A Human Rights Champion, Cheerfully Defiant
By Emily Wax: Washington Post, November 10, 2007; A12
LAHORE , Pakistan , Nov. 9 -- Female prison guards sit in Asma Jahangir's art-filled living room, watching as she sips tea, smokes cigarettes and talks about how proud she is to be Pakistani.
Jahangir, a lawyer and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was placed under house arrest last Saturday, and since then the government has turned her two-story family villa into a jail. More than 20 prison guards, some with submachine guns, are posted in her garden, and plainclothes officers in oversize suits peer through her windows.
Her country is now in a state of turmoil, following President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule, which has included the firing of Supreme Court justices and the detention of hundreds of opposition leaders, lawyers and human rights activists.
But Jahangir remains defiant and upbeat, waving to neighbors and continuing to work on position papers on how to bring the rule of law, an independent judiciary and stability to Pakistan .
Life under house arrest has been "just lovely, and it hasn't hurt me," Jahangir, 55 and a mother of three, said Friday in an interview at her home. "I am so proud of Pakistanis and specifically of our lawyers for speaking out and getting their heads bashed in for a better Pakistan ."
"We are so resilient as a people," she said. "I have so much respect for their dignity and courage. I hope the world sees this side of Pakistan , one where professionals want a democracy. The spirit of our intelligentsia cannot be broken."
The government has filed terrorism charges against Jahangir and ordered her to stay confined to her house for 90 days. She can no longer go to her office next door or even sit in her garden.
But her popularity has only grown, and news media in Pakistan and abroad are calling her South Asia 's version of Burmese human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Pakistanis living abroad have also sent her e-mails expressing their support, she said.
"When you think of human rights in Pakistan , you think of Asma Jahangir," said Maria Hasan, a recent graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the scene of demonstrations against the emergency rule. "She's our national hero. She's very daring, and we, especially women, really admire her for that."
After intense pressure from U.S. diplomats, 70 civil society leaders, including professors, poets and doctors, were released from jail or house arrest after their detention Sunday for attending a Human Rights Commission meeting.
But Jahangir has not been allowed to leave her home.
"There is a limit to people's patience with brute force," she said. "I do worry about . . . blood being spilled. I don't want to see that in my country."
When the prison guards tried to listen in on her conversation during the interview, she shooed them away. "Please," she said firmly, "go rest in my lobby, take a chair and sit. Relax, even. You will not listen to this."
They shuffled out of the room.
The U.S. consul general in Lahore , Bryan D. Hunt, visited Jahangir for several hours Friday and later released a statement urging her release and free and fair elections.
Musharraf has said emergency rule was needed to combat extremism. But critics say he has instead targeted the political opposition and members of civil society, whom he sees as a threat to his hold on power.
Musharraf once invited Jahangir to join his government, she said, but she refused. He later called her unpatriotic for being too critical of what he called Pakistani culture.
Jahangir, her sister and several other women founded the first all-female law firm in Pakistan . At the outset, her most highly publicized cases involved women accused of adultery, a crime once punishable by 10 years in jail and public whippings.
After years of being belittled, she finally won the respect of men in her profession through hard work, compassion and victory in numerous cases, activists said. She has received international acclaim and several awards for her work with women seeking divorces from abusive husbands and with teenagers on death row, as well as her efforts against extremism.
Jahangir said she has been inspired by the many imprisoned women she has met. For instance, she became close friends with a blind woman who was charged with adultery after being gang-raped. Jahangir filed a protest and sent stories about the case around the world. The woman was released.
"She's an extraordinary leader, beloved in a place where there are few heroes," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "And Musharraf wants to silence anyone like her who will question his rule."
Jahangir has received death threats, but she said she finds the allegations against her ridiculous, especially those leveled this week involving terrorism.
"Does Musharraf really believe I am a terrorist?" she said, laughing and eating a snack of tomatoes and spicy chicken patties. "Yes, I am a total hooligan, bombing and looting and creating terror?"
She takes pride in her family's long history of activism. Her father was a civil servant who quit in protest after Pakistan 's first military coup. He was idealistic, she said, and took up politics, but was in and out of jail throughout her childhood.
"Every time he went off to jail, my father said to me, 'I am doing this so you can live in a freer country.' Now we are going through some horrible birthing pains in this country. And they have to stop it. The world has to have zero tolerance for naked dictatorship," she said. "There are so many Pakistanis facing violence for protesting. There are so many wives of lawyers who've had to sell their wedding jewels because their husbands are not earning or are in jail. Look at the world, all the suffering. . . . Being under house arrest is the least I can sacrifice."