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The defeat of bigotry

The writer is a lawyer and political commentator based in London

Asma Jahangir’s phenomenal electoral victory, leading her to become the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), reminds me of another landmark in Pakistan’s history. Pakistan returned to civilian rule in 1988 after more than a decade of dictatorship. Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister and became the first woman to lead a Muslim country. I was a schoolgirl in Islamabad and thus ineligible to vote, but was keenly interested in politics, and I would ask everyone about their voting intentions. A conversation with our driver is one that I remember still.

Vote kiss ko dalo gey Mumraiz?” I asked him.

Bibi ji Sharif Nawaz ko,” he responded, inadvertently reversing Nawaz Sharif’s name.

Benazir ko kyoun nahin?”

Bibi ji Islam mein aurat sarbarah nahin ban sakti,” he said, as he dutifully drove me around town.

Having spoken to several others, I knew that Mumraiz’s rationale did not reflect the views of most Pakistanis but there were nevertheless a significant number who did espouse similar thoughts. Mumraiz was a great guy. He wasn’t bigoted per se. He had just been fed the wrong information.

Misinformation and hate-mongering had become the unfortunate hallmark of the campaign against Asma. From accusations about her faith to raising fear about her allegedly suspect anti-judiciary pro-government aspirations, a belligerent negative campaign was orchestrated by her opponents. It didn’t work though.

If there is anything Asma’s election proves, it is that most Pakistanis, have seen through our negative propaganda machines. Due credit must be given, however, to the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, who, with the exception of Mr Hamid Khan, were all supportive of Asma’s election. Munir Malik, Tariq Mahmood, Ali Ahmed Kurd, were squarely rooting for Asma. Aitzaz Ahsan, though less involved with the election, was also pleased with the result and did not offer support to Asma’s opponents.

The support of these key men, founding fathers of the lawyers’ movement, was crucial in securing Asma’s victory and helping her overcome the lies that were spread about her. In that sense, the lawyers’ movement continues to be a beacon of hope and light for Pakistan for it has also displayed a propensity to introspect and self-correct. Like any important movement, it saw its peaks and troughs, and in the words of Mr Kurd, “Asma’s victory is a reaction” to the troughs.

Notwithstanding the strategic support of other influential and conscientious members of the bar, Asma’s own hard work, courage and independent-mindedness over the years and through the darkest periods of Pakistan’s history cannot be overlooked. Whether one looks domestically or to the Philippines, India or Bangladesh, women have won elections on the back of sympathy votes after male members of their family have been martyred. Asma has done it all on her own.

As such, Asma’s role as president SCBA may very well be greater than that of any other woman politician. Women have played an increasing yet limited role in Pakistan’s politics since Musharraf’s introduction of the reserved seats. Though not a bad way to boost female participation in politics, women who have availed of these seats are either beholden to familial politics or more obliged to toe the party lines for lack of their own constituencies. Asma’s independence, however, cannot be curtailed by either of these considerations, so the SCBA under her watch will surely be a potent force.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2010.

Ayesha Ijaz Khan November 1, 2010

Reader Comments (15)

  • When I read the title I expected something on religion.
    But this was a very well written piece and the way you connected the bigotry angle with the Asma story was smooth.

    parvez 1 week ago
  • in the previous times Pakistan has seen this kind of positive change on its social scenario.unfortunately many a reasonable person became victims of the negative illogical campaign which was run against them in past but its a good sign that people are getting aware of the facts and thoughts are being developed pragmatically ! insAallah change is ahead and i hope people show same attitude in elections!

    Mudassar Nawaz 1 week ago
  • very well written, and yes “Bibi ji Islam mein aurat sarbarah nahin ban sakti,” he said, this statement was given by a male in my MBa class too……..the teacher thrashed him very badly…and quotaed examples of Hazrat ayesha and Hazrat Khaula….from history….Queen Sheeba

    SadafFayyaz 1 week ago
  • TRULY BORN LEADER ! ASMA JAHANGIR ! @Ayesha khan ! Marvelous keep it up !

    irfan urfi 1 week ago
  • Its very well written ayesha, my first thought before reading was ‘oh here i go something negative again’ but after reading it all hail to you!!!

    umair bachani 1 week ago
  • Dear Mahreen with all due appologies you need to learn a great deal more about facts on ground in Pakistan ; whereas you are talking theoratically ! Yes Imran will have to ensure that only good people remain around him to help and guide him through the rough terrain of politics and dirty politicians . Besides you can only learn how to swim once you are in the water !

    Shahid Bilal Shaikh 1 week ago
  • Welcome to the class of Inverse sexists!!!

    Humans always go towards extremism, Like Over imposing of Principals of Islam by mullahs (Which co coincidently goes against Islam), and Over blocking of religion and promoting western naked values (of all the western values-majority of them good, like their nature, their way of interaction, politeness etc etc- the openness of sex, body and related affairs were chosen) .

    The case is same with the state of mind of writer above, she chose to support Benazir at that time just because she was a woman, making her as guilty as her school driver who chose to go against Benazir citing the same reason.

    In the case of Asma Jehangir judging from the title and her tone in the article the major factor of her supporting Ms Asma Jehangir is the fact that she is a woman.

    I dont support her personally, and its not because she is a woman, but because she represents the Elite-Drawing room NGO class of Pakistan. Who strikes only if irons hot!

    In the words of a AAG TV Sarcastic program, “Pehlay sochiay , phir Nochiyay “

    Syed 1 week ago
  • Congrats Pakistan What a wonderfull Woman,May her breed grow in the Sub-contient. Some good news from pakistan finally. May her tribe grow.

    Ashwin 1 week ago
  • Next we should have Asma as president with enough powers to oust the Prime Minister if his government is deemed corrupt or incompetent.

    Hasan 6 days ago
  • With the legacy of extreme far right movements (which were quite unnecessary), women in our society have suffered a lot as compared to what women in the liberal democratic West have achieved, and even in godless China. This is a positive step in the right direction. There are many intellectual women in Pakistan who could be part of rock solid governance. All they need is an opportunity.

    Ali Sina 6 days ago
  • Women president of SCBA .
    Congratlations Asma Jehangir ; now would be the time to prove your worth by not bending to any political force come what may . Justice for all ; keeping Unity , Faith and Dicipline into play can prove that women can be just as strong and thereby should have equal electoral mandate . A lot is at stake here depending on how Asma goes about to manage the present state of affairs . Good Luck .

    Shahid Bilal Shaikh 6 days ago
  • Nice article but now hope that Asma will not be cowed down by mullahs and still continue to stand up for the rights of downtrodden ( women and minorities). If these mullahs give any threat to Asma she should go to supreme court against them( I hope thtat Chief justice will stand against these mullahs and bigots)

    Anis Qureshi 6 days ago
  • @Syed—I am afraid that perhaps you need to take your own advice. You have reacted to the article without really thinking about it. By asking my driver why he wouldn’t vote for Benazir, I simply wanted to know his rationale for voting for NS. I have no issue with anyone voting for NS or anyone else for that matter, but I do have an issue with someone saying that women are not allowed to lead. The point of reproducing that conversation was not to voice support for Benazir but to highlight that aspect. Previously, I have criticized Benazir in my pieces, just as I have supported her at other times—which you would only know if you followed my articles for the last 3 years. In the case of Asma, I do not agree with her on everything but she has certainly worked hard to get where she is and the point of the article was that in spite of a negative campaign run against her, she was able to win. I had also drawn an analogy to Fox News’ negative propaganda against Obama in my original piece but for some reason that was edited out. It is easy to run negative campaigns against women and other minorities, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere—that was the reason the woman aspect is relevant and not because I would support someone just because she happens to be a woman.

    Ayesha Ijaz Khan 6 days ago
  • I really hope that more women make it to the top. The conversation you had with your driver is interesting. The best way to defeat bigotry would be to counter question — are we in the 7th century or the 21st? People will complain about sexism but don’t give up until women become true equals of men.

    Ali Sina 5 days ago
  • Dear Ayesha

    Your article was so refreshing and well written. I hope this is a sign of the future and I heartily congratulate the SCB members for seeing through the murky propogandas and voting for a progressive and independant minded president. This election has been significant not only because we have the first woman who is the president of the SCBA but also because we have an independant minded and meritorious person who may help to rationalise the current discourse between the judiciary and the executive. May God bless Pakistan!

    Farzana Javaid 5 days ago

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