South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

(Speech delivered at the memorial event organized by South Asians for Human Rights in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 17 August 2018

Maya Angelou, a deeply loved feminist icon, in one of her famous quotes, said, “one is not necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.”

Asma Jahangir had that kind of courage, the kind of courage that not only fought for justice but also enabled kindness, generosity and integrity.  When I worked with her very closely in the 1980s and the 1990s, she was known as the “little heroine”, this diminutive figure who was a doughty fighter for social causes but whose house was an open place where sensitive people from all over the world gathered, bonded and knew that she would always be there for them. 

Asma was born into an illustrious Pashtun family from Lahore known for its activism for democracy. Her father Malik Ghulam Jilani was jailed for opposing the military dictatorship and his wife Begam Sabiha Jilani strongly supported his work. Asma received her LLB from Punjab University, in 1980 was called to the Lahore High Court and in 1982 to the Pakistani Supreme Court Bar.

Asma was an activist from the beginning. In 1983 she was imprisoned for her active involvement in the movement for the restoration of democracy. Along with other activists she challenged the military dictatorship of Zia Ul Haq at every turn. After the General’s death Asma co-founded the Human Rights Commission. General Musharraf was also was also unhappy with Asma’s activism and placed her under house arrest when she agitated against him during the period of Emergency. Asma was one of the leaders of the lawyers’ movement that challenged military rule and the first woman President of the Pakistani Supreme Court Bar Association. 

For Asma, the battle for human rights began at home. It was a family tradition to resist military dictatorship and fight for democracy. In that sense both Asma and her sister Hina have made extraordinary contributions to Pakistan and its future, keeping alive the dream of a free society.

The Founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah in better times said, “There are two powers in the world, one is the sword, and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women”.

Asma and her sister Hina, with other iconic Pakistani women, helped found the women’s movement in Pakistan. They created the Women’s Action Forum in 1980. The Hudood Ordinance and the Laws of Evidence brought forward by Zia Ul Haq were the reason why women’s organizations mobilized.  These laws were based on a literal reading of Sharia law and there was a calculated and selective induction into the criminal law. All these inductions had to do with female morality or behavior. Partha Chatterjee’s famous work that outlined how in modern nationalism, the world of men would be cosmopolitan but women and their bodies would be relegated to keeping the customary traditions alive and insular is, perhaps, the truest in South Asia.

The famous case of Safia Bibi that was highlighted by the Women’s Action Forum united women throughout the South Asian region. A blind thirteen year old was raped by her employers and made pregnant. She did not initially report the crime since the rapists were powerful people.  Since the Hudood ordinance required four witnesses for rape, the final rape prosecution failed. Because of her ensuing pregnancy, she ended up in jail and was lashed for the crime of fornication. World -wide agitation, led by the advocacy of people like Asma, had her released from her three- year jail sentence.

As Asma and Hina, along with many others, established a vibrant women’s movement in Pakistan, similar movements were developing all over Asia. Some of these movements were interested in law reform and using law as an instrument of change. At the United Nations Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, many of these groups came forward and formed networks and linkages.

In 1986, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development was formed with a secretariat in Malaysia. Both Asma and Hina had been part of this movement and it brought together women lawyers from the region to work jointly on common concerns. Nimulka Fernando who is with us here today once headed the secretariat.

Those were heady days when everything seemed possible and we worked with so much energy and enthusiasm. We not only commented on women’s issues but all political, economic and social concerns from a feminist perspective.  The activism was widespread and palpable with an impact on the legal framework and the social fabric of our societies. It was a teleological movement and we could feel the wind of moving forward together and united.  Indeed, they were very different times.

By the turn of the century, Asma remained a feminist but also moved beyond women’s issues. Elie Wiesel’s famous quote that “wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment- become the centre of the universe.” was really Asma’s motto. Asma became an integral part of the global movement for justice for over twenty years. She was first the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings from 1998-2004; she was then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2004-2010. She was also a trustee of The International Crisis Group. She was on the Fact Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements and in 2016, just before her death, she was made the Special Rapporteur on the situation in Iran.

Asma and I made a joint visit to Indonesia and East Timor, along with Nigel Rodley in the late 1990s after the fall of Suharto and just after the Indonesian army laid waste to East Timor. There was not a building standing and we had to be housed in cargo ships or containers. East Timor after the fall of Suharto made us weep. The men and women we met told us unimaginable stories that were both universal and particular at the same time.  The people we met were beyond hope but it is good to see that in twenty years time they have rebuilt their lives. It seemed impossible then. East Timor is not perfect but it is one of the UN’s success stories in that normality and democracy have finally begun to thrive.

In all these official visits and conferences, there is always the back-story of camaraderie, of sharing personal dilemmas, of experiencing art and culture together, and of becoming sisters in the true sense of the word. I would claim Asma and her sister Hina as my sisters and family.

East Timor had many amusing back-stories. Asma and I were housed in a cargo ship and assigned to a double decker bed. Asma took one look at me and said with a sigh “I suppose I will have to take the upper bunk”. I did not contradict her. Our room -mate, on the other bunk bed, was a woman from FAO. She found the heat unbearable so her response was to take all her clothes off and wander around the cabin. This was not to Asma’s liking and she said to me “ let us go on the deck, I need a smoke”. So we went up and sat on deck chairs on a beautiful cloudless night, looking at the stars and listening to the waves gently lapping against our boat. That is how Asma will be etched in my memory.

Then after awhile of discussing work issues and intense gossiping, a middle- aged man joined us. He was the cook for the cargo boat and he was very chatty. He told us interesting stories since he wandered into the market everyday and spoke with people and knew their every day needs.  We listened intently as it helped us separate the formal narratives of the officials from the everyday lives of people. After a while and after he had given us many insights, he looked at us, sighed and said, “You’re lonely, I am lonely”…two special rapporteurs for the price of one. Before he could finish, we jumped up and Asma cut him off by saying “we better get back now”.  The Me Too movement had not been born and there was no real power imbalance, in fact it was the reverse, so we left him on deck and went back to the cabin where our unclothed roommate was now sound asleep. Both of us undressed, got into our Victorian nightgowns, the hallmark of South Asian feminists of a particular vintage, and went to bed.

Asma did many things but her greatest quality was fearlessness. Malala Yousalzai, in her much quoted speech at the United Nations after her brain operation said, “I raise up my voice not so that I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” Asma was a human rights activist to the very end. In recent years she represented those accused of acts of terror and who had been sentenced to death in military trials. She insisted that the death sentence could only be imposed after a proper judicial process. She gave voice to the voiceless every year of her life. People attended her funeral from every walk of life, with every kind of grievance.

Though Asma appeared for those convicted of terrorist crimes, she was deeply disturbed by violent religious extremism. She herself was under threat and had security and protection. Young men had come to her house wielding swords. In 2017, just before she died she gave the Amartya Sen Lecture at the London School of Economics on the need to develop a counter narrative to challenge religious intolerance. She argued that liberalism and modern democracies must meet that challenge or perish. She felt it should be the highest priority on the international and national agenda.

When I last met her on a cold wintry day in New York, she was very disheartened with both the national and international climate. As usual, she told me what was going on in Pakistan with her particular knack of telling anecdotes that often emphasized the irony that we are all facing.

Wherever she was, whether in Pakistan or at the OHCHR, Asma always took time to know the details of what was going on around her, to befriend and help staff and to generally make everyone feel she was interested in their lives. I would spend many hours with her in Geneva amazed at her capacity to understand the terrible intrigues at both the Palais Wilson and the Palais Nations and her ability to dissect the facts and get to her version of what she felt should be done. Besides her courage, this was the strength of her activism. She always said a strong activist has to have good political and strategic sense.

Asma won many prizes, including the Ramon Magsaysay prize in 2005, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the UNESCO Bilboa prize and was made an officier de La Legion D’onneur in Paris. 

Despite all her challenges, Asma remained very much a family person. Visiting Lahore meant sitting in her living room on large sofas and cushions with her family and speaking late into the night about everything. Strong South Asian networks made sure that we were constantly aware of everything going on in our neighbouring countries and we had a strong solidarity with those fighting for justice.

Asma was such a loving and supportive person that her husband Tahir, her immediate family, her in laws and her children Munizae, Sulema and Jilani absolutely doted on her and it was plain for any visitor to see. She did not have to give up her feminism and despite the strictures of Pakistani society they stood by her. Strong human rights activists are never popular and she had her fair share of detractors. But her family was her rock of Gibraltar and therefore she could face the world with her wonderful combination of gravitas and humour.

All of us who knew Asma deeply miss her. Her family is still recovering from the shock and I was in Geneva recently and her friends at OHCHR are absolutely bereft. She meant so much to so many people. The world is a less safe place without Asma and we owe it to her to continue our fight for what is right and just in all our societies.