Asma Jahangir, my fearless friend
February 22, 2018
It is hard to find a measure of Asma Jahangir’s greatness. She was a brilliant intellectual, a superb humanist, a great political leader, an epitome of kindness, a personification of indomitable courage. Asma was all these things – and much more. Professionally she excelled as a magnificent lawyer, who did more than anyone else I can think of to defend and save helpless people from the unjust wrath of authoritarians and tyrants. As one of the most distinguished human rights lawyers in the world, Asma used her legal knowledge to protect the vulnerable and unimaginably strengthen people’s rights. As it happens, Asma Jahangir’s first legal victory came before she became a trained lawyer. She won a great legal victory in freeing her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a parliamentarian and critic of the military who had been unjustly incarcerated by the government. At the time of her victory at the Supreme Court (in a case celebrated as ‘Miss Asma Jilani vs the Government of Punjab’), Asma was barely twenty years old. Later, with professional legal training and far-reaching vision, combined with her exceptional intelligence, Asma became the leading defender of human rights in Pakistan, in the company of other great human rights activists like I A Rehman and Dorab Patel. It is extraordinary to see how much the Pakistan Human Rights Commission has achieved in the cause of justice, without even having the firm legal – and constitutional – status that, say, the Indian or the South African Human Rights Commission can comfortably rely on (those commissions have a much easier job than the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, which – despite that legal handicap – has achieved no less, particularly through powerfully mobilising public opinion and involvement). I personally think that in understanding Asma’s success, it is important not only to appreciate the strength of her skilled arguments, her trained reasoning and her deep-rooted courage, but also the tremendous warmth of her personality including her radiating friendliness. She generated enthusiasm across the world, but particularly on the two sides of the sub-continental divide. Asma was loved in Pakistan, but no less in India, and whenever she gave a talk in India, the room – whatever its size – was always overfull. She communicated an amazing closeness that was felt by all. It was her companionable personality, in addition of course to the force of her reasoning, which helped her to bring judges, even in most difficult cases, to see her arguments with sympathetic clarity. It is amazing how Asma won case after case against what seemed like insurmountable adversity. I have been extraordinarily privileged to have Asma as a close friend for nearly two decades. I first met her when we were both members of a joint Indo-Pakistani initiative to engage the citizens of the two countries to talk more with each other (Asma was the co-chair of the group, along with former prime minister I K Gujral on the Indian side). I was awestruck by the clarity of Asma’s mind as well as her boundless humanity and warmth. We had the chance to talk a great many times in many different places when we met (as we did frequently), but we had the most wonderful opportunity to talk endlessly when she and her wonderful husband, Tahir Jahangir, stayed with us at the Master’s Lodge of Trinity College in Cambridge. We were often joined by her younger daughter Sulema, also a lawyer. I learned a huge amount from Asma about how to think about one’s priorities and duties in the most complex of circumstances. One of the most fulfilling moments of my life came last year when Asma spoke at the London School of Economics, in a lecture named after me – I have not done anything to deserve it (I hasten to add) but the LSE has such an annual series. Asma explained to nearly a thousand students and teachers at the LSE how to fight injustice related to religious intolerance, using democratic means (a subject that seems to become more and more important across the world). Her ideas were buzzing around the LSE for many weeks. Activist lawyers, especially those who lead human rights movements, are often in danger of violent attack by people whose despotism and oppression are threatened. In Shakespeare’s ‘Henry the Sixth, Part Two’, when Jack Cade with recently acquired – indeed ill-acquired – power talks about his policy priorities, one of his followers, Dick the Butcher, says, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (4, 2, 1, 78). Asma had to face many such Dick the Butchers in her committed and dedicated life. But my fearless friend continued to speak, argue, plead, guide, and lead the movements she had founded and built, without being at all deterred. Threats and dangers could not stop her. Nor could they reduce the force of her reasoning. Nor diminish her extraordinary warmth and humanity which captivated all. Even though Asma has left us, we can still not only bask in her glory, but also continue to be guided by what she has taught us. The angel of humanity may have gone, but the great inspiration and the penetrating education we have got from her are here to stay. At this tragic moment, there is comfort in that thought – and we can have pride in having known so perfect a human being. The writer made these remarks at the remembrance for Asma Jahangir organised by her friends and admirers on Feb 17, 2018 at the Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge MA.
Asma Jahangir: The street fighter
Feb 11, 2018
Immediately after the horrific Quetta terror attack on August 8, 2016, Dr Danish, a television anchorperson, tweeted pictures of Asma Jahangir with a caption in Urdu which translates as: “When lawyers were being killed in Quetta, the so-called leader of the lawyers was enjoying herself in the northern areas.” The post was enthusiastically retweeted, shared on Facebook and distributed through WhatsApp groups.
Asma Jahangir was not “enjoying herself in the northern areas”. She was in Gilgit-Baltistan on a human rights fact-finding mission when the attack happened. There was no way she could travel to Quetta the same day. She took to Twitter and responded to the anchorperson: “Shame on you for exploiting facts even when people [are] in grief … Ask [your] spy friends not to stoop to the lowest levels of viciousness.”
A picture of her from a March 2008 meeting with Bal Thackeray, the now deceased leader of Mumbai’s Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena party, created a similar furore. Nationalist websites and media persons wrote thousands of words to denounce her for sharing the same space with one of Pakistan’s most vicious detractors. It did not matter that she had met Thackeray in her capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, investigating violence against Muslims in India.
Indeed, many people go ballistic every time her name is mentioned. Haroon Rashid, an Urdu-language columnist with a large fan following, wrote in 2013, “warning” that he would lead a march on to Islamabad if Asma Jahangir was appointed caretaker prime minister. She had said earlier that she had no intention to accept the post.
Asma Jahangir’s earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore.
If anything, these examples suggest a pattern: often wild, unsubstantiated allegations are levelled against her. Often she, too, responds to her detractors in a no-holds-barred manner. In 2012, in typical Asma Jahangir style, she accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to eliminate her. National and international concern and outrage poured in with such vehemence that the plan, if there was any, had to be dropped.
It seems Asma Jahangir seeks controversy — her critics attribute it to a search for glory. The Lebanese-American writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a word for it: “antifragile” — that is, things and people that benefit from volatility, shock, disorder, risk and uncertainty.
Asma Jahangir does not agree. She argues that she does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.
In September 2015, the Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to black out the coverage of Altaf Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) supremo. Very few, if any, lawyers in Lahore were willing to represent him due to his alleged involvement in acts of violence in Karachi and his volatile speeches and media statements. Asma Jahangir was perhaps the unlikeliest lawyer he would get: the two had never found themselves on the same side of the political divide. In May 2007, MQM had called Asma Jahangir a “chauvinist lady” who should form her own “chauvinist party”. An MQM statement had also accused her of having a secret affiliation with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
But she agreed to represent him.
Her opponents took to the streets. A small group of lawyers in Lahore brought out a demonstration, demanding the cancellation of her licence to practice law. Her supporters in bar rooms were also uncomfortable with the idea but they knew she could not be swayed against fighting for someone’s freedom of speech — no matter if the person concerned was a serial abuser of that freedom. “Well, that is how she is,” says one of her supporters, shrugging their shoulders.
When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.
Asma Jahangir’s earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore. The head girl there was always selected by nuns but Asma Jahangir, as an O level student there in the late 1960s, arranged a protest demanding that there should be “at least a semblance of an election”. The school administration reluctantly agreed to an election process while retaining a veto power. That method for finding a head girl still continues at the school.
Asma Jahangir’s exposure to public life happened at a very young age. On December 22, 1971, the military government of Yahya Khan detained Asma Jahangir’s father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, under martial law regulations. Malik Ghulam Jilani, a former civil servant and politician, was sent to jail in Multan after his detention. He sent his family a letter through a jail employee, listing possible grounds on which a petition could be filed for his release. Then only 18 years old, Asma Jahangir filed the petition at the Lahore High Court.
“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.
She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners
Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri, a lawyer that her family generally consulted on legal issues, was federal law minister then and, therefore, could not be her counsel. The second choice, Barrister Manzur Qadir, a former foreign minister and a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court, was not eligible to appear in the court that he had once headed. Qadir referred Asma Jahangir to M Anwar, considered one of the finest lawyers of the Lahore High Court at the time. Anwar thought it was a strong case because the governor of Punjab had signed the detention order before taking oath of office. (The detention order was changed later, Asma Jahangir says, to remove that anomaly). The Lahore High Court, however, dismissed her petition.
Asma Jahangir went to the Supreme Court. Qadir then decided to be her lawyer in what became known as Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. “The courtroom used to be full,” she recalls. “Since I was a petitioner, I got a special seat and felt very important.” She remembers Qadir with awe and admiration. The arguments he made were absolutely fabulous, she says. “I have never heard those kinds of arguments again. He was not just a lawyer, he was a philosopher.”
Asma Jahangir also credits the proceedings at the Supreme Court for initiating her into the cynical, realpolitik world of courts. “What I saw was the manipulation behind the scenes — how cases are won and lost.”
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.
Malik Ghulam Jilani waged a somewhat lonely political struggle — particularly at the tail end of Ayub Khan’s government and during Yahya Khan’s regime. He was on the wrong side of the consensus in West Pakistan on the 1971 military operation in what was then East Pakistan and when that region declared itself as the independent state of Bangladesh, he advocated against official Pakistani recognition instantly.
That period in her father’s life has had a deep impact on Asma Jahangir. “When we were children, he always talked about fundamental rights and adult franchise and, believe me, I did not know for a long time what adult franchise meant except that he was fighting for it.”
Asma Jahangir remembers her mother exhibiting a different sort of character. She was not in any way politically active and was almost nonchalant about the frequent imprisonment of her husband. “Whenever my father got arrested, she would sell her car and would move around on a tonga, believing that everything will work out or she would rent out our house and go to her father’s house and put us in his dressing room.”
Asma Jahangir comes from a well-off family — the spacious house her parents built is located in one of the priciest parts of Lahore’s Gulberg area. But she does not see money having played any part in her upbringing. “We never felt that we were privileged or non-privileged,” she says.
In July 2016, a division bench of the Lahore High Court was hearing a public interest petition against the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train. The petition contended that the project was damaging Lahore’s architectural heritage. A star team of lawyers was representing the Punjab government. There was Shahid Hamid, a legal wizard and a former governor of Punjab. There was the advocate general. There were many assistant advocate generals and deputy attorney generals. The packed courtroom was unusually abuzz with the chatter of minions and acolytes of the government’s lawyers.
Everyone was waiting for Asma Jahangir to argue in favour of the petition. When she stepped forward to the rostrum and began her arguments, one of her co-counsels tried to whisper a legal point in her ear — a relatively common practice in courts. Before he could even start, Asma Jahangir dismissed him with a wave of her hand and almost sternly said, “Stay where you are. If I want your assistance, I will ask for it.”
Her aggression had a direct impact on the opposite side and murmurs immediately died down in the courtroom. The only reaction from the government’s lawyers during her arguments was a slight shaking of the head by Hamid. She spoke briefly, vociferously and authoritatively. As she left the rostrum, she paused, turned around and took one step back. She turned towards the judges and Hamid, and said, “You know what the entire problem here is Shahid Sahib? Your chief minister needs training in aesthetics. We would be glad to arrange tutoring.” Hamid smiled weakly and continued to shake his head.
This is Asma Jahangir’s style — mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate. “She is a performer,” says Neelum Hussain, her long-time friend and fellow activist.
She does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.
Asma Jahangir’s entry into law did not automatically follow her victory in Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. She received her law degree from Punjab University in 1978 after she fell in love with and got married to Tahir Jahangir, a Chinioti businessman and her next-door neighbour. “The principal stopped me from attending the [law] college because I was a married woman. It was a college policy,” she says. Gulrukh, a friend of Asma Jahangir’s, was also married but the principal did not know. “Gulrukh used to take classes and then she would teach me.” Asma Jahangir secured a first division in her law exam — a major achievement for someone who has always been a “second divisioner”.
She did not start her law practice immediately after graduating.
When she had her second child, she started to feel that she was suffering from bouts of depression because of feeling “useless”. The depression was “showing on me because I had started to put on weight”. She had puffy eyes. She looked unhappy. “Whether I was just imagining things or it was otherwise, I think the respect my husband – or for that matter, my in-laws – have had later for me was not there at the time,” Asma Jahangir says. “Everybody thought they could bully me because I was not seen as an entity. I was just a little, out-of-shape mummy.” She decided that she had to do something with her life or she “will just be a sidekick for everyone”.
Asma Jahangir invited some of her friends over lunch to discuss the possibility of starting a law firm. Late Shahid Rahman, who was the son of a former chief justice of Pakistan, S A Rahman, and an excellent lawyer himself, told her to talk to Shehla Zia, another young lawyer at the time. Asma Jahangir’s equally well-known sister, Hina Jilani, was already working as a junior lawyer with Ijaz Batalvi. The three then roped in Gulrukh — thus, AGHS was formed on February 12, 1980, taking its name from the first letters of the names of its founders. It was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm.
It was the darkest of times. The Hudood Ordinance was already in force. The law of evidence was about to be changed to the disadvantage of women and non-Muslims. It was also the best of times. The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was formed smack in those years.
On February 12, 1983, WAF decided to hold a public demonstration on Mall Road in Lahore against the provisions of the Hudood Ordinance that discriminate against women. Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani both joined the protest as members of the Punjab Women Lawyers Forum. It was the first open denunciation of attempts by General Ziaul Haq’s military regime to mix religion and law — and it made WAF, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani the most recognised faces of the movement for women’s rights in Pakistan.
A simultaneous lawyers’ movement was also underway in those days against Zia. Protesting lawyers began using Asma Jahangir’s office as a place of hiding because the authorities would not consider “coming into a woman lawyer’s office looking for male lawyers hiding there”. The misogyny of Zia’s regime in this case worked in favour of his opponents.
In the 1980s, a woman lawyer arguing human rights cases was largely 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.
In the mid-1980s, the Zia-appointed Majlis-e-Shoora passed a resolution, saying that Asma Jahangir had blasphemed and she should be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was an alleged comment she had made in a WAF meeting. Zia set up a commission to investigate the allegation.
When Asma Jahangir came back home from prison, she was very animated and made her “jail time sound like it was an adventure, a thrilling journey”
Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code that provides for death penalty in blasphemy cases was not enacted yet. “Maybe they enacted it after finding out that they could not put me to death without it,” Asma Jahangir says, only half in jest.
Asma Jahangir boycotted the commission and instead lobbied lawyers to gather support. Fortunately, Tahira Abdullah, a renowned human rights activist and a WAF member, had taped the entire proceedings of the meeting where the alleged comments were made. When that tape came out, it was obvious that Asma Jahangir had not made any blasphemous remarks.
In 1993, an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, were accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore. Later, Manzoor Masih was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala where the case was initially being heard. Asma Jahangir represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by a trial court. Lawyer Mehboob Khan, who represents the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and assisted Asma Jahangir in the case, remembers the hostile atmosphere during the proceedings. He also remembers how she remained unfazed through it.
In an unprecedented decision, the Lahore High Court acquitted Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on February 23, 1995. Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the judges who had acquitted the two, was assassinated in 1997. When his killer was arrested a year later, he confessed to have killed the judge for deciding the case in the favour of the accused.
There was an attempted attack on Asma Jahangir’s house as well. The assailants mistakenly entered her mother’s house who lives next door. Everyone in the house was held at gunpoint, including Asma Jahangir’s brother and his wife and their two little children. Frustrated at not being able to find Asma Jahangir, they attempted to kill her sister-in-law but their gun did not work, giving the family enough time to escape and call in security guards to engage the attackers.
Munizae, the eldest of Asma Jahangir’s three children, remembers being sent to a boarding school to protect her from possible abduction. Munizae understood from a very young age that her mother was different from most people around her. Still, she was confused when Asma Jahangir was first arrested in 1983. She remembers how her schoolfellows asked her the next day if her mother had “stolen something”.
When Asma Jahangir came back home from prison, she was very animated and made her “jail time sound like it was an adventure, a thrilling journey”. An intrigued Munizae asked her mother to take her along when she went to jail again.