The 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
BIOGRAPHY of Asma Jahangir
"She has a God-gifted mind and the pain of humanity in her heart," says a childhood friend of the feminist and human rights activist Asma Jilani Jahangir. Another compatriot, the political commentator and newspaper editor Khalid Ahmed, observes more wryly, "If people in Pakistan did not have Asma to believe in, they would have had to invent her."
Asma (her name means "innocence" in Urdu) was born in 1952 in Lahore, an old center of the Mughal Empire, five years after the wrenching Partition of India and Pakistan at the end of the British Raj. Her birthplace is in Punjab to the north-representing the "P" in Pakistan, with "A" for Afghan in the northwest, "K" for Kashmir in the east, "S" for Sindh in the south, and "tan" for Baluchistan.
In The Making of Pakistan, K. K. Aziz reflects: "Nationalism can be a sentiment, or a policy, or a myth, or a dogma, or a doctrine. It is a sentiment when it is the love of a common soil, race, language or culture; a policy when it is a desire for independence, security or prestige; a myth when it is a mystical devotion to a vague social whole, the nation, which is more than the sum of its parts; a dogma when it is a belief that the nation is an end in itself and that the individual lives exclusively for the nation; a doctrine when a nation considers itself dominant among other nations or aggressively strives to be supreme among them."
Since the dream of creating a separate Islamic state in northern India was first uttered by the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal at a meeting of the All-India Muslim League in December 1930, Pakistan's nationalism has been all of that. Echoed by Muslim League politicians for nearly two decades of debate and rhetoric from India to London, the dream became reality in 1947.
Historians say the birth of this nation "for Muslims only" was the bloodiest in the modern era of postwar decolonization, accompanied by the largest demographic movement in recorded history: the Partition. Having lived together peacefully for centuries, nearly seventeen million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs went into exodus into and out of the new national borders of India and Pakistan.
Pakistan was born with two wings. The western wing comprises the present Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP), Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab, and (after a first skirmish with India) the eastern half of Kashmir and Jammu. The eastern wing, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, contained East Bengal and parts of Assam. Since Partition, border skirmishes with India (mostly over Kashmir and its Muslim majority) have three times erupted into full-scale war. And in 1971, Pakistan lost its eastern wing when a civil war provoked India's intervention and ended in Bengal's breakaway.
On the face of it, the mid-twentieth century Pakistan that Asma Jilani was born into was a long way from the powerful Mughal Empire that gave the English-speaking world the word "mogul." Even so, the roots of Muslim pride remained strong in the region, where people remembered the bygone era of supremacy on the subcontinent.
On her father Malik Ghulam Jilani's side, Asma was born to the wealthy if miniscule sardari landlord class living off vast tracts of land. Her mother Sabiha Salahuddin's side of the family exerted a natural balancing force. Sabiha's father, Mulana Salahuddin, was a writer and publisher of a literary magazine in what became Pakistan's national language, Urdu, with its roots in ancient Arabic and Persian. "Mulana" is an honorific for literary figures and, to this day, Asma's grandfather is honored on the subcontinent on his death anniversary with a service on All-India Radio.
Mulana Salahuddin was also "a socialist in his behavior although he didn't think about it," says Asma, who treasures the memory of "a very simple man with no ego about him, a friend joking and laughing with his grandchildren." But "until he died and people wrote about him, we had no idea that he was actually a great man," she says. Years later, a recurring remark from the older generation-"I knew your grandfather"-deepened Asma's childhood memories of him. One of those memories was how he returned a British knighthood during the independence movement, causing no end of irritation to Malik Jilani's own father, who did not return his.
A second memory is more disturbing. One day, Asma says, "as a child, very vaguely, I recall my grandfather saying, 'I just can't breathe anymore. Once the military takes over, it never goes back.'" The Mulana was in prophetic mode. "My mother was very shocked," says Asma. "A lot of people, in fact everybody with few exceptions, thought the military had come as a savior from corrupt politicians. My mother thought he was just exaggerating because the prices of things had gone up and suddenly, artificially of course, the military had brought them down drastically. My mother was going to buy some dupatti, this veil that you wear, saying it was extremely cheap. But my grandfather said, 'It won't be cheap. You will have to pay a very heavy price for this day.'"
Young Pakistan's first experiment in democracy foundered on a rising tide of civil conflict, corruption, and instability. In its early years, the country seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis. A sort of consensus was achieved in 1956 with Pakistan's first Constitution. It proclaimed Pakistan an Islamic republic within the British Commonwealth. But scandals involving elected officials and cabinets that seemed to dissolve almost as quickly as they were formed brought acute instability. Asma had just turned six in 1958 when senior military officers led by the British-educated Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan mounted a successful coup d'etat, followed by a formal declaration of martial law (and the rapid departure of Iskander Mirza, Pakistan's first president, for England). For many Pakistanis, martial law came with a sigh of relief-Mulana Salahuddin's warnings notwithstanding.
The Mulana's son-in-law, Malik Jilani, Asma's father, was equally engaged in the times. Educated as an agriculturist, he left his father and two older brothers on the family's land and lucrative stud farm to join the country's new civil service. As a rehabilitation commissioner, he faced the human cost of Partition daily in the town of Montgomery, today known as Sahiwal, south of Lahore. There he processed refugees from across the Punjabi border, desperate people seeking compensation for the lands they had lost in India.
Although born in Lahore, Asma and her younger sister Hina spent their early years in Montgomery. They were happy there, especially when their paternal grandmother came for long visits. But the contented rhythm of their daily life was broken one day in 1959. "Pack up," their father urgently told them. He had just resigned from his job and, he told them, the whole family would be returning to Lahore. "It was a very disturbed period," Asma remembers.
The children were not eager to leave their familiar world but felt that something big was afoot. Two years later, still in Lahore and on the eve of a wedding her father was planning to attend in Montgomery, she overheard her mother saying it would be impractical for him to come home right away since he "was going to contest an election."
"What election?" asked the curious nine-year-old. She learned that, in Montgomery, her father had been approached to run for the "new parliament of Pakistan."
President Ayub Khan was in the process of replacing parliamentary government with a presidential system, military style. His new system divided citizens into 1,000 units in West Pakistan and 1,250 in more populous East Pakistan, each approximately the size of a typical village. Each unit voted for a local representative to a union council covering ten units. In turn, union council chairmen were elected to represent their areas in a higher, larger council-and so on, through four ascending tiers. The highest and largest tier, with a total of 120,000 councilors, elected members to a national assembly that elected the president.
Asma is proud of her father's victory as an independent candidate in Ayub's new scheme. "It was our parents' youth; they were starry-eyed, looking to a better future. My father had just come into politics. He got a very good start as a parliamentarian," she remembers. Soon, however, clouds would gather over the household as Malik shuttled between the new capital Islamabad in Punjab and Dhaka in Bengal, for alternate meetings of the assembly. The children loved living in Lahore. They were having the time of their lives, with cousins their own age living just across the street and biking together happily in the ancient city.
A busy man, Malik never said very much at home. It was Asma's mother, Sabiha Jilani, who set about inculcating the family values. Like all children, however, Asma and her siblings (she is the second of three sisters and one brother, who is the youngest) thought these values "too conservative and moralistic." After all, Asma admits, their father "had so much money we never thought any of us had to work." But Sabiha, her own father's daughter, valued education far above money. With a hawk's eye, she inoculated her children early against the corruptions of too easy a life.
"I was not allowed to ring a bell for a glass of water," Asma recalls. She was discouraged from handing over her clothes for servants to iron. "It is very good to do it yourself," Sabiha would say in Urdu. After having three daughters, Sabiha's only son was the special target of admonition. "You can't be an absentee landlord or live on your grandfather's property," she would tell him. "You have to have a profession." Sabiha did not merely preach the virtues of work and simplicity, she lived them. "It didn't really matter to her what she wore," remembers Asma vividly, "or whether she was going in a car or a three-wheeler."
Aside from the example of the parents, the children also had Islamic teachers who came regularly to the house; if one of them quit (because his pupils did not much like applying themselves, for instance), another would soon be engaged. Malik was "not religious at all," says Asma, but Sabiha was a practitioner who "never pressured" her children into formal religion. There were no regular prayers. During Ramadan, whoever wanted to fast did so. Asma did not particularly like to fast but says "all the other children in school were fasting." So she followed suit, not so much in a religious spirit but simply to follow the ritual. (Being a weak child, however, she was eventually admonished to stop.) Meanwhile, the Jilani children received the best academic education available in Lahore. In a landscape of fading Mughal grandeur, the Jilani girls in red and white uniforms were ferried by car to the Convent of Jesus and Mary, run by Catholic missionary nuns. At the Convent, a full 95 percent of the students were Muslim. They learned their three Rs in English and Urdu and took Islam classes twice a week.
Gregarious Asma enjoyed "every minute" of school, remembering best her "many good friends and the nuns' personal interest in every single child." There were only twenty-five girls in each class, singular good fortune in a country with over 80 percent illiteracy. Asma liked literature but did not study hard if she could help it. Discipline was something she had to learn. Today she is grateful to a school where she often heard that success is "10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration." She also remembers that "one could appeal to (the nuns') sense of justice." Moreover, she says, "Whatever the nuns did, they were very committed," and she credits their example for her own sense of commitment today. (The school, Lahore's oldest, has survived for Asma's own daughters.)
In the late 1960s, the family's hiatus of normalcy came to a frightening end. Early one winter morning, the sleeping household was suddenly surrounded by the police. First to discover that they had come for their father, Asma and her younger sister Hina ran to wake him. He calmed her by telling her to open the front door and to give the visitors tea and by saying he would be down after shaving. To Hina, who wanted to throw water at the interlopers, he said, "Don't worry. It's their duty. They are not to be blamed."
Bags packed and tea ready, Malik Jilani "came down, sat with the police, and gave them a long political lecture on fundamental rights and how he was fighting for them and their children"-over two whole cups of tea, Asma noted. Things were looking so friendly that the girls began hoping the police would leave their father behind after all. But he suddenly stood up and said, "Let's go."
"We're very sorry it has to happen this way, Malik," said the police.
"Oh, yes. This will be an experience," he replied. Then Malik Jilani shook hands with his children, waved, and went away. They didn't see him for months. Placed in "preventive detention" in the remote north, he forbade his family from journeying through a perilous tribal area to visit him.
In 1962, Ayub Khan "suspended" martial law and was elected president, gambling on political stability to implement large plans being suggested by American advisers: land reform; programs to address disease, illiteracy, and the country's backward infrastructure; and new rights for women-including the right to run for public office and laws making it more difficult for Muslim husbands to divorce their wives.
But these plans took hold only fitfully. Political and economic disparities between a hardening power center in the Punjab and its restive peripheries in the south and in East Pakistan deepened as the president-who was also president of the Muslim League-nurtured an alliance with the largely Punjabi military, a pliant civil bureaucracy, and the landed elite. Although political parties reemerged under Ayub Khan, the press was strictly censored.
In the National Assembly, Malik Jilani raised powerful eyebrows with hard-hitting speeches sponsoring two bills, one for fundamental rights, the other for the adult franchise. "The press could report only what was in Parliament so it was really the only place you could hit the government," Asma explains. By her teens, she was mesmerized by her father's emergence in Pakistani history. He was not limited to speeches, she says. He was a "wheeler-dealer who brought people to his side and put groups together."
Like Ayub, Malik was playing for high stakes. He was Awami League president in West Pakistan and "a very good friend" of "the stormy petrel of Bengal," Sheik Mujibur Rehman, the league's president in East Pakistan. The Awami League had begun as a moderate political alternative to the Muslim League in 1949 but subsequently moved leftward. In the 1960s, it called for greater provincial autonomy and parity between East and West Pakistan (where, it alleged, "Twenty Wealthy Families" controlled everything). Malik Jilani's opposition had its price. The Jilani family lands were confiscated, leaving only the horses and a small piece of urban property for its survival. The horses were sent to the racetrack, says Asma. "If they won, we supported ourselves. If they didn't, we were in trouble."
By the summer of 1969, in the aftermath of a war with India over Kashmir and with mob violence increasing from end to end of his realm, Ayub Khan stepped down. "It is impossible for me to preside over the destruction of our country," he wrote his army commander in chief, General Agha Muhammad Yayha Khan, who promptly stepped into his shoes and reimposed martial law. Yahya Khan abrogated the Constitution, dissolved the assemblies, and dismissed the ministers and governors and replaced them with a civilian "administration council," with himself as its head. The new military ruler promised full freedom for political parties by January 1970, general elections the following October, a new Constitution four months later, and, with an ear to secessionists, twenty-five more National Assembly seats for more populous East Pakistan.
In the general elections in 1970, Malik Jilani and the Awami League captured a dramatic absolute majority in the new National Assembly, triumphing over the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and a coalition of theocratic Islamic parties. But the Awami League's brand of Islamic socialism did not sit well with the country's entrenched politicians or the military establishment. The political tension soon exploded into armed rebellion as Pakistan's eastern wing declared independence. Only India's intervention (in the Third Indo-Pakistan War) brought an end to the civil war and the painful emergence of the new nation of Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. This ended the brief reign of Yahya Khan, who now gave way to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister in a civilian government.
Following the changeover, the Awami League was outlawed despite pressure from both India and the Soviet Union. Malik Jilani now found himself in prison most of the time, with occasional respites.
Sabiha Jilani rose to the occasion with quiet magnificence. She rented out the family's large new house and moved everyone into her mother-in-law's already crowded dwelling. The children were given an uncle's dressing room; she herself slept on a tiny bed behind a partition in the dining room. Meanwhile, she visited the Home Secretary's office every other day for news about Malik and to get permission to bring him a radio and books and to arrange for the children to visit; she spent hours sitting in his lawyer's office. All this left her precious little time to check on the children's studies. The diligent ones did well on their own. But after passing the Senior Cambridge exams and entering a two-year preparatory course for college, Asma stumbled and was required to repeat a year in order to improve her study habits and her reading and writing skills.
Meanwhile, as she became closer to her father during his years in and out of prison, she was soaking up an altogether different sort of education. During the periods when Malik Jilani was free, it was Asma who volunteered to get phone numbers for him, to keep his diary, and to remind him of appointments. And each day she would wait for the last of his daily stream of visitors to leave (their home was now a "center of East Pakistani politics," she says) and then sit with him in his room till the early morning hours, quizzing him. Conversing in Punjabi, Malik answered Asma's questions with a blow-by-blow account of history-in-the-making. Asma absorbed everything at once, all the lore "not only of politics in Pakistan but of all the politicians-who they were, how many children they had, their weak and strong points, their historical background," even "what to serve them on which occasion." This living tutorial captured her heart and imagination.
Asma entered Kinnaird College just as tensions between East and West Pakistan were reaching the boiling point. She was distracted. And keeping late hours did not help. At school, she had only enough energy to go through the motions of studying political science, English literature, nursing, and French, "hating them all," she says. Once, English literature had earned her an A+ in convent school. Now, she fell short of he Cambridge Certificate standard in the missionary-run college. Already knowing Macbeth "backwards and forwards," she says, she was now bored with "Wordsworth and all those daffodils."
Just before the East-West carnage began, she went to the airport with some friends, curious about the rumored muddy-yellow-paint camouflage applied in anticipation of shelling. There, someone introduced her to young Mian Tahir Jahangir. She met Tahir again casually a few times afterwards as the civil war began.
The outbreak of war brought Asma agonies of "guilt and shame as a West Pakistani," she says. She felt that "despite what people there may have done personally, we [West Pakistanis] closed our eyes to atrocities. Not enough people raised their voices. It's a guilt people in my generation who have a little political sense carry." It was not an impersonal war. People she knew and their children and friends were among an estimated eight hundred thousand dead when it all ended in the holiday season of 1971, a season that found her deep in personal crisis.
Her father was again under arrest. She shied away from friends who now called him a traitor for supporting independence in East Pakistan. Upset and lonely on New Year's Eve, wishing "just to say 'Happy New Year' to somebody," she called Tahir. She did not expect him to be home but he was. "He felt there was nothing to celebrate," she says. "I was wondering why he was thinking that way. I didn't think he was the type who had any political comment. But he told me he had been in East Pakistan for a while, and how he felt at that moment." The two spoke for four hours that night. Asma had found a kindred spirit-and none other than the boy-next-door. To their delighted surprise, Tahir and Asma discovered that the house he lived in shared a back wall with her parents' house, where she now lived. She and her parents were acquainted with Tahir's parents but Asma had no idea they had a son.
Mian Tahir Jahangir belonged to a business family, whereas Asma (as she puts it), belonged to "a notorious political family on the wrong side of the fence." Moreover, she herself had already been politically active. At thirteen, she had proudly donated her savings to support Fatima Jinnah's campaign against Ayub Khan for the presidency in 1965. (Seventy-three-year-old Fatima, the sister of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had promised to restore democracy.) At seventeen, with her father's reluctant help, Asma had organized and led a student rally for adult voting rights and for Ayub's removal. A photograph with the caption, "Malik Ghulam Jilani's daughter climbing the gate of the government house to plant a black flag," landed in the newspapers and got her suspended from college, she says, for "behaving like a hooligan." Her young allies were taken out of college by their worried parents. And there was more to come.
In the uneasy hiatus at the end of 1971, even before taking his oath of office, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed another arrest order for Malik Jilani for "waging war against Pakistan." By then, Asma was old enough to take her turn at sitting with the lawyers. Doing so, she discovered a new game. As soon as she turned eighteen, she became a petitioner in a case questioning the legality of Malik's detention. Bhutto's appointed governor was not empowered to sign a warrant of arrest before taking his oath of office, she and the lawyers argued. Instead of addressing the case, the government simply invoked a previous military order from Yahya Khan as legal basis for the arrest, replacing Bhutto's warrant and not bothering to release Malik Jilani.
Malik's lawyers then challenged the legality of the Yahya Khan order itself, arguing that his regime was unconstitutional in the first place. This failed too because, as Asma explains, "the Constitution itself speaks with a forked tongue. It accommodates two kinds of thinking and does not clarify, but confuses." After years of debating, stretching, and rewriting the basic law of the land as Pakistan's political winds shifted this way and that, there was now a legal doctrine known as the "law of necessity." This "horrible theory," says Asma, had been turned into the perfect legal fig leaf for "everything done in emergencies" during the Yahya Khan years.
Now under Bhutto, the Constitution's "forked tongue" paralyzed Pakistan's judiciary as it faced the so-called criminal cases of political detainees: Just how valid were the unratified military laws implemented by Yahya Khan? The "law of necessity" was never meant to be used the way it was on Malik Jilani, his lawyers argued. Yahya Khan was a usurper of power, said the constitutionalists. They believed that "all his laws should be struck down." But Pakistan's judiciary was leery of trying to untangle the mess created by the country's blurred legislative and military boundaries. Under the circumstances, lawyers could do little more than to plead for the rule of law.
Crafting arguments was the easy part. But gathering evidence and going to court had Asma virtually giving up college as the case dragged on. She served as the lawyers' link to her father and passed secret messages between them. Meanwhile, the judiciary lobbed Malik's case back and forth. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it was rumored that Bhutto had conspired to murder Jilani in prison. This was too embarrassing for Bhutto, who quickly transferred his leftist political prisoner to house arrest in Lahore.
The Supreme Court judgment releasing Malik Jilani soon thereafter was the first instance in which the military's use of the "law of necessity" was overturned. It set a precedent. Bhutto released Jilani with a congratulatory telegram. Jilani replied with barbed wit, "I was under a misconception. Now I realize it was Indira Gandhi who arrested me." Having helped her father and having waged her own small war on behalf of the rule of law gave Asma the satisfaction of a moral victory. Now twenty, she finished college and turned to a quieter affair of the heart.
After one last demonstration against the Bhutto regime, Asma married Tahir in 1974, despite his family's reluctance. And she moved next door. "In Pakistani society," she says, "only sons do not leave the bosom of their mothers." As a bride, Asma behaved herself but was "completely bored" with a normal begum's life, "with no responsibilities except minding the social graces, attending coffee parties, and going to meet relatives." Since working on their father's case, both Asma and her sister Hina had longed to study law. Hina had proceeded to realize this shared dream but, with marriage, Asma "gave up all hopes for it." But not for long.
Asma soon learned that a handful of women were studying at Punjab University's College of Law. She went to apply. Knowing her history, however, the college principal would not let her enroll without her husband's written permission. With Tahir abroad, she got Malik Jilani's signature instead. "No, no," said the principal, "your father is a very liberal man. I want your father-in-law's." So, she pleaded with her father-in-law, who sportingly took her to the university and enrolled her. The principal subjected him to a lecture about "the horrible atmosphere for women here" and about what Asma should wear and how she should behave. Afterwards, he turned to Asma and told her, "I don't think you really should be going to an institution like this."
"You're right," she nimbly replied, "I won't come. I will study at home." Enrolled in 1975, Asma brought her books home and studied them there with the help of her friend Gulrukh Rehman. A young begum like Asma, Gulrukh attended classes at the college each morning and then proceeded to Asma's house, where she became Asma's tutor. The two studied together, breaking for occasional chitchats, until mid-afternoon. This plan worked splendidly and, in just a few years' time, both young women managed to have their first babies as well as to prepare for and take the bar exams. Gulrukh scored brilliantly and Asma likes to tease her saying, "You wouldn't have done as well without such a bright pupil!"
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bhutto was plagued by growing disaffection. Abroad, he played out a grand rivalry with Pakistan's political bÍte noire, India. At home, he was a virtual dictator-dismissing tribal governors not belonging to his party, ignoring federal autonomy provisions in the new 1973 Constitution, and emasculating the opposition with constitutional amendments that strengthened his own political hand. The 1977 electoral victory of Bhutto's PPP after six years in power was quickly labeled rigged by his rivals in the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), an Islamic coalition.
Before the elections, the PNA had already pinned the ultimate epithet on Bhutto-"not Muslim but Hindu"-for compromising with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the issue of Kashmir. Coalition clerics now called upon the faithful at Friday worship to resist an "anti-Islamic" government, a call that ignited riots damaging urban centers, delaying infrastructure projects, and grinding business to a halt. Amid the turmoil in July 1977, army chief of staff General Mohammad Zia-ul Haq mounted Pakistan's second coup d'etat and arrested the quarrelling politicians. The Constitution was "partially suspended," civil officials were dismissed, and the legislative assemblies were dissolved once again.
Zia-ul Haq promised elections within ninety days, as required by the Constitution. Instead, however, he proceeded to rule for eleven years as an unblushing dictator. The Supreme Court judged his coup a "constitutional deviation" rendered acceptable under "the law of necessity." (Prior to this, the chief justice had been "retired" and all existing judges had been asked to take a new oath under the general.) Meanwhile, Zia had government records combed for evidence against Bhutto while reducing him to humiliation in prison, pending trial. Even representatives of Amnesty International were not permitted to see him. Zia wooed PNA leaders with promises and concessions and found support in the Muslim League and conservative Islamic parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami.
A year after Bhutto's arrest, a new chief justice in the Punjab High Court found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. The Supreme Court, assisted by two ad hoc judges, confirmed the verdict. Bhutto's wife Nusrat and daughter Benazir were transferred from house arrest to a detention camp. Thousands of Bhutto's PPP members were tried by military courts, imprisoned, and flogged. Then, in early April 1979, Bhutto himself was hanged (although some believe he was killed before the hanging).
Having tested and disposed of his obvious rivals, Zia turned to Islam to legitimize and perpetuate his rule, cowing the local media and all dissent as the muezzin's call to prayer was broadcast over the airwaves five times a day and as the prayers themselves were made compulsory in all offices.
"Islamization" created a difficult new set of circumstances for Asma and Gulrukh. Practices from Islam's tribal past-public flogging for imbibing alcohol, cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers to death-were transformed from PNA campaign slogans into law in the Hudood Ordinances of 1979. Under these ordinances, it was the victims who were vulnerable, not the perpetrators. In rape cases, for example, rapists could now claim that their victims had willingly consented to sexual acts. Women who could not convince investigators of their non-consent could be arrested for adultery or fornication and stoned to death. Although no one was actually stoned to death for such "crimes," the usual conviction was a public whipping and ten years in prison.
Then came the Blasphemy Law, which punishes by death anyone who "defiles the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad." This brought new religious courts and special benches in higher courts where mullahs, or Muslim clerics, were granted authority to nullify "laws in conflict with Islamic rules." General Zia now presided over what Asma calls "a charade of interpretation," with the mullahs using the courts to persecute virtually all religious minorities. Meanwhile, Zia himself, who was eager for economic aid from the West and who, rhetorically, decried the rise of fundamentalism, especially in nearby Afghanistan, cunningly created a procedural obstacle course that prevented most of the egregious punishments from actually being meted out. The threat of terror sufficed to promote obedience.
Laws governing the economy, court procedures, and family relations were also left beyond the jurisdiction of the religious courts. But Muslim traditions of interest-free bank loans and across-the-board taxes for the poor-the 2.5-percent zaakat on all savings and 5-percent ushr on harvests-led the minority Shi'ites to object (because they already had their own welfare system) and the majority Sunnis to insist that the Shi'ites should pay. Setting off Islam's quarrelsome sects one against the other was a dangerous tactic. Zia was playing with fire.
Shi'ites claim the religious authority of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin; only his descendant imams (men of authoritative learning), they say, possess the truths of Islam. Sunnis believe the truths of Islam are revealed widely to imams and other devout believers throughout the world community of Muslims, through the Koran and Hadith. Already explosive in the eighth and ninth centuries, this division gave birth to detailed prescriptions in the shari'a, or system of Islamic law.
During Zia's early courtship of Islamic leaders, Sunnis had already killed Shi'ites, burning and looting their property with impunity. The provocation for these events had been a certain Shi'ite leader's remark that Islam was being "turned into a killjoy religion" that banned females from appearing on television unless they veiled their heads, even while being shampooed. An odd counterpoint to the rise of politicized religious laws in Pakistan was a simultaneous increase in the occurrence of rape, theft, murder, smuggling, gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging-all apparently linked to or protected by corrupt police and customs officials. At the same time, blood spilled on university campuses where, with automatic weapons and Zia's nod, the Jamaat-e-Islami's student wing broke up rallies in support of the fallen Bhutto.
By Zia's third year in power, it was clear to Asma and Gulrukh that they could not possibly sit idly at home. They had passed the final bar exams in 1978 and received their degrees in 1979. Meanwhile, Asma's sister Hina had also received her law degree and begun her practice as an apprentice lawyer. Asma and Gulrukh now invited her to join them in setting up a new law firm. Thinking "it wouldn't last longer than six months" (as Asma recalls), Tahir accompanied Asma to look over the office she intended to rent. Hesitantly, he approved. Asma, Hina, and Gulrukh, and a fourth partner named Shahla Zia, then swept the floors and had "a lovely time" launching Lahore's first all-female law firm.
The firm AGHS-for Asma, Gulrukh, Hina, and Shahla-opened in February 1980. The partners planned to devote some of their practice to high-fee-earning corporate law, so that they could devote the rest of their time to no-fee or low-fee family law cases. To fellow lawyers, the new firm was an amusing novelty. Punning on the name of the well-known law firm of Hasan & Hasan, the women's male colleagues scribbled "Husun & Husun" ("Beauty & Beauty") on AGHS's office nameplate. When they began arguing in court, a former advocate general, now a judge, suggested putting the "H" before the "A" and calling their firm "HAGS"-to which Asma retorted (with a poke at military rule), "Yes, if you'll put 'General' before 'Advocate.'" Battle lines were being drawn beneath the repartee.
When they first entered Pakistan's byzantine legal system, however, AGHS's team knew only generic law, with the exception of their senior partner Shahla Zia. But even she, Asma laughs, turned out to be an innocent when she went with Hina to file a court case for the first time, knowing no more than that they had to put the papers "in the black box." They searched high and low but it was nowhere in sight, until a man yawned, got up, and walked away from his seat-none other than the missing black box. Meanwhile, Gulrukh and Asma, working on their first custody case, "made all the mistakes we could possibly make" and won the case only by the grace of Allah, says Asma. After four months of learning by doing, they "understood that corporate law was not something we could handle," she says. They wondered what they could do now, with Gulrukh sitting down with impoverished women clients and ending up crying and giving them money.
These early fumbles led Asma, Gulrukh, Hina, and Shahla to their true niche. To begin with, Pakistan's laws were stacked against women. In practice, polygamy was still socially permitted, although officially it was illegal. Murders of "straying" females by relatives were still considered karokari (honor-killing), even by the courts. Ancient enmities were still settled through forced marriages or the exchange of females. Despite possessing the vote, few women actually participated in Pakistan's infamously irregular elections.
The hundreds of women now being thrown into prison under the Hudood Ordinances compelled AGHS to bone up on criminal law in record time. Poor people had less prejudice against using a woman lawyer and the firm began winning difficult pro bono cases, such as the one concerning a Christian couple imprisoned because the woman had remarried without divorcing an earlier husband she had been forced to marry. Word of mouth brought case after case to AGHS from the freed couple's village. Still, a majority of their clients could not afford to pay; with an affidavit to that effect, AGHS defended them con brio. Those who could pay, however, were "not charged the earth," Asma says. Their clientele swelled and the partners were gratified to discover that, of those who truly could afford to pay, few tried to get the firm's services for free.
AGHS began to develop a robust practice in family law. Legal colleagues began to consult them. And as "Beauty & Beauty" caught the eye of the foreign media (which was free to report about them, unlike the local press), it soon became fashionable, says Asma, "to have so-and-so as the lawyer of so-and-so." Members of influential families, or those contesting claims against them, also brought in well-paying criminal cases. Eventually, she and her partners carried the highest number of family law cases among Pakistani law firms. And they did, in fact, succeed in striking a balance between defending the defenseless pro bono clients and, through income-yielding cases, surviving to fight another day.
Contrary to their original plan, however, the partners supported their free cases not from corporate lawsuits but, by and large, from women's and children's legal-rights cases for fee-paying clients. "To think that legal aid is charity work is nonsense," Asma says in retrospect. "Even in terms of money, I have not lost."
Aside from their legal practice, the AGHS partners also became an important public resource for explaining Pakistan's increasingly Islamized laws to a variety of audiences, but especially to women. In doing so, they worked through a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called the Women's Action Forum, which they cofounded along with other women in Lahore in 1980. This work became even more urgent in 1982 when General Zia told the restless nation that it could not hope for an "early end to martial law." Unlike Western democracy, he said, "Islamic democracy did not require the supremacy of a majority decision."
In this distressing atmosphere, says Asma, AGHS received a daily stream of invitations to speak about the dreaded Hudood Ordinances and about polygamy, which Zia was threatening to make legal again. At the nth invitation, Asma told Hina, "God, these lectures are never going to stop." Why did women not actually raise a protest? she wondered aloud. "Maybe they should organize a procession." Hina seized upon the idea but was worried because there were only a dozen or so women lawyers in Lahore. "So we started to enlist every woman we knew," says Asma.
They scheduled the event for 12 February 1983, Shahla's birthday and also AGHS's third anniversary. The day was to begin with a press conference in the firm's office, to launch the unauthorized women's procession. Expecting a handful of brave souls, Asma looked down from her fourth-floor window and saw police crawling all over the street. She called to Hina, "We can't have the press conference here. Once we start, they'll block the stairs." So the hundred -and fifteen women who had responded to their call gathered openly in the street. There they faced five hundred police and could not move. Asma sped to the neighboring High Court of Lahore to ask Habib Jalib, a judge popularly known as the Poet of the People, to speak to the women. He was clandestinely brought to the rally.
"We are not, and shall never be, disempowered on this earth," he told them. "We are not helpless anymore." The women suddenly screamed in collective fury and, like a wave, blindly broke through the cordon of armed police. They were chased and beaten as they ran, the taller ones like Shahla and Hina more severely than the more elusive short ones like Asma. But a policeman finally caught Asma's ponytail and began pulling it; he tried to cover her head with a white veil. She turned and gave him a smack on the face, a smack captured by an Agence France Press photographer for the all the world to see.
Soon everyone was at the police station. The government was faced with a potentially embarrassing situation. As Asma says, they were "beating up women because they wanted the right of evidence!" The women were ordered released but they refused to disperse until the Ministry of the Interior issued a public apology. By nightfall, it had done so.
This event put President Zia on alert that more trouble would be coming from "that office," meaning Asma and her partners. The country's 1977 ban on political meetings was now reinforced. Hotels refused to grant requests for meeting space from women's groups. No one in Lahore would lend their private homes. As a last resort, the women began gathering in Malik Jilani's house. By now, Asma's father was a "senior politician," she says. The government could not touch him without provoking more trouble than it was worth. The police wanted to arrest Hina and another leader, but they had Malik to contend with. "Just get away from my gate," he told them. "If you want to arrest them, do so when they leave this place."
As more of Pakistan's aggrieved sectors protested in the streets and went to jail, those left behind collected money for the families of their jailed compatriots. When the photocopying of political pamphlets was banned, the activists produced a thousand leaflets a day by hand. As political agitation against Zia came into full swing-with Asma and her comrades in the thick of things-Malik Jilani fell ill with cancer and left Pakistan for treatment in the United States. Despite knowing of his illness, and to exploit the situation, Zia placed the daughters and three other women under house arrest for sedition. He then released them in a show of benevolence with a general amnesty on the Muslim feast of Eid.
Afterwards, an intelligence car trailed them everywhere. The police always knew when and where they could pick up Asma. One day, skipping a scheduled rally, she was on the way to have her father's cane bookshelf repaired when the police stopped her car. As she explained her innocent errand, friends broke away from the rally to ask what was happening. They were arrested with her, taken to a martial law court, charged, and placed in jail. After protesting the arrest of Asma and her friends, Hina was arrested too. Thirteen women were now about to spend "a most memorable two and a half weeks," Asma says, recalling what happened next.
Behind bars for the first time but, at the same time, no stranger to jails, Asma knew that a good attitude was the key to survival. "I never thought staying in jail was that hard because my father used to go in smiling and come out smiling," she says. Never having heard him complain, neither lack of food nor discomfort would bother her now. The only anxiety was "not knowing when release would come." But even that was easily lightened, she says, knowing "that what you are fighting for, the law, is a must. It is a must."
Thrown in with common female prisoners because there were no cells for women political prisoners, Asma and her colleagues proceeded to give the other women a teach-in on their fundamental rights. This had everyone immediately demanding their regular meals, which the guards had been intermittently (and capriciously) withholding. In two days, the troublemakers were transferred to another cell between two wards of male political detainees. Without enough female prison guards to keep them quiet, they shouted slogans and "created havoc every night." Breaking every rule, they challenged the staff "to fight it out with us." The male superintendent personally threatened to transfer the unruly women to Malik Jilani's own "graduate school"-the much tougher jail in Multan.
Asma was a special target of sexist comment. She was threatened with not seeing her children "for years." "So what?" she countered. "We mothers have stayed without our children, even out of jail. My children have not died. Mothers do not die even if their children are snatched from them." Meanwhile, when news of the arrest of thirteen women activists reached the international press, global pressure mounted on Zia. Soon, even he knew he "couldn't keep these daffy thirteen women there," and he released them, one by one.
Malik Jilani came home from the United States in 1984 and died of cancer a few months after these events. He spent his last years worrying about the families of Pakistan's mushrooming numbers of political prisoners, giving money for his daughters to distribute. "God, how far will this money go for all these poor people?" they moaned after their missions. Malik responded by creating a foundation to keep the aid flowing.
It was in one of Malik Jilani's foundation board meetings that the next momentous decision was made: to call everyone working for human rights together. "The reason Zia seems strong is that everyone is working separately," they reasoned. With one colleague linked to Peshawar and another to Quetta, they managed to get people from all over Pakistan to come together for a convention on human rights and its dimensions. Dorab Patel, former judge of the Supreme Court, agreed to lead it.
The result was the formation of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in 1986 with its own bylaws and elected officers. Patel was chosen as chairperson, Asma as secretary-general. Some years later, as the Commission's president, Asma says, "If there is anybody I really have to thank for making me feel joy, it is the Human Rights Commission." Her fellow commissioners, she says, "put wisdom into me. They told me when to speak and not to speak, and when to take my temper in. They knew that rushed decisions and working rashly were not going to help. Strategy is what you must have. How else can you deal with madness?"
It was in the first years of the HRCP that Asma confronted the full horror of bonded labor in Pakistan. For two and a half years, forfeiting much of her legal practice, she visited virtually every day the Bhatta areas where bonded labor was prevalent among brick makers and agricultural workers. Sitting, talking, and eating with the bonded laborers, she heard "their sorrow and joy expressed in beautiful poetry." In oppressed people, she says, poetry "comes from their hearts. Their hearts are singing. It is not that they sit down with pen and paper; they are illiterate." Seeing the conditions of near slavery in which the bonded workers lived, and noting that many of them were children, she concluded, "This is exploitation."
Her heart bursting, she told the Human Rights Commission, "I want to file 20,000 petitions." But the Commission members answered, "You will do no such thing. The day you bring a revolution in the minds of the people-that this is, in fact, bonded labor-is when you can talk about cases." This is how poetry and the law came together with drawings in Bantu Masih, Asma's storybook in Urdu about Bantu, the little Christian boy whose father died after losing the family farm in a drought. Paying back his father's debts as a bonded laborer in a brick kiln, Bantu is condemned to virtual slavery for life-until he hears about the law. Bantu's tale was followed by pamphlets on the blasphemy law, various family laws, and the Hudood Ordinances. In them, Asma explained legal issues in simple language and informed people clearly about their rights and obligations under the law.
Asma then filed case upon case on behalf of bonded laborers, until even the Supreme Court took notice and made a favorable ruling. Recognizing the time to strike, six lawyers sat down to draft a bill outlawing the slavery of poor farmers under Pakistan's age-old feudal system. Asma took the draft to a friend, the minister of justice, who managed to push it through the cabinet. By then, however, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was beginning to bubble up from the ranks of the country's banned political parties. The bill on bonded labor had to await passage while activist lawyers turned to larger political issues.
A breakthrough was emerging in the battle between Zia's entrenched military-led regime and its civilian opponents. Meanwhile, however, the law was becoming ever more a "hodge-podge between an Islamic system and an [inherited British] colonial system," says Asma. The family laws, for instance, were based on Islam, leaving scant protection for religious minorities, including Muslim ones judged to be un-Islamic by majority zealots. This spawned steeply rising statistics of human rights violations, which were documented and challenged, year after year, by the HRCP and AGHS.
In this nether zone, lawyers had to fight frontline battles both inside and outside the courts. Leaving the courtroom after one trial in which she defended an alleged blasphemer, Asma was warned by the police to take the backdoor. Hina rushed up to say, "It is very ugly outside. They are going to kill you today, I'm telling you. They will kill you!" But a Christian ally approached Asma quietly and told her, "Asma, if you go out through the backdoor today, you have lost our cause." Then the rest of the HRCP group surrounded her in a protective circle and they all exited through the front door. "I think that was the time of my reward: People you work with, willing to give up their lives to keep you alive," she says. "When we went outside together like that, the crowd fell back."
Under Zia, a bizarre web of legalized injustice became institutionalized in Pakistan with military tribunals, religious courts, and Zia-appointed judges. All this drove men and women of integrity out of the system. Many of the best simply retired. The negative impact on the quality of Pakistan's judiciary has been enduring. As Asma sadly observes, "The difference between then and now is that, in the sixties, when two people got into a dispute and government was not involved, the two could hope for justice. If you were against the government, you could never get justice, or never hope for it anyway. Now the system is just inefficient. In the sixties, some very competent judges gave very dishonest judgments. I could say they were morally corrupt. Now I think that when judges give judgments that I find quite offensive, it's not because they are morally corrupt. They simply do not have an understanding of the law. If I go and argue a case and it remains pending for months, I know that the poor judge cannot write a judgment."
During the 1980s, Zia-ul Haq came increasingly under attack. The fundamental cry of the reformist Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, for example, was: Return to the 1973 Constitution and hold the free and honest elections it called for. Through the 1980s, political waves rose and fell on this demand, breaking through at times and then retreating again. Asma was active in this collective effort. In 1988, after Zia-ul Haq died in a mysterious plane crash, elections yielded Pakistan's first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Her life reflected the turbulent times: her father, once prime minister, had died at the hands of the Zia-ul Haq regime and, before becoming prime minister herself, she had been in and out of exile, house arrest, and detention for several years.
In 1990, Benazir Bhutto invited Asma to run for the National Assembly for a "sure, sure win." By now the HRCP president, Asma refused. She did not want to lose her "focus on human rights for the sake of political expediency," she says. Again in 1994, during her second stint as prime minister, Bhutto asked Asma to become the country's first female judge. Again she refused, saying, "It would be hypocrisy to be a judge and defend laws I don't believe in, like capital punishment, the blasphemy law, and laws against women and in favor of child labor." Alas, the end of military rule did not bring about rapid judicial reform or dramatic improvements in human rights. Asma and her allies decided to carry on.
Indeed the stakes remained high. It was during yet another blasphemy trial during Benazir Bhutto's time that a sniper was discovered aiming his gun at Asma as she stood before the judge. Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, bearded fundamentalists chanted "Death, death, death!" Although the police caught the sniper, they released him without filing any charges. Only after a BBC report on the life-and-death drama did Prime Minister Bhutto ask Asma, "Do you want police protection?"
"Must everybody with a conscience in this country have police protection while the criminals run amok?" she replied tersely.
In the joy and pain of living history, Asma Jahangir had arrived at something far more potent than the power to rule as defined in the world of politics. Her work with the Human Rights Commission goes deeper. Such is its universal power that even police officers who are detailed to sit in the AGHS law office to keep an eye on her movements have become virtual "paralegals," taking notes on the needs of a daily stream of clients and telling busy lawyers which ones sound urgent. This is what Asma comes home to when her growing number of commitments with international human rights organizations takes her abroad-a frequent occurrence these days.
Asma Jahangir has no choice but to continue in a cause that is larger than herself. She does so in the unsinkable hope that the sacrifices shared by Tahir and their now three grown children will be rewarded, as her father's was, in the fullness of time.
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AGHS Legal Aid Cell. Laws of Custody and Guardianships of Minors. Lahore: AGHS Legal Aid Cell, n.d.
AGHS Legal Aid Cell. Laws Regarding Marriage. Lahore: AGHS Legal Aid Cell, n.d.
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______. Interview by James R. Rush. Tape recording. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, August 1995.
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Various interviews with and correspondence from individuals familiar with Asma Jahangir and her work; documents and reports provided by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; other primary documents.
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