Published in The Daily Times on November 10th 2010
Being elected to the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) has made Asma Jahangir the bearer of great expectations for all progressives and liberals in the country who, until now, were holding their breath, looking at events unfold in the judiciary. Watching and waiting for some relief from human rights abuses — rounding up of political workers, little boys being framed under the draconian Blasphemy Law and Ahmedis being persecuted for being born into a religion the state conspires against — there is now light at the end of the tunnel.
There is hope in the fact that Asma was working tirelessly in the defence of human rights when no one was watching. Interviewed by Terry Goss on National Public Radio in March 2001, she said she was awakened by the injustices women had to face in conservative societies like Pakistan and started to work for the cause of women who had no support to leave abusive and forced marriages and for those women victimised not only by rape, but by the Hudood laws that foster the protection of the perpetrator.
There is also hope in the fact that she is fierce. Torn and tattered, when policewomen dragged and shoved her on Gulberg’s Main Boulevard, Asma Jahangir put on an extraordinary show of courage to celebrate a mixed marathon despite being blackmailed by the mullahs and the tight-gripped Musharraf government that appeased them. In this country of bigots and cowards, this frail yet resolute lawyer serves as a constant reminder: not all of us are like General Zia, not all of us stood by with our hands tied behind our backs while decency, common sense and goodness were slaughtered in the name of honour and fake religiosity.
First among the people to call a spade a spade when the Musharraf government came to power, she spoke up against another dictator’s treading on the constitution when few others did. Mincing no words, she told The Economist that the general had “lost his marbles”. Now, over two decades in the field of law and many more in activism, she remains among the most capable of lawyer-activists in Pakistan today and her nomination to the SCBA has been secured after passing through a very competitive round of campaigning to secure votes.
The challenge and the task at hand are tremendous. After the framework given to Pakistan’s constituent assembly by that liberal par excellence, our founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the principles of plurality, secular democracy, modernity and progress — that were the hallmarks of the man — were shelved by an ungrateful nation of bigots and replaced with the Objectives Resolution, which brought in the Islamist agenda and with it a foot in the door for mullahism.
What shame that a man can beat his wife black and blue and get away with it, that the rich can avoid paying taxes with no real deterrent and that a Christian village can be burnt down in a sectarian conspiracy with no recourse for justice. Even more embarrassing is that, under our current law, if an Ahmedi woman is called Ayesha, she can technically be hounded under the draconian and evil ordinance XX of 1984. Worse is the idea that words uttered from your mouth can not only land you behind bars but also get you capital punishment. The horrendous death penalty is one offence that now needs to be shelved to make Pakistan a humane society.
A serious investigation into the laws that have ended up maiming Pakistan’s social structure and transforming it from a liberal and tolerant country to an intolerant dystopia needs to be carried out and those laws need to be questioned and revised. The Blasphemy Law that goes against the tolerant spirit of Islam, the Hudood Ordinance that is a travesty of Islamic law, the blatantly unconstitutional anti-Ahmediyya laws and the constitutional amendment through which our National Assembly chose to practise takfir, all need to go because these are against the norms of any modern and democratic society and because these are fundamentally in conflict with the spirit of Islam itself.
Serious surgical precision is needed in fixing the identity crisis of the state. The state has no business interfering in the affairs of a free man, or what mosques, temples or whatever places of worship he may visit. The state is there to provide protection to its citizens and enable them to guard their lives, liberty and their pursuit of happiness.
Asma Jahangir has worked on these injustices as an individual. Because of her efforts she has been arrested, received death threats and been the target of hostile propaganda. Now she must be willing to work as a representative of the oppressed in this country, which amounts to infinite tears and severed limbs. A gargantuan task awaits her.
Not only are celebrations in order, that a woman of substance is elected to one of the most important offices in this country, but that we need to count ourselves among those on the right side of history. In time, this office will become the pivotal point of turning around the country from a retrogressive law set-up to one where we are all “equal citizens of the state regardless of our caste, colour or creed” and where religion is “the personal faith of an individual”.
May this be the first step on the long road of redemption.