Asma Jahangir was never shy of confronting authority.  In this shot, she tells off policemen for their heavy-handedness against lawyers, political activists and media personnel | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star


For a couple of years, Mohammed Hanif followed Asma Jahangir on her annual fact-finding missions to Balochistan.
Published February 18, 2018

Fragmented memories

By: Mohammed Hanif

This piece was originally published in EOS on February 18th, 2018.

In the lawns of the district’s rest house in Pishin there are more than one hundred men sitting in a circle. They are important men, Pakhtuns, Maliks, Supreme Court lawyers, local lawyers, ulemas, more ulemas from the other party, fathers whose sons have been abducted by intelligence agencies, the chairman of the local town committee, the chairman of the local market committee.

This is what Pakistan looks like outside of big cities. Important men talking to their equals or less important men. Here, Asma Jahangir is chairing the meeting.

She is visiting to find out what is happening in Pishin and the surrounding areas. She is one of the three or four women in the circle. She is smoking a beerri and listening to these men moan about everything under the sky: complaints about the government, about lack of governance, about Taliban setting up a camp in a nearby forest, about madressahs, about lack of madressahs.

She knows some of these men from her previous visits. Some older ones know her from when they used to visit her father’s house in Lahore. She has supported some of the lawyers in bar elections, she has been trying to trace missing sons. Fathers of missing sons get more time to speak than others. The azaan starts at a nearby mosque, Asma pulls her dupatta over her head and continues to puff on her beerri.

She is like a pir who has come to a village where everyone has a long wish list. For the young and old Baloch lawyers she is an intimate friend and they want to spend every second with her.

They seek career advice, discuss the strategy for the coming bar elections, they also share gossip about their older colleagues. The men in the circle have high expectations from her. The head of the Town Committee asks Asma to “reign in ISI and build more public toilets for women in Pishin’s bazaars.”

Asma interrupts them mid-conversation to clarify a point, referring one person to a lawyer, another one to the HRCP office, mostly urging them to talk to each other.

The chairman of the town committee says that widows in Pishin should be allowed to marry without interference from elders. There is no law against it, she says. Islam actually encourages widows to re-marry. She waves towards various maulanas, ask them if you don’t believe me.

Later, over lunch, people are falling over each other to put food in her plate, others are trying to keep them away by telling them to let her eat in peace. Everyone wants a selfie with her. She is happy to pose and smile. She leaves amidst hugs, hands over her head, prayers and promises to meet in Lahore, in Islamabad, and of course right here next year. Nobody really calls her soobon ki zanjeer [linking chain of the provinces] but for many men here she is their only connection to Lahore, to Islamabad.

Telling stories, saving lives

Her hotel room is full of lawyers, young and old. She sits on her bed and is telling a story about Benazir Bhutto and Zardari and a pompous journalist. She loves telling a good story. She is a professional level mimic and can switch from Urdu to Punjabi to English within the same sentence. In the middle of her story, her phone beeps.

She looks at it, jumps up in her bed like a child at play, bright, and agile, who has suddenly remembered her homework. She excuses herself saying she has to make an important call and goes into the bathroom. She returns 15 minutes later. Who was she on the phone with, someone asks.

During the Zardari years, there was a moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan. She was proud of having played a role in bringing it about. But freezing the death row involves a lot of paperwork, it involves sending petitions to the President’s office, then reminding his staff that there is a moratorium. She was in the bathroom taking care of some death-row prisoner’s paperwork that had gone missing.

She forgets the story about the pompous journalist and starts talking about various jails in Pakistan. She is rhapsodising about Haripur prison. She makes it sound like a holiday resort. The only Pakistani prison without gallows, she says.

Apparently the person who donated the land for the prison made the British government promise that no hanging ever be carried out there. The Pakistan government had been honouring that promise. “Next time I am arrested, make sure that I go to Haripur prison,” an old activist requests.

That’s such a feel-good story. Half the people in the room want to visit Haripur prison.

In 2015, the moratorium would be lifted and the first-ever hanging would be carried out in Haripur prison.

Asma’s is a feel-good story for people who don’t have very many feel-good stories.

Dealling with Haters In The Media

“It was much before Geo and other channels came along,” she recalls during an interlude. “Jang Lahore newspaper had launched one of their hate campaigns against me, the usual one that Asma is an Ahmadi. I woke up and read the paper and it was right there on the front page. Idiots. What do I do? I had young children, I also had a busy schedule for the day, office, court hearings. I knew where Jang’s owner Mir Shakilur Rehman lived in Lahore. I put my kids in the car, drove to his house and barged in. I said, ‘Look I have work to do, I have to go to court. I am leaving these kids with you. You have put my life in danger. If anything happens to me, you are responsible. And if something happens to me these kids will be your responsibility.’”

Lecherous Men with Votes

She is never coy when talking about her struggles, her present and past battles. But she is especially proud of her campaign for the election as the president of Supreme Court Bar Association. She talks about her campaign with a passion rare even for her. She is like that politician who is always reliving an epic election campaign.

“So there is this famous Supreme Court lawyer who holds the key to a group of crucial votes. This is my first election and I can’t afford to lose. Izzat da masla [A matter of honour]. And this lawyer hates me, hates my family, basically can’t stand me. He is also the most famous tharki [lech] in the bar. So he’s sitting in the bar room and I go straight to him. I pat him on his cheek and plonk myself next to him on the sofa. I tell him your sister has come to ask for your help in this election, your Lahori sister, your Kakazai sister. I am sure you won’t say no to your sister. And he didn’t.”

The Squirming Effect

Asma Jahangir and Abid Saqi celebrate the victory of their panel in the Lahore High Court Bar Association election
Asma Jahangir and Abid Saqi celebrate the victory of their panel in the Lahore High Court Bar Association election

In meetings with Balochistan officials, Asma is not combative. She lets members of her mission ask most of the questions. When she interrupts and asks for a particular detail — video evidence of an abduction, intelligence types who refuse to follow court summons — officials squirm in their seats.

She brings feminism to the centre of the room and then seems to ask, now that you know I am a woman, can we ask you a few questions about national security, because you don’t seem to be doing a very good job with that.

There is a video of General Musharraf’s press conference after his return from the failed Agra Summit. Asma Jahangir happened to be there and must have said something that annoyed General Musharraf. As soon as a journalist mentioned her name Musharraf squirmed in his seat. His jaws moved but no word came out. For a moment it seemed he was about to have an epileptic fit.

Later I. A. Rehman said that General Musharraf had said during the Agra trip that he wanted to slap Asma Jahangir. Imagine. You are a military dictator at the top of your game, you are being feted by your worst enemies, i.e Indians, you are getting your pictures taken in front of the Taj Mahal. But the one thing you want to do — and cannot do — is to slap Asma.

That is the power of Asma that she brings out the lurking little misogynist in everyone — senior journalists, especially ‘senior’ journalists, competing lawyers, judges, everyone. She makes them feel powerless.

There are many young men and women furiously typing over their phones which most probably their parents bought them: what has she done for Pakistan? Western stooge, Indian agent, beghairat aurat (dishonourable woman), lawyer aurat, kafir aurat, you can choose your own prefix to that word aurat. She made menfolk squirm, and sent them into fits of impotent rage. Powerful men with strong armies at their back and the law waiting like a silent but eager waiter in the room corner, find it hard to stomach that she is in the room and she is listening and she is talking and she is puffing on that beerri.

A Lunch Time Phadda

At a Hazara MPA’s house in Quetta, a lavish lunch is served. Everyone is sitting on the floor, families of Hazara victims, members of human rights commissions, local politicians.

This is the best lunch in the history of lunches served by survivors of mass violence. Everyone is praising the food. Some local ulemas are also present. As soon as the lunch starts, one aalim [scholar] starts addressing everyone. “What a great country Iran is. Let’s all pray that Pakistan becomes like Iran.”

Asma puts her naan down and interrupts him. “No, Iran can’t be our role model. There are more political prisoners in Iran than Pakistan. We have barely managed to get rid of a dictator, we don’t want to replace it with mullahcracy. ”

The aalim keeps talking about about the glories of Islamic rule. Asma keeps interrupting him. There is some talk of leaving lunch and walking out. Asma keeps arguing and keeps eating. Later she sighs and says in Punjabi: “These maulvis, they don’t even let you have lunch in peace.”

Crushing on Straight Talking

Asma Jahangir Portrait by Arif Mahmood
Asma Jahangir Portrait by Arif Mahmood

Governor Zulfikar Magsi is in power again and he has invited Asma and her entourage for tea. He seems to be nurturing a massive hangover, he looks bored and is not interested in any questions about missing people, about the rising sectarianism in some Baloch areas.

He keeps throwing back the questions at accompanying journalists. Fed up with the pestering, he says, “Why are you asking me all these questions? You keep saying I am a tribal. But do you know which is the biggest tribe in Balochistan? The Army.”

Asma laughs the loudest. Later someone suggests she was soft on Magsi. “You know what I have always thought?” she says.

“He is the Shah Rukh Khan amongst our politicans,” she says. Shah Rukh Khan from which film? “I don’t know,” she says. “I haven’t seen a film for a long time.”

“I’ll Leave Pakistan”

Bonded labourers from Hyderabad embrace Asma Jehangir in gratitude
Bonded labourers from Hyderabad embrace Asma Jehangir in gratitude

There are rumours that she might be offered the post of caretaker Prime Minister. Senior journalists who hate her guts think finally they can nail her: Asma wants to be the prime minister.

A man — any man, a journalist, a lawyer, a judge, a retired general, a bureaucrat — is proud and honoured when he is offered a public office. But Asma Jahangir becoming caretaker prime minister? See, we told you so. She is power-hungry. Except, she doesn’t want to become the prime minister.

When asked, she speaks slowly and clearly so that even morons can get her. “I have never thought of leaving the country, even at the worst of times. But if I found myself tempted by a government post, even an interim one, I would leave Pakistan.”

Asma doesn’t want power because she already has it. She has the power that comes from always, and always, standing up to power. A power that comes from seeing off three military dictators, that comes from unshackling people’s hands and their minds.


The fact-finding mission has concluded. Everyone has packed up and is ready to leave. “Have you bought your presents?” she goes around asking.

“Look, I bought these beautiful shawls. Go buy something for your family. We still have a couple of hours.”

The writer is an author and journalist.

This piece was originally published in EOS on February 18th, 2018.

The contagion of bravery

By: Hasan Zaidi

This piece was originally published in EOS on February 18th, 2018.

Many, many years ago a friend who had abandoned his engineering training to become a historian was telling me about the time that he and other white collar officers of an electronics factory had been roughed up by protesting union workers, with some being dragged out by their ties and their hair. This was during the early 1970s, in the heady days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s pro-worker, pro-socialist government. “Those were chaotic days and many excesses were committed,” he recalled, “but you know, I have to admit that these blue collar workers had developed a confidence to challenge authority and class that they never had before. And this was a direct result of what Bhutto had done, Bhutto gave them that confidence in themselves. For the first time even a donkey cart driver from Lyari could turn around and answer back to a rich man in a big car.”

I was reminded of this story seeing pictures of Asma Jahangir’s funeral. If there are any defining visuals that could ever hope to capture what Asma Jahangir meant to Pakistan, these would be them. For the first time ever in my memory, here were hundreds of women attending the last prayers, a ritual they are usually kept away from by tradition. They did not keep away because of social mores, they were not shunted into a separate enclosure, they were not pushed to the margins. And this was at funeral prayers led by the son of Maulana Abul Aala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, it should be kept in mind.

The defining image that encapsulated the importance of Asma Jahangir may have been that of her funeral

The image of hundreds of women participating in Asma Jahangir’s funeral along with men encapsulates her real impact on Pakistani society | Photos by White Star
The image of hundreds of women participating in Asma Jahangir’s funeral along with men encapsulates her real impact on Pakistani society | Photos by White Star

Here is how Zahra Hayat, a lawyer, a doctoral candidate in anthropology in the US and attendee at the funeral described her experience in a social media post. “As I walked into the stadium, I initially couldn’t spot any women. I hesitated and tried to remember the logistics of death: do women even attend public funeral prayers? What if they asked me to leave? Then quickly sanity returned. Would Asma Jahangir be having these thoughts? Never, she’d charge right in. So I channeled her, then, as I know I will many times after today, stood up a little taller and walked in. And of course, there were so many women. Many were lawyers. A sense of solidarity. We asked each other where the women’s enclosure was, expecting any minute to be directed away from where her body was kept, to a separate female enclosure. There was none. Of course. As we crowded around the front, women and men, announcements began about starting the namaz and, again, we expected to finally be told to step back and form lines behind the men. But instead, the men were asked to move to the back, and the women called to the front. We prayed like that, standing next to some men, in front of others. No one objected, how dare they? It was beautiful, so fitting. How could the woman who charged alone, quite literally, into all male bar rooms, courtrooms, into all sorts of hyper male spaces, countenance that the women who came to say farewell to her, their hero, be shunted to the back? Such beautiful subversion, in death as in life.”

That is exactly what Asma Jahangir meant to millions, if not tens of millions of people across Pakistan. The confidence to stand up to regressive social norms, to call out cruel oppression and marginalisation, to question and speak boldly to authority. It is actually more than the sum of her various struggles — against dictatorships, against patriarchal mores, against the suppression of the voices of the poor and those persecuted because of their religion or ethnicity, against militaristic notions of patriotism, or for democratic pluralism. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Many words have been written and will continue to be written about the contribution of Asma Jahangir to the cause of human rights both within Pakistan and internationally, and about her achievements in working with young women denied agency to marry of their own choice, in challenging the state and military usurpers, in campaigning tirelessly for those ‘disappeared’ by the state or those denied due process and condemned to die, in highlighting the cause of the most downtrodden of the poor such as brick kiln workers and landless peasants, in arguing against provincial parochialism, in providing a public voice of conscience on politics, law and religious persecution, and in fighting the cases of those whose cases nobody wanted to fight. But the common thread that runs through all these is one of bravery. It takes a very brave person to take on any of these issues in a society as accustomed to meek acceptance and ruthless crushing of dissent, much less all of them.

Those who attempt to pigeonhole Asma Jahangir’s contributions for a just and inclusive society do her memory injustice. Because her contributions spanned across issues, because the intangible thread that tied them together was far more important. But even those who seek to belittle or obfuscate her contributions by vilifying her person, cannot deny her bravery. In fact, the only reason they seek to vilify her — someone who always championed the powerless — is because her bravery scares them. Because it gives hope and self-confidence to others.

And as Asma Jahangir’s remarkable funeral showed, bravery is often contagious.

The writer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines

This piece was originally published in EOS on February 18th, 2018.