Asma Jahangir: A champion of human rights and free speech is now among the stars

“Eventually things will have to get better. However, the way they will improve is not going to be because of the government or the elite leadership, or the political leadership, or the institutions of our country, most of which have actually crumbled. It will be the people of the country themselves who will bring about the change in society because they have had to struggle to fend for themselves at every level.” – Asma Jahangir, Interview by Farahnaz Junejo, Zameen, Dec 1997.

In 1983, Asma Jahangir was under house arrest and later imprisoned for her active participation in a revolution, which was intended to restore the political and fundamental rights taken away during the martial government of Zia-ul-Haq. She faced one of the dark days of her life as her free speech and movement were curtailed.

Again in 1993, Asma received frequent death threats for her defence as the lawyer of Salamat Masih, a 14 old boy and his uncles, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, who was accused of writing blasphemous quotes on the wall of a nearby mosque in Lahore. After a laborious legal battle, came an unprecedented judgment, the Lahore Court acquitted them in 1995. As the height of lawlessness, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the judges who had acquitted them, was assassinated in 1997. When the Law and Order officials arrested the killer a year later, he confessed to having killed the judge for deciding the case in the favour of the accused. There was a tried attack on Asma Jahangir’s house as well. But she and her family escaped somehow.

Senior lawyer and social activist Asma Jahangir passes away | Image: The Nation

In 1999, Asma, this time along with her sister Hina Jilani, who is also a lawyer repeatedly faced death threats for collective their defence of Samia Sarwar, a 32-year-old woman who was seeking a divorce from her sadistic husband. Things went bloody before the case could end, Samia’s family had her killed in broad daylight in front of the offices of Asma Jahangir and her sister.

In 2007, Asma faced a house arrest after the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan, to knock her free speech against the Military Establishment. Later in 2012, she spoke out against the military and ISI establishment of Pakistan for their violations in the restive province of Baluchistan. For which she again faced serious threats, this time from the ISI itself.

Asma dedicated her entire life, till her last breath to defend women’s rights, minorities’ rights, children from religious extremism, honour killings, several blasphemy laws of the conservative Muslim-majority country, Pakistan.

Only known to few, Asma’s first protest to uphold the values of democracy is during her schooling time at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore. The leader – girl then was always nominated by sisters, but Asma Jahangir, as just a school girl, in the late 1960s, organized a demonstration demanding that there should be “at least a semblance of an election”. The school administration reluctantly agreed to an election process while retaining a veto power. That method for electing the leader-girl still continues at the school.

Her first notable experience with human rights began with her decade-long fight against the arrest of her father Malik Ghulam Jilani, who was in 1971 detained by the military government of Yahya Khan, under martial law regulations. During the imprisonment he sent his family a letter through a jail staffer, explaining the possible grounds on which a petition could be filed for his release. Asma Jahangir was only in her 18, filed the petition at the Lahore High Court.

“Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Bannu. He remained in jail in Multan. But we were not allowed to go see him there. He did not want us to go there and see him. We always saw him in courts. So, for me, the court was a place where you dressed up to meet your father. It had a very nice feeling to it,” said Asma Jahangir in an interview.

In 1982, she successfully resolved her father’s case. With fellow human rights activists, she established Pakistan’s first all-female law firm.

After a decade, in 1982, she successfully resolved her father’s case. With fellow human rights activists, she established Pakistan’s first all-female law firm. The following year she was imprisoned for about a month for protesting the then government’s new “Hudud” laws.

She did not stop her advocacy within her country, she had big wings and towering dreams, and Asma Jahangir was one of the longest-serving UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and is also one of three Pakistanis appointed to the position (the other two being her sister Hina Jilani and Lahore-based feminist activist and sociologist Farida Shaheed).

She was the founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and also served as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. She later helped bonded labourers in Pakistan get a legislation passed through parliament which improved their lives a lot better.

Above all or her deeds, she was a vociferous supporter to reestablish peace between India and Pakistan in a friendly way.

By reading about her life, the deadly ordeals she pursued, dark times she faced, death threats she came across, and everything to defend democracy and human rights makes me feel moved.

She is one of the three women from Pakistan I admire, the other two being Malala Yousafzai and Muniba Mazari.

Nothing, it seems, ever stopped Jahangir from being what she has always been, and today I am deeply hurt by hearing the news that this Iron Lady is no more with us. (Asma’s daughter Munizae said to media that her mother died after suffering a heart attack on Sunday.)

“I had to face imprisonment and house arrests, but it made me tougher. As a lawyer, many a time I took up difficult and sensitive cases dealing with minorities’ and women’s rights. Yes, I constantly receive threats, and to be very honest, at times it is very scary. But I have to continue my work” said Asma in an interview.

Look up to the sky, now she is one among the brightest of stars, she will be ever remembered by us all, and she will be cherished till time exist.




Shiva Shankar Pandian is The Editor – U.S Affairs at The Kootneeti. His areas of specialization includes war and peace studies.

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