Asma Jahangir, Advocate, Supreme Court of Pakistan; Partner, AGHS Law Associates; former President, Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan; former Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, delivered the Harvard Asia Center’s Tsai Lecture on March 4, titled ‘Pakistan: From Crisis to Crisis.’
SAI spoke with Jahangir after the lecture about women’s empowerment, the future of human rights, freedom of expression, and Pakistan’s complicated political relationships with India and the US.
SAI: I’m really curious about women and women’s rights in Pakistan. What role do you see education playing in Pakistan for empowering women?
Asma Jahnagir: Well obviously it’s very important because I think that for women to be economically independent, education will play a role. The fact that they are able to educate their own children in the way that they want to is extremely important.
In my experience, if you give women the opportunity, they take it very seriously. Secondly, because they have been the oppressed classes for generations, once they realize that their fate does not have to be oppression, they begin to walk themselves out of it. They begin to talk about it in small groups and within the family where they can. It’s the women themselves that are agents of change in local settings.
And somehow this is not very well understood, but training women means empowering them. This is essential, because these are the people who have context of being through the same experience and they can share their experience with others in a manner that others cannot.
SAI: In your lecture, you said that unfortunately violence against women has been on the rise. What do you think can be done to combat that?
AJ: There are two kinds of violence. One is domestic violence, and the second is violence outside the home. Domestic violence is something that you can overcome by empowering women. And I find it very difficult, as a lawyer, when women come to me and they have suffered domestic violence, and yet they don’t want to walk out of the marriage.
As a lawyer, and as a human rights person, it’s not my job to coax them. In fact, that would be unethical and wrong. And it keeps happening over and over again; it’s a cycle, and then she just learns to take it. But there have also been incidents which I was very happy to encounter, where women have been able to break the cycle of domestic violence.
There is a program that our legal aid firm runs in which the trainers actually teach them not just how to combat the domestic violence, but also other aspects around violence and around empowerment. I have seen that many of them have come back and said to me that it was their style and attitude that allowed them to stand up to the violence.
I remember one woman saying to me, “When he used to raise his hand previously, I used to cringe. This time he raised his hand, and I looked at him straight, lifted my hand, and said ‘no more.’”
So I have these stories which are very rewarding in one way, and very emotional in other ways as a woman. Now we have legislation that is coming out for domestic violence and there is a huge debate about it. But frankly, we need prevention, and legislation won’t do it. You have to empower the woman at the end of it.
SAI: What about movements that target men as part of the domestic violence problem? I’ve seen how in the US some programs have movements to promote men’s discussions about how to prevent the violence.
AJ: It has to be. For example, some centers encourage women to have what is called ‘dialogue and consultation’ with men and women both, and discuss this issue. Based on my feedback from them, if it’s not a conversation already happening in our homes, it won’t happen in our communities. You have to make it into a conversation first.
SAI: In your lecture you talked about leadership in Pakistan, and you said that it needs dignity and equality. What other attributes do you think leadership needs?
AJ: Political leadership needs an egalitarian approach. I can’t say that leadership should have ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ qualities, but at least these two are essential to gain respect, faith, and confidence from the people. There are all types of leadership. Some people have charisma, and there are others who are soft-spoken. So I can’t say what attributes leadership will attract, but certainly there should be a certain level of values that they must abide by, otherwise you have leadership that believes in discrimination or believes in violence against women. That can be disastrous.
SAI: I thought it was interesting in your lecture when you discussed the evolution of human rights in Pakistan. For the next, say, 50 years, what are the key human rights challenges that need to be addressed in Pakistan?
AJ: Well it’s difficult to say in the next 50 years, because I don’t think human rights challenges ever finish in any society. For example, you [the US] just had your Ferguson report, which I thought was an eye-opener.
So these challenges will not finish, because the dimensions of human rights will keep expanding. But I suppose that there are certain aspects of human rights that are absolutely not understood in Pakistan. For example, freedom of religion and belief is not understood well in Pakistan, or the fact of gay rights, which is a taboo that no one talks about and no one can do anything about. So we have a long way to go.
SAI: How about foreign policy? I’m curious how you see the Indian and Pakistani relationship, and what the significance is now, and also the relationship with the US, which is obviously a difficult one.
AJ: Yes, with the India and Pakistani relationship, we cannot resolve the Kashmir issue through war, and we must begin to recognize that, and it can only be resolved step-by-step, and step-by-step resolution comes if you are talking to each other.
You need to have a level of confidence with each other. If there is total suspicion of each other, it will not get resolved. Either you do it through war, in a very violent way, which was tried and didn’t happen, or you have to do it through dialogue and understanding. We can’t carry on two countries with other people who are completely stateless.
As far as the US is concerned, we have no choice. We have to have a relationship with the US for sure, but what we do and the way we do it, I think, and the way the US does it too, is not healthy. I look at the way the United States plays the game in Pakistan. They say that they want Pakistan to be a democratic country, but they have closer ties with our military than the civilians. They don’t trust the civilians and have no respect for the civilians.
And secondly, I think that the US, if they are going to be gracious about helping us economically, they should do it graciously. Don’t do it in a humiliating manner, which doesn’t make you friends of the Pakistani people. So I believe they [the US] have to be more outright and open.
SAI: In your lecture, you talked about the importance of freedom of expression in Pakistan. What is your take on that, not just on Pakistan, but the world in general, especially with recent events in France? What’s the significance, and how much is it under threat, and what can be done to preserve it?
AJ: Look, I think freedom of expression is important and many countries have fought for generations to gain that freedom and they are not going to give it up. Freedom of expression is extremely important, and I absolutely renounce anyone being killed for freedom of expression.
Although, at the same time, I think that freedom of expression should not be used to insult people. That is counterproductive. I’m not saying that anyone deserves to be killed or jailed for it, but certainly I think there is a sense of responsibility that is there.
SAI: As a final thought, the title of your talk “From Crisis to Crisis” seems a little pessimistic. For you, where do you get the optimism to keep doing your work? Do you have any advice for activists that maybe feel fatigued or beaten down by the struggles of their cause?
AJ: Well I think that “Crisis to Crisis” could also be “From Challenge to Challenge.” If you don’t meet those challenges, then I’m afraid that the crisis will deepen. We have been able to overcome these crises because of the fact that people have remained engaged, and will rally and take action, and express themselves.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.