A beacon in Islam's dark age

As a veil is drawn over the women of Kabul, a Pakistani lawyer is leading the fightback. By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Meeting Asma Jahangir for the first time is a disconcerting experience. The head of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and a lawyer of international repute, she has none of the formality or reserve you would expect. A warm, petite woman, she sat legs crossed on the settee, in her plain cotton clothes, munching eagerly into a kebab roll, when she was in London earlier this month to deliver the prestigious John Foster Memorial Lecture to honour those promoting the cause of human rights. She offered me tea several times, asked if I would like to share her kebab and chatted about her life and work as if we were old friends.

Then she struck. Looking directly into my face, her eyes ablaze, she asked: "What have you women done about Afghanistan? Don't you think you should do something?"

Kabul was once a cosmopolitan city, famous for its highly educated and militantly independent women. But the only public demonstrations so far against the barbaric regime imposed on women by the Taliban militia since their capture of the city on 27 September have been organised by Muslim women next door in Pakistan, where they are fighting their own battles against the forces of darkness. Asma is one of those leading the protests.

She comes from the northern city of Lahore, a place of growing religious fanaticism. Kabul is hardly any distance away. Arms, drugs and ideas have been flowing freely between the two cities for years. "It feels," she says, "like we are in this unending descent into anarchy and decay. We have no law and order, no rights and, as the extremists gain control as always, the women and children are paying the price. And it isn't just something that affects us out there - it will have an impact on Muslim women living here and elsewhere."

In the same week that the Taliban succeeded in their onslaught, a High Court in Lahore ruled that an adult Muslim woman could not get married without the consent of her male guardian. Women who chose their husbands independently can now be forced to annul their marriages and the repercussions are already being felt. "Hundreds have already been arrested," Asma says. "This is simply going to open up the floodgates for the harassment of women and girls by their families and the authorities. The courts have sanctioned their oppression. Thousands more are bound to be affected by this."

This includes the British Muslim girls, mainly in families from rural areas, who are taken off to Pakistan and coerced into marriage. In May, 18-year-old Shazia Shaheen fled screaming from Manchester Airport when she realised her parents were taking her to Pakistan to be married under the pretence of taking her on holiday. Earlier, 19-year-old Naheda Begum went through the same experience. In April, 14-year-old Nazia Haq returned to this country after being married off to a 40-year-old man who raped and abused her.

Unless the ruling is reversed, says Asma, "these parents will now have the full protection of Pakistani law. There is a ripple effect which touches many lives far beyond the subcontinent.

"These militants are doing great disservice to the name and spirit of Islam. They know that an aggressive use of the religious card can bring them power. The Koran forbids coerced marriages and asks men and women to seek knowledge. This aggressively misogynist Islam has little in common with the origins of the creed."

Asma wants the world to understand that these traditions have, through the ages, been kept up in spite of the militants. "Like the women in my family, I was educated entirely in Pakistan. We have always had incredibly successful Muslim women lawyers, doctors, journalists, entrepreneurs and, of course, politicians like Benazir Bhutto."

But life is getting harder for them. She is defending a 22-year-old woman, Saima Waheed, whose father wants the courts to declare her marriage illegal because she chose her own husband. If Asma wins, the precedent just set can be reversed and her opponents know it: "They have done everything to intimidate me, to destroy my reputation. In their newspapers, they say I am a western agent who makes blue films in underground labyrinths. They have even turned on my two young daughters. They splashed their pictures across the pages and said they were having a bad influence on young girls. I have had to send them out of the country. Sometimes you have to pay such an unbearable price for what you believe in." Her husband, a businessman, has also been a target because he is a member of the Ahmedi Muslim sect which has been persecuted in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for the past 10 years.

"What they hate about me is that I am a part of the Women's Action Forum - an organisation which fights for women's rights. And I use the courts to get them justice. I run the largest legal aid centre in this country. Then last year we had that case of the young Christian boy and his uncle facing the death penalty for blasphemy. I got them acquitted. Soon after, this gang of armed men came into my brother's house. I live next door to him and they were just going to do the lot of us." A neighbour alerted the police just in time.

Defiance and political non-conformism is in Asma Jahangir's blood. Her father, Malik Gulam Jilani, was a member of the opposition in the Seventies. Long spells in prison came with the job. Her sister, Hina, is also a human rights lawyer. Both sisters were imprisoned for sedition for supporting the rights of women to give evidence in court.

Asma is dismissive about her personal heroism: "I'm only one of so many women in the forum and elsewhere, especially in the villages. I am not special." Little wonder, then, that she has refused all offers to become Pakistan's first female judge: "I couldn't have done as much as I can as a lawyer and an activist. I can't see myself as part of the establishment, can you? Anyway they would find me impossible. Even within the Bar Association, which generally has been very supportive, there is a coterie of extremist lawyers who would love to see me dead.

"The important thing to understand is that there is now a solid, highly organised, ruthless network of zealots. These orthodox lawyers, judges and others play like a team and that is how they are gaining influence. They are possessed with a hatred of all progressive women and of democratic values."

How can this be happening in a country with a female prime minister? "She is first a politician and then a woman. Remember she is the buffer between the extremists and women. Though she has not repealed any of the draconian laws that Zia put through, she has helped to halt the slide backward. But she won't hurt her personal ambitions." She points out that Benazir lacks judgement and courage when confronted with men - like her corrupt husband - who foul up her life: "This does strike you. She seems so uncritical of those close to her."

At this point Asma appeared tense, on alert for anything which implied criticism of her country. She reminded me that Pakistan is now a democracy, where a woman was elected, and that, unlike most other countries, middle- class Pakistanis are actively involved in the struggle for equal rights.

"What we have to do, all of us, is to recognise and support the moderate and liberal Muslim majority in these Islamic countries before the militant few totally succeed in poisoning minds and take over. Already in Afghanistan women and liberals are beginning their resistance. They need to be supported by the international community. The same in Pakistan, especially at this point when the strength of the liberals is diminishing."

Asma is now back in Lahore to fight for Saima Waheed in court. Her strength, it seems, is no danger of diminishing. Yet n

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