Asma Jahangir: The Undeterred Voice of Reason

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This interview was originally published in SHE,  April 2013 Issue.

Asma Jahangir is branded for her rational and forthright comments, as well as her explicit stance on issues on which many choose to remain ambiguous and diplomatic. Apart from being the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award (often described as Asia’s Nobel Prize) and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz (one of the highest civilian awards in Pakistan) amongst various prestigious accolades, Asma Jahangir has the single honour of being the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. A leading figure in the campaign to reform the controversial Hudood Ordinance in 2006, she is clear-headed and has never swayed to play to the galleries.

A figure of matter-of-fact views, she speaks in the most charismatic and pleasant manner in an analysis with SHE.

“A democratic system is the only way of empowering the disempowered.”

Right Livelihood Award 2014 Stockholm 12/ 2014 Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt


Q. We are keen to present to our readers all that you stand for, all that you have achieved and goals you are still pursuing. Above all, we wish to know more about you as a person, as a very successful lawyer and exactly what motivates you to ardently champion the cause of Human Rights, and specifically women’s rights.

A. Standing up for what you believe is a question of circumstances and being able to feel the humiliation and empathize because you are a woman and that makes you react to it. There are multiple reasons as to why people choose to fight for Human Rights apart from the fact that I think that anybody would naturally want dignity for themselves

Q. You were the United Nations special Rapporteur on freedom of religion from 2004 – 2010. What do you think was the criteria the UN considered for selecting you?

A. Well, I think that you’ll have to ask the UN for the criteria. But, they have some basic criteria for everyone; that people have to know International Law, and they should have had some publications on International Law and experience. I was Special Rapporteur before that on Extra judicial killings (1998-2004) for the U.N commission on Human Rights, so I had that six years of experience as well. The fact that one can be completely independent and not be influenced by anyone is one of the basic criterion on which they select people. It’s not just for me, but for everyone.

Q. You have received the Magsaysay award, the UNIFEM Millenium Peace Prize, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz and the 2010 UNESCO Bilbao Prize, among a host of other singular honours internationally and in Pakistan. Can you narrate some instances as to why they were bestowed upon you and how do you feel about all this?

A. I don’t think there was a single instance why a particular award was given to me, but certainly it was a culmination of my work as a lawyer, my work as a person who has set up various institutions and networks where people have come together to challenge Human Rights’ violations both at national and regional level. The fact that when there were very few voices speaking up and addressing Human Rights’ issues I was doing so, I think that is a contributing factor.

There are some people who because of not themselves but because of circumstances become the front runners and this had happened to me. These awards were not just for me, but I think for all of us who have worked together for upholding Human Rights’ values.

It is a matter of great excitement and honour no doubt, but it also adds up more pressure and more responsibilities on you. The fact that you need to share that with everyone, for example one of the awards that I received was prize money which I dedicated wholly to Human Rights’ Commission so that they could carry out the work and start a trust. Similarly, another award that I received I set aside to pay for awards to honour others for their work.  I think one needs to share and be more responsible because people have recognized you and you can’t let them down.


Q. You are now an international figure. With overwhelming illteracy and total lack of discipline, do you still feel democracy will bail us out of this quagmire? Will democracy as we are experiencing now bring about much needed discipline in our lives under the present scenario?

A. I think all the more reason that we should have a democratic system, because it’s the only way of empowering the disempowered. People are not there to receive charity and nobody gives charity unless the very vulnerable can assert their rights. I find that people may not be educated, but in our country at least they are very well aware. The ordinary people of this country have a sense of the reality of life; they see reality through every single day. For them priorities are very different from the kind of middle class morality. So, I think there is a question of whether we listen to ground wisdom or we listen to pseudo-intellectualism and norms of morality changing over the years.

Q. Perhaps the time has come when the nation looks to people like you to define democracy as it should be practiced, and not what is being practiced in the name of democracy. In the early 60s Ayub’s basic democracy then Majlis-e-Shora and various versions of democracy were given to us from time to time. What would you like to see keeping in mind the ground realities?

First of all, I must say that Ayub Khan’s democracy was no democracy. It comes under no definition of democracy in the world; neither does Majlis-e-shoora. Democracy has certain ingredients that are a must. First of all people must have a right to choose their own representatives; that didn’t happen either in Ayub Khan’s case or Zia-ul-Haq’s. Democracy doesn’t work the way that somebody comes and imposes himself and then has a sham election to get himself elected. But, democracy is also not simply the rule of the majoritarian. There are certain democratic values that have to be respected, for example; protection of minority rights, protection of freedom of speech amongst others. You have the right to disagree with someone, but there should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and all what we have in our constitution and more. Democracy also means to satisfy peoples’ rights to good governance. The government has to perform in a manner that socio-economic decisions that it takes are creditable and promote the economic rights of everyone. It means to run the country in a way that it benefits the society at large. Democracy is a growing phenomenon; the notion of democracy today is different from the notion of democracy in the 60s and 80s. It continues to grow, just like Human Rights continue to grow in its dimensions.

“The government has to perform in a manner that socio-economic decisions that it takes are creditable and promote the economic rights of everyone.It means to run the country in a way that it benefits the society at large.”


Q. Let us look at the strides of the countries like China, South Korea and Singapore. All these states have a totalitarian form of government, and exercise tremendous discipline. They promise a future; how do you see our future?

A. It is easy to sit outside and romanticize about China, North Korea and Singapore but in Singapore people who push to disagree with the government pay very heavily. I don’t know whether many people know about, but in Singapore if you criticize the government you can be fined. There have been lawyers who have been fined as well. One lawyer who has passed away now, is recognized as a symbol of resistance in Singapore, but he had a very tough life because of the rebuttery of the government. You cannot treat people like robots by giving some people cumulative wealth so that they continue to support the system. Similarly, Tiananmen Square in China’s example is right before people’s eyes where Chinese government itself has talked about rampant corruption in a single party system. Thus, economic growth cannot be the only way of admiration for a country. Talk about North Korea, we know people are so oppressed there, and then look at the number of people seeking asylum from these countries. People of our country have not gone on the streets asking for a single man’s rule. I would never want to compromise my personal freedom because somebody is going to make me a promise that this country will prosper.

Q. Do you see a solution to end terrorism, sectarian strife, and most importantly corruption? What are the steps needed to cure and/or control these ills?

A. These are two different things; in some areas they overlap each other, because corruption itself breeds arms race and terrorism. Even religious fanaticism is an industry nowadays. Since 1947 we have various laws to challenge corruption. Politicization of corruption only breeds corruption, it doesn’t cure it. What we do need is a genuine legislation and an independent mechanism which is not pressurized either by the government or by the judiciary and works on its own like the independent prosecutor system. We also need to look at institutional corruption which is there and we accept it.  When you talk about terrorism I believe we have a long way to go. All political parties denounce it, distance themselves from the militants and their statements distance themselves from the militants, though there are indications that the state itself patronizes miltant groups. Militant groups are being streamed and political parties are making mutual alliances with militant organizations especially during elections, which is a source of great worry for me. This is a good recipe of not only spreading and protecting militancy but also eating away at comitial forces which may be present at the moment.

“It is not fair to insist once a stakeholder disputes your neutrality. I can disagree but not insist on thrusting myself. It would be unprincipled.”

Q. We talk about Blind Justice; can we also say Blind Democracy? Democracy without good governance should not be called Democracy; What’s your take on that?

A. I don’t think you can say it’s not a democracy, but it is poor democracy. Democracy has many faces, but the basic ingredient is that people are at the centre of it; they are the decision makers of it. Yes, we talk about blind justice but in our country it’s literally blind. Democracy is blunted because it neither wields any power nor has it moved nor has it given any direction, nor has it been able to give people a level of satisfaction which leads to young people question whether democracy is the kind of system that Pakistan needs.

Q. What was the darkest era in Pakistan’s history?

A. I think the darkest era was Zia-ul-Haq’s. Not just because of the atrocities, but also because of the long term impact and negative effects it had on the growth of the nation. The negative effects it had on warping the value system has taken generations to bring back the right perspective.

Q. You have been jailed, threatened etc but you have been very strong headed and focused. What do you have to say about that?

A. Well, I hope that I’m focused. I lose my focus just as well as everybody else does, because it’s so complicated in this country. To predict in this country is virtually impossible. I may be complimenting myself about it, but I think it is a fact that I have remained consistent in my support for democracy. I have never sat with any dictator, I have always been one of the first to issue statements if something happens, and these are the reasons I feel I am threatened. I believe in our country activists are divided into two; one is people like myself who support democracy, who stand against the formation of state within the state, and we will always bear the stigmas that have been attached to us unnecessarily. On the other side are people who are a product of the establishment  and they have run this country in a disorganized manner, but still profess to be most virtuous. So, this is the battle we have to carry on, because I believe they are opportunist, hypocritical and the whole labada of virtue is deluding people.

 Q. You have stated affirmatively in press conferences on TV that you will not accept any position as either Prime Minister or Chief Minister in the interim government which will lead up to the elections. If the nation reposes its confidence and trust in your ability , your neutrality and your devotion to democracy and makes a call for your services to the nation, what is the reason for you to turn it down?

A. There are many reasons. Mostly, because the process has become a mockery but, also because PTI opposed my inclusion. They are stakeholders and it is not fair to insist once a stakeholder disputes your neutrality. Though, I do not agree with their line of reason. I can disagree but not insist on thrusting myself. It would be unprincipled.

Q. What is the message you have for the people of Pakistan and especially the youth of this country?

A. First of all, respect your fellow citizens. If you think you know it all, I m sure they think they know it all too. If we respect each other we can move forward.

Editor’s Note:

“Hazaron sal nargis apni benoori pe rotee hai,
Bari mushkil say hota hai chaman mein deedawar peida”

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