“I am part of you”
Between Jalila Haider’s practice as a lawyer in the district courts of Quetta and as an activist for the rights of the Hazara community, there is little rest and an even smaller window to catch her to talk about her life.
This past winter Jalila Haider was part of a pro-peace talk in Islamabad. Dressed in a long maroon kurta and black scarf around her neck, she read out a moving speech explaining her life and politics. Jalila is an activist, a social worker and the first female Hazara attorney. She stands for the security and dignity of ethnic Hazaras, a persecuted Shia minority in Quetta. As she weaved her personal life into her political, a vivid portrait began to emerge. With her guard down, Jalila opened the audiences’ eyes to her multitudes: her desire for justice, her free spirit, and her love of beauty and colour – one flows seamlessly into another.
She began with “talk of happy things”. Of being a young woman with a fondness for red and purple shades of lipstick. Lipstick, she remarked cheekily, is one of the rare joys men “haven’t monopolised yet”. The joke was not just a joke. She smirked with satisfaction but didn’t look up. She knows that those who can read between the lines, will know the political undertones of her comment, and those who can’t will laugh in exasperation — have they come here to listen to her talk about lipstick?
The magic of this statement is that it makes her someone approachable — someone who can be a friend, someone who can be trusted. Once this rapport is established, she skilfully moves to more ‘overtly’ political topics. Her stance as a hardcore feminist, someone who believes in equality, and her continuous struggle to restore the dignity and value of a Hazara life. The conversation is passionate and engaging but her tone is calm. Perhaps because this talk was taking place at a time (Feb 2019) when things could be labelled as ‘calmer’.
Her transition to summer, however, was difficult.
In March, a rumour linked Jalila to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and her name was subsequently put on Pakistan’s Exit Control List (ECL). She was barred from leaving the country. According to Dawn, “The reason behind her travel ban could not be ascertained”. “It was shocking because I was not even a part of PTM. As Marxists, we lend our support to mass movements in Pakistan. PTM is not an international Marxist movement, it is a Pashtun movement for their rights,” she tells me.
Jalila does not believe in putting the work of activism and living on hold, to talk about it. Perhaps, as a Hazara woman the stakes are much higher for her.
In April, a bomb planted in a gunny bag containing potatoes blew up in Quetta’s Hazarganji market; a market where Hazara vendors, escorted by military personnel, buy their fruits and vegetables. The targeted attack left nine Hazaras dead. The message had registered. Despite the peace that had lasted for about a year since the previous attack in April 2018, Hazaras still carried red targets on their backs.
Earlier, along with others from her community, Jalila had been composing an open letter to the army chief, expressing gratitude for the year-long peace. They were meant to publish the letter on May 1. But the blasts suspended these plans and Jalila again found herself at meetings, sit-ins and protests.
Shortly after burying their dead, on April 12, the community staged a sit-in on the Western Bypass, in the heart of Quetta.
“It is a personal fight. I don’t want to be shot in the street or on the square by unidentified people,” she says. Jalila’s own family — two uncles and their sons were shot in broad daylight in 2010. To date, the culprits have not been found.
Between her practice as a lawyer in the district courts of Quetta and as an activist for the rights of the Hazara community, there is little rest and an even smaller window to catch Jalila Haider to talk about her life. Jalila became a lawyer in 2011, after graduating from the University of Balochistan. Specialising in criminal litigation and human rights, she provides free legal aid and counselling to women who are more vulnerable because of poverty on issues like honour killing, domestic violence, marriage disputes and property rights.
Many Hazara women are reluctant to join the legal field professionally despite graduating; Jalila was the first to brave the odds. “I do have to take days off because of the security situation sometimes. But we have to fight for our own community’s rights and future. No one else can do this for us,” she remarks.
One could say that Jalila does not believe in putting the work of activism and living on hold, to talk about it. Perhaps, as a Hazara woman the stakes are much higher for her.
But some weeks ago, Jalila’s work was interrupted by fever. The kind that makes the rounds and is hard to escape when the weather is changing. An itchy throat and soon the body’s defences rise to the task, disrupting schedules and slowing life down. After a long string of protests and meetings, Jalila had taken ill and needed time to recuperate.
She is a hardcore feminist, someone who believes in equality, and her continuous struggle to restore the dignity and value of a Hazara life.
When I spoke to her, she was recovering.
I asked her to connect the dots for me, to tell me the story of how she began. Clearly, this is a question that she’s asked often, or maybe it’s one that she has thought of in great detail. She does not pause to mentally retrace her steps. Her own life changed very early on, she states, with “two events defining who she would become”.
“I must have been 13 years old when my father committed suicide. I think that was the first event, looking back,” she notes. She remembers how she struggled at school to cope with the emotional insensitivity and lack of warmth from her peers.
Though her father was a socialist, she adds, her own political awakening came after 9/11 changed the sociopolitical landscape. As Islamophobia spread in the US, many who had migrated from Pakistan to the US also returned. “Those from Quetta who had gone to the US were now coming back. They settled in our muhallas. I began thinking about the big political questions: What is America? What is this war on terror really about? I came to the conclusion that if not strictly a 100 per cent, almost close to a 100 per cent struggles in the world are class struggles and can be understood that way.”
These days she has been thinking about the April 2019 dharna and the evolving Hazara politics.
“Two Hazara MPAs said that this sit-in will block important routes and cause inconvenience. Instead of standing up for Hazara rights, having become a part of the power structure they acted like the sarkaar, and later even distanced themselves from the protestors, disowning them. The protestors were full of anger and anguish, ready to call off the sit-in even if a corps commander of the army had showed up — anyone but those Hazara MPAs,” she explains with emotion, as she recounts every detail.
There is something strangely powerful about Jalila’s voice, soft and youthful as it brims with emotion and sincerity, yet commanding enough to lead a procession. A sonorous timbre, that closes in the distance when you talk to her. It is the voice of someone who believes that this distance must be bridged.
But, when she puts pain into words, it is also with the knowledge that empathy alone cannot capture the feeling of being a Hazara at the receiving end of the violence. “The impossibility of ‘fellow feeling’ itself is the confirmation of injury,” writes Sarah Ahmed in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. And, Jalila knows this.
“As a community, we have come a long way from growing used to our own murders. But we, Hazara youth in particular, take to the streets now if there is injustice against us. I am hopeful.”
“Visit Quetta in plain clothes,” she had said to the army chief in an April 2018 interview to BBC Urdu. This was right after two Hazara men were shot in an act of targeted violence against the community. “Visit and let people think you are a Pashtun, a Hazara, a Baloch. Then I will take you to every checkpost, every muhalla, every street, every nook and corner of this city on a rickshaw. I will show you how [with how much difficulty and fear] these people [Hazaras] commute on a daily basis.”
Throughout this BBC Urdu interview, she maintained eye contact with the interviewer, again closing the distance but guided by the idea that this pain is personal and the fight, as a Hazara, was personal: You may tell this story, it may be your job, but you have not even come close to living it. Pain, as Elaine Scarry also points out, in her work The Body in Pain, ‘shatters’ language and communication. Transcribing pain, is easier said than done.
In April 2018, post the BBC interview, Jalila led a death fast after a round of targeted shootings on Hazaras, only agreeing to call it off on the condition that the army chief would visit and ensure security to the community. It would be disingenuous to construe her hunger strike to death as merely a duel of wills with the state. As she talks of these things in detail, the linkages become clearer. Seen in the context of the Hazara struggle, is a hymn to an imagined life – ripe with potentialities and possibilities, and a rejection of life as merely biological occurrence. It also boils down to the question of the worth of a Hazara life.
Reflecting on the 2018 hunger strike now, she says it was a necessary step: the environment was thick with fear, and the point was to communicate that the Hazaras’ mission was “life itself”. She talks of children and young people being able to go to picnic points, and as far as Bolan and Machh before the attack this year, during that ‘almost one year’ of calm. She talks of them travelling through the expanse of Balochistan, even down south to Gwadar. “We have photographs, it really did happen. They would send us beautiful photographs – happy ones from their travels,” she reminisces.
Jalila places her hope in the Hazara youth and their desire to live freely. And it is this hope that drives her. “As a community, we have come a long way from growing used to our own murders. But we, Hazara youth in particular, take to the streets now if there is injustice against us. I am hopeful. I place my hope in the people,” she says. She is most proud of making efforts to strengthen links between the youth and building solidarity by encouraging interethnic dialogue.
Jalila is here to stay, to challenge the present order, and rebuild the future for her community. In these pursuits, she is relentless.
“I still live in Quetta, travel in rickshaws, have minimum [funds in my] bank account like other young people. You can still see me standing at Quetta Press Club with anyone who questions injustice. I am part of you.”
*The interview with Jalila was conducted in Urdu and has been translated.
Correction: Earlier this essay stated that Jalila was 18 when her father passed, this has been corrected.