Rebel with a cause

Asma Jahangir (1952-2018) spoke for the dispossessed and the deprived in Pakistan and fought a relentless battle for democracy and human rights in the country.

Published : Feb 28, 2018 12:30 IST

Asma Jahangir delivering the second Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia University, in New Delhi, in 2008.

Asma Jahangir delivering the second Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia University, in New Delhi, in 2008.

A LITTLE over two weeks after Jamida created history by becoming the first woman to lead mixed Friday prayers in India, the spirit of change swept the patriarchal forces in neighbouring Pakistan off their feet. Scores of women assembled for the Namaaz-e-Janaaza (funeral prayer) of the lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir, who died at the age of 66 following a cardiac arrest. The media publicised the picture of women standing in a saff (row formed for prayer), defiance writ large on their faces, next to men behind the body. In a country that is used to seeing only men attending burials, the image epitomised many things that Asma Jahangir stood for.

The revolt against tradition did not end with the funeral prayer in Lahore. Asma Jahangir was buried not in a traditional cemetery but in her family farmhouse in a manner that is fitting for one who lived her life according to her own set of principles. Unencumbered by tradition and unaccustomed to kowtowing to patriarchal society, Asma Jahangir, in many ways, was her own person. Not for her the genteel culture of a society where women are appreciated for conformism and admired for their coyness but looked down upon for any sign of defiance or deviation from the norm. This ability to hold her own and thwart all ideas of a patriarchal society stood Asma Jahangir in good stead. So much so that she rose to be the first woman to serve as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan and was a co-founder of the country’s Human Rights Commission.

One of her remarkable contributions was in co-founding the Women’s Action Forum in 1981, when it was unthinkable for women to even speak up for their rights. Not just clerics but politicians too were not comfortable with the idea of rights for women. The forum worked tirelessly for equal rights for women and did not shy away from tackling instances of sexism at the workplace, including in legal circles.

Indomitable spirit

Hers was a spirit that rebelled against denial of justice to any human being. She did much for the dispossessed and the deprived in Pakistan and certainly tried her best to make the lives of the minorities a little better in a country often in the grip of conservative maulanas. For almost half of the cases she took up she charged no fees and kept this charity under wraps. Incidentally, it was the fearless lawyer in her that inspired the character Rani Mukerji played in Yash Chopra’s film Veer-Zaara, the story of the romance between an Indian and a Pakistani. It was only when a section of the media revealed this that Hindi moviegoers understood the nuances of Rani Mukerji’s character in the film.

A trailblazer that she was, Asma Jahangir had to pay a heavy price for her indomitable spirit. In 1983, she was jailed for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy when General Zia-ul-Haq was ruling Pakistan with an iron fist. She had two things going against her: her gender and her relentless fight for democracy. Indeed, politicians across the spectrum initially tried to slot Asma Jahangir as one of their own. What went in her favour was her unwavering commitment to justice for all.

Five years after Asma Jahangir was jailed, Gen. Zia died. And she went from strength to strength, harnessing the good in liberal society. It did not mean that her freedom would never be in peril. But whenever dangers presented themselves, Asma Jahangir was up to the task. For instance, in 1993, Pakistan made international headlines with the case of an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles Rehmat and Manzoor, who were accused of indulging in blasphemous writing on the wall of a masjid near Lahore. When a lower court convicted them, Asma Jahangir represented the Masihs in the High Court and won an acquittal for them in 1995.

A few years later, she famously represented Altaf Hussain, the linchpin of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), who was accused of making anti-Pakistan remarks. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered a blackout on television coverage of him. But Asma Jahangir took up his case, earning the opprobrium of even her lawyer colleagues in the process.

Much admired or hated, depending on which side one belonged to, Asma Jahangir was often in the news for her feminist take on issues confronting the nation. She won a rare and deeply significant victory for women in Pakistan in the well-known Saima Waheed case in 2003. Saima Waheed’s marriage was challenged by her father who said he had not given her permission for it. Asma Jahangir’s legal victory in the case got Pakistani women the freedom to marry on their own accord, without the permission or presence of a “wali”, or male guardian.

Not known to rest on her laurels, in 2007 she got active in the Lawyers’ Movement, a popular mass movement initiated by the lawyers of Pakistan in protest against the then President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf’s suspension of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. She was put under house arrest. But her spirit could not be caged.

Asma Jahangir was among the few lawyers willing to take up the cases of young men who went missing, usually following an encounter with the police. It involved risk to her life as the young men were considered enemies of the state, and defending a perceived enemy was not the easiest of tasks. She did manage, though, to unite some of these missing men with their families.

Asma Jahangir also spoke up for people-to-people bonhomie between India and Pakistan and advocated peace between the two countries. It antagonised the powers that be, but she did win over liberals on both sides of the fence. But when she raised her voice for human rights concerns, both in Kashmir and in Balochistan, there were few people willing to be seen on her side. It did not matter to her. In her relentless drive for peace, she even met the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. Again, it was no mean achievement considering Thackeray and his party’s well-documented animosity towards Pakistan.

Indeed, in Asma Jahangir’s life there were no full stops. A day before she died she appeared on a television show. Reportedly, her cell phone fell from her hands while discussing a contempt case against a Minister over phone with a senior lawyer. She was never to pick it up again; she died with her lawyer’s cloak on.

Much before the final moment, she had earned followers, young men and women who dared to follow in her footsteps. The best proof of it was seen during her last rites. As women instinctively walked down to offer the last prayers, many were overcome with doubt whether conservative maulanas and entrenched forces of male hegemony would allow them to take part in the namaaz. To their astonishment, the local people offered no resistance to their wish to offer namaaz for Asma Jahangir. Many were shocked to see women standing in a row for the final prayers. Throughout her life, Asma Jahangir had taken on the notions of male superiority with gusto. All her efforts seemed to come to fruition when her funeral prayers were led by Farooq Mawdudi, son of Maulana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, an outfit well known for its conservative streak. For a woman who had been abused, threatened, jailed, even called anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan, it was no minor triumph. Indeed, like a vintage lawyer, she reserved her best for the end.

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