Nigar Ahmad, a close friend and a former colleague at the economics department of Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, passed away on Friday, February 24, 2017 in Lahore. After a brilliant academic career in Government College, Lahore she went on to study economics at the University of Cambridge.
On her return from Cambridge in 1972, Nigar Ahmad joined the department of economics at Islamabad University which was struggling to build its reputation as a newly-established graduate school in economics. Even though she was the youngest member and didn’t have a PhD, the rest of the faculty respected her knowledge, especially that of development economics. Ahmad went a step ahead and introduced radical economic ideas in her course and included the writings of Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb in her reading list. Many faculty members hoped that Ahmad would soon apply for a PhD degree abroad – which was a prerequisite for a tenured faculty position. They had hoped that this would not only strengthen the faculty, but would also mellow her radicalism. But Ahmad had other ideas.
In the early 1970s, a new Pakistan, cut into half its size after a disastrous internecine war, was groping for a new identity. Political polarisation between the left and the right and between religious and secular sections had begun, both within the academia as well as outside it. Bhutto’s PPP viewed the academia in general and Islamabad University in particular as elitist institutions (and hence opposed to his regime). They wanted to replace the ageing but well-respected vice-chancellor, Raziuddin Siddiqi, an eminent physicist who had been successful in recruiting a number of young and well-qualified academics for the varsity.
Dr Siddiqi’s replacement with the principal of a local women’s college, noted mainly for being a PPP loyalist, was a recipe for the university’s disaster. Its immediate effect was a precipitous decline in academic standards. Its long-term effects were the loss of the limited autonomy enjoyed by the varsity and a more direct interference in its affairs by the Ministry of Education and later by the UGC and the HEC.
Ahmad took an active interest in the affairs of the university and allied herself with the progressive elements in the faculty across the varsity, especially in the economics and physics departments. The latter enjoyed the highest academic reputation both in Pakistan and abroad and had the highest output of PhDs from its inception. Many of them were alive to the need for improvement in the university’s intellectual and academic environment. Prominent among these were: Fahim Hussain, Sarwar Razmi, G Murtaza, Pervez Hoodbhoy and A H Nayyar. They, along with others, decided to form the academic staff association (ASA), of which Fahim Hussain and I were elected the first vice-president and president respectively in 1972. In later years, Ahmad was elected the president of the ASA and skilfully articulated the demands of the university’s academic staff. Later, she was elected as the academic staff’s representative to the university’s syndicate for two consecutive terms.
Ahmad’s activism in the university arena was the first of the many building blocks which turned her into an iconic figure as a social activist and founder of a powerful NGO for women’s emancipation and empowerment, the Aurat Foundation. The NGO is likely to become her most lasting legacy. There were other building blocks which helped her achieve this remarkable feat of endurance and perseverance despite the various injuries and illnesses she suffered from.
The first was her involvement in an in-depth project on poverty and social participation in development, carried out jointly by the QAU department of economics and the social development division of UNESCAP, Bangkok, in 1976. The project’s main researchers included, besides Nigar Ahmad, Aly Ercelawn and Nighat Said Khan (aka Bunny) and me. While Ercelawn concentrated on data collection, processing and training, Ahmad and Saeed were involved in the in-depth study of inter and intra-household social and economic relationships by residing in selected houses for extended periods and revisiting them multiple times.
This gave Ahmad the opportunity to observe households, especially their female members, at close quarters. This provided her with insights that must have proved to be valuable in conceptualising the idea of Aurat Foundation as a network of creating awareness and disseminating information on issues facing rural women. Another related, though less well-known, source of Ahmad’s tryst with social activism during her teaching career at Islamabad University was her work in organising the lower class women in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, along with a number of faculty members and their spouses, including Jane and Fahim Hussain.
Her social and political activism during her academic career also included her advocacy of the freedom of three young faculty members of the QAU (Jamil Omar, Tariq Ahsan and Dr Saleem) who were arrested and tortured in jail during the early years of Ziaul Haq’s regime on frivolous charges of being part of a communist conspiracy. She, along with other colleagues, not only organised protests demanding their release, but also arranged for legal help and support to their families.
Ahmad, along with most of her like-minded colleagues, left the university in 1988 when the academic environment had deteriorated significantly. She married Tariq Siddiqui, a CSP official who was dismissed during Bhutto’s regime and later reinstated by Ziaul Haq. Ahmad moved to Lahore to raise her family and threw herself wholeheartedly in building Aurat Foundation with rather limited resources and meagre public support.
On my retirement from the UN, she asked me to join the Board of Governors of the foundation, which I did with great reluctance because of my inexperience and lack of knowledge of women’s issues. But it was a pleasure and honour to be of some, if nominal, help in building her organisation.
Ahmad did not want to accept any aid from the US and even designed an iconic placard, ‘When Bush Comes to Shove, Resist’ after the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, as alternative avenues for resources dried up, she accepted funding from USAID. I often argued with her that she should convert Aurat Foundation into a mass grass-roots women’s organisation which would not only make it more authentic but also less dependent on donor funds. However, in view of her poor health, I realise that was a challenge that was too much for her to undertake. Ahmad did more than she could do.
I feel proud of having known her and shared a good part of her life’s endeavours, hopes and dreams. RIP, dear Nigar.
The author is a former professor
of economics at the QAU and a former member of the Board of Governors of Aurat Foundation