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Remembering Pakistani Activist And Human Rights Lawyer Asma Jahangir


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the human rights lawyer and activist who's been called Pakistan's bravest citizen. That was the headline of Asma Jahangir's obituary, written by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. Jahangir died Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 66. In a New York Times obituary, Jahangir was described as a fearless critic of the military's interference in politics and a staunch defender of the rule of law. She campaigned for women's rights and democracy and was arrested many times in the process. In 1981, she and her sister co-founded the first all women's law firm in Pakistan. In 1987, they founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. During her lifetime, Jahangir received multiple human rights awards, honorary degrees and other awards from universities, think tanks and governments. I spoke with her in March 2001, shortly after she received the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, co-sponsored by the U.N. Development Fund for Women and the London-based human rights group International Alert.


GROSS: You took on a case defending a woman named Saeima Waheed (ph). She had married against the wishes of her family, and her father wanted the courts to declare that marriage illegal because she chose her own husband against her family's wishes. Is that illegal, choosing your own husband?

ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, under the law, it's not illegal. But there had been isolated cases where bigoted judges had said that it was illegal. And all those cases were brought in this case, and that's why they wanted a final decision. The fact of this case is because she belonged to a family which was an Islamist family, very fundamentalist, very much militant family, that everybody was scared to take up this case. Everybody was scared to rule on it. And there were demonstrations by people whom they sat with like the fundamentalists, themselves, the Islamists, I would call them. And there were these arguments, and there was this fear that the Pandora's box would open. And all this was said in court. Even there, the question of honor kept coming back and forth. And it was repulsive to me because when they are talking about honor, what kind of an honorable thing is that, to get your daughter into court and humiliate her? What kind of honor is that, that you get your daughter into police stations?

GROSS: So what was the outcome of the trial? Did you win the case?

JAHANGIR: Yes. We won the case. That's not the point. The girl couldn't stay in Pakistan. That is a sad point of it.

GROSS: She had to flee the country after the case?

JAHANGIR: Yes. She is now living in Norway with her husband and has a very beautiful child.

GROSS: What kind of precedent were you hoping to set with this trial?

JAHANGIR: Well, one, that we would not be browbeaten. Second, we will not accept jerks on the bench to intimidate women lawyers.

GROSS: And in terms of women's issues, what are the laws or customs that you'd most like to change in Pakistan?

JAHANGIR: Well, many laws. There are many discriminatory laws. For example, the law of rape, the law of adultery, the law of evidence, family laws because that affects every woman. And mind you, women's destiny in Pakistan is very much connected to the political system that we adopt.

GROSS: You mentioned adultery. You've defended over 300 women accused of adultery. What is the penalty?

JAHANGIR: Well, the highest penalty is stoning to death, which has never been executed. But then it is anything up to 10 years of punishment and 30 whippings in public. Fortunately when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, she banned public whipping of women - banned whipping of women period, which is a marvelous thing she did. But women do get arrested. And it's not in ones or twos, it's in thousands.

GROSS: Of the women who you've defended who were accused of adultery, do you think that most of them actually committed adultery or were these sometimes trumped-up charges to punish the woman?

JAHANGIR: Well, frankly, let me tell you, as a lawyer, I don't even bother and I don't do even ask them whether they committed adultery or not. It's their business. But there are some cases which are horrific, for example - and these are not cases that I've done. These are cases that have been reported. A 13-year-old girl whose uncle said that she had been raped by her cousin and the court felt that the cousin had to be given benefit of doubt.

But since this child had gotten pregnant as a consequence of that rape, she was arrested. She was first given a hundred stripes in public and on appeal, the court said, which I find - you know, something inside me says, how can you do that? - says that we believe that in our society, justice should be done and we have to be kind to children. Therefore, we only give her five years.

I said, you know, when I'm reading it, I thought now it will say we'll release her. But five years - I mean, that's the kind of kindness they show to, you know, young girls.

GROSS: Now, there have been groups that have put a price on your head. So what kind of protection do you have?

JAHANGIR: I have protection. I have police protection. I have personal bodyguards. I have three sets of them. But believe me, this is really psychological for the family. If they want to get me, they can get me. And every time that I have been saved, it's been by coincidence.

GROSS: Give me an example.

JAHANGIR: An example that a man came to my office with a briefcase, sat right across me saying he wants to give me some donation. And I said, I don't take donation like this. And he was about to open his briefcase. I said, no, don't do that because I don't take donations. And I could see he was sweating a little bit. So there's a button under my table, and I rang it.

And some of my - one person who's (unintelligible) came and opened the door and sat there. And then this man had a cup of tea with me and went away. And subsequently, I was told that he had gone and killed one of the judges in one of the cases where I'd fought for this boy, young boy who was accused of blasphemy and this judge had acquitted him.

And so it was the same man who sat right across me. He had come to kill me because the same day, he killed the judge.

GROSS: Are you prepared to die for the causes that you support?

JAHANGIR: Look, nobody thinks about it in this way. I am certainly not a martyr kind of a person. I love my life. But if one has to, then there is nothing more nobler a cause that I can think of. And apart from everything else, please try and understand, I really enjoy what I do. I love it. It's life for me. I cannot bear to live where there is so much injustice and I cannot do something about it. What kind of a torturous life is that?

GROSS: Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir recorded in March 2001. She died of a heart attack Sunday. She was 66. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, long-haul trucker Finn Murphy tells us about logging over 1 million miles hauling people's belongings across the country when they move to new homes. From up in his truck cab, he can see what's happening in the cars below.


FINN MURPHY: The behavior that people perform inside their vehicles makes it look like they don't think anybody can see. Well, I can see everything.

GROSS: Murphy has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.