Asma Jehangir, a force to be reckoned with
Growing up, I was filled with loathing for Asma Jehangir and yet somewhere deep down I had a sense of respect for her, however grudging it may have been. Today, I have come full circle and openly admit having deep and uninhibited respect for her. My dislike for her was primarily caused by her views which portrayed her as ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘against’ Islam. But I was way different back then as I used to be a typical product of state-tutored nationalism and considered any criticism of the state as anti-Pakistan.
This brand of nationalism, instilled through textbooks and the media, creates deep mistrust of the outside world and shuns introspection by the baseless glorification of the past, as well as the present. Moreover, this type of nationalism, since it fuses patriotism with religion, also leads to a mistrust of any criticism of religious practices and laws. A huge majority of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporters today could be called archetypal products of this kind of nationalism. Unsurprisingly, if you follow Jehangir on Twitter, you would immediately find that many PTI supporters regularly troll her. Looking at their reprehensible behaviour, thank God, I have changed.
However, as already mentioned, even in those days, I felt some grudging respect for her. It was mainly because of her guts and her ability to stand up for what she believed in. Despite disagreeing with her statements on various issues, I could not help but admire her outspokenness and her sense of self-belief. No artificiality there.
Then came the critical juncture in my ideological development and Jehangir played an important role in it. What started to transform me as an individual was 1995’s case of Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old illiterate teenager accused of blasphemy. He was merely 11-years-old when he was originally accused of blasphemy. By all accounts, he was illiterate and yet he was sentenced to death along with his father in early 1995 by the sessions court. Before the verdict, he had also survived an attack on his life.
According to media reports, the lower court was under tremendous pressure to sentence the accused and hence complied. In my mind, it was unfathomable that a minor should be sentenced to death and that too when he was unlettered. The matter went to the High Court and Jehangir was the lawyer representing Masih and his father. In Pakistan, even taking such cases is like playing Russian roulette. But there she was undeterred, defending a minor accused of blasphemy. And in spite of the odds, she won the case! The case simultaneously jolted me out of my ideological slumber and instilled respect and admiration for her.
From that point onwards, I started to gradually change as a person. I began to read and understand the way some religious laws were being used for settling personal scores and for subjugating women. I realised that many of Pakistan’s problems are due to a particular mindset, and unless we are able to change this mindset, we won’t be able to break out of this bubble. I figured that we have to discard this textbook nationalism and adopt a more introspective approach. Unless this happens, we will not be able to change as a nation. I finally understood that critics of the state, like Jehangir, are actually more patriotic than the phony patriots who constantly perpetuate and glorify false narratives.
My respect for her grew with each passing year. Here was a woman who was risking her life on a daily basis to speak for women’s rights and the protection of minorities. In 1997, she risked her life to defend a woman who had married out of her own choice. In that famous case, the girl’s family tried to harass her and even ransacked her office. She did not relent and eventually won the case.
Jehangir has also been a staunch democrat who believes that democratic governments should be given a chance. When Pervez Musharraf took over, many were swayed by his ‘liberal’ credentials but she was not. At a time when people were afraid to criticise military rule, Jehangir stood up and counted all its missteps. She understood that no institution including the military was above criticism.
Furthermore, she has been willing to be unpopular and has raised her voice on matters like the missing persons, Balochistan, and lately, the establishment of military courts a number of times. Her position on all these issues have been anti-mainstream and unpopular.
Apart from her courage, what really sets her apart is that her support and opposition for any institution or political party is based on principles and therefore may vary over time rather than staying constant. For example, she was at the forefront of the lawyer’s movement and yet was critical of the judiciary when it became too strong after restoration and started to indulge in undue activism and political bias. She was critical of the Muttahida Quami Movement’s (MQM) violence in Karachi and yet represented its leader when there was a media blackout against him. She drew the ire of the lawyer community in the process but did not sway from what she believed.
I don’t know whether Malala Yousafzai deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize or whether Abdul Sattar Edhi deserved it more, but along with being the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, I feel Jehangir should be the next recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s people like her who help see the other side of the picture. People like her are an asset to society, and as long as she is there fighting, there is no reason to lose hope.
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