Pakistan’s Human Rights Campaigner, Asma Jahangir

The Guardian, July 21, 2007

Blood and guts

by Declan Walsh

Lunchtime yesterday, and a gaggle of lawyers in black suits crammed into a small room in the sweaty bowels of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Balancing cigarettes and cups of tea, they savoured the moment. An epic struggle was nearing its climax. The court was about to deliver its verdict on a battle that has captivated Pakistan since March, between the President, General Pervez Musharraf, and the chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry. The country had never seen it before: a civilian openly challenging a military leader. After months of raucous protest, the lawyers smelled victory. But one was not sure.

0721 08Asma

Jahangir, an eagle-eyed lawyer on the frontline of the chief justice’s campaign, was apprehensive. “I don’t know, I just don’t know,” she says, her voice trailing away. “I could be surprised, but it looks like there’s going to be a compromise.” We sat down to lunch, a few discs of unleavened bread and a scoop of dhal.

At five feet tall, Jahangir, 55, is not an imposing figure, but for almost four decades she has towered over Pakistan’s human rights war. She has championed battered wives, rescued teenagers from death row, defended people accused of blasphemy, and sought justice for the victims of honour killings. These battles have won her admirers and enemies in great number. But she doesn’t care, mocking the mullahs and poking a finger in the face of the barrel-chested generals. In conversations with friends, one word constantly recurs: guts. “Asma is the gutsiest woman that Pakistan has,” says Abbas Nasir, editor of Dawn newspaper and a friend. “Whatever she believes in, she has the conviction to say it publicly in a sea of complete intolerance and ignorance. In a country like this, that is fantastic.”

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