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

Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

I gave these comments at an AAAW event at Museo El Barrio some years back

I.

I miss that which refused to become a commodity. I want that which cannot be assimilated in the histories of “Left” or “Dissent”. I seek that which dissented from participation in our purchasing power. Eqbal Ahmad is one such figure, I think – an essayist and speaker who left no one book for us to buy and put on our shelves; a thinker and activist who made no distinction between theory and praxis; a specialist only of resistance not of geography; a comrade for all, whether religious, academic, white or brown. His is not a history we can excavate from obscurity, because he was on the pages of New York Review of Books, New York Times, Left Review.

I encountered Eqbal Ahmad as a young man in Lahore, reading his sometimes weekly columns in the Dawn. I did not know him more than his sub-head, but I liked his columns. They always informed me of structural issues, drew my attention to histories elsewhere and had a clear moral eye towards critique of power. When, in the mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a small, white, liberal arts University in southern Ohio, I was assigned Edward Said’s Orientalism in a number of classes. I liked the book, but as a regular reader of British Orientalists in Pakistan, the book was not the revelation that it was for some of my class-mates. But I kept reading Said, and it was when I opened Culture and Imperialism and saw the dedication For Eqbal that I realized I needed to go back to reading the columnist. I followed Ahmad after that; reading his essays, or making vague plans of visiting him at Hampshire College where he taught. But I never managed it, before his death in 1999.

II.

Ahmad was a prolific writer– and his Collected Works are proof. To illustrate, I will just cite one footnote from Edward Said’s 1989 essay “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocuters” in Critical Inquiry to give you a rough idea of Eqbal’s production. In Said’s essay, the first and third footnote is Fanon and the fourth is Ahmad, glossing this sentence:

“To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achivevments in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level bit who remained victims of their past on another.”

The footnote reads (in its entirety): “See Eqbal Ahmad, “From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World, ” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Summer 1980); Ahmad “Post-Colonial Systems of Power,” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Fall 1980); Ahmad, “The Neo-Fascist State: Notes on the Pathology of Power in the Third World”, Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 1981).”[^Footnote Said]

I think that is a pretty amazing sentence to get glossed by the thought of one intellectual’s work over two years.  Continue reading “Who was Eqbal Ahmad?”

Past Pleasant

The practice of publishing old texts is common in Pakistan; British-era district gazetteers and other colonial texts are routinely reprinted as de facto introductions to the history of the Subcontinent. The unwholesome after-effect of this is that colonial biases and frameworks remain uncontested and widely popular. There is neither any attempt to decolonise our history nor is there any awareness of what violence colonial knowledge practices have wreaked on writings about our pasts.

Seventy years after Partition, it is about time that readers and writers in Pakistan rethink and reimagine their histories. The past requires analysis in the light of new questions and new critical frameworks. We cannot be held hostage to British narratives about Muslim arrival in India as religion-inspired invaders from Arabia.

I have a review essay in Herald Dawn– How to counter colonial myths about Muslim arrival in Sindh— which is half book-synopsis and half review of an unpublished dissertation from 1973 Utah. Fun fact about 1973 Utah was that Aziz S. Atiya, scholar of Coptic Egypt and the Crusades made it his intellectual home after the President of University of Utah, A. Ray Olpin, invited him to direct the Middle East Center in 1965. They produced much important scholarship on Islam in USA though rarely get mentioned alongside places like Yale, Princeton, Chicago etc.

Anyhow.

In Memory of Kavita S. Datla

At the end, here is my desperate search for the beginnings of memories. I turn first to emails but I cannot find a beginning in these emails, even the very first one is already in medias res. I have now searched my emails for all correspondences and they stretch from Berkeley to Chicago to Madison to Berlin to New York. There are dinner invitations and regrets, coffees and lunches, comments on working papers and introductions, links to academic controversies, thoughts on tenures and promotions, exchanges of meanings of esoteric Urdu words and phrases, discussions of new books, always. There is a photograph that I have in my memory– but not in my possession– from somewhere in 2002/03/04 at the annual South Asia conference at Berkeley. The photograph is taken at night and in the haze of bad light and smoke, I see Kavita standing alongside friends. I am not sure this memory of a photograph is not an invention but I keep looking for it nonetheless.

Kavita Datla was an Associate Professor at Mt Holoyoke. She was the author of The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (2013). You can read my interview with her at the publication of her book in 2013. Her most recent article, The Origins of Indirect Rule in India: Hyderabad and the British Imperial Order evolved the arguments regarding indirect rule and sovereign rights– of states and peoples– outside of European political history. This was part of her new work that she completed even as the illness claimed her. She passed away yesterday after nearly three year battle with cancer.

I am in sorrow and I offer my condolences to the loved ones, colleagues, and family of Kavita. She was the finest mind, the best read scholar I ever met, and the kindest to both arguments and humans. The loss to the field of South Asian history is tremendous, but I also mourn, alongside her loved ones, at our loss of her beautiful heart.

update 08/01: A tribute to Kavita Datla at H-Asia.