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Asma Jahangir: An Icon Of Liberty

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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.”

(Source: Mohsin Shafi)

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.”

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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