A luminous constellation

March 5, 2017

Remembering Nigar Ahmed as a leftist, activist, teacher, maverick and good human being… because "patience and generosity were the hallmarks of her life"

A luminous constellation

How do you describe someone like Nigar Ahmad who was so many things to so many people?

Born in 1945, a leftist academic, she was a teacher, mentor, pioneer and maverick, a staunch friend, a devoted life partner and doting mother, an unwavering activist. A rebel who loved to dance, sing and live life to its fullest. Nigar collected people eclectically, many disagreed with each other; so saying farewell on Feb 25 were feminists, old leftists and senior bureaucrats, young people, politicians from across the spectrum and a slew of friends and family.

I met Nigar in 1977. New in Pakistan after a childhood abroad, blissfully ignorant that, really, I should have been at the very least in awe of Nigar, as were her students and younger economists (awe at her resilience, courage and persistence would come later). I did not know that Nigar, a brilliant student, had topped the Masters of Economics in Punjab University. I knew she studied in Cambridge, but not that she was a Commonwealth scholar who also studied at SOAS.

My introduction was another expat returnee friend who, bereft like me of the childhood networks of friends and connections so vital here, was boarding with Nigar. The skinny casual warm-hearted woman I met, inevitably reading something, made as comfortable a space for ‘newbies’ like me as she did for lifelong friends.

Nigar’s home -- then as always -- was a place to drop in for serious discussions as well as frivolous chats. As someone said, "being a good human being… patience and generosity were the hallmarks of her life".

Nigar was in Islamabad at the time, teaching Economics at the Quaid-e-Azam University, an institution she graced for 16 years, and it is through her that I met many of our top economists. In parallel, Nigar was running Aurat, an organisation working to support working class women, not to be confused with the later Aurat Publication and Information Service Foundation, as she once scolded me.

She was a teacher, mentor, pioneer and maverick, a staunch friend, a devoted life partner and doting mother, an unwavering activist. A rebel who loved to dance, sing and live life to its fullest.

Though living in Lahore, I happily attended meetings when I could and received the newsletters, witnessing firsthand Nigar’s lifelong focus on women’s rights and educating people. Ever a feminist and maverick, after finding her soulmate, Dr Tariq Siddiqui, Nigar had a woman friend, Bunny, be one of the two required witnesses to the marriage, with Tariq convincing the nikahkhwan.

In the meantime, there was Ziaul Haq’s relentless rescinding of women’s rights to deal with.

Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was established in Karachi in September 1981; a Lahore chapter established within months. There was never any question as to who would set up WAF Islamabad: Nigar ran that chapter until she relocated to Lahore where she continued her WAF activism.

A persistent memory of those days, when we spent more time organising protests on Lahore’s Mall road, is of resolutely marching in protest when suddenly Nigar would take me (or someone else) by the arm (or waist), and start a serious discussion, calmly strolling along as if in a park, leaving me wondering whether to continue chanting slogans or focus on Nigar’s always pertinent queries.

Once Nigar had a bee in her bonnet she was nothing if not persistent, regardless of what friends thought. Constantly pushing the envelope on ways to have mass impact, and determined to stop being reactive and start proactively setting agendas, Nigar had WAF formulate an Alternative Sixth Five-Year Development Plan. For the Eighth Five-Year Plan, she co-authored the Women’s Development Programmes report. Saying that with men at the helm, "you have to do a lot of pushing", Nigar did indeed push: helping to shape policy debates on women’s empowerment, engaging with government initiatives and watchdog bodies like the National Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1985, Nigar felt that WAF had created the requisite space for "a full-time group of professionals, and a much larger network for the dissemination of information" with a "holistic approach involving the fields of employment, finance, education, environment and technology… to get into the mainstream". Believing women’s control of knowledge, resources and institutions to be the crux for achieving comprehensive change, and frustrated at the paucity of activists and the inadequate means at their disposal for mainstreaming their ideas, Nigar launched Aurat Foundation in 1986, which she so ably led with Shahla Zia. 

Regretfully, although Nigar did academic research on grassroots women and tenant-landlord struggles, she wrote few academic pieces. She never enrolled for a PhD either. Over the moon when her younger son Ahmed acquired his PhD, following in the footsteps of his father and elder brother, Bilal, Nigar proudly displayed the certificate to all and sundry, ruefully footnoting she was now the only non-doctor in her family.

The Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah Life Time Achievement Award she received in 2010 and being one of the 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Prize doesn’t even begin to reflect Nigar’s indomitable spirit and unflinching courage in confronting the challenges life threw her way.

From the terrible 1993 road accident that obliged her to live with an embedded steel rod to 16 years of defying Parkinsons’ disease, nothing could stop Nigar from embracing life fully, reduce her determination to be all she could or help others fulfill their potential. I never knew the schoolgirl at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, or Kinnaird College, or Government College scholar, the exacting editor of The Ravi, never saw her act in the GC plays or ride her bicycle around Cambridge. But I know she came to my son’s mehndi some years ago, "specifically to dance", she told me grinning, and despite her illness, continued to throw parties and dance at weddings until a month ago.

It has been my incredible privilege to have known Nigar, who lives on in her amazing children and all those who loved her, forever pushing us into doing more and better, shining her light on us all, not a single star but an entire constellation.

A luminous constellation