With no beautician at hand at Lahore Jail, Pakistani lawyer-activist Asma Jahangir and her 13 friends took turns waxing and threading each other. A prison term — under a military order for allegedly waging war against Pakistan — did not, after all, take away their desire to look good.
What proved useful in prison were the tips Asma picked up from her politician father, Malik Jilani, an old hand at serving prison terms given his opposition to military regimes in Pakistan. Rule one: take lots of cash to bribe your way through. Rule two: never let the authorities sense your anxiety or fear. Rule three: befriend every inmate.
Asma followed each to the core, but realised that the language of money worked best. As for fear, whenever the jail authorities saw the women in their makeshift beauty parlour, he concluded that they were in no hurry to leave.
The first night in jail was tough though. Apart from wondering how difficult prison must have been for her father, Asma was also anxious that her husband, Tahir Jahangir, would spend a sleepless night fretting about her. Little did she know that he was so busy partying that he would come to know of her arrest only the next morning. Worse still, he was more upset about public and family reactions to Asma’s ‘deeds’ than her state.
Tahir was not an exception to the chauvinistic rule in Pakistan. Given her views on women’s rights, men avoided Asma like the plague. At social dos, they would tell her to keep away from their wives. “Please don’t teach them your equality nonsense,” they would say. It is but ironic that two decades later, some of them pleaded with her to enroll their daughters as interns in the profession. Tahir, too, has come a long way. From not taking Asma’s threats of taking up legal practice seriously, he is now smug about her success.
‘Billo’ to her parents, Asma had a conservative upbringing. Like “normal and good girls”, she was not allowed to even look at boys. As a teenager, Asma broke all rules. Not only did she sneak out for coffee with her friends’ brothers, but also made lots of prank calls to boys. She rejected every marriage proposal on the grounds that they were “neat, clean, educated, non-smoking and terribly boring” men.
She fell in love with Tahir and decided to marry him, despite the fact that he took four years to say ‘yes’ to her. “I guess he wanted a normal, domesticated wife,” says Asma, who played the role for six years till it got too much. Then, he bought her a car to drop their children to school, and Asma tasted freedom.