(February 17, 2018)
No place to keep quiet
ASMA JILANI JAHANGIR
(Pakistan’s loudest voice for democracy and human rights,
died on February 11th, aged 66….)
OBSERVERS of Asma Jahangir, usually male ones, would sometimes ask why she was so angry. From the 1980s onwards she seemed at the centre of every demonstration in Lahore or Islamabad, all five feet two inches of her, glasses glinting, gesticulating, shouting. She led marches, held marathons, set up awkward organisations, and in every way was a gadfly. Most of all, she spoke her mind. It might be in the bar room of the Lahore High Court, through a furious cloud of beedi smoke, or in court itself, dressing down judges who didn’t get the point, or at a police station, still protesting. Bemused by this fierce little lawyer, the men would shake their heads.
BUT in Pakistan, how could she be silent? There was so much pent-up anger, for so many reasons. Lack of democracy. Almost total lack of justice. Duffer generals, bigoted mullahs, crony capitalists, chauvinist men. Certainly she could be a well-behaved upper-middle-class woman, in elegant shalwar kameez in her wood-panelled house. But she would rather be a street fighter. Of course, she paid for it. She was bundled into police vans, put under house arrest. Her car was trashed. Hitmen held her relatives hostage. The intelligence services tried to liquidate her as a traitor and foreign agent (though her early death was natural). Every attack left her more energised than ever. When her shirt was torn off for organising a protest, she saved her modesty with safety pins and went on hectoring. Briefly in jail in 1983, she thought it a great adventure.
HER model was her father, a parliamentarian who had resigned in 1971 to protest against military rule. He too had gone smiling, and often, to prison. As a teenager she was already a troublemaker, complaining at her convent about the undemocratic selection of the head girl. In her prim school uniform, she also scaled the gate of the Punjab governor’s house to plant a black flag against military rule. Rustication followed, to her joy.
THE POOR AND THE BEATEN
WHEN the phone rang at her law offices in Lahore, she would always answer it. If she missed a call, she would swiftly return it. Someone needed help, and she was often the only person in the country they could turn to. Her critics sometimes accused her of profiting from adversity, being a glory seeker. On the contrary, she was defending democracy, secularism, judicial independence, human rights. Simple tenets, but not in Pakistan. She had come to the law enchanted with it, studying it at home because she was debarred, as a woman, from lectures. She believed in its power to right wrongs. Her tartness in court expressed her fury with the slow, corrupt, uneven way it actually worked.
HIGH-PROFILE cases did not attract her. She preferred to defend a 14-year-old Christian boy accused of scrawling blasphemy on the wall of a village mosque, and to save him from the death penalty, which she abhorred. Though she was Muslim herself, it was a personal matter. She accepted the place of sharia in the legal system of Pakistan, but battled its harsher interpretations. In 1987 she helped set up the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the first of its kind, to keep an eye on things. Her presence on the Lahore High Court and later as the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, encouraged liberal lawyers and outraged conservatives, whom she mocked for their backwardness and beards.
SHE was eager to represent the poor. In half her cases she took no payment. For a time she even funnelled money to struggling families of political prisoners and abductees. Once she fought for a group of half-naked bonded brickmakers, who owed thousands of rupees to their employers. When the judge asked her why she had brought people into his court who stank, she replied, bluntly, that he was there precisely for them. Ideally, to weaken the feudal system that enslaved them. At the least, to listen to the victims.
AND no group was victimised more than women. They were treated as possessions in Pakistan, beings who should not question and should not think. She knew about that. As a young mother, even with a law degree, she had been forbidden to work and reduced to a nothing. So in 1980 she, her sister Hina and two friends set up the first all-woman law firm in the country. Her husband objected, but she went ahead. The year before President Zia ul-Haq had brought in military rule and severe hudood punishments, so her firm was needed. She defended girls, raped by their bosses, who now faced flogging for fornication; she helped women trying to escape loveless marriages, one of whom was killed in her law offices at her mother’s instigation. She provided a shelter for them, again the first. By this year she felt women had made progress. But not nearly enough.
WITH so much energy and noise, she was noticed internationally. She became a UN special rapporteur for human rights, travelling to Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine and Chiapas. All the cases she encountered caused her anguish, but her chief concern remained Pakistan. For all the danger to her, she had never thought of leaving. Her ancestors were buried there. It was home. And like the typical Punjabi mother she was, nagging her daughters on how they should keep house, she needed to lecture Pakistan first. And keep on. And on.