A conversation with Asma Jahangir
By Ritu Menon
11 February 2018
From our archives, when the human-rights activist spoke to author Ritu Menon.
Asma Jahangir, lawyer, human-rights advocate and activist in the women’s movement in Pakistan, passed away on 11 February 2018 at the age of 66, following a cardiac arrest. Her first tilt at officialdom was at 18 when she filed a writ of habeas corpus for her father who had been arrested by General Yahya Khan in 1971, for being a member of the Awami League. Since then Asma became an active figure in Pakistani public life. A founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (1989), she was also a founder member of the Women’s Action Forum (Lahore) and served as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings. Awarded the Magsaysay (1995), Asma was the author of Divine Sanction and Children of a Lesser God.
In May 2001, Jahangir was interviewed by the New Delhi-based author Ritu Menon. Following are the excerpts from the long conversation.
Ritu Menon: Asma, was yours a family that moved to Pakistan in 1947 or have you always lived in Lahore?
Asma Jahangir: My parents have always lived in Lahore, and I spent my childhood there. My mother’s grandparents moved from Gaya, in UP, to Punjab. I lived in Lahore for most of my life. The first four years I lived in a city called Montgomery at that time, and now Sahiwal, and therefore my early memories are from there. If you want to connect how I think of India and Pakistan, my early memories are that we used to come every Sunday to Lahore. I must have been four or five years old–we moved from there when I was seven—and on the way there was a place called Lokada which had a textile mill owned by somebody called Mr. Dalmia, and we always stopped at Mr. Dalmia’s place for lunch or tea. So one has been exposed in some ways to Hindu culture.
R: This was post-Partition?
A: I was born post-Partition. My mother used to travel very often to Amritsar. We had a Volkswagen, she used to put the kids in the boot, and her friends and she would set off to watch films in Amritsar! We would stay two nights at Dalmiaji’s house, watch films, do some shopping and go back. So for us going to Amritsar was like a long weekend holiday.
R: And it was easy enough in the early years…
A: Oh, yes, just cross the Wagah border, you have your Volkswagen with your luggage on the top and kids in the boot, and everybody knew us by this time that these mad friends come with their kids…
R: As an adult when did you start coming to India?
A: My first trip was in 1977.
R: This was after a gap of 20 years or so?
A: Yes. I was married and we came to India again because it was Mr. Dalmia’s son’s wedding. My husband had some good friends—two in Delhi and one in Bombay—so we came to Delhi. We had very fond memories of India when we went back.
R: When did it become difficult for all of us to travel to each other’s countries?
A: After the 1965 war it became difficult, and I say that not only in terms of just Indians and Pakistanis travelling. Before 1965 there used to be a number of Indians who had businesses in Pakistan, after ’65 that stopped. A lot of our Hindu friends, Hindu Pakistanis, when you ask them when they began to feel that they were being discriminated against, felt the tensions in society, they trace it back to the ’65 war.
R: So, for 16-17 years after independence, it was still possible for…
A: It was bearable, and things could have improved. I remember once going with my father to the border to receive my mother, she was coming back from one of her usual trips, and one of her friends, Sheela, who had studied with her and was her best friend in India, came all the way from Delhi to Amritsar just to see my father and wave to him at the Wagah border. I remember how much my parents were touched by that.
R: When you came here in May 2000 on the women’s bus from Pakistan, you said that if the border at Wagah was thrown open, there would be queues for miles on either side. The question I want to ask you is: when states are locked in hostility but people are willing to have a dialogue, how does the two ever meet? As long as there is a secular India and a theocratic Pakistan, how can a dialogue take place?
A: You see, this is the difficulty about the India-Pakistan relationship—and indeed about any movement that is started by civil society—that it can move to a certain point but beyond that, unless they do not at least convince their own states to keep public opinion in mind, there is a kind of obstacle which the states make for the people. I think that in both India and Pakistan, public opinion has to be made, and more so, perhaps, on our side. I actually have thought about it very deeply, having travelled in all Southasian countries, and seen that tensions are created and become stubborn and obstinate when the directions are very different.
R: You mean political directions or social directions?
A: Political directions. If one wants to have a pluralistic society, and the other wants not to have a pluralistic society then it becomes difficult to come together. Now, I basically think that in Pakistan when you see things on the ground, it is possibly as pluralistic as India. There may be a difference of degree from time to time, one way or the other. Sometimes you may appear more rigid, sometimes we appear to be more rigid. During Zia-ul-Haq’s time one couldn’t say that, but during the last 10 years things have been building up, so you could say that on the ground, it is the same. You have your hardliners, we have our hardliners. The difference between your hardliners and our hardliners again is only a question of degree, of how well they are armed, on either side. But what really does matter is how much your government supports them. The day your governments stop supporting them, those same hardliners who had a stake in your society will, to an extent, be marginalised. Hardliners have been there in our society, but the day the government began to support them they became empowered, emboldened, and all the liberal elements then either got marginalised or were co-opted into the system. So it is not simply the pronouncement of it, it is not simply saying India is secular, it is not simply saying Pakistan is theocratic—I think the direction has to be in the practice, rather than in the oratory, of it.
R: Do you see a distinction between public opinion and public sentiments?
A: You see, sentiment is short-term because, as I say, if you open the borders, the sentiment will be there and the curiosity to see what is on the other side. I know this for a fact. When I first came here and we went back from Amritsar, at least 30 people came to leave us at Wagah, people we had just met a day before. So that is sentiment, but sentiment is only evoked on occasions; opinion is something that is longer term.
R: We often think of the media as a major opinion-maker, but of course there is no free flow of information between our countries. So do you think that the responsibility of making public opinion, lies more with NGOs, civil society groups, professionals?
A: Media plays an important part in forming opinion, but media has to report something. Where media has missed out is that they have no reporting to do, unfortunately. What are our political forces saying, both in India and Pakistan, about the relationship? It’s all very well for me to write, but I’m not a leader of a political party. I have influence over a very small pocket of people. But what does, for example, Sonia Gandhi think about the relationship between India and Pakistan—I have not read a piece on this. What does Benazir think about it? I have read very short statements, but never a deep analysis of it. What has Nawaz Sharif written about it—he started the Lahore process, what were his thoughts about it? Did he come on television, educate people…
R: But these are all politicians, they are part of the state…
A: Yes, they may be a part of states, but their pronouncements and their statements that spell out the reasons, are something that the media builds up. If there is silence, then the media can only write an editorial—that is their opinion, and some people can write articles, but the media cannot report what the people who are supposed to be leaders of society, what their thinking is about the situation. I know that, privately, many of our leaders want to get on with things, and if they only said it aloud then a lot of people would begin to think that way, too. There is a misperception that Pakistan’s politics should first address the question of India as an enemy. To undo the kind of propaganda that has gone on for 50 years you can’t have just a few editors and a few NGOs talking about it. You really do need political leadership now.
R: If you had to identify one major human-rights abuse issue that is common to India and Pakistan, what would it be?
A: Well, I think what is common to both—and this is relevant for all of Southasia—is the whole question of ethnic and religious minorities, because that really goes to the heart of the problem. To the whole problem of armed conflicts being faced by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis now, Sri Lanka and, to an extent, Nepal, although theirs is not rooted—mercifully—in religion or ethnicity, but in economic deprivation.
R: But do you see ethnicity—identity politics—as a human-rights issue or a political issue?
A: I see it as both, and I don’t really think that human-rights issues are not political. They have to be political. And it’s not that I’m looking at it only as a question of rights, but as rights that have to be linked somehow to politics. So I’m not simply saying okay, let’s have a policy of peace and tolerance, I’m looking at how, politically, given the kind of diversity we have in Southasia—there is probably not a place in this Subcontinent where you won’t find people of different races—how we can work towards a political system geared to it?
R: But the rights discourse is a discourse of claims. To whom would we make a claim if we say that ethnicity is a rights issue, what claim would we make?
A: To make the claim, what we have to do is to link it to politics. The political structures or the democratic structures—that you people have, we [in Pakistan] don’t, but let’s say, whenever we come back to it—should have strong mechanisms and make inroads into our legal system, where people of religious and ethnic minorities can actually ask for their rights not only from governments but from individuals, too.
R: These would be community rights or individual rights?
A: I am sorry, but I am a person who favours rights of individuals for many reasons. Rights as communities suppresses the underprivileged within that community.
R: You have recently set up the South Asians for Human Rights group—how would you go about such an agenda?
A: Well, the group has to identify. I would first of all like to see us take up one issue, which is a high priority issue, in a holistic manner, such as the question of constitution-making. How can an idealistic constitutional machinery work? Or we could think of setting up a charter for Southasia and forcing the governments to set up maybe, a Southasian Court at some point, but certainly a commission at the Southasian level, because I think that is another way it can become a melting pot and visions can begin to crystallise. That is one way of doing it, but on the other hand, having worked for many years among NGOs, there is always a desire and an expectation among people to see something happening on the ground. So while we are taking up larger issues, we also have to deal with some concrete, important, but smaller or more do-able issues—like prisoners, exchange of fishermen, trafficking of women—which really cannot be done by one organisation alone in one country. At an informal level we are always coordinating with organisations in Bangladesh, organisations in India—so if that could be done, then at least on the ground you are doing something and can satisfy yourself and others that something concrete has been done. Because changing ideas and changing mind-sets take years.
R: Your idea about beginning with the constitution is an excellent one, but what about the question of national sovereignty? I mean, people will immediately be…
A: Of course people will be up in arms, but then there should be enough people to realise that the whole question of national sovereignty with the new processes of globalisation, in any event, is not the same kind of sovereignty as we used to have earlier. I mean the whole notion of sovereignty has changed. National ‘sovereignty’ basically lies in how well you are able to perform within the country. Developing countries like ourselves, what we have to offer is maybe, tourism, well, you have technology, we may want something else, investment, but you really need peace for that, you need good governance for that, and all this is first and foremost based upon people living together in harmony. But if we are fighting all the time inter-group or intra-group, we are hurting our economies anyway.
R: After the nuclear implosions and Kargil, how do you see the relevance of initiatives like the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy, exchanges between women’s groups and so on…
A: It is difficult because it is more challenging. Earlier we didn’t realise how conventional warfare, mixed with having gone nuclear can really get out of hand. Now the urgency is there, not only because of nuclearisation and Kargil but also because of the fact that we are losing out on that, too. So there’s that urgency, and the realisation of what globalisation is doing to Southasia. We are just dragging each other down. It’s all very well to say that, okay, India has progressed economically, but has anybody done an evaluation of how much it could have progressed had there not been these tensions? I feel, for example, that Pakistan’s foreign, defence and security policies are still geared to the cold war! What now, now that the cold war is over? We had got too used to being a partner to the cold war during the Afghan issue and now there is a kind of panic: how are we going to survive economically? Their way of thinking is that you put security issues first, right up in front, and survival will come automatically. They haven’t got out of that mind-set unfortunately. And I am beginning to feel, sadly, that the interests of the governments of Southasia are now beginning to clash with the interests of the people. When I say the interests of the governments, I mean there is always a class of people in Southasia that has a stake in any kind of political system that you devise—whether it is a democratic one or not, though undoubtedly democratic is better, I would hate to be reported as saying that democratic and non-democratic systems are alike—but they have also got hold of a class. Now where the democratic system has progressed, as in India, you are constantly trying to chip away at those vested interests…
R: Certainly in India democracy is being eroded rapidly and there is actually going to be the severest abrogation of universal human rights.
A: Perhaps because I have the mind-set of a lawyer, I always believe that these things have to be put into a structure. I mean, I want a right, I must have a way of claiming it, a system within which I can realise it. This is the admirable thing that Western democracies have done for themselves. They won’t say, it is moral for me to have this, they will find a way to link the morality of it to the legality of it. We have not been able to do that. They have found a way to make the moral, legal, and the legal, moral. Look at their whole structure of human rights—it is moral pressure, and how does the moral pressure work? It doesn’t happen in an unorganised way like it does in our countries, two protests one day… it’s not disorganised, their moral pressure, it’s not the way we work—we have demonstrations, then we exhaust ourselves—what they have is mechanisms, they will have a human rights commissioner, they will have special rapporteurs in the UN system who will put pressure on members, work slowly. I have watched the system and I used to wonder whether these reports sit there gathering dust, but actually what they are gathering is public opinion. I was quite amazed at how it works, slowly but surely. This is what we need here as well.
R: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is an ngo, and in India it is a government one. The point you are making is that the role of these organisations in making public opinion is critical…
A: It is critical and yet limited. I often say to my friends in Pakistan that you can’t replace a political party, no way, and don’t even try and do it because you must put pressure on politicians, that is the responsibility. Whenever we give a statement, we urge political parties to say something, because they can’t abdicate their responsibility to civil society. They can’t take the easy way out.
R: About the Sarnia Sarwar case in Pakistan and extra-judicial killings, would you say that religious ‘rightwingism’ strengthens patriarchy in a way that can be life-threatening for women?
A: Certainly. We have seen it not only in Pakistan but in other parts of the world as well, and it can be any religion. It is strange, when it comes to confrontation, as it did in the Samia Sarwar case, religious leaders said that honour killings are not part of religion, but then they took the support of culture! When culture fails, they say these are our “values”. Okay, if it is cultural, why is it only the religious extremists who are talking about culture, why not nationalists, because they are the ones who should be concerned about culture?
R: When these multiple patriarchies collude, whether it is the state, or religion, or culture, or economic power, where is the space for women, because all institutional assistance, whether legal or otherwise, is patriarchal?
A: Well, that’s why you see a lot of women in civil society, because that’s the only space they have. Most civil society organisations are probably headed by men, but their young professionals or activists are mostly women, because they are finding less and less congenial space for themselves. This is not something that’s happening in our country alone, it’s happening in the West, too. We have to somehow link our struggle to the overall struggles as well, yet show that without the participation of women there will be no economic prosperity. There is a very clear connection there.
R: Do you see this voice getting feebler or stronger?
A: In Pakistan it is [getting] stronger, despite all the hurdles. You know in 1983 we had our first procession, a women’s procession against the military government, against Islamisation—it came out of our law office— and if you read the press clippings from that time, we were told we were promiscuous women, that our marriages should be dissolved, and ordinary educated women whom we met were scared to talk to us, because they were afraid they would get tarnished. We were considered disreputable women.
R: Although there was a public sort of admission against honour killings in Pakistan, there is no legal provision to deal with them, is there?
A: No. There is no legal provision to deal with them, and honour killings continue at the same level. I had a case in one of the sessions courts where the public prosecutor was the one who said that honour killings should be allowed. Now, he’s the government, and if the government is serious about stopping the killings they need to get to the bottom of the legal system and to their agents, and tell them that this is not acceptable, whether it is the investigating officer, or the SP, or the public prosecutor, even the advocate general’s office. But if the government itself supports it, how do you think you can influence the judges? Although there are a lot of empowered people who project “tradition”, at the same time they also get so much done from the government that it does not have to please them on something like honour killings. They can give them factories and other things. But women’s groups, minority groups, peasant groups, little liberal groups here and there—they are not asking for lands and property and licenses, all they want is justice. I am now looking at it from a purely political point of view. For example, in the honour killing case of Samia Sarwar, apart from Nawaz Sharif’s party, every political party gave a statement saying that they oppose them, which is not a small thing, because they all have traditionalists in their parties.
R: But the fact is that nothing has changed on the ground…
A: Nothing will change on the ground, because in a political system which lacks legitimacy, and which is always being disrupted, the priority is to try and get legitimacy and deal with bigger issues. All these issues are considered soft issues and they take a back seat.
R: Asma, I want to ask you about the women’s movement in Pakistan now…
A: The women’s movement has lost its focus, its intensity over the last few years. In a way the human-rights movement has come to the forefront. You see, the women’s movement in Pakistan was really part of the civil rights movement. A lot of the women who are in women’s groups were part of that movement and they were the ones who gave it a political colour. If you read the early WAF statements they were all non-political, there was a big fight between the political and the non-political women, and they were the true activists. Of course, the integrity of everybody was above board. I would even go so far as to say that the ones who were non-political had fewer agendas—actually their agenda was a very pure feminist agenda—whereas the people who came from the civil rights movement or the Left had their own agendas, and carried their own baggage. But they did give it that momentum, and once they went back to their own work, their mainstream work, the women’s movement lost that pulse, that ability to look at things politically, of reacting politically. Even today I think that leadership comes from the human-rights movements.
R: We often say here in India that the women’s movement has become institutionalised, and perhaps because of this the activism is blunted…
A: You know, there are institutions and institutions. There is one kind of institutionalisation which is patterned on a bureaucratic, Western style of human rights work, but there is another kind that we have always had in the Subcontinent, which is activist-based—where did [Indian] Congress come from, for example, it was an ngo basically! And as we read it today, the whole Pakistan Movement was started by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s NGOs—so I think that institutionalising activist organisations is fine, but if that institutionalisation means research upon research, and researching the same thing over and over again and making the same recommendations to god knows whom, that, I am afraid, is not adding to the movement. And this is happening a lot. Look at the number of people in civil society in Pakistan who have been co-opted by the military today, that by itself shows you how skin deep their democratic convictions were. And again, by the way, you will not find one person who has been in the old civil rights movement who has been co-opted. That is the difference, because convictions don’t simply come from reading a book, they come by living it, by suffering through it, and the more you suffer, the more convinced you get.
I mean, every time there has been a confusion in people’s minds, one has come out thinking, well, the collective stand of the Human Rights Commission was right from the first day, that those who said we are not a part of the military government were correct. That is why I find institutions very important, because in complicated situations if you don’t bounce ideas off one other, if you don’t have access to the collective wisdom around you, you won’t be able to see things as clearly. It was group work which shaped my mind, shaped me as a human being, rounded off a lot of my rough edges. I’m really very grateful for having worked with all these older people who have struggled all their lives, spent years in jail, living modestly, they are our role models. That is really what makes you continue, the support you get from them.
~ This interview first appeared in Gallerie, of Bombay, and was later published in Himal’s May 2001 issue.