Asma Jahangir: A phenomenon of engaged resistance
As a long time comrade and follower of Asma Jahangir, I was amazed to see the outpouring of first grief and then pride in Pakistan after her sudden demise. Amid a flood of media articles, documentaries, comments, tributes and obituaries, many demanded a state funeral for her. Some suggested naming universities and their law departments on her name. She was called, “the bravest daughter of Pakistan”, “the Jon of Arc of Asia”, “The messiah for oppressed in Pakistan”, “The moral compass” and “the greatest inspiration for Pakistani girls”.
After her death, she is conferred Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civil awards in Pakistan. Before that, she was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1993 and Hilal-e-Imtiaz in 2010. The word, Imtiaz, roughly means exception, prominence, brilliance and excellence.
If Pakistan, from highest state dignitary to a street vendor, proudly salutes its “bravest daughter” and “pride of Pakistan”, then does it mean that Pakistan has finally accepted that, a)human rights activists are not anti-state when they fight for the oppressed or criticize state’s policies and priorities, b) denouncing the abuse of religion and protecting the hapless victims of religious extremism is not being anti-religion and c) human rights activists are not foreign agents when they advocate for regional peace and voice against jingoism, chauvinism and misplaced nationalism.
In fact, they are truly patriot. They commit with ideas and ideals and pay the cost by being haunted, blackmailed, vilified, insulted, harassed, tortured, jailed, disappeared and killed. Asma faced all this for refusing to compromise on her dignity as an equal human being and wanting the same for everybody.
Was Asma Jahangir an exception?
The mystic saints of Indus Civilization still enjoy immeasurable influence on individual and collective psychology of Pakistani people and their creative cultural patterns. Producing eternally influential poetry, all the mystics transformed themselves as women and they created some of the most rebellious female characters. Pakistani civilization had always been ripe to produce woman like Asma Jahangir.
It is not strange to see that a deeply patriarchal society revered, rather worshiped its great female singers, poetesses, fiction writers, television and film actresses, and political leaders throughout 50s, 60s and 70s. A recent study, titled as “Legendary Women of Pakistan”, which details 500 women profiles in over 20 sectors of life, present some amazing conclusions. This study depicts how Pakistani women broke taboos and refused retrogressive Zia regime. Before Zia, Pakistani women were restricted to few traditional sectors. A university degree holder or a working Muslim women was something exceptional. After Zia, however, the women of Pakistan silently gate-crashed and changed entire socio-cultural and political landscape within next two decades. Two towering women lead this extra-ordinary change; Benazir Bhutto and Asma Jahangir.
I must say that Pakistan is not a Muslim country where women are struggling to gain their right to drive or enjoy a sports match in a stadium or where a particular dress code is imposed on them. Pakistan gave first Muslim women prime minister, foreign minister, governor of a province, speaker national assembly and many other firsts that you can see in above mentioned study. It is rather resilience of Pakistani civilization that creates Benazirs, Asmas and Malalas. This is not to claim that Pakistan is a heaven for its women. In fact, it is one of the worst countries with deep-rooted patriarchal structures and patterns. This is precisely the reason that I salute Pakistani women and respective socio-political, cultural or religious spaces they use for their resilience. They fight a war at every step of their lives. Asma Jahangir showed that they can win as well.
I joined Asma in 1991 and remained her follower as a fellow member of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Joint Action Committee, Pak-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, South Asian for Human Rights, South Asia Partnership, SAARC People’s Conference, and many other small and big initiatives like World Social Forum. I remember that by early 90s, she had already emerged as most vilified public figure especially in vernacular Urdu newspapers.
She was portrayed as the mafia don of westernized alcoholic plus sexoholic begums bent upon destroying the Islamic foundations of Pakistan. Or a shameless agent of the kafir nexus of Christians, Hindus and Jews who was receiving banks full of dollars to destroy moral and religious fiber of Pakistan’s pure society. And worst was the fact that she was not afraid, she was not apologetic, rather she provoked consistently. She ruthlessly shattered the traditional image of Pakistani Nek Parveen who excels in endurance, forgiveness and sacrifice without uttering a word. Asma Jahangir, however, uttered the words,….bravely, convincingly and loudly.
She defended victims of blasphemy laws, campaigned against separate electorate and religious ID cards. She refused to accept that a rape victim could be sent to jail under Hadood Laws and that the legal worth of a woman is half to a man. She advocated for the Muslim women’s right to marry of her own will without the permission of Wali. She protected hugely persecuted Ahmedia community and spoke for hapless Hindus. She rejected theocracy and insisted upon a secular, progressive and democratic Pakistan. And she demanded peace in South Asia,….peace even with India. Pakistan’s jingoists used to call her Indian agent but now, after her death, they realize that her peace activism included just and peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue, according to the wishes of the people of Kashmir.
Let me pronounce what I observed as salient characteristics of her selfless struggle;
Reformist, not Revolutionary
In early 90s, my ultra-leftist student organization disowned me for being a part of “NGO mafia”. I am telling this to show her image in leftists circles of Pakistan. In fact, she was equally hated in communist and leftist political circles who called her American agent working to depoliticize the revolutionary cadre. In the beginning, she tried to argue but then, she stopped. She was unable to convince the revolutionaries that Human Rights activism does not mean overthrowing the system. Rather it functions as a bridge between state and social classes and utilizes existing spaces within the system. It helps the state and society to identify and resolve the conflicts peacefully. All of her landmark successes were achieved in courtrooms. She fought for the rights and freedoms already existing in the constitution of Pakistan.
Engagement, not rejection
contrary to her well-crafted general image, Asma was not an angry woman. She was brave but she was not a senseless rebellious. I remained a regular visitor to both HRCP and AGHS and I personally know how regularly they were engaged with provincial and federal government departments from giving training to officials to being part of the policy making processes, or working as monitoring teams. She knew where to be loud and where to challenge but she also knew where to retreat and keep quite.
She stayed in the same society that rejected her. She defended same media that vilified her, she protected same politicians who threatened her. The first ever elected female president of supreme court bar association, she always remained active in bar politics. She remained engaged and connected all her life. Unlike me and many other fake Che Guevaras, she stayed in Pakistan and did not lose trust and hope.
Defending, not punishing Pakistan
A few years ago, as panelist of a conference in EU parliament in Brussels, she was furious on a passionate suggestion by a MEP to stop financial aid and trade relationships with Pakistan. I remember her saying, “you support dictators, but you put bans on democratic governments. How can you forget that we Pakistani are reaping what you westerners sowed during the cold war.” I was also angry because the report presented in the conference claimed that 50% non-Muslim women in Pakistan get raped and molested.
As a christian Pakistani, I know the meaning of religious discrimination. I know what is socio-cultural rejection and isolation. I know the meanings of being ‘inferior’ in school and playground. I know the amount of fear when you know that every Muslim enjoys legal provision to kill you. I know what is blasphemy law and how you feel when you are attacked by mob or when you are running away leaving everything behind.
I know all this, not merely at intellectual level, rather at experiential level.
But at the same experiential level, I know that it is political issue. It is not religious issue in its essence. I remember the Pakistan of my childhood and adolescence. I know that blasphemy laws and Hadood Laws were part of the larger design of wahabization and jihadization of Pakistan. The other aspects included sectarianism, ethnic divisions, drugs and klashankov culture. I know that Afghan Mujahideen were blue eyed boys declared as modern equals of American forefathers. The degeneration of Pakistani state and society, was an unavoidable affect of a grand project spearheaded by christian and Muslim countries together.
In my city Lahore, I count 30 huge cathedrals apart from more or less one hundred smaller ones. In around 300 families of my large extended family, covering many generations after partition, not a single woman was raped. Our kids are going to schools, colleges and universities. They are owning businesses and finding jobs. And at the same experiential level, I know that it is Muslims of Pakistan who are fighting for non-Muslims.
My study shows that Pakistanis have reached a comprehensive consensus on amending Blasphemy Laws. Pakistan is shaken to the core by recent lynching of Mishal Khan and brutal treatment to Sajid Masih. But then, Pakistani state has to disown the people who possess the capacity to bomb this consensus.
Snakes and ladders
Sitting in smoking room, after above-mentioned conference, Asma said, “It is like the game of snake and ladder? We struggle against dictators and defeat them, only to get crippled democracy, toppled again. We fight for the independence of judiciary and find corrupt judges ever ready to work as judicial wing of establishment. We achieve moratorium on death penalty only to see military courts hanging criminals. We always find ourselves much behind and then, we have to start again.”
I remember once she pointed out fundamental conflicts of Pakistan as democracy versus dictatorship, centralism versus federalism, representative versus unrepresentative institutions, and religious extremism versus harmony and tolerance. In her last days, she was fighting against ongoing manipulations to cripple whatever democracy Pakistan has. She was worried of expected loss of whatever we gained in terms of constitutional guarantees to smaller provinces. She could see sectarian and terrorist organizations, and religious extremism, gaining more validity in Pakistani society. She could foresee chaos rather than stability.
Her last speech addressed young Pakhtuns gathered in Islamabad to agitate against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. An eternal fighter, she died discussing a case regarding political freedoms.
The secret of a little speech
I will finish by telling you a secret. The Pakistani activists have a great instrument, which is a weapon and a shield at the same time. We use it every day and everywhere. It is not UDHR or any other HR covenants and conventions. It is a little speech delivered by the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in the first session of Pakistan’s legislative assembly on 11th of August 1947. In this speech, he laid down his idea of Pakistan as a secular, democratic, modern and progressive country with constitutional guarantee to equal rights for citizens irrespective of their color, creed, gender, religion or sect.
This is the dream and destiny. There are so many snakes and ladders. We will keep on walking. And in this struggle, Pakistan will remain proud of its finest and bravest daughter; Asma Jahangir.