DATE March 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Pakistani lawyer and civil rights activist Asma Jahangir
talks about women's and worker rights in Pakistan
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Asma Jahangir, has been met with death threats in response to her
work with Pakistan's women's and human rights movements. Last week she was
one of six winners of the new Millennium Peace Prize for Women which is
co-sponsored by the UN Development Fund for Women and the London-based human
rights group International Alert. Jahangir and her sister, who also won a
Millennium Peace Prize, were founders of the Women's Action Forum to help
women obtain divorces from abusive husbands. In 1981 they founded the first
all-women's law firm in Pakistan and, in '86, they founded the Pakistan Human
Rights Commission, which Jahangir headed. In 1998, the UN Commission on Human
Rights appointed Jahangir special rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary and
One of the issues she's taken on is so-called honor killings, a custom in
which male relatives kill a female relative who has dishonored the family by,
for example, committing adultery, divorcing a husband or being the victim of
rape. In 1999, honor killing in Pakistan came to international attention
through the case of Samia Sarwar, a 29-year-old woman trying to divorce her
husband. Sarwar's lawyer was Jahangir's sister. Jahangir helped on the case.
When Sarwar first came to the law office, she was afraid.
Ms. ASMA JAHANGIR: Well, she expressed fear for her life and her parents
contacted me, in fact, and asked to see her. And I arranged one meeting with
her parents, after which she went into our study, started talking to them
and then run into my office saying, `They have come here to kill me. Please
get me out of here.' And I could see the expression on her face was very
fearsome, so I just got her by the hand and took her to my colleague's room
and said, `Just get her out of this office. She's very scared.' We had a
small meeting in the office and we knew that this was a case where we will
have to really protect our client.
Her parents went to another very senior lawyer, who called up my assistant and
said that the meeting should be scheduled again with the parents. Samia,
herself, just wanted to meet just the mother and said that she would only meet
the mother, so it was arranged between the two lawyers that the mother would
come to the office.
She came in limping, pretending to have something wrong with her foot and had
a man helping her.
GROSS: The mother came in limping.
Ms. JAHANGIR: The mother came in limping. As she opened the door to the
office of my sister, who works in the same office and next door, this man
just picked up his gun and shot at the girl and she died instantly because my
sister says she bent down to see and she was there no more. And we have,
since, many years, a police guard in the office. And this uncle and the other
chap tried to shoot at him. The police shot back and the killer, himself,
died on the staircase of our office.
Subsequently, we did bring the uncle to trial and the family. The uncle
admitted that he had conspired to kill her, but in our country there is a law
for which we have fought for years, which says that the family can forgive the
murderer. And in the case of honor killings, it is always the family that
murders women. And so he was forgiven, but we are still in appeal because we
feel that, as lawyers, we can at least give them a run for their money and
their sleep, if nothing else. And I certainly do believe that this is one of
the cases where people were outraged. It has become a big issue, but, before
this, there were many other cases.
GROSS: Why did the family, in this instance, want the woman killed? Why did
the mother want her own daughter killed?
Ms. JAHANGIR: I mean, it is something that you're asking me that I've never
been able to explain to myself. Very recently I was in Turkey, for example,
and I met a mother in jail who had also killed her daughter. And when I asked
her, `Why did you do it?' And she said, `She was my own flesh and blood. I
was just compelled to do it.' I don't know what one is to take from here.
And why do they kill is a kind of dehumanization that is just pent up inside,
plus a society that has disrespect for women and a state that will not protect
women, but I find--absolutely what I cannot accept is that the state should be
neutral in such a case.
GROSS: You took on a case defending a woman named Samia Wahid(ph). She had
married against the wishes of her family and her father wanted the courts to
declare that marriage illegal because she chose her own husband against her
family's wishes. Is that illegal; choosing your own husband?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, under the law, it's not illegal, but there had been
isolated cases where bigoted judges had said that it was illegal. And all
those cases were brought in this case, and that's why they wanted a final
decision. And the fact of this case is because you belong to a family, which
is an Islamist family; very fundamentalist, very much militant family, that
everybody was scared to, you know, take up this case. Everybody was scared to
rule on it and there were demonstrations by their, you know--people whom they
sat with, like the fundamentalists, themselves. The Islamists, I would call
them. And there were these arguments and there was this fear that the
Pandora's box would open. And all this was said in court. Even there, the
question of honor kept coming back and forth. And it was repulsive to me
because when they are talking about honor, what kind of an honorable thing is
that to get your daughter into court and humiliate her? What kind of honor is
that that you get your daughter into police stations?
GROSS: So what was the outcome of the trial? Did you win the case?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Yes, we won the case. That's not the point. The girl
couldn't stay in Pakistan. That is the sad point of it.
GROSS: Was she--she had to flee the country after the case?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Yes. She is now living in Norway with her husband and has a
very beautiful child.
GROSS: What kind of...
Ms. JAHANGIR: And she's writing a book about herself.
GROSS: What kind of precedent were you hoping to set with this trial?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, one, that we will not be browbeaten. Second, we will
not accept jokes on bench to intimidate women lawyers.
GROSS: Now there have been groups that have put a price on your head and are
calling for your death. What groups have been doing that?
Ms. JAHANGIR: There are four or five such groups which are militant Jihadi
groups, as we call them in Pakistan.
GROSS: What does that mean?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Which means that they believe in holy wars and killing
infidels. Yes, that is true. There is head money. That is true that I
cannot walk around in Pakistan without a guard. It is true that I even
sometimes go in a police car where the intelligence feels that there is
imminent danger. I have come very close to death; seen it with my own, you
know, sort of eyes; my car being smashed to smithereens and my family was
taken hostage. So all this has--I have seen it and that is why a greater
commitment to continue to have a society that is more democratic and more
GROSS: What are the main issues? Like, if you could set new precedents in
Pakistan, what are the first issues you'd want to take on?
Ms. JAHANGIR: You know, everything is just very connected, there, so you
can't say that if you will make the country secular and democratic, then
everything will follow. You have to do that. And I don't believe that you
can call yourself democratic unless you don't have a backbone, which is a
strong, independent, judicial system because justice and democracy must go
hand in hand.
Our foreign policy--I mean, can you imagine that we have recognized the
Taliban; people who go around, you know, destroying statues, who don't allow
women to come out? So that needs to be changed. We need to support more
GROSS: And in terms of women's issues, what are the laws that you'd--laws or
customs that you'd most like to change in Pakistan?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, many laws. There are many discriminatory laws. For
example, the law of rape, law of adultery, the law of evidence, family laws,
because that affects ever women. And, mind you, women's destiny in Pakistan
is very much connected to the political system that we adopt.
GROSS: You mentioned adultery. You defended over 300 women accused of
adultery. What is the penalty?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, the highest penalty is stoning to death, which has never
been executed, but then it's anything up to 10 years of punishment and 30
whippings in public. Fortunately, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, she
banned public whipping of women; banned whipping of women, period, which was a
marvelous thing she did, but women do get arrested and it's not in ones or
twos. It's in thousands.
GROSS: Of the women who you've defended who were accused of adultery, do you
think that most of them actually committed adultery or were these, sometimes,
trumped up charges to punish the woman?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, frankly, let me tell you, as a lawyer, I don't even
bother and I don't even ask them whether they committed adultery or not. It's
their business and--but there are some cases which were horrific. For
example--and these are not cases that I have done. These are cases that have
been reported. A 13-year-old girl whose uncle said that she had been raped by
her cousin and the court felt that the cousin--they had to be given benefit of
doubt, but since this child had got pregnant as a consequence of that rape,
she was arrested. She was, first, given a hundred stripes in public and, on
appeal, the court said, which I find--you know, something inside me says, `How
can you do that?'--says that, `We believe that, in our society, justice
and--should be done and we have to be kind to children. Therefore, we only
give her five years.' I said, `Huh'--you know, when I'm reading it, I thought
now they will say, `We'll release her,' but five years. I mean, that's the
kind of kindness they show to, you know, young girls.
That case--there have been cases of a widow who gave birth to her child after
her husband died, like a few months later. She was in jail when I met her and
she kept telling me, `My husband only died five months ago.' It took me six
months--and my colleague--to find her death certificate--her husband's death
certificate. Well, she was released after a year and a half, but she had
seven kids who were destroyed in the process. And this woman was destroyed.
I real--you know, I remember her words, which always stuck in my mind. And
she looks up at the sky and says, `Well, you up there, if you couldn't give us
anything, for God's sake, don't give us that kind of injustice, too.'
GROSS: Now you're not just involved with women's rights cases. You also
handle cases of workers who are just about slave laborers. What industry have
you been working in?
Ms. JAHANGIR: I have worked in the bricklin(ph) industry, as a lawyer, where
many families were enslaved, like, bonded labor, forced labor. They were
given sums of money and then kept for generations, enslaved to the employer.
Subsequently, this organization that I headed, Human Rights Commission of
Pakistan, worked ...(unintelligible) with the hadis(ph), the agricultural
workers. We are continuing to work there and my colleagues, there, have done
fantastic work. They have got thousands of people released.
GROSS: And how did slave labor become one of the issues that you took on?
Ms. JAHANGIR: It--you know, these issues just--you come across them. You
stumble across them. There was a nun who came to me and said this women had
been raped in a bricklin. I went to her and I realized it was not just a
matter of a woman being raped. It was a whole system that was so wrong,
there; the bonded labor system. And that's how I started working with the
church, there, and then a few other organizations, I found, were also working.
And so I coordinated, unhappily, with even organizations that I didn't like,
but one had to do it. And so that's how I took this on, using the instrument
of law for their liberation, using media for campaign, using the opportunity
of hearings in court to organize them into unions. So it really worked very
And, again, you know, you must realize one doesn't work alone. You have
friends in the media who will say, `Oh, great. This thing--this is a story
and we feel so bad about it. We have to cover it.' And then you have other
people in the--even government who will say, `Yes. Bring us a draft. We'll
do something about it.' And then there are others who will say, `Yes. We
will come,' like, theater groups. They made plays out of it. And, so, others
who organized them as unions. And that is the fun, you know. When you look
at it from far, you say, `This woman is under threat. What to hell is she
doing?' But I tell you, if I was born again, I'd do it again because it's
fun. You work with people who work with their hearts.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Asma Jahangir and she just won
one of the new Millennium Peace Prizes for Women, which is co-sponsored by the
UN Development Fund for Women.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Asma Jahangir and she is one of the recipients of the new
Millennium Peace Prize for Women, which is co-sponsored by the UN Development
Fund for Women and the International Alert, which is a London-based human
rights group. She's the former head of the Human Rights Commission of
Pakistan and is also a women's rights activist and lawyer in Pakistan.
When you were growing up in Pakistan, were you from a family that believed in
Ms. JAHANGIR: I don't think that women's rights was an issue at that point,
but I believe that there was not much discrimination that I saw around me. I
was treated the same way as my brother was. However, I did see a lot of
domestic violence on women around me and that used to upset me.
GROSS: In your own family or neighbors' families?
Ms. JAHANGIR: In my own extended family.
GROSS: What did you see?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Husbands sort of--beating of women; screaming at them;
thinking that they must obey them--the question of obeying, you know, the men.
You know, I was, in one way, very fortunate because my father was a
politician, always, in the opposition, so he spent about seven years of his
life in jail, so, I mean, you know, that way my mother was busy going back and
forth and so we grew up, as I said, as wild weeds, the four of us.
GROSS: What was your father in jail for?
Ms. JAHANGIR: He believed in, you know, sort of--he was against military
government, so that is why he was in jail constantly.
GROSS: Now you said when you were growing up, you were treated the same way
that your brother was and that women's rights wasn't the kind of issue that it
is now. Did you observe things starting to change? Did you observe the
climate becoming more restrictive and discriminatory for women?
Ms. JAHANGIR: I observed it; plus, I experienced it because I--when I got
married, I realized, `My God.' I mean, you know, the expectations for a woman
is to change and mold herself to something that she's not.
GROSS: What was expected of you when you got married?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, I was expected to be a good, obedient, girl and I was
GROSS: Expected by who; by your husband, his family, society?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, by my husband, by the family. My husband, more or less,
knew me, but was always on edge because the `my' would come out from inside me
and I was supposed to be this dutiful daughter-in-law and this lovely mother,
cake baker. I was not. I didn't want to be and I was miserable. And so when
I had my first two daughters and I looked at myself in the mirror, you know, I
had never been fat. I was getting fat all in the wrong places. And I looked
like a little potato and dump. And I realized, `No. This is not me and I
will not live a life of somebody else.' That is when I thought the next day,
`Out, Asma Jahangir. Out, now.' And I went, took the car keys, drove off to
a friend, who was a lawyer, and said, `Let's start law firm.' And that's how
GROSS: And did you--do you feel like the law or the culture around you became
more conservative. Do you feel that women lost any of their rights during the
course of your life?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, in the days that I was going to college, it--there was
freedom, I must say, in the sense of personal freedom. You could bicycle.
You could wear what you wanted to. And then in '80s came Mr. Zia-ul-Haq,
supported by the West; the champion, the liberator of everything except women.
And he put into place a policy and laws which were very anti-women. So it had
its effect--a very unhealthy effect on the lives of women.
GROSS: What were some of the laws he put into effect when he was head of
Ms. JAHANGIR: One of the laws was the law of adultery, for example, where a
victim of rape can run the risk of being arrested, herself. That was him--the
law--the same law that he started it, which, subsequently, became law of
forgiving a murderer. So, I mean, you know, he was, really, an evil man. I'm
sorry to say that. It's very difficult for me, as an Eastern person, to say
that about somebody who's not there, but he was. So it had, that way, an
But on the other hand, there was--there has been more awareness amongst women
and you see students, now, more aware of their right; more assertive. We were
not assertive of our rights. We got to know it later.
GROSS: But I'm sure there's also a lot of women in Pakistan who think that
the restrictions on women are just a part of their culture or religion and,
therefore, they have to accept it. Have you ever tried to convince women like
that that they shouldn't have to accept these restrictions?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Of course, there are a large number of women who find a lot of
satisfaction in religious norms and they accept it as the will of God. One
does try and have a dialogue with them, if one can say it. You cannot force
people to think differently, but I have also experienced something that when a
woman is in crisis and the choice is between herself and her religion, it's
herself, mind you. For example, we do cases--custody cases and woman will
come and say, `What does Islamic law say?'--and that a boy, after the age of
seven, has to go to the husband. And I ask her, `What do you think?' She
says, `It's not fair.' Well, if Islamic laws say that, will you drop your
case. No, she's not going to drop her case, so...
GROSS: She wants custody, is what you're saying.
Ms. JAHANGIR: She wants custody. So the point is that it--as long as it
suits you; gives you that kind of security around you, fine, but if it
doesn't, then you have to, first, fight for your own rights; first, fight for
your own satisfaction. And women in Pakistan are no different. Mind you, the
ordinary woman in Pakistan is a very wise woman. She's a survivor, a great
GROSS: What's your religious background.
Ms. JAHANGIR: I am a Muslim, by birth.
GROSS: Do you practice?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Well, I don't, in the sense that I think that religion is
something that you are born into it, most of the people. And so that is it.
I am God-fearing and that's enough for me, wherever she is.
GROSS: Asma Jahangir is a women's rights and human rights lawyer in Pakistan.
Last week she was one of six winners of the new Millennium Peace Prize for
Women. She'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Asma Jahangir, a woman's
rights and human rights lawyer in Pakistan. Last week, she was one of six
winners of the new Millennium Peace Prize for Women. But in her own country,
her work has been met with death threats and attacks on her family.
Are there religious fundamentalist groups that have become more powerful in
Pakistan and are asserting themselves in the government and in the legal
system and who are your opposition? In other words, is there a rise of
fundamentalism in Pakistan the way there is, say, in Afghanistan?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Of course, there has been a rise. I wouldn't even call it
fundamentalism. I would call it militancy in the name of Islam. And because
they were fighting first the Jihad against, you know, the Soviet Union, and
they are now fighting Jihad against each other, both--Muslims. I mean, you
know--so how much can you call them fundamentalists? But they have become in
powers. They have got a lot of money from various--probably governments and
people outside the country who fund them. They are armed to the teeth.
They are entrenched in all institutions of Pakistan, whether it's judiciary,
lawyers, education, ministries, politicians, and they have a very strong
network. And I have experienced this because I have been on the receiving
end. It's like if you put your finger on the pulse of one, they all feel the
finger on their pulse. It's that kind a network, you know. You twist one
person's arm and you will hear the scream of the fifth person who's in another
department. So that's how you know how strong their networks are. And our
government has been unable to do anything about it because of their foreign
GROSS: Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I think one of the groups that is
calling for your death is the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce.
Ms. JAHANGIR: Yes.
GROSS: They've been demanded that you be arrested and hanged for creating a
bad name for Pakistan and for encouraging girls and women to rebel against
their families. I mean, I imagine in a way you'd plead guilty to that latter
part, encouraging girls and women to rebel against their families, if their
families refused to give them any freedoms.
Ms. JAHANGIR: I just don't even react to this. I think bully to them. I
mean, if the Chamber of Commerce is passing such edicts, how seriously do you
expect me to take that Chamber of Commerce? Obviously, because one of their
members' daughter's had rebelled, they all felt that the chamber has now
suddenly got the powers to protect money. Really--I mean, this is heat of the
moment, this is trying to intimidate, this is trying to harass, and I refuse
to get harassed and intimidated by the likes of the chamber members.
GROSS: But how do you function in your country when the Chamber of Commerce
has put a price on your head?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Because I have a sense of humor, and I can get...
GROSS: That is kind of a help, yeah.
Ms. JAHANGIR: ...up in the morning and read and I can say, `Oh, bloody hell.
Tell them to go away. Whatever! Whatever! Whatever! Whatever!'
GROSS: But I'd imagine--I mean, the Chamber of Commerce usually represents
all the local store owners. Does this mean you can't go into any store
because all the businessmen want to see you hanged?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Believe me, that is not the case. After this great resolution
of theirs, I was invited by the University of Peshawar and I went there. I
was received by a large number of students and teachers. The chamber called
up the university vice chancellor and said I could not have the meeting in the
university. It was shifted to a hotel which was jam-packed, jam-packed. And
people from the Chamber of Commerce came to me and said, `We are terribly
sorry. We really were not there. We are not part of it.' I move very freely
in Peshawar and there is no such thing as animosity on the ground. It's these
groups. It's these fundamentalist groups or militias or, you know, sort of
Mafias. And Mafias--if you're beginning to take Mafia sort of seriously, you
have to take Mafias as they are. They are criminals. And take them as they
GROSS: So what kind of protection do you have?
Ms. JAHANGIR: I have protection. I have police protection. I have personal
bodyguards. I have three sets of them. But believe me, this is really
psychological for the family. If they want to get me, they can get me. And
every time that I have been saved, it's been by coincidence.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Ms. JAHANGIR: An example: That a man came to my office with a briefcase.
Sat right across from me saying he wants to give me some donation. And I
said, `I don't take donation like this.' And he was about to open his
briefcase. I said, `No, don't do that, because I don't take donations.' And
I could see he was sweating a little bit. So there's a button under my, you
know, table and I rang it and one person who guards me came and opened the
door and sat there. And then this man had a cup of tea with me and went away.
And subsequently, I was told that he had gone and killed one of the judges in
one of the cases where I had fought for this young boy who was accused of
blasphemy and this judge had acquitted him. And so it was the same man who
sat right across me. He had come to kill me because the same day he killed
GROSS: What was this case? Tell us more about the case.
Ms. JAHANGIR: This was three people, including one boy who was 14 years old.
And the allegation against him was that he had committed blasphemy; written
something on the wall of a mosque. Nobody would say what he'd written because
if they said it, that would be blasphemy, too. So no lawyer would take the
case. The one who did initially--they have put kerosene on his
chambers--around his chamber and threatened him, so he left the case. And
that's how I then took the case. And this young boy had heard my name in the
jail and told a group of people who went there, `Why didn't this woman come
for me?' And I found that really very touching, and so I did take up this
case. And it was basically this case that really put me into, say, the
chamber, so to speak, and that is when I started getting official protection.
That was a very, very ugly case. You know, there were hundreds of people
outside the courtroom asking for their death, my death. One out of three of
them was shot dead outside the court. And these two who were finally
acquitted--first convicted of death penalty, then finally acquitted, were
flown off to Germany by the government, because they couldn't keep them there.
And the judge who acquitted them, one of them--there were two judges--one was
murdered. And it was on this case that the five people came and took my
family hostage--my brother, his kids--and wanted him to call me. But
somehow--that was the worst, I think, that I've experienced in my life, and
the kind of ammunition that they got. So they were arrested. They were
found. But the man who sent them was not arrested, because nobody dared
arrest him because he was such a big Islamic scholar. A scholar who's never
read a book in his life.
GROSS: So did you ever find out what it was that this boy was alleged to have
written that was so blasphemous?
Ms. JAHANGIR: No, I didn't because they wouldn't say what. And...
Ms. JAHANGIR: Yeah. And he was convicted first, mind you, on an evidence of
saying, `He wrote something, but we can't say what.' And out of the three
people who were supposed to have seen what he's written, one said that he
hadn't seen it. And--I mean, it was a case of no evidence. But the
atmosphere that they created there--that is so harrowing, the atmosphere. It
So the first lesson is that you take terror out of your heart and mind and
throw it away. Otherwise you can't fight it.
GROSS: Now when you say that--I mean, are you prepared to die for the causes
that you support?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Look, nobody thinks about it in this way. I am certainly not
a martyr kind of a person. I love my life. But if one has to, then there is
nothing more nobler a cause that I can think of. And apart from everything
else, please try and understand I really enjoy what I do. I love it. It's
life for me. I cannot bear to live where there is so much injustice and I
cannot do something about it. What kind of a torturous life is that?
GROSS: Now you just became one of the first recipients of the new Millennium
Peace Prize for Women. You and five other women were the first women to get
this award, and this was just a few days ago. And the award is co-sponsored
by the UN Development Fund for Women and a human rights group called
International Alert. Do you think that winning this award will help you in
any way in Pakistan?
Ms. JAHANGIR: Winning this award is important for me, because it places far
more responsibility on me. And this award is for peace. I take this award as
an incentive for further initiatives. And this award I have accepted in the
name of the activist women of the subcontinent. I think that it is not us.
It has been the Indian women just as much as us who took the initiative for
peace. By `we,' I mean women of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. And activist
women I am talking about have been able to rise above boundaries, have been
able to reach out to each other, have been able to express our fears and
terrors in the face of violence and wars that loom around our atmosphere. So
I take it in their name. And I will take this award to Delhi, to share it
with my friends there, and then hopefully we can do the same and take it to
Tahka(ph). So it is just a small, often--opportunity of strengthening of our
bond. There is truly sisterhood, global, in that subcontinent.
GROSS: Well, you know, I'm wondering about that, about how much of an
international women's movement you feel. You know, how connected you feel to
women's movements in other countries?
Ms. JAHANGIR: I don't really look at it in terms of women's movement. I
look at it in terms of human rights movement.
Ms. JAHANGIR: And I am very much connected. I really did start as a human
rights person. I mean, women's rights is a very important part of my life,
but I think that women will only get their rights if other people get it, too.
So, for me, children's rights, for me, the rights of religious minorities, the
right of labor is important. So, yes, I feel very strongly with them. I find
a lot of support. It has helped my work.
In fact, in times when I've been in extreme danger, it has been our friends
around the globe that have made life miserable for our foreign minister who
told me that `Sacks and sacks of letters come for you.' And it made life
miserable for our interior minister who once just scratched his head and said,
`Can you tell them to stop writing, please? I've heard it.' You know, I
said, `I cannot tell them to stop writing, 'cause I do not know where they
are. And you need to hear it again and again and you will keep hearing. And
as long as I am living under threat, you will keep hearing.'
GROSS: Asma Jahangir, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. JAHANGIR: Thank you.
GROSS: And I wish you good luck and safety.
Ms. JAHANGIR: Thank you.
GROSS: Asma Jahangir is a women's rights and human rights lawyer in Pakistan.
Last week, she was one of six winners of the new Millennium Peace Prize for
Women. Her work is featured in Speak Truth to Power, a human rights project
presenting stories of women and men who have stood up to oppression at great
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews Ralph Gleason's "Jazz Casual" TV series,
which is being released on video and DVD.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Profile: Ralph Gleason's "Jazz Casual" series, a collection of
Gleason's 1960 TV show
TERRY GROSS, host:
Critic Kevin Whitehead says one unintended consequence of Ken Burns' recent
19-hour jazz series is to highlight how infrequently PBS covers jazz at all.
When it has, Kevin says, we've been treated to misguided efforts, like a 1980s
tribute to Duke Ellington that trotted out actor Treat Williams to sing "Satin
Doll." By contrast, the 1960s was a golden age of jazz on American TV with
locally produced series like "Jazz Scene USA," "Frankly Jazz" and "Jazz
Casual." "Jazz Casual" is now being released in a series of DVDs and home
videos. Kevin has a review.
(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Art Farmer on flugelhorn and Jim Hall on guitar from a segment of "Jazz
Casual" aired in 1964. It's one of three newly released episodes; the others
featuring the Jerry Mulligan Quartet and Woody Herman's Big Band. "Jazz
Casual" was an occasional half-hour show produced between 1960 and '68 for
National Educational Television, the forerunner of PBS. Fourteen episodes
have been issued so far on individual videocassettes from Rhino, who have also
put out a few on DVD--three shows per disk. Looking at the latest batch,
prompted me to go back and watch the rest of the series. It's a textbook
example of the right way to present jazz on TV.
(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)
WHITEHEAD: Sonny Rollins from an exceptional 1962 broadcast with Jim Hall,
again, on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums. Each episode
of "Jazz Casual" was crammed with music from the opening seconds till the
final fade out. Two cameras covered the action in close-ups and medium shots.
After the first tune, the leader would be interviewed for a few minutes by the
show's host and producer, critic Ralph Gleason. He put musicians at ease with
his body language--slouching in a chair, legs crossed, elbows out and fingers
interlaced. He's casual, but attentive. Gleason asks good questions and
never wastes time with small talk, zeroing in on the music. Here he is with
Sonny Rollins, not the easiest guy to interview, trying to get at the nuts and
bolts of his group improvising.
(Soundbite of "Jazz Casual")
Mr. RALPH GLEASON (Host): Do you ever vary the tempos in which you play
tunes from performance to performance?
Mr. SONNY ROLLINS (Musician): Occasionally, although we usually have a set
idea of what would be the best tempo for any particular song. And there might
be very slight--not too much. It might go a little bit faster, a little
Mr. GLEASON: Yeah.
Mr. ROLLINS: ...but, by and large, I think we do everything about the same
thing that we agree upon.
Mr. GLEASON: How about key? Do you ever change the key on anything?
Mr. ROLLINS: Yeah, we do that. And we're just beginning to do a lot more of
that, to play in keys in which we might not have played in too much before.
So now we play the same song and we're beginning to play it in different keys.
And, of course, each key gives it a different sound. Once again, it makes it
a little different. The same notes...
Mr. GLEASON: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. ROLLINS: ...in different key would produce a different color, you know.
Mr. GLEASON: This makes you think about it in a new way then.
Mr. ROLLINS: Definitely. Yeah.
Mr. GLEASON: Produces new versions then.
Mr. ROLLINS: Exactly.
Mr. GLEASON: Yeah.
Mr. ROLLINS: Very interesting.
WHITEHEAD: For a few episodes, Gleason varies his own formula a bit. He sits
at the piano and talks about the good old days in Kansas City and elsewhere
with blues shouter Jimmy Rushing who's a good piano player, and also with
Count Basie who appears in a compact quartet.
(Soundbite of "Jazz Casual")
Unidentified Man: But really the main guy that really influenced me was
Thomas. That's Fats Waller. That was the man that I really did idolize
'cause Fats taught me how to play what little bit of organ that I do know.
And I used to watch him and lay around him long enough to try to style a
little piano after him, which was quite difficult.
Mr. GLEASON: You still do Fats Waller tunes, don't you, with the band?
Unidentified Man: Oh, yes. Nat Pierce just made an arrangement on one of
Fats' goodies. A little thing called "Squeeze Me," which we think quite a bit
of. But another thing, the "Handful of Keys," Nat made an arrangement on
that, too. After all these years, Nat finally made an arrangement on the
"Handful of Keys," which--it's going to be kind of hard, because he was...
(Soundbite of jazz piano)
Unidentified Man: Can't get enough of Nat with that one, so we'll cool it
WHITEHEAD: That's Basie's only documented version of "Handful of Keys," by
the way and a rare peak at the formidable chops he usually kept hidden.
In general, the musicians comport themselves well with a couple of exceptions.
Dave Brubeck plugs his records over and over, and Mel Torme mugs for the
camera and butters up the host. John Coltrane declined to be interviewed, but
that did give him more time to play. For me, the very best episodes are
devoted to Rollins, Basie, Jimmy Rushing and singer Carmen McRae. Without an
audience, she's less formal with her musicians than she'd be in concert,
visibly surprising her pianist by talking to him between songs.
I liked the series a lot so won't tread too heavily on the various mangled
names of musicians and tunes and some incorrect air dates which are listed on
the boxes, or the six-minute profile of Ralph Gleason that introduces each
episode. As Gleason himself knew, these shows were never about him. That's
one reason they packed so much jazzy pleasure into a short 30 minutes.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I'm going to lock my heart and throw away the
key, 'cause I'm wise to all those tricks you played on me. I'm going to turn
my back on love, gonna ...(unintelligible) the moon above, seal all my windows
up with tin so the lovebug can't get in. I'm going to park my romance right
along the curb, hang a sign upon my heart `Please, Don't Disturb,' 'cause if I
never fall in love again, that's still enough for me. I'm going to lock my
heart and throw away the key.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently based in Chicago. He reviewed Ralph
Gleason's "Jazz Casual" TV series, which is being released on DVD and video.
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new "Chris Isaak Show," in which the
singer and songwriter plays himself.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Profile: Premiere of "The Chris Isaak Show" on Showtime, starring
musician Chris Isaak
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight on the Showtime cable network, musician Chris Isaak stars in a new
weekly TV series that bears his name. But "The Chris Isaak Show" isn't a
variety show. It's a comedy with occasional music and with Isaak and his band
basically playing themselves. TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CHRIS ISAAK: The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.
Strange what desire will make foolish people do. I never dreamed that I'd
meet somebody like you. And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you.
No, I don't want to fall in love.
Backup Singers: (In unison) I don't want to fall in love.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
If Chris Isaak had come to television in a standard variety show, that would
be daring enough. Variety, after all, is one of the deadest genres on TV now
that the "Quiz Show" is back. But Isaak, clearly a fan of what Gary Shandling
did on HBO with "The Larry Sanders Show," has popped up on Showtime with a
series taking a somewhat satirical look at the life of a second-tier pop star,
a pop star named Chris Isaak.
The show is Isaak's idea fleshed out with help from writer-producers Diane
Frolov and Andrew Schneider. They're from "Northern Exposure" and "The Chris
Isaak Show" has that some wonderful goofy quality. Three members of Isaak's
real band are mixed with fictional characters who portray his keyboard player
and his management staff. Meanwhile, real-life celebrities and musicians
guest star each week playing comically exaggerated versions of themselves.
Tonight, it's actress Bai Ling, a former girlfriend of Isaak's in real-life
and on the show, who shows an unexpectedly wild comic side. In the coming
weeks, it's people like Joe Walsh and Minnie Driver. And in tonight's pilot,
there's a special appearance by Chris Isaak's mother, a therapist, playing
Chris Isaak's mother, a therapist. He's calling her because he's freaked out
by a woman on his video shoot. By day, she's a prim and proper production
assistant. At night, she performs sexy stripteases at her hotel window, which
Chris can see, though which she denies the next morning. The phone
conversation plays well enough on its own, but even better if you know it's
his real mother and that it's based on an actual incident that once happened
to him on the road.
(Soundbite of "The Chris Isaak Show")
Chris Isaak's Mother: (As Chris Isaak's Mother) It sound to me, honey, like
you're very interested in this young woman.
Mr. ISAAK: (As Chris Isaak) Mom, it's not about me, OK? What makes a person
act like that?
Mother: Well, it's pretty straightforward to me.
Mr. ISAAK: Straightforward?
Mother: Yes. Don't you think so?
Mr. ISAAK: No, but then I'm not a drummer.
Mother: Maybe you wouldn't find this woman's behavior so puzzling if you had
a better understanding of your own libidinal drives, your own masturbation
Mr. ISAAK: Mom, I'm--hey, let's not talk about me, OK?
Mother: You know, sweetheart, the two of you are very much alike.
Mr. ISAAK: What do you mean that she and I are alike?
Mother: Well, she sublimates her sexual impulses by dancing in front of a
window. You sublimate yours dancing in front an audience.
Mr. ISAAK: Ouch, Mom. You come out swinging, don't you?
Mother: You know, you're not aware of the sexual overtones of what you do for
Mr. ISAAK: Well, my battery's going dead. Can we talk about her?
Mother: Chris, it's always easier to focus on the other person instead of
dealing with our own issues.
BIANCULLI: The overall formula of "The Chris Isaak Show" isn't that daring.
Following a star at work and at home and throwing in celebrities who play
themselves is the same basic blueprint of such 50-year-old TV classics as "The
Jack Benny Program" and "I Love Lucy." But like "The Larry Sanders Show,"
"The Chris Isaak Show" takes advantage of the freedom of cable and has its own
terrific in-house band to boot.
The secret weapon in Isaak's show is Jed Rees, who plays the fictional role of
keyboard player Anson. He's the bad boy of the group, sort of like an even
less mature version of Jack Nicholson's character in "Five Easy Pieces." Yet
he's a very funny character and has a lot of heart. So does a naked woman
named Mona, played by Bobby Jo Moore, whose role is too complicated to explain
here. The shorthand, I guess, would be a nude conscience, Hugh Hefner's
version of Jiminy Cricket. But like this entire show, you almost have to see
it to believe it, and I strongly suggest you do.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: They did a bad, bad thing. They did a bad, bad thing.
They did a bad, bad thing.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.