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 savored 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.
Asma 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 honor 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."
News of her courage is spreading abroad. Four years ago Time magazine declared her an "Asian hero"; this week's New Yorker called her Pakistan's answer to Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. But what matters to Jahangir is what people in Pakistan think. And for them she is just one thing: the woman to call when in trouble. In February, in the port city of Karachi, I met one of those she has saved. Abid Zaidi, a Shia student falsely accused of involvement in a bombing, had been abducted by the intelligence agencies, illegally imprisoned for months and ruthlessly tortured. Word reached Jahangir that he was missing. One day, Zaidi told me, an army officer stood over him in a dirty cell in Lahore, interrogating and berating him. Then he asked a question: "What the hell do you have to do with Asma Jahangir?" A few days later, Zaidi was free.
Jahangir says many others have "disappeared" in Pakistan since 2001. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a collective of lawyers and activists that she helped found in 1986, has recorded hundreds of cases. For her, it is a symptom of the moral corruption of the military dictatorship under General Musharraf, funded and encouraged by his great ally in the "war on terror", the United States. But now, as various crises explode across the country, the house of cards is starting to burn. "The military is not a solution, it's a problem - particularly under Musharraf," she says. "If your people don't really believe or respect you, if you don't have the moral authority to rule, then your goose is cooked. He's trying and his foreign allies are helping him. But there is a big disconnect between him and the people. And that's a very serious problem."
Certainly, Pakistan is entering perilous waters. The siege of the Red Mosque this month turned a corner of the capital, Islamabad, into a war zone. More than 100 people died. Since then Islamist extremists have unleashed a wave of suicide bombs across the country - three on Thursday alone, in which 50 people died. General Musharraf has appealed for unity, something his followers say bleeding-heart liberals such as Jahangir can never achieve in a complex, conflicted country such as Pakistan. The minister of state for information, Tariq Azim Khan, says: "She's a great campaigner but has lost credibility because of her involvement in opposition circles. People like her should keep themselves away from politics."
But Jahangir cannot turn away from injustice. Over lunch she broke off the conversation to catch the ear of a passing clerk. "You know I've been coming here for years yet we still don't have a women's toilet," she admonishes softly. The man spluttered an explanation in Urdu; she cut him off: "I've had to use the men's toilet, you know." The man skulked away.
Being a gadfly is in Jahangir's blood. Her father, Malik Jilani, was a civil servant who resigned in protest after Pakistan's first military coup, in 1958. He entered leftwing, liberal politics, guaranteeing himself countless spells in jail. As a teenager, Jahangir remembers, intelligence men in ill-fitting suits would wait in cars outside the family home in Lahore. When she was 13, the violence came to her door. A journalist and a politician were shot outside her house. One died; Jahangir helped take the other to hospital. "We saw the trail of blood running into the room. That was the first time I saw human bloodshed," she says.
Jahangir launched her own rebellion in 1969 with a women's march to the residence of the governor of Punjab. She trained as a lawyer and in 1980 set up Pakistan's first all-female legal firm with her younger sister Hina and two others. The fundamentalist military dictator General Muhammad Zia Ul Haq had seized power; there was plenty of work for the idealists. Jailed for leading protests against the Hudood ordinances, a harsh set of laws that, among other grotesqueries, denied justice to rape victims, Jahangir befriended a blind woman who had been raped then convicted of "adultery". Since then, she says, she has rarely been able to say "no". "What else can you do? Otherwise you just have to pack up and go home," she says. "But I didn't think women's issues would turn out to be so dangerous - that you take on the case of a 20-year-old who wants to marry, then you have people coming into court trying to kill you."
Unsurprisingly, it's been a dangerous journey. In 1999 a gunman burst into Jahangir's offices and shot dead Samia Imran, a battered wife seeking a divorce. One of the bullets missed her sister Hina by a couple of feet. Some years back a gang of assassins broke into Jahangir's house, but were detected and scared away. Jahangir later discovered they came from a sectarian militant outfit called Sunni Tehrik, but she believes the orders were given by the government. She sent her children, who are now grown up, to boarding school in England after their lives were threatened by militants. "They were very young at the time," she says, pointing across the table at her daughter, now a journalist. "I just couldn't take the tension of them being there."
Slavery-like conditions, honor killings, horrible disfigurements - why does so much bad news come out of Pakistan? "Look, crime takes place in every country," she says. "But it becomes abuse when the state is unwilling and unable to protect the life and honor of its citizens. That is the shocking part of it, and under Musharraf it has got much worse." In corners of Punjab or Sindh, she says, powerful feudal landlords, police chiefs and judges run their personal mafias. "It's very frustrating," she says with a sigh.
There have been victories along the way. This year the Hudood ordinances were repealed, although pressure from religious parties ensured many restrictions remained. Thanks to pressure from the HRCP and other groups, hundreds of "disappeared" people have been freed or accounted for. A list of more than 400 names has been whittled down to 97, she says.
But few victories can have been as sweet as that of yesterday afternoon, a few hours after our interview, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the chief justice. General Musharraf's case against him was "illegal"; Mr Chaudhry should be immediately reinstated.
In the courtroom, lawyers punched the air and hugged each other. Some wept. Jahangir beamed like the sun, swept along in a great wave of people that poured out of the courthouse. For once, words escaped her. "Unbelievable. Unbelievable," she cries, struggling to keep her feet. "I'm just speechless. Speechless."
A throng of cameras waited outside. "This is one of the high points of the past 30 years," she says. "People had started to give up. They thought the military was invincible, that nobody could stand up to them. Well, now people have stood up to them, while upholding the rule of law. Today I am a very proud Pakistani."
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007