(This article was first published on Youth Ki Awaaz on March 3, 2018.)
It has been almost three weeks since Pakistani lawyer, and human rights activist Asma Jahangir died of a cardiac arrest in Lahore, but the tributes continue to pour in. Remembrance meetings are being held in various parts of the world to honour the richness of her life and the abiding value of her work. Apart from steering the direction of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Women’s Action Forum, she contributed significantly to the United Nations’ efforts in bringing to light human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Iran, Israel and India.
While I have been reading each one with great care to learn more about this amazing woman I never had the opportunity to meet, the tribute I have been most moved by is a simple and heartfelt visual, entirely bereft of words. It is a piece of art that morphs Asma’s face on to the famous Statue of Liberty in New York City, which is the statue of a robed woman with a torch in hand, and broken chains lying at her feet. Created by artist Mohsin Shafi, who lives in Lahore, ‘The Statue of Liberty 1952–2018’, is a limited edition inkjet print on archival paper.
Hoping to learn more about the story behind it, I reached out to Mohsin over email. I discovered that he has never met Asma but “always felt she was just there, somewhere at the back as a support system.” He told me, “In a country like Pakistan where hardly anyone speaks truth to power, she practised it till her last breath.” He referred to her as “an icon of liberty” who “campaigned tirelessly for democracy and free speech, frequently receiving death threats for taking up causes such as criticizing the strict blasphemy laws of the conservative Muslim-majority country…fearlessly stood up to dictators, thugs and misogynists.”
What strikes me is this junoon with which Asma took on the powers that be, keeping her focus on protecting the civil liberties of the most marginalized. She used her legal knowledge to benefit religious and ethnic minorities, battered women, abused children, secular liberals, and victims of enforced disappearances. It must take a person of enormous mettle to thrive in a hostile environment with the kind of fierceness that she embodied.
Asma is known to have spared no one — governments, security agencies, religious extremists, and military regimes — in her relentless pursuit of justice. What is even more surprising is that she fought hard to secure the constitutional rights of her political adversaries as well, not only to support people whose struggles she was ideologically aligned with. It is a rare kind of individual who can accomplish this, which is why her loss is so deeply felt.
Mohsin considers Asma a hero because she was “very bold” and “very firm on her stances”. He drew inspiration from her when his ‘Sadaism’ series was censored in Pakistan in 2015 for daring to be playful with the faces of much revered Pakistani political figures such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Benazir Bhutto, Allama Iqbal and Imran Khan.
The word ‘Sadaism’ draws on an early 20th-century European art movement called Dadaism, and the Punjabi word ‘Sada’ meaning ‘our’. Mohsin said, “When I exhibited the works for the first time at a gallery in Karachi, they were taken off the walls within two hours after the opening when a threat was received by the gallery owner.” It seems befitting that someone of his temperament would admire Asma’s courage and anti-establishment views.
It would be miraculous if the kind of statue that Mohsin has imagined would be constructed in Pakistan anytime soon, given how fervently Asma was despised by powerful forces in the country for her fight against sectarianism, extra-judicial killings, and the state’s tacit support for the Taliban. However, a proposal has been floated on social media to rename Liberty Chowk in Lahore as Asma Jahangir Chowk because “no one embodied the concept of liberty as well as she did.”