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?”

On FATA

Gentle Readers,

My op-ed in NYT on the recent FATA/administrative developments that connects the history of spatial politics and territorial otherness.

The nearly 40-year war in Afghanistan has produced its own idea of the “tribal” in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas — one that took the British colonial emphasis on “Pashtun” militancy and layered on top the American enemy, the Afghan Taliban. The Tribal Areas went from being a base for Pakistan and American military operations against Soviet troops to a platform for Taliban militancy against the United States and Pakistan. Deemed a geography outside the laws of the nation, the Tribal Areas were found by both the militant and the anti-militant forces a region where violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.

Pakistan has kept the frontiers in place, legally and spatially. Continuing the colonial practices, the president of Pakistan appoints a “political agent” in the Tribal Areas to keep power centralized. The political agent is the sole arbiter of law and order and one without any responsibility toward the people. The ethnic stereotyping and animosity has deliberately deprived the Tribal Areas of schools and hospitals. The war on terrorism has instead turned it into a landscape covered in police and surveillance stations.

How Best to Not-Surrender

The first lesson I learned in resistance was to surrender. It was a hard lesson. It was the apocryphal year of 1984 and General Zia ul Haq was our leader. The General had come to power in a military coup in 1977– deposing an elected and popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In short order, he had hung Bhutto, for conspiracy to commit murder and corruption and had donned the mantle of a populist cleanser of political rot. When in 1979, Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the General became the conduit for US “resistance”.

Reagan toasted Zia in 1982 as the key architect of a peaceful South Asia (Zia, in return, requested “Spread this America, Mr. President”). Zia returned to Pakistan with the full support of United States. In August 1983, Zia revealed a theological argument for his military regime: according to God and his Prophet, as long as there is a Muslim leader pursuing a strategy of bringing an Islamic state into being, there can only be complete obedience to his rule.

In 1983, Pakistan started its resistance against the General. The “Movement for Restoration of Democracy” (MRD) emerged as an umbrella for Marxists, Progressivists, PPP, followers of pirs, provincialists, feminists, atheists– all assemble only to resist Zia. They blocked highways, took over university campuses, shut-down bazaars and ports. The poets wrote verses that could be chanted. Sufi shrines become the rallying places for mobilizations. Someone stood in front of Zia’s motorcade and flashed his privates.

Zia’s regime cracked down. The army fired bullets in streets, campuses and bazaars. Thousands disappeared. Student unions were banned. Students vanished. In November 1984, Reagan won 58.8% of the votes cast and swept back into office. Not to be out-done, on 19 December 1984, Zia ul Haq held a referendum with one single question: Did the people of Pakistan support”the Islamic ideology of Pakistan?” Yes, would mean that Zia ul Haq would be elected President for five years, by the way. Well, if you put it that way.

Zia campaigned vigorously for the “referendum”. The nationalized Radio and Television illustrated the divinity of military rule, and the rule of the militarily divine. On the 20th of December 1984, he declared victory after receiving 97.7% of 60% votes cast. Lahore surrendered. My uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends all declared widely and publicly that Zia ul Haq was the “Mard-e Haq” (Man of Truth). No one would speak, in public or private, against the General.

The second lesson I learned in resistance was to remember 1983. In 2007— after September 2001, after George W. Bush– resistance came to Pakistan as the “Lawyers Movement” against General Pervez Musharraf. This history is known to the readers of this blog, so I will tell only of the shape resistance took. Like 1983, an umbrella covered the many forms of political differences into a protected space. It was on the street– the iconic black suits of the advocates of court battling the police. It was in cultural spaces– galleries, salons, tea shops. It was online– blogs, email listservs, youtube. It flashed Musharraf– making him an object of ridicule, of shame. This time I was not too young and easily silenced. This time I learned the way and power of resistance.

The playbook of the Generals of Pakistan may seem incongruous next to that of a democratically elected Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. Hence, the techniques of surrendering or resistance may seem equally alien. However, do not be too quick to dismiss. Our Pakistani strongmen had much that bolsters Trump’s appeal: the love of autocrats and technocrats, the claim to clean up corruption, the mode of ‘direct speech’ that cuts through ‘bullshit’, the claim to independence from special interests, the eye for gilded portraits, the male-ness, the love for big building projects and real estate acquisitions.

When I see Trump, I understand him and I understand the ways in which my uncles in Pakistan love him. Trump speaks that language already:Oh the Theater must always be… oh the University must endure… Oh the minorities must be protected. Trump’s hierarchies (America First) and promises (Make America Great Again) are easy analogues to Zia ul Haq’s “Islam First” or Musharraf’s “Make Pakistan Moderate Again”.

Against Zia, writers and artists like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar, used stand-up and prov sketch comedy in venues like the television program “Fifty-fifty” to subvert, to transgress, to document. Being on a National Television and subject to heavy censorship, their sketches had a pre-approved “official” reading and a reading that came clearly as disruptive resistance to the viewers outside. Performance that illustrated “all politics” is performance enabled that dissatisfaction with the “real”.

Against Musharraf, the tactic of satire as resistance was amplified in wildly popular shows like “Begum Nawazish Ali” and “Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain” (We are all Expecting). Jokes carried over instant messaging apps, blogs, and emails poked fun at the self-regard of the dictator. I collected them and promised myself I would write about them one day, and I guess I will one day.

Artists, poets, teachers, writers are the first line of defense against tyranny. They are also the first targets of censorship, condemnation or disappearance– hence Dhaka University in ’68-’71, hence Karachi University in ’74-’76, hence Punjab University ’83-’85. Against Zia and Musharraf, these were the critical spaces of collaboration– between students and professors, between poets and reciters, between artists and viewers. I spent a lot of time in living rooms of my professors learning the trade of resistance. I spent a lot of time on street corners complicit in the making of shadow discourses. The classroom, the living room, the street corner were all fed by texts– our Franz Fanon, our Kishwar Naheed, our Manto.