ASMA JAHANGIR 1952 – 2018 | LAHORE
By the time Asma Jahangir was 18 years old, her father, a retired bureaucrat turned politician, had been imprisoned several times for public protest. And while she learned to stand up for what was right from her parents, being fearless came naturally to her. As a young student at a conventrun school in Lahore, she rallied to change how the head girl was selected. Asma demanded there be ‘at least a semblance of an election’, instead of a girl being chosen by the nuns, as was tradition. The school administration eventually agreed, while retaining veto power.
It was the year 1971, however, that marked her formal entry into a lifetime of public struggle and activism. Her father had been imprisoned yet again, this time by the then President, General Yahya Khan. Asma filed a petition for his release in the Lahore High Court, which was dismissed. She later said, ‘Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father remained in jail . . . we were not allowed to go see him there. We always saw him in courts. So for me, the courts were a place where you dressed up to see your father.’ Unfazed, young Asma appealed to the Supreme Court. When Yahya Khan’s rule ended in 1972, the courts declared the imprisonment illegal and Asma won her very first case. The young girl had found her calling and she was off to law school!
However, she was forced to drop out when she fell in love and got married; the college had a strict policy disallowing married women from attending. Asma persevered, unstoppable in her goal to become a lawyer, and managed to complete her degree. She went on to set up the very first female law firm in the country, specializing in divorce and custody, with her sister and two friends.
Asma was known for her immense courage and her unwavering strength and capacity to stand against forces that would crush the oppressed. Even when placed under house arrest for fighting a law that discriminated against women and religious minorities under the pretext of Islamization, she persisted. She risked life and limb when she stepped out on the streets and spoke out on public television and later, on her spirited twitter account. She never stopped calling out those in power who perpetuated misogyny in the name of religion, and spread violence and intolerance.
Asma was a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (read more about this on page 89), a feminist movement that started in the 1980s, and established the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She became the very first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 1983. Asma not only battled religious injustices, she also fought for the rights of women, minorities, for freedom to choose whom you marry, and opposed bonded labour and the controversial blasphemy law, managing to irk many—from the military to the mullahs. When she passed away in 2018, Pakistan mourned the loss of a great woman who did more for its democratic and inclusive future than any other person in recent history.
QANDEEL BALOCH 1990 – 2016 | DERA GHAZI KHAN
No one expected Qandeel Baloch to become a feminist icon for young women in the country. Known as Pakistan’s ‘Kim Kardashian’, she had been infamous for her racy social media content. Born as Fauzia Azeem in a conservative and patriarchal part of rural Punjab, she was raised where women had no voice and were expected to obey the men in their life. Fauzia was married when she was only 17 years of age, to a man she disliked. She walked out of the marriage, which was abusive—something many accused her of making up, and took refuge in a women’s shelter in Multan with her son. When the child fell ill, Fauzia was forced to give him up. But she continued to reclaim her life, completing her education and struggling to make ends meet through low-paying jobs until she finally broke into the entertainment industry as Qandeel Baloch.
She started small—cheap fashion shows, small shoots and even a failed audition for Pakistan Idol—but soon made a successful career out of dramatic and catty television appearances. She reconnected with her family, moving her parents to her house and financing her sister’s wedding and dowry. But she kept her two lives separate. No one outside her family knew that Qandeel and Fauzia were the same person.
As she grew her persona, Qandeel became bolder. She began using social media to push the envelope on how women are expected to behave in public, pouting and posing provocatively and asking followers unsettling questions like, ‘How am I looking?’. Pakistan was in equal parts intrigued and appalled. Some called her shameless, others admired her ability to do as she liked. Gradually and perhaps without design, Qandeel’s coy online familiarities took on a more serious agenda. She began to leverage her celebrity status to empower women, her voice resonating among progressive Pakistani society. ‘As a women [sic], we must stand up for ourselves . . . As a women [sic], we must stand up for justice. I am a modern day feminist . . . I am just a women [sic] with free thoughts, free mindset and I LOVE THE WAY I AM.’
While Qandeel remained unabashedly vocal about the patriarchy, the release of her music video mocking the limits placed on Pakistani women had her spooked. She had seen money and mobility come her way as Qandeel but continued to feel the lack of freedom and the effects of her patriarchal family as Fauzia. This controversial video became her last when the press uncovered the identity of the ‘real Baloch’. On 15 July 2016, eighteen days after this reveal, Qandeel was killed by her brother for actions that he felt ‘dishonoured’ the family.
Qandeel’s life has been revisited on television and most recently, in a book entitled The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch. Because sensational she was! This feisty woman, who came from nowhere and with nothing, had singlehandedly managed to grab the attention of an entire nation to make a name for herself. ‘I don’t know HOW many girls have felt support through my persona. I’m a girl power. So many girls tell me I’m a girl power, and yes, I am.’
This excerpt from Fearless written by Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui and illustrations by Aziza Ahmad has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.