Asma Jahangir: Through the Years

Anish Gawande is the director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, which promotes collaborative creative dialogue around Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. He can be found on Twitter as @anishgawande.

Fierce, vocal, and incredibly eloquent, Asma Jahangir transformed the landscape of human rights legislation and activism in Pakistan over the course of her life. In the face of repressive regimes and public vitriol, she championed causes ranging from the protection of religious minorities to the pursuit of judicial reform. 

Here are 15 documents written across her lifetime that chronicle Jahangir’s greatest victories and most vulnerable defeats. They speak to her passions, her changing ideologies, and to her negotiation with larger frameworks of public opinion and resistance. They serve, then, as reminders of a life well lived – but a life that struggled tirelessly to achieve every outcome we celebrate today. 

  1. When her father was arrested by Yahya Khan in 1971 for speaking out against the Bangladesh war, an 18-year-old Asma Jahangir filed a petition in the Supreme Court to demand his release. She gave an interview later recounting those formative years and the process of filing that first petition.

  2. PLD 1972 SC 139 was one of the first judgements against excesses by military dictatorships in Pakistan. Ijaz Batalvi, who helped Jahangir file the petition, wrote an incisive piece (in Urdu) on Asma Jilani v Government of Punjab and its wider implications for Pakistani jurisprudence.  

  3. In the 1980s, Jahangir started the AGHS Legal Aid Cell and the Women’s Aid Forum to defend women and minorities in the face of Zia-Ul-Haq’s increasingly repressive policies. Her 1984 USAID paper on “Impact of Islamization Policies on Pakistani Women’s Lives” [pdf] details the fraught nature of activism in those years.

  4. As she stepped into the role of a lawyer-activist, Asma Jahangir spoke out against repressive legislation like the Hudood Ordinances that targeted women and minorities. Following the sentence of stoning to death awarded to Zafaran Bibi in 2002, Jahangir wrote a powerful piece for Dawn that traces the struggle to protect women from zina laws.

  5. In 1987, she founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987. In contrast, neighboring India only got its own commission in 1993. The HRCP remains one of the most vociferous defenders of the rights of minorities. Here’s the HRCP report after the Chak Sikandar riots, one of the first to document Ahmadiyya persecution in the country.

  6. Her work stirred powerful reactions from the state and its religious apparatus. Zia’s newly created Majlis-e-Shoora was set to try her for blasphemy for a speech she had given in Islamabad. A friend and colleague, Tahira Abdullah, had luckily recorded the entire speech and was able to prevent any action from being taken against Jahangir. Here are snippets of media coverage from 1988 that cover the case.

  7. The protection of religious minorities, especially against regressive blasphemy laws, was the hallmark of Asma Jahangir’s career. Her defense of the 14-year-old Christian boy Salamat Masih, sentenced to death for allegedly drawing anti-Islamic graffiti on a mosque wall, led to a 1995 Amnesty International report [pdf] condemning death penalties for juveniles.

  8. Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoner in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir’s book on juvenile detention, came out in 1993. Chronicling the staggering exploitation of children handed prison sentences by courts across the country, the book introduced – perhaps for a first time – a comprehensive index of all the child rights laws in Pakistan.

  9. The new millennium began with Asma Jahangir’s scathing “Whither Are We?” in Dawn on 2 October, 2000. She lashed out against Pakistani foreign policy for claiming the moral upper hand in Kashmir while ignoring internal human rights abuses. The article is strange: cited everywhere, it can be found nowhere. Except hidden here, on the SACW dispatch.
     
  10. “Teach the bitch a lesson. Strip her in public.” Asma Jahangir suffered all this and more for leading a 2005 mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to expose the hypocrisy of Pervez Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation.” Ali Dayan Hasan was at that marathon and described how Asma Jahangir was beaten in the full glare of the news media. 

  11. Jahangir was also – and this is rarely discussed – at the forefront of fighting for LGBT rights in Pakistan. She was one of the signatories of the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, which laid down principles to ensure dignity for sexual orientation and gender minorities. 

  12. Asma Jahangir was the first woman to be elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2011. Irreverent, Asma was as comfortable smoking a beedi at the bar as she was trekking to Gilgit-Baltistan to investigate rights violations. Here’s a rare interview of Asma on her election campaign that describes what she thinks of bar-bench standoffs.

  13. Not one to shy away from controversy, Asma Jahangir went as far as meeting Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in 2008. In 2015, she agreed to defend Altaf Hussain’s right to free speech in court. Here is her BBC Urdu interview with Shafi Naqi Jamie explaining her opposition to a media blackout against the MQM leader. 

  14. Jahangir was at the forefront of demands to reform honor killing laws in Pakistan. Here is her 2016 Newsweek Pakistan piece tracing the fight to get amendments passed in Parliament that mandated life imprisonment for perpetrators of honor killings.  

  15. Her work took Jahangir beyond national boundaries. With the United Nations, she investigated rights violations in countries ranging from Sri Lanka to Israel. Most recently, as UN Special Rapporteur to Iran, she released a hard-hitting report [pdf] in August 2017 that remains more relevant than ever in the face of feminist uprisings in the nation.

The spirit of Asma Jahangir cannot be captured in mere platitudes or condemnations. She fought a lonely battle: carving an ideology for herself, she fiercely defended her work in the face of backlash from both liberals and conservatives. Her life must be read as a ceaseless struggle to ask the questions that few had the courage to ask. We must keep asking those questions.

— by Anish Gawande

XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Tapsi Mathur for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX, X.]

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of South Asia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA. Her first book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 was awarded the Law and Society Association’s Hurst Prize in 2015. She is currently working on her second book project, “Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India,” along with articles on abortion during the Raj and the expulsion of Asian and African law students from the Inns of Court. Her research has been recognized by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. She hosts the South Asian Legal History Resources website and is a regular contributor to the Legal History Blog.

Mitra Sharafi, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2017)

 What is the larger question that frames your work and can you tell us a little about what drew you to this project?

I was interested in how minority communities engage with law. There are plenty of examples historically and today of minority communities trying to avoid interaction with the state—particularly where there is a history of conflict and exploitation by the state. Equally, there are many examples of communities handling their intra-group disputes internally. But one day as I was leafing through the Bombay law reports, I noticed Parsi names everywhere and on both sides of many cases. Why would members of the same small, tight-knit community take each other to court, especially in a South Asian context where there were so many non-state options for dispute resolution? And why would they do so particularly in sensitive intra-group disputes over religion (temple disputes) and family (matrimonial and inheritance cases)? I was intrigued. Here was a minority community that took its inside disputes to court readily and often, in contrast to the more common patterns of avoidance (of the state) and containment (within the community). Continue reading “XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – II

 

The Indigenous Peoples’ Day teach-in, held on October 12, 2017, was organized and moderated by Richard Reinhardt and Christine Chalifoux at the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop (RIW) on Religion in the Pre-Modern Atlantic at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in coordination with the organizers of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day March of Indignation. Professors Gregory Dowd and Michael Witgen gave us a history of indigenous people and colonization in Michigan and the Midwest. Mallory Whiteduck talked About Indigenous forms of resistance, and Salman Hussain talked about solidarity. These presentations were followed by an open conversation, particularly addressing the March of Indignation that took place on campus, organized by student and community groups. Following is a report on the teach-in that occurred three days after the march.

Previously: Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I 

Continue reading “Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – II”

XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja

 

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Dr. Riddhi Bhandari for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX.]

 

Anand Vivek Taneja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. He studied at Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and at Columbia University, where he received his PhD in Anthropology in 2013. His research and teaching interests include urban ecologies, enchantment and ethics, animality, historical and contemporary Islam and inter-faith relations in South Asia, post-colonial urbanism, Urdu literature, and Bombay cinema. He was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences for Jinnealogy. 

Taneja, Anand Vivek. Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. Stanford University Press, 2017.

 

 

1. Can you talk about how Jinnealogycame into being. Why did you pick this name?

Firoz Shah Kotla, the place that is central to the book, is known by those who come here as a dargah, or Muslim saint shrine. Except that the saints here are not human, by most accounts, but spirits known as jinn. Now Delhi is a place known as bais khwaja ki chaukhat, the threshold of twenty two saints, it has long been a center not just of Muslim political power in India, but also a major Sufi center. So one of my major questions going into this project was why the jinn became popular saints in Delhi in the late nineteen seventies, as they did at Firoz Shah Kotla, in a city with so many human saints? What was the relation of this theological newness to transformations in the life of the city? One of the recurring stories that I encountered at Firoz Shah Kotla, which I recount at length in the book, is the ability of the jinns—who in Islamic cosmology are much longer lived than human beings—to serve as links connecting human beings centuries and millennia apart. For example, conveying the greetings of Jesus to Prophet Muhammad, and in story directly linked to Firoz Shah Kotla, authenticating the knowledge of Shah Waliullah of Delhi through an old jinn who was an eyewitness to the life of the Prophet. This ability of the jinn to supersede human genealogies of memory and transmission is what I have called jinnealogy. And jinnealogy, as I found, was a recurring motif in post-Partition Delhi, not just in the stories told at Firoz Shah Kotla, but also in the popular theological literature being produced in the city. This was happening at the same time as there was a huge erasure and suppression taking place of Muslim landscapes of memory and sacrality in Delhi, partly through the enormous violence of Partition, and partly through the subsequent policies of the post-colonial Indian state. As one of my interlocutors told me at Firoz Shah Kotla, 1947 men valiyon ka Dilli se nata tut gaya. 1947—the year of Partition and Independence—severed the relation of the saints to Delhi. But jinnealogy allows for the potential of memory and continuity—and a reclaiming of space—in a city marked by enormous violence, disruption, and official amnesia. The mode of knowledge and its transmission that jinnealogy implies is not just a counter to most “official” modes of knowledge production and remembrance in post-colonial India, but is also counter to many ideas of what “authoritative” religious knowledge and its transmission looks like in the field of Islamic Studies. Jinnealogy, as a concept and as a title, allows me to pithily suggest these differences from our usual understandings, as puns often do, so it kind of had to be the title. Also, I do actually trace a genealogy of jinn-veneration in Delhi from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial in the book, so it is a jinnealogy in that sense too!

Continue reading “XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja”