[updated on 14 March 2017]
Nigar Ahmad, 1945 – 2017
by Neelam Hussain
It is hard to write about Nigar – hard to decide which thread of her life to pick up, and which to let go – harder still with only a handful of words in which to do it. So where to begin?
At her core, Nigar was a person of strong passions and great loyalties for places and people. Born and raised in Lahore, she soon discovered her first love – the Convent of Jesus and Mary, where the ethical parameters of her life were shaped and some of her deepest friendships forged. Her second love – which, if it did not quite dislodge the first, certainly superseded it – was Government College Lahore, which she joined as an undergraduate student and left after completing her Masters in Economics. Actively embroiled in college life, she was a member of the Government College Dramatics Club and later editor of the Ravi. As her assistant editor (or ‘chotta’), Samina Rahman recalls that she has never been scolded so much by anyone than she was by Nigar during this time; she also remembers the hard work put in by Nigar and the meticulous attention paid to each detail at every stage of the editorial process. From GC the next step was to New Hall, Cambridge, on a Commonwealth scholarship; then back to Pakistan, and Quaid-e-Azam University, where she taught Economics for nearly sixteen years; the setting up of the Women Action Forum’s (WAF) Islamabad Chapter, and a lifelong involvement in the women’s movement.
Despite her body’s betrayal, Nigar kept faith with the ideals that had shaped her life and never lost touch with the larger politics of the world around her. Months before her death … she expressed her unhappiness with the depoliticisation of NGOs, the growing consumerist ethic, and the loss of old values. “We must do something about it”, she had said. “We need to get together, plan and find ways of fighting for what we believe in”. I remember looking at her and thinking – this is not a rhetorical statement; she means what she is saying
Nigar was fuelled by a zest for life and an impatience with time honoured taboos and restrictions. As long as she was clear in her own mind about what she was doing, she was truly indifferent to society’s opinion. This quality not only enabled her to enjoy life on her own terms, it also expanded the boundaries for others to come. Thus, despite loud protests from male faculty and friends, she was the first woman to breach the male bastion of the GC-Islamia College cricket match, which she attended and thoroughly enjoyed. So too her marriage. Her parents, Riazuddin Ahmad and Akhtar (‘Akhan Apa’) were in Romania on a government posting when she and Tariq Siddiqi – a similarly nonconformist civil servant, who had at the time been dismissed from service for impertinence to the powers-that-be – discovered each other. The marriage took place not in Islamabad where they lived at that time, but at a sufi shrine adjacent to a spring at Dum Torh in Swat. Her sister Munna and Nighat Said made up the bride’s party, and two of Tariq’s friends were the baraat. The bride wore a freshly washed and ironed red khaddar jora, and the nikah was witnessed by two women. About her life with Tariq, I will only say that they were happy together, and the most doting of parents to Bilal and Ahmad, and daughter-in-law Kate, and that their children have shown that unstinting love shaped by the principles of humanity and compassion is perhaps the best recipe for good children.
Set up in 1985, Aurat Foundation was Nigar’s brainchild – hers and Shahla Zia’s, lawyer and activist. Under their guidance, Aurat grew from a small information center into a national organisation. The facilitation of grassroots women’s entry into the political and economic mainstream was one of its important achievements. Shelly’s untimely death in 2005 put an end to their partnership. Nigar never reconciled herself to this loss, but it did not lessen her commitment either to Aurat, or to her dream of a just society.
Nigar passed away on the evening of February 23 2017, seven days after completing the seventy-two years of the life that was given her. Of these, almost twenty were spent in battling Parkinson’s – a cruel illness that slowly made her a stranger to her own body. Normally, in such cases, the loss that death brings is tempered by the knowledge that the suffering too has ended. It has been different with Nigar. The timeworn platitudes bring no relief – only a bewilderment where rationality wars with emotion and denies houseroom to clichés and common sense. Perhaps this is because Nigar herself never turned her face away from life – or let go of her sense of the ridiculous in the face of pain and the body’s recalcitrance, when each small routine task was a battle to be waged and won. Perhaps that is why, as we sit here today – the friends who loved her and whose lives she touched – and look back on her life, all that we can recall is the laughter; the energy, the enjoyment of absurdity, the taken for granted mutuality of caring and support, the small pleasures – the sharing of ideas, the arguments and disagreements; the dreams she dreamed and the single minded intensity with which she pursued them – often to the point of exasperation. As Nighat Said remarked only recently – “she could be a pain in the neck!”
Despite her body’s betrayal, Nigar kept faith with the ideals that had shaped her life and never lost touch with the larger politics of the world around her. Months before her death – not the last time we met, but certainly the last time we found the time to talk to each other – she expressed her unhappiness with the depoliticisation of NGOs, the growing consumerist ethic, and the loss of old values. “We must do something about it”, she had said. “We need to get together, plan and find ways of fighting for what we believe in”. I remember looking at her and thinking – this is not a rhetorical statement; she means what she is saying. Recalling that evening – her indifference to the constraints of her illness; her courage and her commitment to the ideals she believed in, I grieve at her loss but my heart refuses to mourn Nigar.
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Remembering a Revolutionary
By Deneb Sumbul
Second WAF convention in Lahore 1982, Nigar Ahmed is seated second from right.
Nigar Ahmed, one of the revolutionaries of the women’s movement during the dictator, Zia-ul-Haq’s reign, and a pioneering women’s rights activist breathed her last on Friday, February 24, 2017 in Lahore. She passed away after a prolonged illness at the age of 72 leaving behind a husband and two sons. She helped establish the Islamabad chapter of Women’s Action Forum in 1982. She later founded the Aurat Foundation in Lahore in 1986, a non-profit with her close friend and lawyer, the late Shahla Zia to protect women’s rights against General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime.
From a two-room resource centre, Aurat Foundation spread its branches to the rest of the country and became a leading organisation for women’s rights. Nigar lent her towering personality to the “silent revolution” during an era of women’s resistance to oppression, along with other like-minded women.
Shagufta Alizai, also one of the earliest members of WAF from Karachi reminisces about her, “She was a hard campaigner and she fought for what she believed in. Nigar didn’t say things to please you. Her first reaction was always putting things in the right perspective without being emotional.”
“I met Nigar for the first time at her wedding in Karachi – her husband and mine were friends. She moved to Islamabad first. Her husband was a bureaucrat – the joint secretary of the Women’s Division – but that didn’t stop her. I got to know her better after I moved to Islamabad as well.”
“This was at the time when WAF and its chapters were being formed, with so many problems cropping up for women, we held meetings under the nose of a dictator in Islamabad. You had to stand up to be counted. The fact is that these were the very few dynamic women of their time, Nigar Ahmed, Shehla Zia, Najma Sadeque – you could count such women on your fingertips. They led from the front and they did what they said.”
One of the most significant achievements under Nighar Ahmad’s leadership and vision was Aurat Foundation’s work on legislation and the need for women to be seen in leadership roles. They mobilised women candidates for national and local government elections and women voters. Apart from that the foundation’s work on women’s issues generated a debate across the country on women’s political and economic empowerment as well as issues relating to peace and democracy.
Dr. Ghazala Rahman Rafiq, one of the first founder members of WAF in 1981, said, “Nigar Ahmed was a feminist and one of the pillars of WAF in Islamabad. She was in constant touch with us during that time and understood the principles on which we were founding WAF.”
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.
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THE 1980s threw up some of the most committed, unwavering civil society personalities in Pakistan, individuals who would find themselves fighting one of this country’s toughest battles to secure fundamental rights. There were lawyers who pressed for justice and non-discrimination in society. There were journalists who took grave risks to keep the flag of freedom flying. There were other rights campaigners — teachers, other professionals, political activists — who marched ahead with their heads held high and who refused to bow to the oppressive regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. If anything, adversity added to their resolve and to the definitive tone of their brave slogans. Amongst them was Nigar Ahmed, who died in Lahore on Friday. She stood out in many ways — yet she blended so well with those pursuing just objectives that it was unthinkable to have the rights’ fight without her participation.
Her efforts reached their peak when Gen Zia was at the height of his powers. Firm and blessed with a temperament and training that frustrated the most intimidating of individuals on the other side, Nigar Ahmed was amongst the founders of the Women’s Action Forum — a platform that provided the much-needed stimulus to the opposition against the military dictator when political parties and others were finding it tough to make a loud enough impact. WAF, a source of some of the most celebrated, proudest stories of resistance from the time, came in 1981. In 1986, Nigar Ahmed joined hands with the famous lawyer and rights crusader Shehla Zia to set up the Aurat Foundation. Over the next three decades, she and her organisation would have a strong role in the furthering of women’s rights and generally in all kinds of human rights campaigns. The observations that have followed her departure at the age of 72 recall how she led with a resolve that surprised just as it inspired and set souls free. Nigar Ahmed is no more but there is a lot to learn from her shining example.
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Women rights activist Nigar Ahmed passes away in Lahore
by Saadia Qamar
Women rights activist and humanitarian Nigar Ahmed breathed her last in Lahore on Friday.
A leftist, Ahmed was a founding member of the Women Action Forum (1981). In 1986 she spearheaded and co-founded the Aurat Foundation with Shehla Zia – in protest against General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial regime.
While she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease since long; a few days ago she complained of chest infection, and was admitted to a hospital in the Punjab capital, where she passed away.
Remembering the struggle for women’s rights
Remembering her friend and an old associate, Anis Haroon said: “I have lost an old, kind friend today. I learnt so much from her. Ideals of being a good human being…patience and generosity were the hallmarks of her life”.
Her funeral will take place in Lahore on Saturday after Asr prayers.