LUMS Convocation 2015 Address: Asma Jahangir

Friday, June 19, 2015

Honourable Vice Chancellor, Deans, faculty members, members of the Board of Trustees, young students and family members of students. First of all let me thank all of you who are instrumental in getting me here to speak. I have looked forward to the event from the very day I have received this invitation. I looked forward to it because it is rewarding to engage with the youth in any event but especially with those of you who are the finest minds in the country, you have had the privilege of receiving university education and that too at one of the best institutions of the region, not just of Pakistan.

I know that today is an exciting day for you, you are leaving, some of you, not those who are graduating with your Bachelor’s but those who have finished their Master’s; you are graduating and you going out into the world. And I was thinking when I was looking at you that the most exciting part of leaving university or college was that you no longer have to give an examination, and I can tell you that you will have these nightmares of having failed an exam or got late to take an exam and that is something that I don’t envy anybody leaving behind but these are also anxious moments for you. You will be stepping into a world that is fast evolving, a global society that is sadly at war with itself.
We have made, as we were reminded today by your honourable Vice Chancellor, great advancement in the area of technology. I recall that when we were young, many of us who are sitting here, we saw televisions come into our lives, we saw sanitation change, we saw computer come into our lives and I recall that many of us were not even used to telephones and now all and everybody has a telephone. We were a generation of fans, not of air conditioners. Conventional wisdom would have said that with the technological advancement there will be an equal pace of advancement in human values, in human life, in ideas, in democracy, development, in political growth, but sadly while there has been some advancement it has not kept pace with the kind of technological advancement that the world has seen.
We saw that there is an information technology revolution. We are being kept abreast of so much information. In one way, one would have thought that it would have brought us closer to each other but what has happened in reverse is that tensions are building and they are deepening. We have seen that there is lack of human resource not only  in the field of political leadership but also in social society, civil society leadership. For example, it would be inconceivable two or three decades ago that a laureate who has won the Nobel peace prize would keep mum at the atrocities of the minority community in her country, it would be equally inconceivable that the largest democracy would elect someone who was seriously accused of a complicity of murdering people of a minority group in his own province. In other words there has not been progress in all respects; we are falling short of basic values of human rights.
And for me what is very important, as my friend, Ali Qazilbash reminded me when I showed him my speech, that I am not an intellectual so I should not give you an intellectual speech. I am very much a foot soldier and should probably share with you some of the experiences that I have had, there are two that I would like to share - one is that you have to be absolutely clear of what you want; you have to be committed for what you want. What I find is that while people do pay lip service to tolerance there is only that much tolerance that they have for the others, while we do pay lip service to free expression there are always limits to that free expression, while we do pay lip service to respecting the dignity of individuals, there are certain kinds of individuals that we constantly  indignify, while we do say we care about the protection of rule of law  but those that are supposed to protect the rule of law themselves undermine it at the most crucial time of Pakistan’s history.
I think that as a nation we have had some successes. Pakistan has had a few movements but these movements have been important and Pakistan has not gone in the way of Libya, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and several of the African countries where dictators have sat for decades and reserved the rights of people.
We have to begin to now understand that these people and these movements fought against all odds and one of the odds were that we created Pakistan. The myth that the objectives resolution was a consensus document in Pakistan. The myth that the military is the only institution that can rule the country, the myth that our judiciary has always stood by the rule of law, the myth that only education, the kind of education provided at LUMS can bring tolerance; I believe that I have seen tolerance amongst the ordinary people of Pakistan, and I have seen the height of intolerance amongst the most educated in Pakistan. I know that there are times when you are torn apart, one faces many challenges, not knowing what is right and what is wrong. It is in these moments when you look at the principals of what you stand for that you are guided by what you have to come out with. I have seen many situations like that. For example I was once sent as the UN Special Repertoire to France to look at the whole question of head scarf of women and when I was leaving for Geneva I felt very assured that I would come back with a report that the head scarf should be banned. When I arrived in France and talked to various women who were wearing head scarves, I changed my mind because I believe that people have a right of choice -  a right to wear what they wish to, a right not to wear what they wish to. Similarly I believe people have a right to the choice of a religion, people have a right even to choose whether they want a religion or they don’t want a religion.
We learnt this the hard way when we were young and growing up in the 80’s. We felt challenged because at that time the Pakistani dictator felt that asking for rights was a western concept. He had completely forgotten that it was our fore fathers and mothers who actually fought against the colonial regimes to emancipate this part of the world. So the very fact that we were struggling for rights was something that we inherently got from our forefather and mothers.
My friends Ali Qazilbash and Mian Zafar Iqbal Kalanauri encouraged me that I should speak of what happened, and I am keen to speak about it particularly as there are many young women in the audience. It was at that time when the state wanted to make women the obedient servants of the state and men and therefore those of you who are graduating today especially women I would urge you to be an individual by yourself, to have your own personality, to have your own mind and never be the obedient women that the society wants you to be.
I remember that there were riots and hundreds of women were arrested, and they were arrested because the government found that they were immoral and amongst many of these women were young girls who had been raped and they were accused of extra marital sex and put in prison. For many years when we walked around the streets of Lahore, and when we talked about it or wrote about it we were considered as women who were promiscuous who were helping all these immoral women. There were Fatwas given against us. There were Mullaas who called us women of no moral depth, of corrupting the minds of the youth. But we knew that what we said was just and was the truth. The same people who accused us of promiscuity, of immorality themselves were in the parliament when this law was changed many years later.
I also recall very well that when we first raised voices against honour killings, many of us and I say many because I have never worked alone. I am very happy that the people that I work with are the greatest strength to each other, especially women who work together, women rights activists who work together, lawyers who supported us, journalists who supported us, even teachers and professors who supported us.
When we talk about honour killing, we were taught that this is our social norm, our social norm to kill our own sisters and to kill our own daughters. The parliament passed out a resolution against women who were denouncing honour killing but many years later the same political party denounced honour killing themselves and passed a law where honour killing was made a crime that is no longer compoundable. The reason I give you these examples is because I feel you are young and you will be challenged but if you are certain that what you are fighting against is injustice you must never give up because eventually injustice crumbles in the face of dictatorship.
I recall that many of my colleagues were fighting against child labour and we were accused of destroying the economy of the country. When we were fighting to liberate labour which was bonded in Sindh we were told that we were actually trying to interfere in the politics of this country and trying to undermine the landlords of Sindh. Many of us were attacked, some of our colleagues were beaten up in Sindh but we continue even to this day to fight against bonded labour.
Similarly, there was a case in which a young girl dropped in at our office, she had got married to a young man who was teaching her, a professor and her family was threatening to kill her. So we went to court and for two years we fought in the High Court and the Supreme Court, making out a case that a 22 year old girl can marry without the consent of her parents, or her father. Now this was only 10 years ago, and to my other amendment, the High Court which is supposed to be a constitutional court ensuring that there will be no discrimination, it took them two years to decide this case, while this girl remained confined in a custody home. So therefore when you are faced with a certain situation and you take a step forward, do not always imagine that institutions of this country will support you, who are supposed to render the rule of law and justice to you.
As a lawyer I can assure you that I have seen more injustice in the courts of Pakistan than justice. When I started practicing initially I was told by many judges that I had only female clients who had shady characters, and this was the prejudice which was openly expressed in courts, and I was told by judges that I was defending bonded labour that made court rooms stink. I was told by my colleagues several times that women lawyers should do desk practice as they said and not be there in the field, especially protecting female prisoners. But the worse that I have seen is that we as lawyers have always stood by the judiciary in their difficult times and many of you will recall in the recent past there was a lawyers movement for the rule of law, many lawyers were beaten, they were taken to the jail, nobody worked for a whole year, not only the lawyers suffered, the litigants suffered and the country suffered. But at the end of it what we achieved was to be able to get the judges their jobs. I am afraid that the concept of rule of law has not improved tremendously, but yes the pay of judges has improved, and their pension has increased. So sometimes when you are in a movement, you have to think things through. And many of us now question the legal fraternity’s leadership that where did this movement go wrong, where did this movement begin to look at the judges rather than the concept of rule of law; were we really there to improve the administration of justice or were we there to put a single man back on the bench. Now these are questions that one does ask. So what I am saying to you is that you can be committed, yes, you want to do something for society and you may also be in a way taken in by a kind of a movement that you believe in but get pulled to different directions. So it is important not only simply to be an activist on the ground but to match your heart and mind together which will make you far more effective as an activist.
Finally I would like to end by giving you whatever little advice that I can. My first advise to you, my friends, is that never allow anyone to indignify you when you go out to work; not your employers, not your colleagues, nobody should be allowed to humiliate you. You must stand up for yourself and not only for yourself, for anyone that you find is being indignified before you. And secondly, I am a great believer in the fact that yes individuals can change the world but individuals can only change the world if they work together, if they build up institutions, if they take others along with them. And those individuals who fight a lonely battle will only change the surroundings immediately around them and that too momentarily. Therefore, I urge you, especially those who have graduated as lawyers, please don’t go look for a job, lawyers don’t get a job, come together some of you, put up your own practices, work together in firms and that is where I think you will give strength to each other. Similarly, when you go and graduate and you are going to contribute towards society, do not do everything by yourself. Try and collect people around you so that your burden is shared and learn a lot from the discourse that you have.
Let me finally end by saying that what I believe most are the values of human rights, the values are that we should live in a state which is free from fear; we should live a life that does not discriminate amongst the student of LUMS and students of Government College. And that there should not be any restriction on freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of expression. If you take these values with you, you will help the society to grow but if you shun these values, we will become as we are becoming - a frog in the well.
Thank you very much!