Asma’s tribe: a remembrance at Harvard

Shahla Haeri-pic Ibrahim Rashid

Iranian anthropologist Shahla Haeri pays tribute to her Pakistani behen Asma. Photo: Ibrahim Rashid.

After Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore, some of us, members of what I think of as Asma’s tribe, got together at Harvard, 17 Feb, to commemorate her life, impact and achievements. We had lots of flowers, and music, and chai and samosas – she loved these things and loved hosting people. The languages spoken — English, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Farsi — are a testament to Asma’s reach. Below, two reports about the event by students at Emerson College and Wellesley College, with video clips of some speakers’ comments. All video clips online on Vimeo, courtesy Rick Brotman. Cambridge Community Television will run a full video of the event next Saturday. Here’s the slideshow we displayed at the event :


People influenced by Asma Jahangir gather in Cambridge to celebrate her life, by Maysoon Khan

Celebrating Asma Jahangir – by Aliza Amin

People influenced by Asma Jahangir gather in Cambridge to celebrate her life

By Maysoon Khan

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in February, students, professionals and community members crowded into an over 100-seater auditorium at the Harvard Kennedy School to celebrate the life of Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist who passed away at her hometown in Lahore the previous Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Amartya Sen from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

An assortment of people who worked with and knew Jahangir personally paid tribute by sharing stories and reading poetry at an event organized by Jahangir’s friends and admirers including students.

What Asma means to me – a whiteboard series. Photos: Ibrahim Rashid

Introducing the event, Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist who worked with Jahangir, said, “We were originally going to call this a memorial service, then we called it a remembrance, and then we decided to call it a celebration. We want this to be an uplifting celebration of Asma.” Sarwar first met Jahangir when she started voluntary work reporting and writing for the Human Rights Commission in Lahore in the late 1980s.

Speakers ranged from cardiologist Kashif Choudhry who flew in from Baltimore to pay his respects, to entrepreneur Mahmud Jafari, historians Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose, writers Sara Suleri and Homi Bhabha, to Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, to a chaplain, lawyers, professors and newspaper editors.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Sugata Bose from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Asma Jahangir was more than just a lawyer and activist. She was a fearless leader and mentor who fought for justice and democracy in a society that is heavily conservative and marred by corruption. She remained undeterred in the face of imprisonment, beatings, and death threats.

She co-founded Pakistan’s first all-women law firm in 1980, the Women’s Action Forum in 1981, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987 and was also the first woman president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association. She took up cudgels on behalf of women, laborers and other marginalized communities in Pakistan. In her role setting up institutions as well as being an activist, she was revolutionary.

Additionally, she was a long serving UN Special Rapporteur who held several portfolios: 1998 to 2004 on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, 2004 to 2010 on freedom of religion or belief, and mostly recently on the situation of human rights in Iran, a position she assumed on 1 November 2016 and held until her death.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Shahla Haeri from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Tufts professor Ayesha Jalal, a close friend of Jahangir, said, “You could find her at 7:30 in the morning at the bazaar buying fish. And at 10 am protesting outside the Lahore High Courts, and going to courts to fight her case, and then attending a funeral for a human rights activist, and then going home and making dinner and entertaining friends till 3 a.m.” Laughter resounded through the hall.

The auditorium reverberated with emotion, as speakers remembered Asma Jahangir through both laughter and tears. She was remembered as a ‘mentor of mentors’, as ‘Pakistan’s conscience’, and as a national icon whose courage was needed today more than ever to stand up to the tyranny in Pakistan.

“No country produces only heroes. But no country should do without heroes who can give us examples of integrity, courage, and honesty,” said Thomas W. Simons, former United States ambassador to Pakistan.

At the end, the organizers called for the young people present to continue Jahangir’s legacy, to be the next voice of optimism, and to “overcome sounds of war drums with courage.”


Celebrating Asma Jahangir: “We will not stop. We will take her work forward”

By Aliza Amin

A memorial titled “Celebrating Asma Jahangir” at Harvard Kennedy School on 17 February 2018 was held to honor to the late lawyer and human rights activist, who passed away on 11 February 2018 in Lahore from a cardiac arrest at age 66. She will be remembered for championing the rights of marginalized communities including women and children, workers, low-income and religious minorities, and ethnic minorities for almost four decades. She is survived by her husband, two daughters, and a son. Her funeral prayers at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium in Pakistan were attended by over 3,000 people, around half of them women.

In Cambridge MA, students, community members, writers and professionals, including many who came in from out of town, gathered to pay their last respects at the well-attended event, organized by friends and admirers of Asma Jahangir.

The event began with an introduction by Beena Sarwar, who first learnt of Asma Jahangir through the Woman’s Action Forum launched in 1981, and subsequently worked with her at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that Jahangir started in 1987. Sarwar praised Jahangir and her ability to change and inspire the lives of so many.

“We lost someone who meant a lot to people who knew her as well as those who did not know her because she took on issues such as rule of law, due process, and the democratic political process,” said Sarwar. “We will not stop. We will take her work forward.”

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Yasser Kureshi from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Lawyer Yasser Kureshi, a doctoral candidate from Brandeis University, gave a brief summary of Jahangir’s achievements before introducing each speaker.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Mahmud Jafari described Jahangir as “a small person with an indomitable will.” He shared the text of a Facebook post that had been widely shared, written by Zahra Hayat, recounting her experience attending the activist’s funeral in Lahore and how moving it was to see men and women gathered in congregation. He also recited a poem by Urdu poet Kishwar Naheed, written specifically for Jahangir.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Mahmud Jafari from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

“She had no fear of speaking truth to power,” said Shahla Haeri, an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University who had met Jahangir while conducting research in Pakistan. “A person with a good name never dies,” she stated, alluding to a couplet written by the Persian poet Sa’adi.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Yasser Latif Hamdani from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Yasser Latif Hamdani, an advocate of the Lahore High Court and Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School, said Jahangir was one of his inspirations when he entered the field of law. He considered her to be a mother figure.

Martha Chen, who teaches Public Policy at Harvard University, recalled the time she and Jahangir first met at a conference in Sweden. They discovered that they had much in common, Chen said. Both had attended Christian schools, had a deep admiration of the Urdu language, and been active in protesting the atrocities in then East Pakistan, 1971, and had fought for the recognition of Bangladesh.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Marty Chen from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Editor of Daily Times Pakistan Raza Rumi had worked with Jahangir while he was an intern at the Center for Advocacy and Rights and witnessed her courage firsthand when she confronted the inspector general of a police station for their inaction over a gang rape case. She continued to display such bravery, he said, as she stood against arrays of killings, missing persons, and brick kiln workers. Rumi talked about AGHS Legal Aid Cell that Jahangir founded with other young women lawyers, which continues to remain a valuable resource for minorities, women, and children.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Raza Rumi from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

“In her home country, she was a firebrand activist and a fearless lawyer. Through her work she ensured that a military dictator, however powerful, would always be regarded as a usurper. In India, she was a messenger of peace and goodwill,” said Sugata Bose, a historian at Harvard University. His mother in India had once nominated Jahangir for a Gandhi Peace Prize, which later received backlash and was disregarded.

Chanta Bhan, an interfaith chaplain originally from Lahore, talked about Dastak, the women’s shelter in Lahore set up through AGHS Legal Aid Centre that Asma Jahangir ran along with her sister Hina Jillani. Dastak remains an exemplary interfaith sanctuary, where Christian and Muslim women live together when they have nowhere else to go.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Chanta Bhan from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

“The sheer integrity of Asma’s voice as a feminist activist is more resonant and relevant today than ever,” said Homi Bhabha, an English professor at Harvard University. “Her struggle must never end because we must interiorize the struggle and make it part of our internal ethical vigilance. We struggle not only against tyranny but for truth that we cannot live without.”

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Kashif Chaudhry from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

Kashif Chaudhry, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland who had flown in for the event from Baltimore, praised Jahangir’s unrelenting support for religious minorities such as Ahmadi Muslims. “No words can suffice to pay tribute to Asma Jahangir,” said Chaudhry.

“One of my favorite authors, the Viennese writer Karl Kraus, was called a faithful hater of his fatherland,” said former US ambassador to Pakistan Thomas W. Simons, Jr. “And there was something of that in the way Asma felt about her country.”

He went on to speak of her heroism and integrity, concluding, “I must also share with you my first reaction to the news of her death: Pakistan, you’re on your own.”

Author Sara Suleri, Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, paid tribute to Jahangir’s authenticity of spirit and courage by sharing anecdotes of their decades-long friendship. “She did not have to speak for women. She personified what the travails were to women around and also provided some solutions for our predicament.”

Celebrating Asma Jahangir- Sara Sulehri from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

“I would hope that the sense of immediate loneliness is mitigated by this occasion,” said Suleri. “We are all learning a language that is post-Asma Jahangir, and I encourage all of us to keep practicing it.”

Historian Ayesha Jalal, another old friend of Jahangir’s, talked about how remarkable it was that she could manage politics and be a friend and a mother all at once. She reminded the audience that Jahangir was a fallible human being with worries and concerns, and that we all must do even better than her.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Ayesha Jalal from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.

“When the canons of Pakistani democracy are put together, this small-framed friend of mine will stand amongst the tallest of giants,” said Jalal.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen recounted some of Jahangir’s numerous achievements while she was alive, such as how she won her first case at a mere age of 18 and went on to become a leading defender of human rights in Pakistan. The two had been close friends for over two decades, and Sen described how awestruck he was by Jahangir’s clarity of mind and boundless humanity.

“The angel of humanity may have gone, but the education and training we got from her is here to stay,” Sen said. “We can have pride in having known so perfect of a human being.”

The event concluded with a poetry reading by Sughra Raza, an associate professor at Harvard Medical Center. She recited passages “Shorish-e-Barbat-o-Nai” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a dialogue on hope by two different voices. The first voice speaks of the pain of destiny and annihilation, to which the second voice responds with hope and commitment to truth and to overthrow the sound of war drums with music.

Celebrating Asma Jahangir-Sughra Raza from Rick Brotman on Vimeo.


2 Responses

  1. thank you for writing this and keeping Asma Jahangir alive in our memories. I will watch the videos.

    Best to you – and to your family,


    Rachel Wyon

    *“We have not inherited the Earth from our ancestors, we are borrowing it from our children.”*

    On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 2:51 PM, Journeys to democracy wrote:

    > beenasarwar posted: ” Days after Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore, some > of us, members of Asma’s tribe as I think of it, got together at Harvard to > commemorate her life, impact and achievements. We had lots of flowers, and > music, and chai and samosas – she loved these thi” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No one can replace Asma Jahangir the great leader loss

    Liked by 1 person

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