People & society - Persona

Asma Jahangir: The street fighter

Updated Sep 25, 2016 11:59pm

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Asma Jahangir admonishes police personnel at a protest against the Election Commission of Pakistan in October 2007 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Asma Jahangir admonishes police personnel at a protest against the Election Commission of Pakistan in October 2007 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star


Immediately after the horrific Quetta terror attack on August 8, 2016, Dr Danish, a television anchorperson, tweeted pictures of Asma Jahangir with a caption in Urdu which translates as: “When lawyers were being killed in Quetta, the so-called leader of the lawyers was enjoying herself in the northern areas.” The post was enthusiastically retweeted, shared on Facebook and distributed through WhatsApp groups.

Asma Jahangir was not “enjoying herself in the northern areas”. She was in Gilgit-Baltistan on a human rights fact-finding mission when the attack happened. There was no way she could travel to Quetta the same day. She took to Twitter and responded to the anchorperson: “Shame on you for exploiting facts even when people [are] in grief ... Ask [your] spy friends not to stoop to the lowest levels of viciousness.”

A picture of her from a March 2008 meeting with Bal Thackeray, the now deceased leader of Mumbai’s Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena party, created a similar furore. Nationalist websites and media persons wrote thousands of words to denounce her for sharing the same space with one of Pakistan’s most vicious detractors. It did not matter that she had met Thackeray in her capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, investigating violence against Muslims in India.

Indeed, many people go ballistic every time her name is mentioned. Haroon Rashid, an Urdu-language columnist with a large fan following, wrote in 2013, “warning” that he would lead a march on to Islamabad if Asma Jahangir was appointed caretaker prime minister. She had said earlier that she had no intention to accept the post.

Asma Jahangir’s earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore.

If anything, these examples suggest a pattern: often wild, unsubstantiated allegations are levelled against her. Often she, too, responds to her detractors in a no-holds-barred manner. In 2012, in typical Asma Jahangir style, she accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to eliminate her. National and international concern and outrage poured in with such vehemence that the plan, if there was any, had to be dropped.

It seems Asma Jahangir seeks controversy — her critics attribute it to a search for glory. The Lebanese-American writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a word for it: “antifragile” — that is, things and people that benefit from volatility, shock, disorder, risk and uncertainty.

Asma Jahangir does not agree. She argues that she does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.

In September 2015, the Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to black out the coverage of Altaf Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) supremo. Very few, if any, lawyers in Lahore were willing to represent him due to his alleged involvement in acts of violence in Karachi and his volatile speeches and media statements. Asma Jahangir was perhaps the unlikeliest lawyer he would get: the two had never found themselves on the same side of the political divide. In May 2007, MQM had called Asma Jahangir a “chauvinist lady” who should form her own “chauvinist party”. An MQM statement had also accused her of having a secret affiliation with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

But she agreed to represent him.

Her opponents took to the streets. A small group of lawyers in Lahore brought out a demonstration, demanding the cancellation of her licence to practice law. Her supporters in bar rooms were also uncomfortable with the idea but they knew she could not be swayed against fighting for someone’s freedom of speech — no matter if the person concerned was a serial abuser of that freedom. “Well, that is how she is,” says one of her supporters, shrugging their shoulders.

When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.


Asma Jahangir’s earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore. The head girl there was always selected by nuns but Asma Jahangir, as an O level student there in the late 1960s, arranged a protest demanding that there should be “at least a semblance of an election”. The school administration reluctantly agreed to an election process while retaining a veto power. That method for finding a head girl still continues at the school.

Asma Jahangir’s exposure to public life happened at a very young age. On December 22, 1971, the military government of Yahya Khan detained Asma Jahangir’s father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, under martial law regulations. Malik Ghulam Jilani, a former civil servant and politician, was sent to jail in Multan after his detention. He sent his family a letter through a jail employee, listing possible grounds on which a petition could be filed for his release. Then only 18 years old, Asma Jahangir filed the petition at the Lahore High Court.

“Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Bannu. He remained in jail in Multan. But we were not allowed to go see him there. He did not want us to go there and see him. We always saw him in courts. So, for me, the court was a place where you dressed up to meet your father. It had a very nice feeling to it,” Asma Jahangir reminisces, lightheartedly.

She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners

Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri, a lawyer that her family generally consulted on legal issues, was federal law minister then and, therefore, could not be her counsel. The second choice, Barrister Manzur Qadir, a former foreign minister and a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court, was not eligible to appear in the court that he had once headed. Qadir referred Asma Jahangir to M Anwar, considered one of the finest lawyers of the Lahore High Court at the time. Anwar thought it was a strong case because the governor of Punjab had signed the detention order before taking oath of office. (The detention order was changed later, Asma Jahangir says, to remove that anomaly). The Lahore High Court, however, dismissed her petition.

Asma Jahangir went to the Supreme Court. Qadir then decided to be her lawyer in what became known as Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. “The courtroom used to be full,” she recalls. “Since I was a petitioner, I got a special seat and felt very important.” She remembers Qadir with awe and admiration. The arguments he made were absolutely fabulous, she says. “I have never heard those kinds of arguments again. He was not just a lawyer, he was a philosopher.”

Asma Jahangir also credits the proceedings at the Supreme Court for initiating her into the cynical, realpolitik world of courts. “What I saw was the manipulation behind the scenes — how cases are won and lost.”

In 1972, after Yahya Khan’s government had ended, the Supreme Court decided Asma Jahangir’s petition in her favour. In a first for Pakistan’s apex court, the judges declared the military government illegal and Yahya Khan to be a “usurper”. History had been created and a young girl found herself at the centre of it.

M Arif, White Star
M Arif, White Star

Malik Ghulam Jilani waged a somewhat lonely political struggle — particularly at the tail end of Ayub Khan’s government and during Yahya Khan’s regime. He was on the wrong side of the consensus in West Pakistan on the 1971 military operation in what was then East Pakistan and when that region declared itself as the independent state of Bangladesh, he advocated against official Pakistani recognition instantly.

That period in her father’s life has had a deep impact on Asma Jahangir. “When we were children, he always talked about fundamental rights and adult franchise and, believe me, I did not know for a long time what adult franchise meant except that he was fighting for it.”

Asma Jahangir remembers her mother exhibiting a different sort of character. She was not in any way politically active and was almost nonchalant about the frequent imprisonment of her husband. “Whenever my father got arrested, she would sell her car and would move around on a tonga, believing that everything will work out or she would rent out our house and go to her father’s house and put us in his dressing room.”

Asma Jahangir comes from a well-off family — the spacious house her parents built is located in one of the priciest parts of Lahore’s Gulberg area. But she does not see money having played any part in her upbringing. “We never felt that we were privileged or non-privileged,” she says.


In July 2016, a division bench of the Lahore High Court was hearing a public interest petition against the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train. The petition contended that the project was damaging Lahore’s architectural heritage. A star team of lawyers was representing the Punjab government. There was Shahid Hamid, a legal wizard and a former governor of Punjab. There was the advocate general. There were many assistant advocate generals and deputy attorney generals. The packed courtroom was unusually abuzz with the chatter of minions and acolytes of the government’s lawyers.

Everyone was waiting for Asma Jahangir to argue in favour of the petition. When she stepped forward to the rostrum and began her arguments, one of her co-counsels tried to whisper a legal point in her ear — a relatively common practice in courts. Before he could even start, Asma Jahangir dismissed him with a wave of her hand and almost sternly said, “Stay where you are. If I want your assistance, I will ask for it.”

Her aggression had a direct impact on the opposite side and murmurs immediately died down in the courtroom. The only reaction from the government’s lawyers during her arguments was a slight shaking of the head by Hamid. She spoke briefly, vociferously and authoritatively. As she left the rostrum, she paused, turned around and took one step back. She turned towards the judges and Hamid, and said, “You know what the entire problem here is Shahid Sahib? Your chief minister needs training in aesthetics. We would be glad to arrange tutoring.” Hamid smiled weakly and continued to shake his head.

This is Asma Jahangir’s style — mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate. “She is a performer,” says Neelum Hussain, her long-time friend and fellow activist.

She does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.

Asma Jahangir’s entry into law did not automatically follow her victory in Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. She received her law degree from Punjab University in 1978 after she fell in love with and got married to Tahir Jahangir, a Chinioti businessman and her next-door neighbour. “The principal stopped me from attending the [law] college because I was a married woman. It was a college policy,” she says. Gulrukh, a friend of Asma Jahangir’s, was also married but the principal did not know. “Gulrukh used to take classes and then she would teach me.” Asma Jahangir secured a first division in her law exam — a major achievement for someone who has always been a “second divisioner”.

She did not start her law practice immediately after graduating.

When she had her second child, she started to feel that she was suffering from bouts of depression because of feeling “useless”. The depression was “showing on me because I had started to put on weight”. She had puffy eyes. She looked unhappy. “Whether I was just imagining things or it was otherwise, I think the respect my husband – or for that matter, my in-laws – have had later for me was not there at the time,” Asma Jahangir says. “Everybody thought they could bully me because I was not seen as an entity. I was just a little, out-of-shape mummy.” She decided that she had to do something with her life or she “will just be a sidekick for everyone”.

Asma Jahangir invited some of her friends over lunch to discuss the possibility of starting a law firm. Late Shahid Rahman, who was the son of a former chief justice of Pakistan, S A Rahman, and an excellent lawyer himself, told her to talk to Shehla Zia, another young lawyer at the time. Asma Jahangir’s equally well-known sister, Hina Jilani, was already working as a junior lawyer with Ijaz Batalvi. The three then roped in Gulrukh — thus, AGHS was formed on February 12, 1980, taking its name from the first letters of the names of its founders. It was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm.

It was the darkest of times. The Hudood Ordinance was already in force. The law of evidence was about to be changed to the disadvantage of women and non-Muslims. It was also the best of times. The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was formed smack in those years.

On February 12, 1983, WAF decided to hold a public demonstration on Mall Road in Lahore against the provisions of the Hudood Ordinance that discriminate against women. Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani both joined the protest as members of the Punjab Women Lawyers Forum. It was the first open denunciation of attempts by General Ziaul Haq’s military regime to mix religion and law — and it made WAF, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani the most recognised faces of the movement for women’s rights in Pakistan.

M Arif, White Star
M Arif, White Star

A simultaneous lawyers’ movement was also underway in those days against Zia. Protesting lawyers began using Asma Jahangir’s office as a place of hiding because the authorities would not consider “coming into a woman lawyer’s office looking for male lawyers hiding there”. The misogyny of Zia’s regime in this case worked in favour of his opponents.

In the 1980s, a woman lawyer arguing human rights cases was largely uncharted territory. In the beginning it had some novelty value. Courts were patronising, even when they were not sympathetic, to a woman practising law and would usually grant Asma Jahangir relief. She started off with family law cases – divorce, child custody and maintenance payment etc – but she was quick to realise that what was required was not temporary relief but fundamental change, and not just for women.

Soon, she started taking up blasphemy and bonded labour cases. “In bonded labour cases, judges would ask me why I had brought those people to the courts who stank. You are here precisely for them, I would respond.” Her fierce arguments in favour of those “stinking” brick-kiln workers made people realise how those “labourers with hardly any clothes on their bodies owed debts of hundreds of thousands of rupees.” It was then that lawyers and judges started taking her seriously — that she was not just a female lawyer or another practitioner of family law.

In the mid-1980s, the Zia-appointed Majlis-e-Shoora passed a resolution, saying that Asma Jahangir had blasphemed and she should be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was an alleged comment she had made in a WAF meeting. Zia set up a commission to investigate the allegation.

When Asma Jahangir came back home from prison, she was very animated and made her “jail time sound like it was an adventure, a thrilling journey”

Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code that provides for death penalty in blasphemy cases was not enacted yet. “Maybe they enacted it after finding out that they could not put me to death without it,” Asma Jahangir says, only half in jest.

Asma Jahangir boycotted the commission and instead lobbied lawyers to gather support. Fortunately, Tahira Abdullah, a renowned human rights activist and a WAF member, had taped the entire proceedings of the meeting where the alleged comments were made. When that tape came out, it was obvious that Asma Jahangir had not made any blasphemous remarks.

In 1993, an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, were accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore. Later, Manzoor Masih was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala where the case was initially being heard. Asma Jahangir represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by a trial court. Lawyer Mehboob Khan, who represents the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and assisted Asma Jahangir in the case, remembers the hostile atmosphere during the proceedings. He also remembers how she remained unfazed through it.

In an unprecedented decision, the Lahore High Court acquitted Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on February 23, 1995. Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the judges who had acquitted the two, was assassinated in 1997. When his killer was arrested a year later, he confessed to have killed the judge for deciding the case in the favour of the accused.

There was an attempted attack on Asma Jahangir’s house as well. The assailants mistakenly entered her mother’s house who lives next door. Everyone in the house was held at gunpoint, including Asma Jahangir’s brother and his wife and their two little children. Frustrated at not being able to find Asma Jahangir, they attempted to kill her sister-in-law but their gun did not work, giving the family enough time to escape and call in security guards to engage the attackers.

Munizae, the eldest of Asma Jahangir’s three children, remembers being sent to a boarding school to protect her from possible abduction. Munizae understood from a very young age that her mother was different from most people around her. Still, she was confused when Asma Jahangir was first arrested in 1983. She remembers how her schoolfellows asked her the next day if her mother had “stolen something”.

When Asma Jahangir came back home from prison, she was very animated and made her “jail time sound like it was an adventure, a thrilling journey”. An intrigued Munizae asked her mother to take her along when she went to jail again.


Back in the early 1980s, Asma Jahangir and her father decided to set up a trust to support political prisoners. The two pooled in their own money to put together the trust, named after her father and headed by Nisar Osmani, a senior journalist and human rights activist. Prominent lawyers such as Khursheed Kasuri, Aitzaz Ahsan and Khalid Ranjha were among its trustees and Asma Jahangir was its first secretary.

The trust made lists of political prisoners and then approached their families to give money. This was not sustainable — the lists were never exhaustive and the trust’s funds had never looked enough to survive long. In late 1986, Asma Jahangir and Osmani decided to hold a seminar titled ‘Dimensions of Human Rights’, at the Pearl Continental Hotel, in Lahore. They wanted to test the viability of the idea that there could be a membership-based human rights organisation in the country.

They were pleasantly surprised to find an overwhelmingly positive response to their invitation for the seminar. People from all across Pakistan converged in Lahore to participate and endorse the decision to form HRCP. When the commission was set up in 1987, Justice (retd) Dorab Patel, a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court who had refused to take a fresh oath as a judge of the Supreme Court under Zia’s diktat, was appointed its first chairperson.

The most outstanding feature of the newly created HRCP was its overtly secular mandate. The participants of its founding seminar had passed two resolutions, among others, on the protection of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Asma Jahangir fondly remembers how Habib Jalib, the legendary revolutionary poet, bantered with her on the occasion. Earlier that year, she had dragged him to a women’s demonstration outside the Lahore High Court where he was beaten up by police. “I am very happy that at least from The Mall you have been able to come to Pearl Continental,” was his way of differentiating between street protests and institutionalised civic action.

Asma Jahangir is not apologetic about the focus that HRCP has on Pakistan.

The shift was neither easy nor smooth. Allegations of foreign funding have dogged HRCP from the start. Even Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, who has the experience of arranging money for his cancer hospital, has questioned the sources of HRCP’s finances. Incensed when HRCP stated that his 2014 sit-ins diverted attention from human rights abuses in the country, he thundered in October that year: “You don’t need to tell us what is right and what is wrong. Just tell me first what the sources of HRCP’s funding are.”

(“HRCP took a decision early on that it would accept no aid that may be interpreted as compromising its independence. So superpower sources were foreclosed from the start and HRCP had to thankfully decline such offers,” reads a post on the HRCP website. The members and the donors of the organisation are encouraged to check its audit reports to know the source of its funding that mostly comes from the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Canada.)

Over the years, HRCP in general and Asma Jahangir in particular have also been branded as “traitors” and “American agents”, trying to malign Pakistan and destroy the country’s social and political fabric in the name of women’s rights and the rights of non-Muslims. The commission is also condemned for highlighting human rights abuses in places such as Balochistan and the tribal areas – as if to embarrass Pakistan – rather than talking about similar abuses in Kashmir and Palestine.

A senior lawyer from Lahore, who does not wish to be named, declares: “Asma Jahangir is working on a specifically anti-Islam agenda and she is getting foreign funding to do that.” The same lawyer contested the Lahore High Court Bar Association election as Asma Jahangir’s nominee but he could not win. “The liberal lawyers did not vote for me because I have a beard and the religious, conservative ones did not support me because I was backed by Asma Jahangir,” he says as he explains how she divides the bar along ideological lines. “She is part of the Illumanti, a secret organisation controlling the world,” he then proclaims.

Asma Jahangir is not apologetic about the focus that HRCP has on Pakistan. “Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India, or against Rohingyas in Burma, or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa; but obviously I am going to be more concerned of violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them,” she says. “And I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is butchered to death.”


Asma Jahangir has been the longest-serving United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and is one of three Pakistanis appointed to the position (the other two being her sister Hina Jilani and Lahore-based feminist activist and sociologist Farida Shaheed). Yet her entry into lawyer politics is of recent origin; it essentially came under the limelight with – and after – her election as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010.

Before her entry, the bar’s politics dominated the two groups — one led by senior lawyer Hamid Khan (who is also a senior member of PTI) and the other led by Malik Karim (who passed away a few years ago). She has now taken over the leadership of the latter group.

When Hamid Khan talks about Asma Jahangir, there are serious hints that he respects her for being a “formidable opponent” and an internationally acclaimed human rights campaigner. He, however, does not regard her as a competent lawyer. She only had some family law cases to her credit before she fought the bar election, he claims, and then accuses her of using her position in bar politics to bolster her law practice.

Hamid Khan also alleges that Asma Jahangir was “planted” in the bar politics by PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari to counter the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. He cites her frequent criticism of the judiciary as evidence and says she has taken this criticism to a dangerous level where it appears like an attempt to “blackmail the judges”.

Asma Jahangir, indeed, has had a number of run-ins with the judiciary, more specifically since the reinstatement of Chaudhry as Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2009. Her opposition to the judicial “activism” of Chaudhry’s court over the PPP government’s inaction on many political, economic and administrative subjects led many to believe that she was being an “apologist” for Zardari who was then the president of the country.

One of the biggest allegations against her is that she represented Hussain Haqqani, then serving as Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, in the so-called Memogate case. The case revolved around an alleged memorandum written by Haqqani in 2011 to Admiral Mike Mullen, a top American military commander, seeking help from the United States administration for Pakistan’s civilian government against the military establishment. The whole controversy was predicated exclusively on the testimony of one Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American with dubious credentials. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then the most important opposition leader, went to the Supreme Court demanding an inquiry and the Supreme Court obliged him by constituting a highly powered judicial commission consisting of three judges.

She is a contrarian but she is also a conciliator — with the ability to find points of convergence.

Asma Jahangir is unequivocal — she believes that the judiciary was swayed both by populism and the establishment. The Memogate case is an illustrative example of what is wrong with the judiciary, she contends. “Can anybody justify it today? I do not think even the petitioners can.”

The July 31, 2009, judgment of the Supreme Court that summarily dismissed scores of judges across Pakistan on the grounds that they had taken oath under Pervez Musharraf’s Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) in 2007 was the precise point when she decided to take the Supreme Court head on. Asma Jahangir’s point of view was simple — almost all the judges on the bench which had issued that verdict were themselves beneficiaries of a previous PCO. Their outrage against those who did the same later appeared to her misplaced and hypocritical.

Until then, the bar was presented as a monolith and the dissenting voices in the lawyers’ movement came from the fringes that did not matter much. Asma Jahangir was the first of the key leaders of the movement to express her dissatisfaction publicly and disassociate herself from Chaudhry.

Initially, it was an individual decision. She remembers being cautioned by friends to refrain from visiting the Lahore High Court bar room a day after she wrote an article in daily Dawn, criticising Chaudhry. His loyalists had the reputation to be rude and rowdy towards his critics. She went to the bar room anyway. Nobody was rude or rowdy towards her; on the contrary, people came up to her and said, “Well done”.

“The judges were playing politics,” she says when asked about the reason for her criticism. She also views the confrontation in the context of a fight between democracy and authoritarianism.

Hamid Khan claims Asma Jahangir is disconnected from bar politics at the grass-roots level. He attributes her success merely to a “consolidation” of all the small groups of lawyers opposed to his professional group.

Asma Jahangir certainly was an “outsider” in bar politics, as Hamid Khan puts it, before the Chaudhry era. It was, indeed, the movement for the restoration of Justice Chaudhry between 2007 and 2009 that allowed her to interact with a cross section of lawyers. Those interactions allowed lawyers in different parts of Pakistan to get first-hand knowledge of her as a person and a lawyer — beyond what they knew through her public image of an elitist, yet fiery, crusader for women’s rights.

M Arif, White Star
M Arif, White Star

Most crucially, Asma Jahangir’s own view of an average lawyer changed. “This man who has dressed up so neatly and nicely lives in a two-room house and does not know in the morning whether he will have money to feed his children or not,” is how she summerises her understanding of the financial predicament lawyers face. When asked about the incidents of violence and hooliganism that lawyers often engage in, she responds by drawing attention to their working conditions. “What we do not see is the humiliation that lawyers have to suffer.”

Those who have been on the receiving end of bad behaviour by lawyers – and that includes politicians, judges, government officials and often junior-level policemen – may dismiss her argument as mere justification by someone who cannot afford to antagonise her voters.

Asma Jahangir’s role in bar politics certainly demands that she win popularity contests (through elections, that is) — something Asma Jahangir, the contrarian and the firebrand human rights activist, at best did not care about and on previous instances very deliberately rebelled against. Neelum Hussain believes Asma Jahangir has changed — from being a private person to a public agitator to a politician.

Still, Asma Jahangir is different from most of her colleagues in bar politics — in more ways than one. She smokes beedis in the bar room, talks loudly and bluntly and makes direct eye contact with those she is conversing with. She is undiplomatic yet she has a disarming common touch. She has the ability to be frank and honest without sounding abrupt and pretentious. She is a contrarian but she is also a conciliator — with the ability to find points of convergence.

She is also a wife, a mother and a grandmother — and is quite comfortable with her family roles. Her eyes light up when she talks about Tahir Jahangir, her husband. For a moment, she lets her iron lady persona drop. “I was absolutely in love with him — madly in love with him. I think in some ways I still am, despite my many differences with him.”

She gives him some backhanded compliments. “He was one of the reasons I was able to work. He was one of the reasons I learned to negotiate. He said you can practice law but you cannot go to court. I agreed, but then I went to court. Then he said you can practice law but you will not do it for money. I agreed, but then I did it for money too,” she says, laughing.

Tahir Jahangir never listens to any of Asma Jahangir’s speeches nor attends any of the protests she organises; Asma Jahangir does not read his columns.

It was only when Asma Jahangir went to jail that Tahir Jahangir “realised that things had gone too far”. She was first put under house arrest in 1983. A few months later, she was arrested and sent to Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore, to face trial by a military court. When she got out of prison, she did not know if Tahir Jahangir would let her back into their house. But he was there at the prison gate to receive her. He patted her on the back even though he “was shell-shocked”.

They have an unwritten agreement — Tahir Jahangir never listens to any of Asma Jahangir’s speeches nor attends any of the protests she organises; Asma Jahangir does not read his columns, mostly written about nature, and mostly refuses to accompany him on trips to the mountains.

Asma Jahangir’s daughter Munizae recalls how Saima Waheed, a plaintiff in a famous love marriage case in the mid-1990s, was surprised to see her in shalwar kameez. Munizae, a journalist, wears baggy shalwar kameez to press conferences on the advice of her “very conventional mother” who at times is “horribly conservative”. She is a typical Punjabi mother, says Munizae, “who is never happy with how my sister keeps her house or is bringing up her kid”. On the other hand, “our brother gets away with the dumbest of jokes all the time.”

Munizae had just started her first job as a television reporter for India’s NDTV in 2005 when in May that year Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a women-only marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by religious parties and groups. On the day of the marathon, the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and taking them to the Model Town police station.

When Munizae arrived at the site of the marathon, the first image she saw was of her mother with her “clothes torn off, her bare back exposed — being manhandled by police officials”. Her reporter colleagues had smirks on their faces. They looked at Munizae from the corner of their eyes. She felt embarrassed — more than that, she was shocked, traumatised.

Asma Jahangir’s husband was out of the country at the time. He immediately came back, only to see Asma’s bare back on the front page of a newspaper. Munizae broke down and cried when she saw her father but Tahir Jahangir was unfazed. If anything, he was proud.

Asma Jahangir was later transferred to jail from the police station. When Munizae got there, she saw her mother “in the same shirt, now stitched up with safety pins”. She was “shouting and essentially leading a protest in jail”.

Nothing, it seems, can ever stop Asma Jahangir from being what she has always been.


This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue under the headline "The street fighter". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a lawyer and a columnist and a member of the Human Rights Watch.