Asma Jahangir: A meaningful life, an inspiring legacy

I wrote this piece for a web dossier produced by Heinrich Boell Foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights‘ 70th anniversary 2018 – Asma Jahangir – ein bedeutungsvolles Leben, ein inspirierendes Erbe. Sharing now, a year after Asma Jahangir has passed on. This piece doesn’t include her role for peace in the region and in the UN system that I’ve written about earlier and also detailed in a longer essay to be printed in an anthology titled Voices of Freedom from Asia and the Middle East, co-edited by Mark Dennis and Rima Abunasser, TCU, is under publication by SUNY Press. Above: Asma Jahangir at her office; still from my documentary Mukhtiar Mai: The struggle for justice (2006)

By Beena Sarwar

The field on the outskirts of Lahore was full of workers waiting to hear the woman from the city speak. They squatted on their haunches with dull hopeless eyes, the drab greys and browns of their clothes at one with the earth they fashioned into bricks to bake in bhattas — kilns that dot the rural landscape of Punjab and upper Sindh. For their back-breaking labour they were paid in kind, leading to generations of indebtedness as the traditional informal economy transitioned into a cash-based system.

Brick kiln-Shehryar Warraich:News Lens-2015

Brick kiln workers, Pakistan. Photo: Shehryar Warraich/News Lens, 2015

The woman they had come to hear was Asma Jahangir. A petite figure with piercing eyes and short black hair, she clambered onto the roof of a jeep with her driver’s help. As her booming voice with measured pauses rippled across the squatting bhatta workers they “came alive”, recalls Dutch radio journalist Babette Niemel who had travelled to the rally with Asma.

It was a cold winter day in early 1989. On the hour-long car ride over to the field, Asma had pulled out travel mugs of coffee and sandwiches. They returned to Asma’s office by lunch time and Asma got right back to work.

That was Asma. Tremendously hardworking but always a caring and considerate host. Despite the stresses of her busy life, she always made sure there was lunch.

The rally of bhatta workers Asma addressed that day may well mark the moment that she came into her own as a political leader, suggests former finance minister Dr Mubashir Hasan, a founding member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that Asma had set up in 1986 along with a host of other eminent personalities.

There are many behind the HRCP’s success as a solid and credible institution. But it was Asma’s consummate skill as an empowering leader who led by example and took others along with her that set the tone.

Her activism coupled with her legal work led to the seminal Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, a step towards ending the system of generational debt that still holds many in slavery.

Reporting on the issue in those years, I started volunteering with the HRCP. In 1993, Asma got me to contest HRCP Council elections, dismissing my hesitations and leading me by the hand to introduce me to one senior Council member after another. Elected to this policy-making body for six years (three terms) I participated in meetings marked by a high level of debate and discussion. Here I saw and experienced first-hand Asma’s clarity of vision, her persuasive powers, and ability to get people from differing points of view to agree on a minimum common agenda.

I also witnessed her strong sense of media savvy, far ahead of her time. She would send out press releases about important issues she had taken up legally, cutting through the hypocrisy and babble of confusing news. Unlike those who promote their own achievements, she never publicised herself or the awards and recognitions she received.

Gen Zia Reagan

Gen. Zia with President Reagan, 1980s. File photo.

The cases she took up were at the heart of the social changes and conflicts Pakistan was undergoing in the post-Zia era. This landed her in the cross-hairs of those threatened by the changes that are occur as people become more aware of their rights. The forces of status quo began intensifying their use of age-old weapons like “blasphemy” allegations to suppress different religious communities, and “tradition” and “religion” to keep women in their place.

In 1993, Asma took on the defence of Salamat Masih, an illiterate 11-year old Christian boy accused of writing ‘blasphemous’ words on the wall of a mosque. He and his father Rehmat and uncle Manzoor, co-accused with him, were threatened while under trial. On 12 April 1994 armed assailants opened fire as they left the district court. The hail of bullets killed Manzoor and injured Salamat, Rehmat and several others.

Salamat Masih

Salamat Masih: 14-year old accused of ‘blasphemy’ in in 1993 had to flee the country after being acquitted

The attack on Salamat Masih was not an isolated incident. Asma was also under severe threat. Glossy colour stickers and posters cropped up all over Lahore, terming Asma a ‘blasphemer’ and urging ‘believers’ to find and kill her. On at least one occasion, such stickers were mysteriously distributed with the morning edition of English language daily Dawn.

One handwritten anonymous letter threatened to hunt her down and kill her, the writer’s stated mission in life. But there was another letter — from a slightly built, clean-shaven Afridi tribesman, Zarteef Afridi who was also Coordinator for HRCP in Khyber Agency. He volunteered to come down to Lahore with an armed ‘lashkar’ (posse) to protect her. Asma politely declined.

In that atmosphere of threats and intimidation, Afridi’s letter of support was a message of hope, particularly coming as it did from an area known for its religious conservatism. The HRCP provided a platform for those willing to counter retrogressive trends even in traditionally conservative areas. (Sadly, he himself was killed in 2011).

On 9 February 1995, the court sentenced Salamat and Rehmat to death. Salamat told Asma, “I am in God’s hands. I am sure that God will give us justice”.

“He seemed shocked yet calm, but when I put my arm around him, he was trembling,” Asma told British writer Danny Smith (Shouting Into the Silence: One Man’s Fight for the World’s Forgotten; Lion Hudson, 2013; pp 114-117).

When it became clear that Asma would file an appeal against the verdict in the Lahore High Court, a violent mob on 16 February called for her to be included among the accused. Frenzied men attacked her car, smashing the windows. Luckily, she was not in the vehicle. “We saved your driver but couldn’t save your car,” her friends told her.

Accompanied by the personal bodyguard she had recently hired, Asma left the court under police escort. Undaunted, she went ahead with the appeal. On 23 February, the case against Salamat and Rehmat was dismissed on the grounds that being illiterate they could not have written the blasphemous words. Asma did not see the acquittal as a victory.

“Don’t start celebrating,” she said.  “It’s not over. The extremists will want revenge and I am sure that there will be other similar cases. The blasphemy law should be changed.” She was right on both counts.

This stand made her more enemies. In October, eight armed intruders broke into her family house and beat up her brother and his wife. Asma who lived next door at her in-laws’, was out at the time. As the security guards opened fire and police arrived, the men fled. They left behind a stolen vehicle containing ropes, cotton wool, knives and arms. An ID card copy in it led to their arrest.

Asma went to see them in the police station because, she said, “I wanted to be sure myself, they had only heard of me… They had been told it would be rewarding for them to kill me.” As she talked to them, she realised “they were pawns in the hands of powerful people, leaders of sectarian groups who actually sowed the seeds of hatred in young minds… The perception they had of me was some kind of a demon, but to see me humanly there, they wondered whether the perception given to them was correct or not.” (Martin Ennals Award, Youtube, 1995).

She sent her children to boarding schools abroad for their safety. She missed them terribly but never considered changing her path. And, incredibly, she forgave the attackers, withdrawing the case against them.

The social changes taking place meant that young people from various backgrounds were also increasingly breaking traditions. Asma stuck to her principled position based on fundamental rights. The conservative lobby was further enraged when she took on the “Saima Waheed Love Marriage Case” in 1997.

News report, March 15, 1997 – Saima fled Pakistan with Arshad shortly after the court ruled their marriage valid

Saima Waheed Ropri, a 22-year old business administration graduate and daughter of a well-known religious leader, had secretly married her brother’s tutor. She lived on at her father’s house, hoping to tell her family and bring them round. When she found they had arranged her marriage elsewhere, she donned a burqa and fled in a taxi to AGHS. This was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm founded in 1980, named for the initials of its founders: Asma Jahangir, her friends Gul Rukh and Shehla Zia, and younger sister Hina Jilani.

Asma took on the case as she would for anyone attempting to exercise their fundamental rights. AGHS also ran Dastak, a shelter house for women. Saima was housed there like many other clients of the firm.

The propaganda machine against Asma went into full swing once more. Her detractors accused her of having corrupted Saima. The “evidence” they cited for this included Saima’s new haircut, a bob, and jeans that she wore to court with her kurta rather than the traditional shalwar.

“I used to wear jeans at home too,” Saima told me, explaining that her father didn’t know because he didn’t come to the women’s part of the house. As for the hair, another woman at Dastak had done that.

The case sparked a frenzied debate about the right of an adult Muslim woman to marry of her own choice. It exposed the clash of cultures in a traditional society in the throes of change, especially in urban areas. Saima’s father argued that in his family’s religious sect a woman could not marry without her guardian’s permission “even if she is 60 years old”. This of course has more to do with tradition than religion.

The court upheld Saima’s marriage. But as with Salamat Masih’s case, this was not an unequivocal victory. The couple fearing for their lives, fled abroad.

“Women may have won the battle, but the war is not yet won,” said Asma, prescient as ever.

The case continued to hear the plea against women’s right to marry of their choice. The final judgement some time later called for basic amendments to family laws to enforce parental authority and discourage courtships, extra marital relationships and “secret” friendships and marriages. (It wasn’t until December 2003 that the Supreme Court struck down these opinions and upheld the right of adult women to marry of their free will).

The propaganda against Asma as “westernised”, “anti-religion” and “anti-Pakistan” was far from reality. She proudly represented Pakistan at international fora dressed typically in a kurta shalwar with a dupatta. Although she herself had married for love, she was family-oriented and negotiated a complex joint family system with determination and finesse, as a wife, daughter-in-law, mother, aunt, and grandmother. She fought courageously and consistently for the rights of the most downtrodden in society. Far from being against religion, she was against the misuse of religion or any other institution to exploit people.

At her very core she was someone who believed in equal rights for all regardless of class, ethnicity, or religion. And this is precisely what her detractors, bound for obscurity except in the viciousness of their attacks, found so threatening.

Asma, meanwhile, lives on, her example and legacy lighting the way for future generations of human rights defenders.

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