Distinguished Pakistani Lawyer Visits MHC

Posted: October 26, 2009

Listen to Asma Jahangir (Download - 79.4 MB, Time: 1:26:40)

When Asma Jahangir, a distinguished lawyer and prominent human rights activist from Pakistan, addressed a full house in Gamble Auditorium on October 21, Maureen Noshahi, mother of Aliya Noshahi ’13, was in the audience with her daughter. Noshahi had lived in Pakistan in the 1980s, a period of notorious human rights violations and civil unrest. She was thrilled to finally meet Jahangir face to face. “It was such an honor to be here and to shake her hand,” said Maureen afterwards. “She’s a huge inspiration to the people there. She gives common people hope for civil rights. In Pakistan, she’s a household name, like Oprah.”

Jahangir spent October 19-23 at Mount Holyoke as the 2009 Carol Hoffmann Collins Global Scholar-in-Residence, hosted by the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. She displayed a keen sense of humor and good cheer while meeting with students and faculty at meals, in classes and seminars, and at informal discussions. She had lunch with MHC’s Twenty-First-Century Scholars and gave an interview on WFCR, the Five College public radio station in nearby Amherst. At the same time, she remained in constant communication with her family and colleagues in Pakistan, which is experiencing another difficult period, as the Pakistani army steps up efforts to end increasing militant violence.

Mount Holyoke students questioned Jahangir on a wide range of subjects, including the political attitude among university students in Pakistan. She expressed dismay at the Pakistani students’ pervasive sense of hopelessness. Although they are very politicized, she said, many are afraid to protest publicly for fear of imprisonment. “Unless your family is rich and well connected, you can’t afford to be bailed out.”

She also lamented the gap between her own generation of women’s rights advocates and younger feminists. She criticized the older group for failing to reach out to the younger activists. “It is better for us to let it go to the new activists rather than let it die with us,” she said. She said it’s a matter of not wanting to relinquish control, and also not wanting to accept input from newcomers. “Older activists think, ‘How could these children think like this?’ But we were young once.”

Jahangir made clear throughout her visit that life in Pakistan is not easy. There are power and food shortages everywhere. The city of Lahore, where she lives, is relatively fortunate to have electricity for 12 out of every 24 hours. Terrorist attacks, murders, and kidnappings are commonplace. Her life has been threatened numerous times, and the Pakistani government gives her round-the-clock police protection. Two days into her stay here, she was awoken early in the morning by a call from her daughter, a television journalist in Islamabad, informing her that two suicide bombers had attacked the International Islamic University there, killing and injuring many people. Hours later, the story was on the morning news in the U.S.

One afternoon, Jahangir met informally with a group of students and faculty, regaling them with stories about being held under house arrest twice, most recently in November 2007 after she and other lawyers protested the firing of Pakistan’s chief justice of the supreme court. "The police were very decent to me," she said. "Especially the women police." She dismissed her house arrest as “not a bad thing, compared to the prisoners who were packed up in trucks like sardines, taken miles away, the young ones beaten.”

While she described the enormous challenges facing Pakistan, she was adamant that the country was not ungovernable. “We are not a failed state--we are not the Congo, or Afghanistan--but we are a failing state,” she told students in a joint session of history professor Dan Czitrom’s class Reading the New York Times and politics professor Kavita Khory’s class on international security. 

Czitrom said his class benefited enormously from Jahangir’s remarks. “Asma's visit with our class was very successful on two levels. It offered students the sort of critical perspective on Pakistan's politics and history that they cannot get from reading the Times alone. And more importantly, she gave students the chance to see what a lifelong commitment to advancing human rights, women's freedom, and open democracy looks like.”

Khory, who is acting director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, was similarly impressed. “I don't think any book, newspaper, or the Internet can rival Asma's knowledge and insights about Pakistan's society, politics, and its foreign policy. Through her words and actions, she dispelled popular stereotypes about Pakistani society and women. Asma has strong opinions, and she is not afraid to share them. For our students, it was a terrific experience to meet someone of Asma's stature who has not lost her idealism and believes passionately that one can change the world, one step at a time.”

In her public lecture, “Building Democracy: The Role of Pakistan and U.S. Relations," Jahangir looked both to the past and the future. “I am not here to urge the United States to impose democracy on Pakistan,” she said. “I like the American people. I believe they value liberty and peace, but the actions of their government have not reflected those values. We’ve seen a lot of your democracy in the past eight years, and I think we can do a better job of it.” 

She stressed that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore Pakistan, because Americans have a strong security interest in allowing democracy to develop there. “What happened to the United States on 9/11 will happen again if we don’t win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people,” she said. She described the series of military dictatorships supported by the U.S. over the years and the endemic human rights violations the U.S. condoned under those regimes. “We’ve learned our lesson: the worst civilian government is better than any military dictatorship,” she said.

Angela Johnson FP’11, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, said she was awestruck by Jahangir’s lecture and her presentation in Jon Western’s International Human Rights class. “She’s an amazing woman. She’s personable, down to earth, and she really knows what she’s talking about. She looks so demure, but she has a passion. She really burns for this stuff. When I listened to her I thought about Iraqi women I met. I didn’t meet any women lawyers in Iraq, or any women pursuing an education. It gave me hope to see her. She’s changing the situation for people in the world, and she’s doing it without a gun in her hand.”

Related Links:

Photo Gallery

McCulloch Center for Global initiatives

Daily Hampshire Gazette Article

WFCR Interview

Asma Jahangir, in Her Own Words