make too much noise, that we should swallow the injustices we witnessed and experienced, that we were absurd to imagine having the power to change the world. Asma changed the world, steadfastly and single-mindedly, under house arrest, death threats, and assassination attempts, voicing dangerous opinions in all-male spaces.
She changed it in Pakistan, where she lived and practiced, and she changed it in our imaginations, wherever we sat on this planet. That borderless gift of powerful possibility cannot be undone. We cannot unknow what we know. We are carrying it forward now.