The bravery of women like Asma Jahangir shines through Pakistan’s murky history

Some might question the point of standing up to oppression in such an obviously dysfunctional nation, yet the laws repealed are testament to what can be achieved


It is not surprising Pakistan’s spy agency plotted to kill Asma Jahangir. What is more surprising is that she exists at all, that she has survived to the grand old age of 61, and that she has never contemplated giving up.

The lawyer from Lahore has been a thorn in the side of the Pakistani establishment for more than 30 years, and for the same period of time she has been the first and often the last line of defence for battered wives, Christians maliciously accused of blasphemy, rape victims, women splattered with acid, people disappeared by the military. She was co-founder, often in tandem with her sister, Hina Jilani (a High Court judge), of Pakistan’s first law firm established by women, of Women’s Action Forum, a pressure group to change Pakistan’s discriminatory laws, of the Pakistan  Human Rights Commission, which she heads.

The assassination plan by Pakistan’s powerful and shady ISI, revealed in secret US files leaked by Edward Snowden, is only the latest in a long line of plots on her life. The proximate trigger for this one was her criticism of brutal tactics used to suppress unrest in Balochistan province. She learned of the plot last year, and her reaction was typical of her: rather than go to ground, hire bodyguards or slip out of the country she went on one TV programme after another to denounce it. Perhaps that is why it was shelved.

That sort of ballsy, no-nonsense approach has been her style ever since she was a teenager denouncing the military dictatorship which put her campaigning father in jail and confiscated the family’s land. Others might question the point of standing up to oppression and persecution in such an obviously dysfunctional nation as Pakistan, where generals and fundamentalists have been trying to hijack the nation’s destiny practically since independence day. Yet the fact that she still lives and works, that the speaking of her name is enough to strike fear into the religious fanatics, and  that thanks to her numerous lives have been saved and wicked laws repealed is ample testimony to what one supremely courageous person can achieve.

Two of her most famous cases bear repetition. Safia Bibi was a blind 13-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped by her employers. For this wicked offence in 1983 the court sentenced her to flogging, three years’ prison and a fine. The verdict was overturned after Asma took on the case.   

After anti-Islamic graffiti was found on a mosque wall in 1993, a 14-year-old Christian boy called Salamat Masih was charged with blasphemy, even though he was illiterate. Under the old British law, causing religious offence carried a maximum two-year jail term, but in 1986 a specifically anti-Islamic law replaced it, carrying mandatory sentences of life imprisonment or death.  Salamat was duly sentenced to death. Asma took on the case and won it two years later. Her role infuriated the fanatics who demonstrated outside court day after day, smashing up her car, assaulting her and threatening to kill her. Like everything else that her courage has provoked, she took it in her stride.

The courage of Pakistan’s women is a remarkable thing, running like a golden seam through the nation’s murky story from the foundation up to the present. Fatima Jinnah was the sister of Mohammed ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father: surviving him by many years, she challenged the man who became Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan, for the presidency and many believe she was robbed of victory by underhand means. She died two years later; it has been persistently rumoured that she was strangled in her bed.

The latest in this line of heroines was in what she calls her “second home town”, Birmingham, this week, to open the city’s new library. Like Asma Jahangir, Malala Yousafzai understood the risks she ran by defying the Pakistani Taliban and campaigning for girls to be allowed to go to school, and like Asma she did break her stride. One might think the knowledge that powerful, well-connected religious maniacs are plotting one’s assassination could dampen one’s enthusiasm for life. In the case of Asma and Malala it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Art Vs taboo. Art wins

We are used to the fact that the over-riding aim of contemporary art is to shock and that ambitious artists will do almost anything to achieve that, but it’s clear that there are in fact limits, even in what claims to be a taboo-free zone. Can we imagine any London gallery hosting an installation that would lead to it being called “Jew in a Box”?

It was part of an exhibition this summer at the Jewish Museum in Berlin – “The Whole Truth – everything you ever wanted to know about Jews” – in which a Jewish person sat in open-fronted plexiglass box each day, answering visitors’ questions about Jews and Judaism.

Germany’s Jewish cohort has never recovered from the Holocaust, and now amounts to a mere 0.3 per cent of the population. Ignorance of the subject is correspondingly striking. 

The idea is suggestive. The religious beliefs of people from communities other than one’s own often seem mysterious, but this was a useful approach which could perhaps be extended to other believers, including atheists.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Developer / Mobile Apps / Java / C# / HTML 5 / JS

£17000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Junior Mobile Application Devel...

Recruitment Genius: LGV Driver - Category C or C+E

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national Company that manu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - OTE £30,000

£13000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Maintenance Assistant is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?