Anjli Raval speaks to Asma Jahangir about house arrest, human rights and political activism in Pakistan
Asma Jahangir is the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, a human rights lawyer, and co-founder of the Women’s Action Forum and Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body of lawyers and activists that fight continuously for the rights of persecuted minorities.
Jahangir, who was put under house arrest during President Musharraf’s ‘state of emergency’ in November 2007 for being a staunch critic of his military dictatorship, speaks exclusively to Nouse about issues surrounding Pakistani politics.
When questioned about the recent death of former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto she spoke out against Musharraf’s rule saying that she was convinced that he had a part to play in her death. She said: “I have no doubt in my mind that the military has had a hand in her assassination, I said it in my first interview at the time and I will continue to repeat it.”
Jahangir, who was close to Bhutto despite their political differences, talked about their relationship and recalled her fond memories of Bhutto, saying: “When she died I broke down, I knew her well and I admired her a lot for her courage. She had always been very kind to me despite the fact I had criticized her many times when she was in and out of power.”
“Her death was not something that was unpredictable. She was fearful of her life and for me this was a natural end to her story. I could not see the military being able to tolerate her any longer.”
Speaking about her time under house arrest in November, she felt that she was lucky compared to other serior lawyers in Pakistan who were imprisoned during this time. Jahangir, like her politician father Malik Jilani, has spent many years in and out of jail and house arrest for opposing a string of Pakistani military dictatorships.
She reflected on the numerous occasions on which she had spent time in jail and spoke about the emotional pressures of being both a mother and an activist.
“If you begin to feel sorry for yourself while you are in jail then you are in trouble, you must have a very positive attitude. One of the lessons is never ever to think about your kids, you just have to stop thinking that they exist. The minute you do think about them, you are likely to break down. These are things you have to learn if you’re going to be an activist in a country like mine”.
Jahangir has been an advocate of gender equality and women’s rights in a highly patriarchal society for many years. She defends the rights of others together with fighting her own battle over her gender, having to prove herself worthy of her status to her male counterparts. As a feminist she has been an resolute opponent of the Hudood Ordinance, which are laws that were introduced during the 10-year dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq.
According to these laws a woman accused of adultery or ‘zina’ can be sentenced to death. Women who dare to report a rape are often accused of ‘zina’ and are imprisoned. This has resulted in the false imprisonment of hundreds of innocent women, while often their attackers are never brought to justice.
Commenting on cases of ‘honour killings’ both in the UK and internationally she said: “I think that for any government to justify it or even give an apology for it in the name of culture it is unforgivable. I do not think the murder of anybody can be explained away either by culture or religion.”
Jahangir has not only defended the rights of women, but she has also protected the rights of religious minorities that continue to get persecuted under the country’s blasphemy laws, which have also resulted in false imprisonment and deaths of many Pakistani Christians, Hindus, and even some Muslims.
With her life under constant threat because of her unpopular beliefs she justified why she continues to do what she does. She said: “I believe that unless you do not keep protesting you do not build up public opinion and you are not going to see a change. The reason for a change is not simply so that I can have a better life, it is to ensure that the millions of people that remain voiceless in my country do not remain so disempowered.”