I first became aware of Asma Jahangir’s presence when I was nine years old. My father was working in the government department for human rights and had made two liberal friends there, a couple in fact. The wife was an activist and the husband a journalist. We started frequenting their house. My father and the two liberals were in awe of Asma. She was acknowledged as a human rights lawyer nationally and internationally, but was not a household name yet. We heard stories of her commitment, neutrality, and valour all around us.
This was before she became the life of every prime-time political talk show in the country.
My admiration for her increased manifold in the 2000s. This was because by then I had come face to face with all the societal pressures a young woman faces in Pakistan – dressing a certain way, not being allowed to go out and being given lectures to not talk to boys. I was acutely aware of the discrimination I now faced.
Second, it was in the 2000s, under the Musharraf regime, that private news channels proliferated, which gave space to voices like Asma.
I still remember well-known anchor and lawyer Naeem Bokhari’s interview with her. Most men and news hosts were very uptight around Asma but, apparently, Bokhari knew her well. He candidly asked her questions like, “do women lawyers get stared at in the courts” and Asma cheerfully responded to him, giving all the details.
One day, in 2005, a group of women activists organised a marathon in the conservative town of Gujranwala – two hours away from Lahore.
The marathon included Asma, and policewomen tore her clothes. She was their main target and they said: “We have been asked to tear your clothes.” This was perhaps because Asma was a vocal opponent of Musharraf’s martial law and what works better than “shaming” a woman opponent?
The next day’s newspapers carried photos of Asma’s bare back, while she was jailed. I saw those photos and childishly believed this was the end – who could survive a public stripping in Pakistan?
But when her daughter, Munizae Jahangir, went to prison, she spoke of how Asma sat there with her shirt tied with safety pins, chanting slogans loudly. Her spirit was undeterred.
Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) get a rough deal in Pakistan. They often get threats of violence and are also at the receiving end of acid attacks. Asma was no exception. She received threats. And some of those threats materialised too. Once her brother’s family was held hostage by gunmen. Her daughter was sent to a boarding school to evade abduction. Asma’s sister narrowly escaped a bullet. In 2012, she came out to the media and stated that intelligence agencies were plotting to kill her. She remained house-bound for a few days and created enough of a news splash to ward away the threat .
My admiration for Asma, however, baffled some of my friends. Some would say “woh toh cigarette aur sharab peeti hai” (she smokes and drinks). Yet others in school tried to convince me that Asma ran a prostitution ring. I stopped telling my friends that I admired her.
She was now a frequent opponent of Musharraf on television. Later, when I started working with NGOs as a professional, I realised prostitution, trafficking and sexual exploitation are always the first allegations levelled at us.
In Asma’s case, the attacks were ferocious because she was the founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that helped many couples who had eloped escape honour killing. She also led a “Dar-ul-Amaan” (destitute home) for women escaping abusive households.
Apart from the threats, an even more troubling aspect of an activist’s life in Pakistan is that he or she commands much less respect compared to a charity or welfare trust. Our society tends to respect those who help women with charity but denigrates those who want to arm them with rights – especially the right to love and marry who they want.
Asma was often the only woman in a sea of men – male hosts, male politicians, male lawyers, male journalists and one tiny Asma in the middle, with her commanding presence and logical arguments.
Asma was well-known for putting people in their place. She was rarely furious, though. But she had a combative attitude because in Pakistan men often attempt to intimidate women. This makes women in the workforce, particularly in male-dominated fields like the legal profession, more assertive than is usual.
I ran into Asma several times but was too starstruck to say anything. Most of these encounters took place at the Lahore Literary Festival. She was always cheerful, she walked into every gathering with a smile and was greeted with much fanfare. Even while arguing, she wouldn’t let go of the smile.
In the late 1990s, an ad used to play on television which showed Asma as saying “mard ne kaha talaq talaq talaq aur bas ab ghar baith” (a man says divorce three times and sends you packing home.) Asma was the unabashed face of the women’s movement in Pakistan. She was also the worst nightmare of any religious zealot – a woman, a blatant feminist, armed with legal arguments and unafraid of being hated.
One of my aunts was sitting near me while the ad played and she smirked: “This is what they always say.” At that time my aunt was about to get married and had a rose-tinted vision of the world.
Many years later, after a turbulent married life, the same aunt who had once rebuked Asma said: “Women should be like Asma Jahangir, keep everyone in their place and not let anyone walk all over you.”
It wasn’t unusual for Asma’s opponents to turn to her for help. Asma did not hold them accountable for the hatred they spewed against her when in power but became their legal representative when they had lost it.
Because Asma would defend the basic human rights of everyone – even those who opposed and maligned her.