Asma Jahangir: The Legacy of Courage and Hope

After initial grief on her sudden demise on 11th of February 2018, a proud Pakistan is expressing gratitude to its bravest daughter. The media is flooded by the comments, obituaries and memories. Both senate and parliament paid richest possible tributes to her. At least one chief minister formally requested the federal government to give her state funeral. The most ‘controversial’ person is being glorified, saluted and revered by highest state dignitaries to poorest street vendors.

CC Gie Goris (BY NC 2.0)


Unlike Benazir Bhutto and probably Fatima Jinnah as well, she died naturally in a country that excels in killing its conscious, conscientious and truthful citizens. She irritated privileged and powerful ‘masters’ at the lowest and highest levels of state and society by rejecting established notions of religion, nationalism and patriarchal culture. She championed the cause of women, minorities, civilian supremacy, freedom of speech and eforced disappearances. She towered Pakistan’s Human Rights and feminist movement throughout her life. Nobody could pronounce, “Asma Jahangir”, without a feeling of either love, gratitude and pride or bitterness and hatred. 

Nobody could pronounce, “Asma Jahangir”, without a feeling of either love, gratitude and pride or bitterness and hatred

Despite several attempts on her life, she refused to restrict her right to movement even where “eagles” dont dare. Responding to a query, after firing on her car in Balochistan, she said, “they will exhaust their guns, but they cant exhaust my resolve”. Widely acknowledged as a person of high moral authority and unbelievable bravery, her comments were regularly saught by mainstream media where she could call serving generals as “duffers”, powerful clerics as “ignorants”, dreaded terrorists as “cowards” and mighty judges as “hypcrites”.

She was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz, which is the second highest state honor. She was the first women to be granted the status of senior advocate of supreme court and later first female president of the supreme court bar association.

Her international stature was another reason of excercising “restraint” towards her. She served as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion (2004-2010), on UN Panel for inquiry into Srilankan human rights violations and in fact-finding mission on Isreali settlements. Recently, she was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Iran. She co-founded South Asian Human Rights and served as vice president of International Federation of Human Rights. She received honorary doctorate from University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, Queens University, Canada, Simon Fraser University, Canada and Cornell University, USA. She was first Pakistani to deliver Amartya Sen lecture at London School of Economics.

She received prestigious international awards such as Martin Ennal Award (1995), Ramon Magsaysay Award (1995), King Baudouin International Development Prize (2000), Millennium Peace Prize by UNIFEM (2001), Lisl and Leo Eitinger Prize (2002), Four Freedom Awards (2010), UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights (2010), North-South Prize by Council of Europe (2012), Stefanus Prize (2014) and Right Livelihood Award (2014).

The dreamers of Independent Pakistan

She was born on 27th of January 1952, roughly after five years of partition that had brutalized women, minorities and children of Indian sub-continent. By the time she opened her eyes, both the new born states had already fought a war on Kashmir. Meanwhile, Bengalis had shown the signs of being ‘traitors’ by refusing the dominance of ‘Islamic’ and ‘nationlist’ Urdu language.

The secularist founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had died in misery while his lifelong comrade, prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan had been shot dead after passionately leading Pakistani legislature in passing theocratic Objectives Resolution. The little Asma must have felt the noisy slogans of Lahore Anti-Ahmedia riots and consequent calm generated by first martial law of Pakistan in 1953.

Growth in a crippled society 

She was sent to prestigious, Jesus and Mary Convent of Lahore. Growing as otherwise normal girl, she demonstrated her ‘abnormal’ qualities when she motivated girls and campaigned for “democratic” system against ‘dictatorial’ way of selecting Head Girl of the convent. The nuns had to accept the demand while retaining ‘veto’ powers.

Her first demonstration was in 1969, at the age of 17, in front of the governors house Lahore, against Ayub regime. Graduating from Kinaird College, she received her law degree from Punjab University in 1978. Before that, she was 13 when she experiened political violence and bloodshed. A journalist, Zamir Qureshi and a politician were shot outside her home. Alone at home, she had to take them to hospital.

She was 13 when she first experiened political violence and bloodshed. A journalist and a politician were shot outside her home. Alone at home, she had to take them to hospital.

Talking to this writer in Brussels, she told how her mother was habitual of finding her husband arrested. “I felt something strange from early childhood. It was a mix of fear and pride. Our house was always full of politicians from all across the country. I had been listening words such as democracy, freedoms, rights, adult franchise, constitution, federation, civil military relations, civil and political righs etc.

I could not understand much but I often heard strange sounds like EBDO (Elected Bodies Disqualification Ordinance-1959), PPO (Press and Publication Ordinance-1960), PPL (Progressive Papers Limited), Basic Democracy, One-Unit and Operation Giberaltor. And it was not normal to see my father labelled as traitor for hosting Sindhi, Balochi and Pakhtun leaders and defending Bengalis right to govern”.

She was just 18 when she filed appeal in the Lahore High Court for the release of her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani who was arrested under martial law regulations. A famous precedent in the judicial history of Pakistan, the “Asma Jilani Case” became central focus of entire political class struggling for the restoration of democracy. As principled appellant, young Asma used to sit on a special seat in a court room capacity full by great political giants. In 1972, the Supreme Court declared military government as ‘illegal’ and military dictator as ‘usurper’. Six years before obtaining her law degree, Asma was a star in the judicial and political circles in east and west of Pakistan. 

Shining in Dark 

CC Gie Goris (BY NC 2.0)


By the time she was called to Lahore High Court in 1980 and Supreme Court in 1982, she had already formed Women Action Forum (WAF). In 1982, she lead a demonstration in Islamabad against Zia’s announcement to enforce Sharia laws curbing women’s rights. She focussed onn Law of Evidence (declaring a woman witness as half of a man) and Zina Ordinance that punished rape victims. Half of the female prisoners languishing in jails were punished under Zina Ordinance. She won famous Safia Bibi case, a 13 year old blind girl, who was sent to jail after being raped by her teacher. She defended women’s right to marry and divorce without permission of “Wali”.

Meanwhile, the milestone event in the history of feminist movement of Pakistan, the 1983 police brutality on protest march of WAF and Punjab Women Lawyer’s Association against Law of Evidence and Hadood Laws had rather emboldened and strengthened her resolve. In 1986, she co-founded AGHS, which was the firstever all-women legal aid center that included Dastak Shelter Home for helpless women. In 1987, she was elected first secretary of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that she helped founding.  

In 1983, she was arrested for taking part in the Movement of Restoration of Democracy, against martial law regime that was introducing tough sharia laws and glorifying Afghan jihad

Those were the years of summary military trials, arbitrary arrests, extrajudical executions, debilitating state tortures, public flogging, media censorships and judicial murders. In 1983, she was arrested for taking part in the Movement of Restoration of Democracy (MRD), against martial law regime that was introducing tough sharia laws and glorifying Afghan jihad as the essence of whatever meant by being Pakistani or Muslim.

A network of madrassas for ideological indoctrination and training camps for guerilla war were being built accross Pakistan with CIA and Saudi money. Pakistan of general Zia had decided to be frontline state in American war against “infidel” USSR in Afghanistan.

Throughout these years, however, Asma and her comrades were labelled by vernacular media as anti Islam, anti-honor, westernized, drunkard sexoholic elite begums”. The defenders of the “castle of Islam”, however, were freely spreading heroin, khashnikovs, sectarian divisions and an ethnic violence. 

The Lost Decade of So-Called Democracy

The dawn of the era of sham democracy brought a multi-dimentional war for Asma as a leader of small but highly vibrant and active civil society. The decade belonged to Hameed Guls, Azam Tariqs and Nawaz Sharifs, at the one hand, and Benazirs, John Josephs and Asma Jahangirs, at the other. A self deluded military establishment, claiming sole credit for Islamic “victory” in Afghan jihad had resorted to disastrous notions of “strategic depth” and “strategic infiltration”. The deadly sectarian organizations were allowed to flourish. An Islamic nuclear power later decided to bow down to Mullah Umar, a frankenstein it created in 1996.

If Benazir was the powerless victim struggling to save her party, it was Asma Jahangir who gave voice to dangerously shrinking secular and progressive worldview. She campaigned against seperate electorate, proposed religious ID cards and blasphemy laws that had been amended passionately by Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif. She fought and won famous case of Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih (1993-1995) jailed for fake blasphemy charges. She campaigned against 15th amendement bill to constitution proposed to transform Pakistan into a proper theocracy.

If Benazir was the powerless victim struggling to save her party, it was Asma Jahangir who gave voice to dangerously shrinking secular and progressive worldview.

All this was intensely emotional and sensational. Asma Jahangir, representing a small civil society, was the only irritant to the grand national consensus. They threatened her in courtrooms, attacked her home, vilified and harrassed her but could not scare or stop her. A frail and defenseless woman had challenged entire state and non-state machinery of bigotry.     

She won famous “Saima Waheed Love Marriage Case” in 1997. The court ruled that an adult muslim woman does not need permission from her father (Wali) to marry any muslim male out of her own volition. A huge blow to centuries old patriachal family system, this verdict enraged conservative societal structure. Consequenty, on 6 April 1999, a Pakhtun woman Saima Sarwar was shot dead in AGHS office. The woman wanted divorse from her husband to marry the man of her choice.

The Puppies’ War on Terror 

Asma Jahangir categorically opposed Musharraf’s martial laws though a big section of the civil society had been lured by his cute puppies. Later, in 2007, she was arrested during the campaign for the restoration of judiciary. She was the only Pakistani accepted as “neutral” visitor from Baloch leader Akbar Bugti a couple of days before he was killed on August 26, 2006.

Musharaf reportedly wanted to slap her during famous Agra Dialogues between India and Pakistan. She remained a pain in the neck of the dictator for continuously exposing his hypocritical policy of protecting and killing terrorists at the same time. Later, Musharraf, when in trouble, reportedly requested her to fight her case, which she refuesed.

Before that, she organized a women only marathon in Lahore forcefully opposed by religious youth forces and Punjab government. The police was given orders to tore down the clothes of the participating women. Asma was photographed with her naked back.

She was committed to ideals instead of personalities or situations

She was committed to ideals instead of personalities or situations. She defended the rights of the people who targeted or vilified her such as Altaf Hussain and Nawaz Sharif. She raised voice for legal rights of the family members of Usama Bin Laden and for Afiya Siddiqui who was punished by USA for terrorism charges. She spoke against brutality committed by India in Kashmir and Israel in Palestine.

She was never tired of reminding rather taunting the West that they were equally responsible for the Jihad industry of Pakistan. This writer is a witness of how, in a high profile conference in EU parliament, she passionately and forcefully argued against isolating Pakistan diplomatically and economically. She loved her country and people across ideological divide. In August 2017, she represented the families of terror convicts sentenced to death by military tribunals before the Supreme Court.

She fought for the rights of poor peasants of Okara military farm as well as for Baba Jan; the indigenous leader of Gilgit-Baltistan. She defended the human dignity of bonded labors of Punjab’s brik-kilns and agricultural haris of Sindh such as Bhel and Kohlis. She reached to console and help christians within few hours of the mob attacks such as Shantinagar, Gojra and Joseph Colony, Lahore.

She was the only leader who could and did raise the voice for hugely persecuted Ahmedia community in Pakistan

She was the only leader who could and did raise the voice for hugely persecuted Ahmedia community in Pakistan. Her last public speech was to support the protesting tribals of FATA. She was the most vocal agitator against enforced disappearances especially in Balochistan. According to Malik Siraj Akbar (Dawn, Feb 12), “With Asma’s death, Balochistan has lost a true friend, a regular visitor and a vocal defender of people’s rights”.

She was defending Nawaz Sharif from what she called “selective accountablility”, “biased judicial activism” and “deep state manupulations”. For The Daily Times, “The finest example of Jahangir’s commitment to her principles was her consistent opposition to military regimes and her staunchest support for civilian supremacy.” According to her long-time colleague, mentor and comrade, I-A-Rehman, “Asma has left a legacy of hope. Who knows how many from amongst the young men and women she inspired, trained and worked with may learn to speak for all the disadvantaged who Asma loved.”

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