Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan's bravest fighters for human rights, dies: India will miss her too

The lawyer championed the disadvantaged – women and religious minorities – and fought for democracy.

 |  5-minute read |   11-02-2018
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Asma Jahangir, Pakistani lawyer and a prominent human rights champion, passed away on February 11. According to reports, she suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to hospital, where she died.

Jahangir had championed the cause of democracy, human rights and women’s equality throughout her life. She co-founded the first all-women law firm of Pakistan, and later went on to become the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

She also founded the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, was co-chair of South Asians for Human Right, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or summary executions, and later the United Nations Rapporteur of Freedom of religion or belief.

Jahangir’s work – her constant crusade for democracy and the rights of religious minorities and women – in a conservative and patriarchal society, where politicisation of religion has become one of the most effective ways to curb democracy, earned her a lot of enemies. She was imprisoned in 1983 and put under house arrest in 2007. In 2013, leaked documents suggested that some Pakistan intelligence officers had even planned to kill her.

Jahangir’s exposure to the struggle for democracy in Pakistan was early – her father Malik Ghulam Jilani, a political activist, was jailed several times for his opposition of the government. In December 1971, the government of Yahya Khan detained Jilani under martial law regulations. Jahangir, then only 18, filed a petition for his release at the Lahore High Court.

She has been quoted in the Herald as saying: “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.”   

She went on to receive her law degree, though a part of the education had to be at home, because her college principal did not approve of a married woman attending classes. “The principal stopped me from attending the [law] college because I was a married woman. It was a college policy,” Jahangir has said. “Gulrukh used to take classes and then she would teach me.” 

Gulrukh was also married, but the principal did not know of it. Later, in 1980, Jahangir, her sister Hina Jilani, and Gulrukh founded the first women’s law firm of Pakistan. Author William Dalrymple has written in The New Yorker, “Named A.G.H.S., after the initials of the four partners, it (the firm) was soon dubbed Hags by the male legal establishment. The practice and its reputation quickly grew; by 1982, both Jahangir and Jilani were advocates of the High Court.”

Jahangir was known for her fight against the Hudood Ordinances, introduced by General Zia ul-Haq as part of the “Islamisation” of the state, which stipulated punishments drawn from Quranic sources for various offences. The new laws were biased against non-Muslims and women. One of the more controversial aspects of the law was the crime of zina – sexual intercourse between a non-married man and woman. Under the law, women who reported rape were put in jail for having had sex with a man not their husband.

Jahangir organised protests against the ordinances, and in 1983, was arrested and sent to jail for a month. There she met many women who had been arrested under the new laws, and, after coming out, took up their cases. Her daughter Munizae Jahangir, a journalist, then in boarding school due to abduction threats, remembers “how her schoolfellows asked her the next day if her mother had stolen something”.

In 1983, she got overturned the verdict on flogging and imprisonment handed to a 13-year-old blind girl, whose pregnancy had been seen as proof that she had had sexual intercourse.

In 1993, Jahangir defended Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old Christian boy accused under blasphemy laws of scribbling offensive words on a mosque. The Lahore High Court acquitted Salamat and his uncle and co-accused Rehmat Masih in 1995. One of the judges who had acquitted them was assassinated in 1997. 

Women in Pakistan got the right to marry of their own free will, through a Supreme Court judgment, in 2003. The fight for this case, known as the Saima Wahid case, had Jahangir play an important part.

In 2005, she was beaten up and taken into custody for organising a women’s marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women.

Throughout her life, Jahangir was called many things – anti-national, anti-Islamic, and accused of cherry-picking her causes. However, she remained unfazed: “Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India, or against Rohingyas in Burma, or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa; but obviously I am going to be more concerned of violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them,” she has been quoted as saying. “And I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is butchered to death.”   

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