That is one word that kept going through my mind as I registered Asma Jahangir’s demise, after the initial jolt. Then as the old wounds reopened, with each death of known, acquainted and heard of people, I scrolled through pages and pages of tributes pouring in on social media, listened to friends pouring out their grief and the shared silence of old colleagues of the UN Survey of Children Affected in Armed Conflict, residing in Kashmir.
As is habit, I looked for threads, patterns and was pleasantly surprised to see that be it Masih Alnejad, of My Stealthy Freedom in Iran, or Indian historians, intellectuals, activists, journalists, etc or the BBC, CNN, the UN Chief, Opposition parties, Left parties, etc, everyone expressed what I had instinctively felt. South Asia lost a champion and we are poorer for it. As someone said on Twitter, the flags all over South Asia should be lowered at half-mast today. I agree.
What kind of a woman defends a man’s right to freedom of speech when he had called her a “chauvinist lady”; and then sticks to her principles despite having lawyers protest and call for her immediate suspension for representing such a man?
Only Asma Sahiba.
What kind of a woman agrees to represent a media group after the same group through its senior reporter ran a campaign against her when she contested elections for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s President?
Only Asma ji.
You have got to be formidable to file a petition at the age of 18 in the Lahore High Court for the release of your father who has been detained under martial law regulations. And then to make light of it:
“Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Bannu. He remained in jail in Multan. But we were not allowed to go see him there. He did not want us to go there and see him. We always saw him in courts. So, for me, the court was a place where you dressed up to meet your father. It had a very nice feeling to it,” Asma Jahangir reminisces, lightheartedly.
The outcome? In 1972, after Yahya Khan’s government had ended, the Supreme Court decided Asma Jahangir’s petition in her favour. In a first for Pakistan’s apex court, the judges declared the military government illegal and Yahya Khan to be a “usurper”. History had been created and a young girl found herself at the centre of it.
But she didn’t automatically take up law as a career even after this win. From what she reminiscences and her friends add, she felt ” useless” after the birth of her second child and decided to “do something with her life” or she would just be a “sidekick” for everyone. That. That there is what I recognise in any formidable woman who wouldn’t take whatever life handed her quietly and I have known a few –restlessness. They are as brave as any – defying the hijab diktats, standing up to roadside Romeos, starting campaigns for securing spaces for women on the streets and dhabas, standing tall after they have been censored by the community for their views and even forced to resign from their workplace for standing up to minority rights.
Those minorities of Pakistan must be grateful that Asma did not accept her “uselessness” and transcended from her limited roles as a mother, daughter-in-law and wife. I try to imagine February 12, 1980, exactly thirty-eight years ago to the day, when four friends –Asma, Gulrukh, Hina Jilani(Asma’s sister), and Shahla Zia formed the AGHS – Pakistan’s first all-women law firm – the acronym taken from the first letters of the brave group. It is brave because the Hudood Ordinances were already in place and the law of evidence was about to be changed to the disadvantage of women and non-Muslims.
Protesting against the Zia regime’s attempts to mix religion and law, Asma’s office also worked as a shelter for those male lawyers under the scanner of Zia’s “Gestapo” squads. As was her nature, she used the misogyny of Zia’s regime in her favour knowing they wouldn’t enter the office of a woman looking for male lawyers. Saroop Ijaz in The Wire’s profile of Asma writes:
“In the 1980s, a woman lawyer arguing human rights cases was largely an uncharted territory. In the beginning, it had some novelty value. Courts were patronising, even when they were not sympathetic, to a woman practising law and would usually grant Asma Jahangir relief. She started off with family law cases – divorce, child custody and maintenance payment etc – but she was quick to realise that what was required was not temporary relief but fundamental change, and not just for women.”
Soon, she started taking up blasphemy and bonded labour cases. “In bonded labour cases, judges would ask me why I had brought those people to the courts who stank. You are here precisely for them, I would respond.” Her fierce arguments in favour of those “stinking” brick-kiln workers made people realise how those “labourers with hardly any clothes on their bodies owed debts of hundreds of thousands of rupees.” It was then that lawyers and judges started taking her seriously – that she was not just a female lawyer or another practitioner of family law.”
Her first clash with blasphemy laws was when she was accused of it by the notorious Majlis-e-Shoora-appointed by Zia in a WAF (Women’s Action Forum) meeting. Fortunately, the meeting had been taped and she was absolved of it, but she half in jest also stated that Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code that provides for death penalty in blasphemy cases may have been enacted after they found out she could not be put to death without it. Continuing defiantly, she defended SalamatMasih, an 11-year-old Christian boy and his uncles in a hostile atmosphere which would see one of the accused, murdered in the court premises and a judge assassinated for acquitting the accused. Her family would experience the first of gun-toting assailants barging into homes and asking for her, and her daughter Munizae accounted how she started seeing her mother as a different person as she got acquainted with Asma’s world of arrests, prison sentences and protests.
None of us would do this. I for one know how much a child’s welfare stops you from going all out against forces, systems, machinery, networks, or what I call the “intifada factory” because of fear. Almost all of us bite down on that melancholia of “uselessness” and get entangled in the mundane because we want the safety of our children first. Not Asma. She understood what Erin Brockovich did, leaving her own kids with babysitters to go fight Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in 1993 who violated the community’s right to clean water and whose children wouldn’t get to complete their childhoods because of terminal illness. Asma packed off Munizae to boarding school to keep her safe from abductions.
Formidable! Like a mother’s heart! Only Asma Jahangir!
Not content with minority rights she went on to form a trust with her father and a few other trusted lawyers to support political prisoners. This is where it gets murky and the labels of “traitor”, “Indian agent” slip into the aura around her, labels we, on this side of the border are all too familiar with our version of “Mossad”, “RAW agent”, “Sanghi”, “RSS bhakht”, etc. Knowing the flimsiness of those who are quick to give these labels because they have no other arguments for truth, I can dismiss these labels for Asma easily, well aware she and I would not have converged on our views about Kashmir.
Yet, she was formidable enough to take on the Pakistan military establishment on enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Enforced disappearances, names, pictures of boys, young men which still keep us who lived through the 1990s awake at nights, the faces of the mothers and half-widows at the annual protests of the APDP (Association of the Disappeared Persons) in Pratap Park, Srinagar, now a permanent feature in the history of Kashmir for a long time to come. I admire her courage having seen the state forces in J&K disrupt an attempt to install a monument for the “disappeared” and custodial deaths. I understand the allegations of the “sources” of the funding for the HRCP, having heard the same about Pervez Imroz of the APDP, and his entourage and knowing in the battle of narratives, how the truth, facts get embroiled in conspiracies, allegations, and ideological differences.
Asma’s stance in her own words is right after my heart, “Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India, or against Rohingyas in Burma, or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa; but obviously I am going to be more concerned about violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them,” she says. “And I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is butchered to death.”
Clean up your own house. Clean your neighbourhood first. With all respect to Jordan Peterson, clean up your room first. Which means standing up for the right of Kashmiri Pandits to return with dignity, advocating for justice for Gowkadal, KunanPoshpora alongside Chattisinghpora and Nadimarg, vociferously speak up about enforced disappearances by Indian security forces, with the same ferocity of abductions, rapes, killings and extortions by the militants of the Hizb and other mushrooming “tanzeems“.
Which brings us directly to her initial activism of the 1980s for civilian supremacy. For her Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against the military dictatorship of Zia, advocating the right of the people to rule themselves, she was arrested. Not fazed, she was very clear about military coups, the role of the military and why the military should be kept away from politics. So I am sure she would have understood why India needs to keep a strong force, or as the intifada factory likes to say, “boots on the ground” in a Valley not much far from the LOC, where the ceasefire is broken and civilians targeted to push the militants into Indian territory, at same time acknowledging the fact that the Indian Army is secular and apolitical since its conception.
I know her retort would have been it is not Indian territory, all of the Valley is disputed as some of the Indian defence analysts have pointed out, when she threatened to not participate in a conference if Balochistan were not dropped from the meeting’s agenda, citing Balochistan as Pakistani territory. She can be excused for this perspective because the ‘dissenting’ voices regarding “azadi” of Kashmir have never really had the opportunities, the platforms to argue their case. Living under the threat of the unknown “gunman”, who can barge into your homes, after the ever-friendly Kashmiri media has pointed them out, reeling under the siege of the Hurriyat’s calendar protests, and the siege of the Indian security pickets and concertina wires every time there is an IED blast, a Fidayeen attack or a border skirmish – the dissenting voices for civilian supremacy, the people’s will to rule themselves, not the Islamist Hurriyat’s will or the Indian undemocratic, rigged elections will, but people’s will – she would surely have listened to the silent majority. And true to her character demanded they be represented.
Just as she sat with gusto face to face with the Shiv SenaSupremo Bal Thackeray and asked him about the violence perpetrated by his goons (an open confession by himself) in the 2002 Gujrat pogroms. I read the clickbait posts and pictures of her with him, and her hands folded in front of portraits of Indian national leaders, (a custom all foreign dignitaries follow) and the vicious comments by Pakistanis and Indians, depending which camp they were on. There is a YouTube video in which she characteristically shuts up her critics.
Nadeem Aslam’s quote comes to mind: “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.”
Of course, having come from the land of Nanak, Buddha and other Sufi mystics, I automatically will be wary of her political phase (ancient wisdom – deliberately seeking power will separate you from the self which serves), knowing well that anyone entering politics is bound to become diplomatic and ride on populism and sycophancy. Being a grandmother she ought to have retired. Reading about her husband Tahir and his reluctant acceptance of her activism, his nature columns, his solitary trips to the mountains, his shell-shock at her arrest and release, his limited permissions for her law practice and eventually caving into her will brings up old wounds –Arshid had a similar nature. I can imagine the conversations ranging from reasoning arguments, to flaring up, sulking, making up and eventual compromises both sides, because the underlying love would overcome everything. She could have had a quiet life, amidst her family. But no, she was Asma.
There was work to do. Her last speech at the Pashtun Jirga shows her intentions of who she was going to stand up for next. ”A Pakistan without Pukhtuns and a Pakistan without Bacha Khan would have been a narrow-minded Pakistan.” Her picture on the back of a motorcycle in a victory sign, in a protest, is what keeps going through my mind, another black and white picture, a much younger Asma, protesting in front of the Lahore High Court – she was a street activist, grassroots level counselor and eventually evolved to institutionalized civil action challenging the “Republic of Fear”.
I have not been able to go through the photograph of her “bareback” when she was manhandled by police officials, at a women-only marathon in Lahore in 2005, a picture splashed across newspapers. But she definitely is the reason political parties, religious parties, opposition parties in Pakistan today talk about women empowerment and their manifestos are not without women’s rights. All the cloth of the flags lowered at half-mast would not cover the shame of that “Republic of Fear” or the pride at the “bareback”.
Like Nadeem Aslam said, “… no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.”
Rest in Courage, Braveheart, we are indeed poorer, both Indian and Pakistan.