Ms. Jahangir's Justice: Pakistani Rights Advocate Uses Mount Holyoke College Visit to Reflect on Her Nation's Troubles

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, October 21, 2009.

By Kristin Palpini

Asma Jahangir is treating her week as a scholar-in-residence at Mount Holyoke College as a chance to stop running, if only for a little while, and reflect.

Jahangir is a prominent and controversial Pakistani lawyer, human rights activist and founding member and chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The 57-year-old mother of three children has spent the last 30 years fighting for the rights of Pakistani women, children and religious minorities.

She has won many court cases on behalf of victims of rape, spousal abuse and bonded labor and seen changes in how women are treated in the Muslim nation. She pushes back against an extremist interpretation of Islam being spread by the Taliban and other entities, but her actions have attracted outrage from extremists.

Jahangir, whose life has been threatened many times, has a personal bodyguard.
Eight years back, five gunmen burst into her house, searching for her and her young son; fortunately, neither was home. Five years ago, a policeman was caught creeping up to her house with a dagger, according to a Time magazine profile.

"I've almost been killed many times," Jahangir said as she opened a folder of newspaper reports she gathered for a class she would teach later in the afternoon. "People come to my house to kill me, they've broken my car."

Jahangir, who has roused the ire of former President Pervez Musharraf on more than one occasion, does not differentiate between her attackers. "It's no difference to me one or the other," she said.

Lecturing Tonight

At Mount Holyoke College, Jahangir is enjoying the quiet of the Valley and the curiosity of the students. Tonight she will deliver a lecture, "Building Democracy: The Role of Pakistan and U.S. Relations," at 7:30 p.m. in Gamble Auditorium, in the Art Museum building on the college's campus. The event is free and open to the public.

"Everyone needs a chance to stop running and reflect," she said. "There's no better place to do this than with students. They have fresh ideas and look at things differently, they ask questions you don't usually get asked."

Jahangir said she hopes her time at Mount Holyoke will help people better understand Pakistan and its convoluted relationship with the United States, as well as the nation's distaste for the Taliban. She also hopes to encourage people, particularly students, to engage in preserving human rights.

Pakistan "is a place of intrigue, and intelligence agencies all around the world are breeding there. Pakistan is the gateway to central Asia," Jahangir said, noting the nation's geographic and political relationship to India, Afghanistan, Iran and China. "We are open to all kinds of mischief."

Jahangir's Pakistan

When Jahangir talks about Pakistan and the Taliban, the sadness in her eyes is evident. The Taliban, a hard-line Islamic group that formerly governed Afghanistan, has been gaining power in Pakistan through violence. This weekend, the Pakistani army deployed 30,000 troops in an effort to crush a Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan.

She traces the rise of the Taliban warlords in sections of Pakistan, notably South Waziristan and Swat Valley, to the late 1970s and the Soviet Union's proxy war with America fought in neighboring Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters were trained in Pakistan, she said, during a time when Saudi Arabian culture was being foisted on Pakistan in an effort to add bodies to the U.S.-backed Taliban. She refers to this as a time when the West was trying to "Arab-icize" Pakistan, importing a conservative form of Islam, Wahhabism, that would encourage active jihad in Afghanistan.
International news was broadcast in Arabic, not Pakistan's official language, Urdu. Women began wearing hijabs instead of less formal head scarves, she recalled.

"If you fight a war based on jihad you need a certain kind of Islam, Wahhabi Islam, not the laid back Muslims of Pakistan," Jahangir explained. "There is always an extremist fringe in society and this fringe was empowered and injected with orthodox religion and emotions. Otherwise, tell me, why are human beings, like everyone else, why would they want to lose their lives fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union they do not know?

"We in Pakistan call it (the Taliban) `the snake fed with their milk that turned against them,'" she added.

The Taliban have recently won victories in Pakistan. In April, to stem violence in the area, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a bill approving the rule of sharia law, a strict enforcement of Islam, over Swat Valley, a northwestern region with a strong Taliban influence.

But the Islamic hard-liners have also been dealt blows. In addition to military reprisals, this spring a video of Taliban men publicly flogging a Pakistani girl, who was accused of leaving her home with a man who was not her husband, sparked public outrage against the Taliban after it was widely circulated online, Jahangir said.

"Once this happened people spoke up," Jahangir said.

But as is common in Pakistan with women's rights, the issue was soon forgotten, she said.
"An incident comes out and then everyone goes home and forgets about it because there was a bomb blast next door," Jahangir said.

"There is no institution for women's rights," she said. "Women's rights always take a back seat to whatever is happening at the moment."

Fair government institutions are something Pakistan lacks, Jahangir said, and are the key to better U.S. relations with the nation.

"Now, America wants Pakistan to like them, but they must learn how to have a partnership of principles and understand how we have suffered," Jahangir said. "It has to be based on principles, pro-people institutions, otherwise they will not make friends there."

U.S. relations with Pakistan are strained, Jahangir said.

To illustrate her point, she referenced the Kerry-Lugar bill, an economic aid package that would boost nonmilitary aid from the U.S. to Pakistan to $1.5 billion. Despite the windfall for the country, Pakistani officials are considering turning down the money on the grounds that language in the bill, which Pakistan may or not have to adhere to, could limit its army.
"They don't support it and they're trying to give us money," Jahangir said.

The problem, she says, is America's historic support of Pakistan's leader - and not its people.

"There is no dictatorship the U.S. has not supported," she said.

U.S. support for leaders while institutions such as the judicial system fall into disarray has alienated many Pakistanis from Western goals. For example, the Bush administration supported Musharraf in 2007 during street protests over the suspension of the nation's top judge for alleged misuse of office.

"Bush came out and praised Musharraf and intelligence agencies while people were being locked up and disappearing," she said. "It showed no concern for the rights of the people within the country."

Despite its flaws, Jahangir fights for people's rights through the nation's legal system. "My colleagues tell me 'don't fight a cause, fight the case,' but they don't have a cause like I do," Jahangir said. "I fight a mentality."

In Court

Jahangir was born in Lahore and grew up in a politically active family. Her father was Malik Jilani, a politician who spent years in jail and under house arrest for opposing military dictatorships.

At a young age, Jahangir decided to dedicate herself to improving the lives of oppressed groups - women, children and religious minorities.

In 1980, she founded the first law firm established by women in Pakistan. She has also served as the United Nations special rapporteur (a title referring to someone who produces reports) on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, as well as the U.N. rapporteur for the freedom of religion or belief. She is also a member of the International Crisis Group.

In Pakistan she has defended rape victims, most notably a blind woman who was gang-raped and then sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. She has also fought for fair child labor laws, better treatment of women by their families and against child abduction. She saved an 11-year-old boy from a death sentence for the crime of blasphemy.

Jahangir recently took on a case for Meera, a popular Pakistani movie star, whom a man is claiming as his wife. Meera denies the marriage took place and claims her purported husband is seeking to blackmail her, demanding millions of rupees to withdraw the claim.
"Some people are angry that I took this" case, Jahangir said, "but I don't discriminate. It is a question of what is Islamic marriage."

Jahangir's job in court is a little more difficult than the average lawyer's. In addition to fighting on behalf of her client, she combats centuries of dogma that oppress women and promote religious extremism.

She tries to use arguments that are down to earth, with supportive examples from comparable nations such as India and Sri Lanka. She is also not afraid to cajole or insult a judge, sometimes being stern and telling them in open court that they are "narrow minded" or "anti-woman."

"I don't know that I am proud of a case, but there is satisfaction in obtaining justice," she said.

Unfortunately, that justice often falls short. Jahangir can secure freedom for her client, but the courts decline to go a step further and prohibit the crime or injustice from being perpetrated again. A rape victim, for example, will escape being stoned for fornication, but the court will not adequately punish the rapists.

"Many people in Pakistan are resentful about my airing out our dirty linen in public, quote unquote," Jahangir said, "but I can't be quiet."

Daily Hampshire Gazette © 2008 All rights reserved