February 11th, 2021
By Ahmed Saeed and Shahrazad Agha
She was dynamic, she was progressive and she was always on fire.
Everyone who has met her, has experienced similar emotions, yet seen different sides of her personality – depending on who it has been.
Her friends remember her in one way, and her family in another. Human rights defenders remember her as a fighter. What about those who saw her on a daily basis? How were they impressed upon by this small, petite woman with a massive personality?
Many of those working at the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell – better known as AGHS – have been there for decades. The reason is Asma herself – everyone wanted to work with her and for her.
Voicepk.net interviewed the workers here, from the driver to lawyers who work here. On the occasion of Asma’s third death anniversary, they share with us their special memories, especially those that affected them deeply and changed them forever.
‘BIBI WOULD ALWAYS BE THERE FOR US’
Advocate Alia Malik – senior lawyer, Lahore High Court
Malik has been associated with Jahangir for a long time now. They both spent 26 years working on the same causes. She joined Asma’s organization, immediately after she got done with her law degree.
“Asma Jahangir was a very simple and straightforward lady,” she says, smiling as she remembers her. “With all her colleagues in the office, she had a very special relationship – and a personal, one with everyone separately. What can I say about her – she had such a magnetic personality, that whoever worked with her, wanted to stay there forever and ever. There were very few who actually left AGHS.” More than 25 years
The fact is that Asma was popular amongst her employees because she looked after them very well, says Alia Malik. “I can’t even begin to explain in words, the lengths she would go to, to show her care for her employees.
Once a colleague piled a heap of complaints against an elderly driver who had been working for years at the place. His son too was a lawyer there. Asma was very disturbed by these complaints and the pressure to fire him. She told me to explain to the others that he had been with them for years and it would not be right to just fire him like that. ‘Where would he find work at this age?’ she said to me,” says Alia.
She remembers the way Asma spent hours standing around in the law college, only to help Alia’s daughter apply for admission – apparently the girl was not being accepted.
“She never coerced the principal to accept her, but did make him realize that I too was a woman and had a right to have my daughter well educated,” says Alia. “She told him to give my daughter a chance, based only on merit.”
“Bibi gave a lot of emphasis to relationships,” she adds. “Whether it was a wedding or a funeral, she was there. It didn’t matter who’s event it was, cook, office boy, or senior lawyer. And even the distance never stopped her. Occasionally the events would be held out of the city in some village, but you would always expect Bibi to be there.”
For the world, she had always been eminent and well known. “But for us who saw her daily, she was an immensely exceptional lady and a beautiful person.”
Alia says she taught every little thing to them as practicing lawyers. “She would note every detail from our uniforms to our conduct and mannerisms – everything, especially when we went to court. She was very particular about being professional. She would also go with us from one court to the other; if we were hungry, she would stop with us on the way, and have some fruit chaat, or corn.”
The Lahore courts are a place where sexism reigns. Quite often the female lawyers would hear someone referring to them as ‘larki’ (girl). Asma Jahangir would always tell them off curtly. “She is not a girl,” Asma would say. “She’s your colleague, your learned counsel; when you address her, use the proper terms like Madam Lawyer, or Learned Counsel – don’t try and undermine her – treat her as a professional lawyer, not a woman.”
Alia describes her as a fearless person, and extremely hardworking. She would stay up nights working on cases and projects.
“Once I saw how tired she was and I told her to go home and get some rest,” says Alia. “She brushed me off at once saying, ‘kuch nehin hota; kaam karne se koi nehin marta’ (work does kill anyone!) But one day, she too left us.” Alia smiles wistfully as she recalls her mentor.
‘SHE WAS LIKE A MOTHER TO ME’
Robina Shaheen – Women Protection Officer
Robina has worked for 27 years in AGHS with Asma Jahangir. She has been visiting jails and making observations on the condition of prisoners and their cases for ages now. Although she is not a lawyer, Robina was trained by Asma to see things from a legal perspective.
“Bibi always knew everything about her staff; who liked what,” says Robina. “On her last birthday I remember, she cut a big piece of her cake and gave it to me because I have a sweet tooth.
Once she referred to me as someone who worked with her, rather than who worked for her. She even offered me her home to stay in when I had some issues at my place. This is the extent to which she went for others.”
When she had a one-on-one conversation with us we always felt special. It was because of how she took us – as individuals. There are about 50 workers here, and each and every one of them realized soon after her death that she gave everyone special attention.
“The way she gave me what she did, she is like a mother to me,” says Robina. “And whenever I pray for her I remember her as a mother.”
‘SHE TAUGHT ME HOW TO RESPECT WOMEN’
Shafiq Cheema – Former Personal Assistant of Asma Jahangir
Shafiq has been working since 1993 with Asma Jahangir. He says he has seen as a teacher and as a mother – he says she taught him, and scolded him, explained things to him – in fact, taught him how to live life.
“The biggest lesson I received, was that considering the social class I belonged to, I learned how women should be respected,” he confesses. “Working with Bibi, the biggest thing that I realized was how a woman must be respected regardless of her being a sister, daughter, or mother. If I had not had the chance to work with Bibi, I would have remained a ‘parha likha jahil mard’, a typical man in this society.
Shafiq says he was a student when he came here to work, and had no experience in the field. Asma used to tell him off like she did every one when he made mistakes. But very soon, she made sure to treat him with affection in case she had hurt him.
“She wasn’t like a boss, rather she was like a mother. She was definitely our second mother,” he says.
‘SHE HELPED ME STUDY WHEN I WAS BROKE’
Qamar Hanif Ramay – Advocate High Court
“I joined Madam Asma in 1999 at the age of 18, says Qamar. “I was working now, but I wanted to continue studying. Whenever I asked her for any help regarding work, she never hesitated. “She supported me and went out of her way to guide me.”
“When I graduated, I wanted to become a lawyer only because she was a lawyer. I was so inspired by her,” he grins as he remembers. “When she got to know I wanted to do Law, she was happy and encouraged me to continue. But I told her that I had difficulties in paying the college fees. She instantly asked me to connect her with the principal whom she convinced to give me a complete scholarship and she later went with me to help me with my admission.”
He narrates her conversation with the principal.
“Will Qamar take classes or not, he had asked her, and she replied to him saying, “He most definitely will, and if he doesn’t, tell me, so that I can personally straighten him!”
Qamar attributes his whole professional life to her. “I can’t explain what kind of importance she had in my life, and neither can I ever forget her,” he smiles.
‘SHE DROVE ME BACK FROM OUR FIELD TRIP!’
Rashid Mehmood – Driver
“I got Bibi’s order that we have to go to Mianwali,” says Rashid, who has been working for 27 years with Asma Jahangir. “Because of some family duties, I had been up all night, doing some work, and I hardly got any sleep.
“We worked on the case – it was an incident of child marriage and involved a lot of fieldwork which Bibi did without thinking twice. On the way back, we had some breakfast and started driving back. As we got onto the main road, I began to get extremely drowsy. I ended up telling Bibi how bad it was that I could not even drive properly. I eventually turned and said to her, I can’t drive – will you be able to? She instantly told me that she would do it. “Don’t you end up in an accident,” she said and he smiles at the memory.
“I went to sleep at the back, and she drove us all the way to Lahore,” he says. “As Bibi got off at home, she said to me, “work is work – we’ve got to do it!”