Nancho: You have been quoted as saying that with the election of President Rafiq Tarar that human rights, especially in regard to women and minorities, would deteriorate in the next few years. Now that he has kind of settled into office, do you think that his performance thus far has proven you correct?
ASJ: What I was saying is that it his election was an insult to those working in human rights. I don't think that his being there, or his not being there, is going to hamper our work because we have even worked during the military government of Zia ul-Haq. A president should be a person who signifies the unity of the country and if the president has a one-sided view on certain issues, then he should not be there. The fact is that the president is an orthodox fanatic Muslim who is very critical of minorities and women, and so consequently there will be an influence on other institutions. Of course, the president would never come with a gun in his hand killing minorities, but he would certainly protect those who would. When you look at the people who are visiting the presidency every day, and I hope someone will monitor it, it is the orthodoxy that is continuously there; they are the people who say very openly that we must kill minorities. What police officer is going to arrest a man who has just dined with the president? The President is not just a person who believes in orthodox values, that I can respect, he is also an activist. If a president is an activist with rabidly orthodox views, and has very strong links with other militant activist groups, then I think there is something to worry about, and I have seen politics long enough in this country to think that my worry is genuine.
Nancho: Given the fact that the democratically elected governments this past decade have all been toppled, to many the (Prime Minister) Sharif/Tarar alliance is viewed as creating political stability in the country.
ASJ: I hope that that is correct because stability is certainly what we need. We want to see at least one year without crisis and then perhaps two and then three. But I don't see it like that. I think that his political agenda is obviously to empower those orthodox groups which will give him even greater strength. When the time comes that he wants the upper hand over Sharif, it will be difficult for Sharif to ignore his advice, especially when that advice comes in the name of Islam. I foresee that and I worry about it. As the president gets more and more secure in his seat I think he will carry out more of his agenda. Secondly, there is nothing presently happening that I feel shines a bright light for this country. The government policies are splintered: one day there is this plea to mend fences with our neighbors and the next day there is a complete turnaround with blatant allegations of Indian terrorist activities in our country. So, it's very confusing for citizens to really understand the government's position. Similarly, there is no clear cut policy in regard to Afghanistan. What is the policy vis a vis minorities? Are they going to respect their rights? Are they going to remove the discriminatory legislation towards women? We don't know.
Nancho: The US State Department's report on Human Rights was recently released in Pakistan stating that the government's human rights record remained poor and serious problems of police abuse, religious discrimination and child labor had also not significantly changed. Recently as the chairperson of the HRCP, you also released your report castigating the performance of the government in a number of spheres. Could you give an overview of what the report stated?
ASJ: We release this report every year in February. The report covers the rule of law, enforcement of law, fundamental freedoms, democratic development, rights of the disadvantaged, and social and economic rights. The reason of this report is not to say whether last year was better than the previous year, because it is very difficult to judge a human rights record year by year, but it is just to get some statistics and to keep monitoring the situation and to see the trends. We came to the sad conclusion that the trends have been deteriorating over the past many years.
For example, when we talked about the erosion of institutions, we saw the ultimate erosion of the judiciary last year, but that is not to say that fissures had not been seen many years ago which eventually culminated last year. We also saw that there was a rise in most crimes with no trend downwards. There was more violence against women. Whether the fact that they are reported more now or come more into the limelight is an issue that we have not been able to really investigate, but it becomes very worrisome that the graph continues to go up with more judgments by the court more or less discriminatory towards women. In the report, for example, on minorities we give several incidents of each of the minorities with their different concerns and at the same time, similar concerns.
The separate electorate system, for example, is a similar concern of all as well as not being able to practice their religion freely. The Hindu Minority group has a particular problem about conversions which it has had for many years simply because it is not addressed by the government. It is now becoming an issue with the Christian community as well. It is very difficult to say how many of these conversions are forced and which ones are not forced because it is always young girls who are converted and abducted and many times the girl is too scared to say what happened.
There have also been incidents of conversions very recently of minor Christian children, as young as eight years of age and then often trying to deprive the parents of custody. There is the case of blasphemy allegations against the Christian community. The Ahmedi community has its own very sad scenario with many of its members in jail despite the fact that usually even in a murder case they are given bail after two years, but many have been sitting for two to four years without being granted bail. Their cases are not being decided out of fear and some of the judgments when given are quite questionable.
We have also looked at economic rights. We find that people are insecure because of the downsizing, because of unemployment, and because of inflation. This economic deprivation has led to the increase of suicides. There are cases of extra-judicial killings. There are custody homes kept by the police which have not been abandoned. Reports of torture continue to appear at the same rate - in fact, more than last year but less than the year before that. So, we have many chapters in the report and it really makes for very sorry reading and the people are running out of patience with the situation.
Nancho: The HRCP has also recently staged a rally against child labor trying to create awareness of this heinous practice. How do you view the situation and the its depiction in the Western media? Is it being misrepresented?
ASJ: I think that the western media takes things to an extreme. As far back as '86, there was a movement by activists to pressure the intergovernmental organizations to eradicate child labor, or at least fix a realistic minimum age. We suggested twelve because we had to start somewhere. We also recognized the fact that there are certain difficulties for governments to eradicate it overnight. At that time, the intergovernmental organizations in the West were talking about regulation. We having lived in this society believe that if you talk about regulation, you will simply get child labor in another sphere altogether. We have to start with the political will and the earnest belief that you have to eradicate it.
There are children as young as five years of age working and I think it is not just a moral question or a legal question. It cannot be justified on any grounds. There is a high level of unemployment here for both men and women and if the parents can't work, there is no justification for sending a five-year-old to go out and be the wage-earner. We have suffered through the fact of child labor our entire lives, but have not really been able to understand the reason for its existence nor how it can be eradicated. I don't think that all child labor is because of poverty. This is has always been the slogan of the West; it is an evil necessity because of poverty. We feel that poverty is only one of the factors; the factor of children not being able to unionize, the factor of low payment to children, the factor of its social acceptability.
So we have begun a very comprehensive program of which one important part is education. In our country that education can only be done by electronic media given the high rate of illiteracy and the vast population involved. It is impossible for these programs to be carried out by NGOs alone. We need government cooperation. Here I am talking about educating just those parents who think that sending their child out to work is socially acceptable. In addition, we have to build alternative places for children like schools, and more importantly schools which are friendly to children.
We have found during our research that a number of children have become dropouts because of the severe corporal punishment in the schools. If we give institutions to a child that are as hostile as the labor market, then the choices for the parents and the children are very limited. So, that is one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is that our research shows that these young children really do not want to work. We must keep in mind that we are really wasting a future generation; not only in terms of getting something out of them economically but destroying them psychologically.
There has to be a very sympathetic, conscientious effort, both by those who work in the field and in the government, to look at it realistically and plot out a plan. What is happening here is that our government reacts to the arm-twisting of the West and so do the employers. So they try and make some kind of very quick fixes and the result is that the child may disappear from the factory but the child is still working at home. I wouldn't dispute that perhaps this is better. At least the child is then under family supervision but sometimes even family supervision can be quite exploitative for the child.
It is a very complex question and one must see it for oneself to understand the dimension of it. I think essentially we have to keep the interest of the child in front of us before we begin to think of our exports, or the image of our country. I think if we do it in a manner of sincerity, we will get results but unfortunately we are not doing it for results, we are doing it to cater to the West.
Nancho: The family unit in Pakistan is so much more important than the individual; and the individual gives all to the family. Is this one reason the practice is considered socially acceptable?
ASJ: Yes, the family is very important here and I think that the West has to understand that but at the same time because I come from this part of the world I know also that the tight-knit family structures here can be very exploitative to those who are vulnerable within the family like the child and the women. So in understanding family obligation and unity, we should not look away from the fact that there are those people who are suffering within these patriarchal family structures in spite of the fact that they are contributing to their families. When it comes to receiving, however, they don't. We are not encouraging the women, the children to break the social structures. No, we are just trying to say there is a better future for them. It is a doable thing, but unfortunately, it is not being done.
Nancho: There is a Minister of Women's Development and Social Welfare, Ms. Themina Doltana. Few countries can boast such a position for women. How do you rate her performance?
ASJ: Few countries can boast of a position like that but few countries can boast of having a woman prime minister as well, which we have had. Few countries can boast of having a deputy prime minister as a woman which Iran has. So, I don't think the position of women in a society can really be gauged on the fact that there are isolated women in positions of power. In terms of how I would rate Ms. Doltana's work, I think she comes across as a very genuine and feels great compassion for the plight of women in this country. But her work is limited in the sense that it is really connected with overall governmental policy. You cannot have a women's ministry overriding policy like a chief minister of a province saying that we are going to change the uniform of girls schools and everyone will wear a dupatta (scarf) on their head. She cannot contradict government policy.
Nancho: In the West, we have a very strange perception of what is happening both here in Pakistan and in India in the sense that you can have a prime minister as a woman but yet women's rights are depicted as virtually non-existent. Can you describe and tell us of the situation here and what allows for this dichotomy to continue?
ASJ: Well, we are a country of contradiction and dichotomy. In societies with a history of treating women as lesser beings, the ascendancy of these women to the center stage of politics is a paradox. Westerners have this perception that as you land in the airport in Pakistan you will never see women, you will never talk to one. Yet you see women sitting in high positions here and you see very forceful women in the labor force - doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers.
This Western perception that you have of our women I think is very interesting because I think our hope lies in that. When you look on paper the kinds of rights we have are absolutely nil, the kind of sexist atmosphere we have, I think, is very apparent to anyone, especially a female visitor from any other part of the world. Even if you go to any of the other countries nearby in the South Asia region like in Sri Lanka or Nepal or India or Bangladesh, you see far more visibility of women than you do in Pakistan. But at the same time, I think that it has been this oppression of women in Pakistan that has made them very strong and more aware.
Even the uneducated women in this country have such a wisdom about them; and that is because they have had to deal with a hostile environment around them from the day they were born. It has made them realize that they have to really fight. Women in Pakistan are survivors, let me put it that way. It's not as if we had a female prime minister who got to that position of power on her own. No, she was a female member of a family who survived a political situation and then rose up to replace the male figure.
If you look at the entire southeast Asian region, we have produced probably far more women prime ministers and presidents and leaders of the opposition, but again mostly through their families - Bandarnaike, (Megawati) Sukarnoputri, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and in Pakistan, Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto. There really has not been a female leader who has come up by herself, she has usually been a replacement of the male figure. But that is not to take anything away from these women. By surviving that political situation, she took hold of that opportunity with great art, I would say. And that is what we are here, survivors - people who grab our opportunities whenever they are given to us. If you would ask each one of the women here at my law firm how they became lawyers, you would find that often times it has been an accident of history.
Nancho: Your area of expertise is women's rights, minority rights, custody cases...
ASJ: And prison trials and appeals, criminal appeals. See, my basic area of law is constitutional law, criminal law and family law
Nancho: What kinds of cases are you presently handling?
ASJ: Some of my cases, for example, deal with Zinah, sex outside marriage. The highest punishment is death by stoning, but most women end up in jail. If I were raped I would never file because in this legal system one just can't get justice. You have to take on the full burden of proof and must have the evidence of four male witnesses because the woman herself is not considered fit enough to be a witness. Everyone admits it's an unfair, unjust law but because it is the result of a handful of religious extremists, enacted in the name of Islamization, no one has the courage to repeal it. The law comes from a handful of extremists who want to use religion to intimidate others. It's not because of a religious belief that they have. They don't want to see women as independent, with a sense of integrity. They want women to remain powerless.
Nancho: In the early l950s there was a tennis champion, Laila (sp?), who wore shorts on the court. Since its establishment, it seems the country has dramatically shifted in terms of its treatment of women. If Jinnah were alive today, how do you think he would view these past fifty years?
ASJ: I think if Jinnah were alive today, he would be a member of the Women's Action Forum, sitting in the Opposition and really confused about what he had done to himself. I really believe that. My mother, for example, had studied in a coed college here. She was badminton champion, swam and went into debating. There was no question of segregation in that college. When I was in college myself, I used to cycle down to college many times. There was no restriction on any dress at all. In winters you would wear pants and go off to college and there was no hassle about it. Things have really changed for worse for women and that is why I say it is not easy to sit back while the orthodoxy puts us where they wish to see us.
Nancho: What has allowed the orthodoxy to gain power in the country?
ASJ: You see, religion has always been a focal point of people in our country, as well as in the subcontinent, for that matter, but in a more spiritual manner. Back in the 60s, the kinds of government reports and judgments being delivered were very progressive, for example. Suddenly you see a deterioration in the 80s as the state began to politicize religion and used it as an instrument of oppression. The reason that religion was used was to rage war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and for that the government needed their own local support which was the orthodoxy. It obviously wasn't going to be the liberal elements or the political parties that were going to support the war. That period was followed by a transition to democracy which has been unstable. There is also the factor of economic deprivation. All of this is a breeding ground for religious orthodoxy.
Nancho: Now with the election of Tarar, you think the situation is intensifying?
ASJ: Tarar's election is only one factor, not a hugely significant factor, but a significant factor, I would say, and its influences will be detrimental. But the fact remains that people like Tarar in the 70s were not the Tarars of today. They have been politicized into being what they are as well. I call them opportunists basically. You find a lot of people like that in decision-making powers, or establishment, or the judiciary, or in the hierarchy of power associations who have suddenly become rabid Muslims because it gives them more respectability, it gives them more opportunities to progress. They are less controversial.
Nancho: Are women's issues at least being discussed more openly now?
ASJ: I am of the belief that democracy is survival for women. Now you have an independent, or at least, a better press now than before. Issues are at least aired. People read about these issues and discuss them. People begin to realize that the stories reported are not imaginative fairy tales and that they are happening to women and women like ourselves. There is open debate about these issues and people in the Bar will discuss it. When you are arguing a case in court, there will be nationwide interest in it. More than that over the last many years I have seen a change in the attitude of women clients.
Previously we used to have more women coming here asking for advice; they would come back and forth and not take action for years. They were more like therapy sessions. But I was happy to do it because if that is what helps them, then so be it. I find a change now; I have my clients now coming and telling me that this is my case and these are my instructions. There have been times when I have asked a client very innocent questions like, "you have six children, you know, do you really think you should be asking for a divorce?" And this one particular client who is not literate or anything turned around and told me, "Listen, I want to tell you something. Nobody has ever died of starvation after divorce, but many women have died of starvation or of physical violence during marriage. So you get along with your work and these are my instructions."
I really like that. I think that is hope. That makes me smile. A lot of women are now going to court on all kinds of issues. For example, only ten years ago we had women taking the government to court on admission policies to medical schools. Despite the fact that these women knew that it would be a long, legal battle and that they themselves would not gain admission into the school, they continued to fight on so that others could benefit from their actions. They won their case in the Supreme Court.
So, I think that responsibility, that understanding, that commitment is there. That kind of a change is there. We have to be patient because it's a legal battle we are fighting and we have to do it properly. We have to be all there to do it.
Nancho: Would you agree with some critics that the women's movement in Pakistan is elitist?
ASJ: It is a valid criticism that the women's movement is somewhat elitist, but it's only those women with that kind of educated background who could go out and march in the streets against a military dictatorship and the Islamization process and then get away alive. How can these women who are not allowed to leave the four walls, who are being beaten, how can they suddenly become very active? Maybe one day the leadership of the women's movement in this country will hopefully pass on to these women. They will probably have more fire in them than we do.
I think people are afraid of the women's movement because it's the longest social movement in history. I think looking at it in a global manner there has been a world of change. Twenty years ago was the first UN Conference on the Rights of Women. Twenty years ago the phrase women's rights was not understood in Pakistan. But today it is very much alive. You see it in the lives of the women sitting in the jails of Pakistan, in the lives of the women who pick cotton, and in the hearts of the young students who wish to see themselves as leaders of tomorrow. It is very much there. In every part of the world, whether it is the developing world, the developed world, whether it's a remote corner of the world, it has taken seat in the hearts of women.
Nancho: Women's Day is celebrated here in Pakistan with a lot of fanfare. Does anything significant result from this yearly celebration?
ASJ: Women's Day is basically symbolic to remind us and everybody else that we are a very special group and that we need to work together. It is a mark of solidarity amongst people who believe in the rights of women. In one way it was significant this year because having started off with small auditoriums and moving on to bigger auditoriums, this was the first time we were in a public place.
A lot of men who were just standing by or walking by, really came and participated. They listened to what we were saying and there was no outburst. It seems they heard us. Concretely, women this year pressed for the demand upon the government for 33 percent representation on all levels including the National and Provincial assemblies and the Senate. They demanded removal of the Hudood Ordinance under which one-third of imprisoned women are facing charges.
Nancho: How did you first get involved in attempting to change things within Pakistan? Had you always thought of being a lawyer?
ASJ: I was nine when my father first went to jail. By the time I was 13 I was going to lawyers' offices. When I was in college I conducted a case on behalf of my father. My father was a politician and at certain times a parliamentarian, but always in the opposition because we have had military governments for so long in our country. Virtually until '85 we have had dictatorial governments. So
I grew up seeing my father go in and out of jail, fighting for fundamental rights which we now take for granted. I haven't followed in his footsteps because I much rather be in human rights and be involved in the women's movement than be a politician. I never really sort of said that I have to really become a lawyer. I said I want to become a lawyer if I can. That was it.
But because of my father I saw the oppressive state apparatus very closely and how it worked and how people suffered under it. My father was in and out of jail for seven years altogether and seven years is a long time when you are growing up. So I guess it was a life that I led which regardless if I had become a lawyer or not would have ultimately brought me close to a movement which was fighting for the rights of people. I do come from a privileged background. People use that against me but I have been able to use this position to the advantage in my work.
Sometimes I think there is a dichotomy between what I think and what I am. So I become disoriented sometimes. I work in the morning with not only disadvantaged but absolutely trampled upon people. Then I come home and it's another world. It's not easy to live with.
Nancho: And your mother was also actively engaged in the movement?
ASJ: Yes, I think we were all actively engaged. We couldn't help it. I think my mother first lived it through her husband and now she is living it through her daughters. But some people want to leave it behind them, they don't want to carry it on. They have seen enough of it. There was a political assassination in the verandah of our home when I was only 11 or 12 years of age. And my father had to go into hiding for a month because the assassins were looking for him.
I think my mother was great at that time because if she was scared, we would have naturally been scared because you take your cues from your parents. But now she tells me she was very scared herself. So, I think she was able to protect us not only from harm but from an insecurity. That is why I think even today I am not scared. I'm not afraid of opposition or of being harmed. The only thing I have learned is to be able to say what I think is the right thing. There are so many political murders in Pakistan. My mother told me to run away from this country, go somewhere else and save your life. But I can't.
Nancho: How does your husband feel about his wife being such a controversial public figure?
ASJ: My mother cannot thank my husband enough for keeping this woman as a wife, who doesn't even deserve to be called a wife because deep down my mother is very conventional. I do not spend enough time with my children and I have them to thank because they have been very supportive. Whether my husband is supportive or not, we live in this society and having to support and believe in what your wife is doing which is so controversial is not easy. After the birth of my second child, Selema, I think I went through one of the worst stages in my life. I withdrew, I stopped taking an interest in things. All I wanted was enough time to catch up on my sleep.
I finally looked at myself- and I said I've got to live. I'm not just a mother, I am not just a daughter and a daughter-in-law and a wife and I have reduced myself to this vegetable state which I am in. The next day my husband and I were invited to lunch and two of the people there were lawyers. I told them that I wanted to practice law. Both of them dissuaded me from practicing in a male law firm and said that it was not geared for women to practice in and why don't you set up your own firm?
My husband was indifferent in the beginning because like everybody else he didn't think I was going to stay in practice very long. By the time he became resentful, it was too late. There was a period when he felt, "My god, what is happening? This is not my wife. This is a lawyer and stop it! Stop her!" The wife was gone and there was another person there. Gradually he began to accept it.
Nancho: How much danger surrounds you?
ASJ: There is a lot of danger of people going into court defending blasphemy cases, exposing ourselves to people who believe that anybody who has allegedly blasphemed Islam should be put to death immediately. Considering an accused blasphemer was murdered outside the court in broad daylight means it is not a remote possibility. The penalty for blasphemy is death. But at the same time there are people's lives at stake.
You have to be able to not compromise as a defense lawyer and yet keep your neck on the line just enough so that you don't get killed. But then I'm not the only one. I have my colleagues who are with me. I guess if we have to fight for justice and against those forces who are really misusing religion for terrorizing not only minorities but sooner or later will terrorize any moderate movement or system, I think it is time we stood up.
Nancho: Do you remember your first case and how you handled it then? How would that same case be handled today? Has there been any apparent development in the way that justice is being carried out over all these years you have devoted yourself to the cause?
ASJ: I am very embarrassed about my first case because it was a total disaster. It was a custody case and I had no idea of how to conduct a case. We had thought we had done such a fantastic job, only to learn that we were absolutely wrong in what we had done. The written statement reply that we had to give was returned to us by the judge telling us that we are new and had better learn something and we'd better do it properly and come back.
It was really by trial and error that one got on with this profession. It's not an easy profession and it took many, many years to really get a grasp of it. I've come a long way because I've learned so much in the profession - not just the law and the workings of it, but how to get hold of the main issue. The first time you argue in court, you are stuttering. For many years you continue to stutter, your legs shake. Even now I think that every time there is a major argument in any case I really don't have a good night's sleep.
Nancho: In terms of the army having ruled the country for twenty-five of the country's past fifty years and of the last nine years, democratically elected governments have barely limped along, you are quoted as saying that we haven't gotten out of our transition. Where do you hope that the transition will ultimately take Pakistan?
ASJ: The transition will ultimately bring a transfer of power to democratic institutions which has not really taken place yet. Our country is still very much controlled by the army as was evident last year when there was a tussle between the judiciary and the executive and the chief of the army was permanently called in to be the arbitrator between the prime minister and the president and the chief justice. Everybody was looking to the army to see what decision they would take and precisely it was their decision which made Nawaz win the day.
Even today we have people sitting in all of our democratic institutions who really don't believe in democracy which is very unnerving. They are very much a product of the military government themselves and believe that this country should be ruled with an iron hand. They are of the view that illiterate, uneducated coots like us do not know what is best for ourselves. That's their idea of running the country.
So the transition does not happen by simply invoking a constitutional provision. A transition has to be a building of institutions that work and the personnel within those institutions must respect them. Most of all, it is changing the present mindset. I am afraid that our Parliament really does not depict the country at all. The whole electoral process itself must change. The buildup has always been there. Had Zia ul-Haq not died the way he did, we would never have moved toward democracy in l988. But we still have a long way to go.
We need a prime minister who fully recognizes the fact that their existence is very much interlinked to the existence of democracy in this country now. Instead of taking measures to strengthen their own solitary power, if they took measures to strengthen the democratic system as such, that to me would be wisdom and far-sightedness. Because if there is going to be a strengthening of democratization in this country, constitutional amendments must be made so that the democratic institutions are strengthened.
Any constitutional amendment should be adopted until it has been circulated for public discussion and has been properly debated in Parliament. This tendency to rush through measures by suspending the rules for debate must be strictly checked, and the president's power to issue ordinances should be invoked only in situations of emergency. The process of separating the judiciary from the executive should be expeditiously completed.
Nancho: There are deep rooted economic problems here, as well as plights of poverty and corruption, injustice and illiteracy. What is your personal vision of Pakistan in the 21st century, and what does this country have to teach the rest of the world?
ASJ: Well, if I really tell you my personal vision you will think that I am quite crazy because it is just a dream. I see Pakistan in the 21st century as a country of people who have a lot of skill, a country of people who have a lot of patience, and a country of people who have a lot of humor. I hope to see Pakistan walking into the 21st century with good neighborly relations and with more color to our lives than the death and the black and the white that now surrounds us.
The values of this country which are rarely portrayed on CNN and the BBC, are values which are very much a part of our everyday lives: our hospitality, our humor, our caring for the elderly people, our caring for one another at the community level. As Pakistanis I hope that we regain respect for our regional identity. We are not Arabs, we are Sultatians and we have to recapture who we are and where we belong.