She’s just 16, yet known worldwide — as the ultra-famous are — by a single name. She is Malala.
She has survived a Taliban assassin’s bullets. She awes global superstars and enthralls world leaders. She’s been showered with awards, almost won a Nobel Peace Prize and recently published a memoir. She might be the most famous teenager on the planet.
But no one comes from nothing. And Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani leading a global campaign for girls’ education and women’s rights, has, in addition to heroically supportive parents, a figurative godmother in her homeland who risks her own life in the same cause.
In fact, Asma Jahangir, a lawyer still fighting for human rights and equality for girls and women, has been doing it for decades.
At 61, Jahangir is a woman of gentle manner and razor-sharp mind, soft voice and steely will, a woman who sometimes laughs in spite of herself while recounting examples of the more absurd aspects of the ramshackle justice system in her turbulent homeland.
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She is thrilled at Malala’s accomplishments. “She is absolutely inspiring,” Jahangir told the Star in an email. “Malala is a vindication of our struggle.”
Malala is the best-known of a new generation of young Pakistani women who want a fairer society, Jahangir says. And the women who have gone before to fight oppression “are all the proud mothers of our Malalas.”
But Jahangir knows, as does Malala, the price Pakistan can exact from outspoken voices for change.
Jahangir has been arrested, jailed, placed under house arrest, threatened with death. She has seen women murdered in the dubious name of “honour” on the streets outside her Lahore law office. Armed guards protect her office and her home, and are with her wherever she goes.
She shrugs most of this off as if it was a mere inconvenience. She carries on, just as she has during periods of martial law and radicalization in Pakistan. Among the many awards she has received for her work was Canada’s first John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award in 2010.
“Asma Jahangir’s tireless efforts to promote human rights in Pakistan, in particular the rights of women, children and religious minorities, under highly challenging conditions, are a testimony to her exceptional courage and dedication,” said Lawrence Cannon, foreign affairs minister at the time.
Jahangir says the women’s movement in Pakistan was born under the late dictator Zia ul-Haq, when his campaign of Islamization in the ’70s and ’80s imposed the harsh penalties of Sharia law and — in the Evidence Act of 1984 — made a women’s evidence in court worth half that of a man’s.
“Prior to that women never resisted any legislation,” she said. But in 1981, the Women’s Action Forum, an organization to which Jahangir still belongs, was established — even if most of its fights at the time were defensive measures resisting the lurch of Pakistan’s justice system “back to the Stone Age.”
When the inevitable arrests and jailing resulting from her protests came, she was not cowed.
“We always knew that one day we were going to be clamped down on.”
Jahangir laughed that she was actually treated more decently that she expected in jail because her father had spent so many years there.
Through Pakistan’s relentless turmoil — the mysterious death of Zia, the ascendance of Benazir Bhutto as the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, the arrival and departure of Nawaz Sharif, the return to office then exile of Bhutto, the coup of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, 9/11 and its consequences, the wars in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban, the assassination of Bhutto — she has carried on.
Like Malala, Asma Jahangir had the example and support of courageous parents. Her father, Malik Gulam Jilani, was a member of Pakistan’s opposition in the 1970s and spent 14 years in prison.
In Lahore, Kipling’s fabled city of Kim and cultural centre of Pakistan, Jahangir recently told the BBC World Service program NewsHour that “it’s the fire inside your belly that wants you to rebel at injustice.”
It’s a fire “that I inherited (from her father) as well as built up over the years.”
The personal risk Jahangir assumes by taking on the cases she does — often those of young women who have fled their villages and families and fear for their lives for refusing arranged marriages — has hardly changed in three decades.
“Everything is a risk in Pakistan,” she told the BBC. “If you defend women, it’s a risk, if you defend non-Muslims it’s a risk, if you discuss religion, it’s a risk. But you can’t really sit there like a vegetable in your own society. And I’m committed to that society . . . and I feel I need to turn around and speak as I should.”
Now, Jahangir worries for Malala and is appalled at the backlash against her in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The Yousafzai family has lived in Birmingham, England, since the 2012 attack on Malala.
“I am afraid she might not return,” Jahangir says. “And with good reasons. I am so shocked and angry at the unfair venom expressed against her by a few hate preachers. They do not even spare young ones.”
Still, the example and inspiration of those who go before is no small thing.
When Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations in July this year, she wore a shawl once belonging to Benazir Bhutto.
As Malala continues her campaign, she follows the courageous example — and it seems shares that fire in the belly — of Asma Jahangir.