ASMA JAHANGIR – PAKISTANI HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST

By Joseph Collins

Asma Jilani JahanagirOn a hot day in September 2007, more than 500 lawyers and activists gathered in front of the Pakistani Supreme Court in Islamabad. The group gathered in the heat to oppose government corruption and to protest a recent Supreme Court decision that allowed controversial President Pervez Musharraf to run for re-election, enabling him to serve another 5 years as both military and political leader of the nation. As protesters marched from the Supreme Court to the Pakistan Election Commission, riot police blocked their way and refused to let them advance.

With the crowd chanting “Go, Musharraf, go,” tensions began to mount. Eventually, the police charged the crowd, swinging batons and firing tear gas. Activists were knocked to the ground, people were trampled, and blood poured in the streets from open head wounds. For a few minutes, violence ruled the day, and there was a scene of total chaos in the streets. And right in the middle of it all was Asma Jahangir.

Asma Jahanagir Asma Jahangir was one of Pakistan’s most famous human rights activist and for decades she was a formidable force for social change. She fought for human rights and democracy for the better part of her life for both her fellow Pakistanis and others abroad. Born into a family with a history of political and human rights activism, it was all but inevitable that she, too, would pick up the mantel and continue her family’s legacy. With a degree in law, Asma spent her entire career advocating for the rights of women, children, religious minorities and all those who suffered from oppression and exploitation, especially under military regimes.

Known for her courage, compassion, and integrity, Asma often defended low income clients entirely free of charge. Although her actions in a traditionally conservative country had gained her many opponents and enemies, she has also become an unstoppable hero to the countless people she helped and stood up for.  Today, her legacy of being a caring human being as well as a savvy lawyer remains ingrained in the minds and hearts of those she spoke up for in Pakistan and around the world.

Asma Jahanagir speaking out for human rights

“…she risked her life and liberty and that of those near and dear to her to speak out for victims of domestic violence, religious persecution, political oppression and draconian laws. And it was never for personal gain. Always to keep the flame of liberty burning and further the cause of freedom.”Makhdoom Ali Khan, Attorney General of Pakistan

BORN INTO ACTIVISM

Asma Jilani Jahangir was born into a wealthy family on January 27th 1952 in Lahore, one of Pakistan’s most culturally and intellectually dynamic city. Her family had a strong history of human rights activism, including her father,  Malik Ghulam Jilani, a civil servant, and her mother, Begum Sabiha Jilani, an entrepreneur who founded her own clothing business. Unfortunately, the Pakistani government – which fluctuated between a democracy and a military dictatorship – did not always appreciate the family’s activism. Her father, who entered politics after his retirement, was arrested for his reformist ideas and spent many years in jail or under house arrest for opposing Pakistan’s military dictatorship. This was the world that Asma Jilani Jahangir grew up in and quickly became familiar with. From an early age, she, too, became engaged in social activism, and continued to carry on the family tradition throughout her life.

Asma received a well-rounded education in her country, from primary school on. After graduating from Convent of Jesus and Mary, an all-girls Catholic school, she then attended Kinnaird College in Lahore, where she earned a B.A. and a law degree in 1978. Later, she went on to earn a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Punjab.

Punjab University

Although Asma became involved in human rights activism at a young age (protesting her father’s unjustified imprisonment and the corruption and cruelty of Pakistan’s military regime), her early political efforts were limited in their effectiveness, as she had few connections and minimal clout. After graduating college, however, her circumstance had changed significantly. Now armed with a law degree and a network of connections, she was ready to take on the oppressive military government and the cultural injustices she saw throughout her country. By all accounts, Asma Jahangir was bold and unrelenting in her life-long campaign for human rights and democracy.

Asma Jahanagir speaking Asian Women's Forum
Young Asma Jahangir

Asma fought tirelessly for anyone and everyone without a voice. She was a fierce and powerful voice for the disenfranchised, for religious minorities, women and democracy advocates. She took on the powerful military, the intelligence services, and even stood her ground against Islamic militants.” – Kathy Gannon, senior reporter, Associated Press

VICTORY AND LOSS

From the moment Asma Jahangir graduated, she began her career as a bold defender of human rights for anyone who didn’t have a voice and needed one. Her earliest case was in defense of  her own father, who had been arrested simply for protesting Pakistan’s military government. In the landmark 1972 case (Asma Jilani vs Government of Punjab), Asma argued that her father’s incarceration was unlawful, appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn her father’s detention. To her relief, the court agreed with her argument. Her father’s imprisonment was held to be illegal and he was released from state prison. By then, a new, more moderate president had taken office, one who was opposed to martial law, and he allowed the ruling to go unchallenged. 

With a notable and personally satisfying victory to her credit, Asma Jahangir stepped up her efforts and expanded her campaign of fighting for basic human rights and justice across a range of causes. However, the path forward would not be easy. In 1977, a military coup overthrew the democratically elected President Fazal Elahi Chaudhry and replaced him with a military dictatorship, led by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Much to Asma’s disappointment, Zia wasted no time in establishing “Islamic Law,” returning the country to martial law, blended with a strict Islamic code, conditions ripe for oppression and human rights violations.    

Asma’s sister, Hina Jilani

Several years later, Asma Jilani Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, also an ardent human rights lawyer, set up the first all-women law firm in the history of Pakistan. That same year, they also founded the “Women’s Action Forum (WAF),” a women’s rights organization established to oppose the strict penal code under Zia’s rule and to strengthen women’s position in society. One of the penal laws that WAF specifically opposed was the “Proposed Law of Evidence,” which established that the value of a woman’s testimony was worth only half of a man’s. Under this law, rape victims had to prove their innocence, or face harsh punishment themselves, instead of the rapist. It was a uniquely regressive, sexist, and unfair law that drew heavy fire from WAF.

Asma Jahangir fought against this and other unfair laws, even turning her law office into a shelter for those who had been targeted for persecution by Zia’s regime. Throughout the 1980s, Jahangir and her fellow female lawyers frequently fought Zia in the courts, sometimes winning cases, sometimes losing, but never giving up in their determination to oppose injustice. In fact, in 1982, when Asma led a protest against Zia’s strict enforcement of Islamic laws, she was given the nickname “little heroine” for her bravery and moral strength.

Asma Jahanagir

Family laws (re: religious laws) give women few rights,” said Asma.  They have to be reformed because Pakistan cannot live in isolation. We cannot remain shackled while other women progress.

When the Women Lawyers Association in Lahore organized a public protest against Zia’s anti-women laws in 1983, Asma Jahangir was, once again, one of its prominent leaders. During the event, she and many colleagues were beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested by police.

After Asma was released, one of her next cases involved a 13-year-old girl who had been raped by her employers. Months later, the now pregnant girl was put on trial and found to be guilty of fornication, and sentenced to 3 years in prison, flogging, and a fine. Asma took up the case immediately, defending the girl’s rights under the law. Eventually, the verdict was overturned and the girl was freed, due to both Asma’s sound arguments, as well as the growing public protests against the original verdict. Unfortunately, the men responsible were never brought to justice. 

FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE

As an outspoken and committed public activist, Asma Jahangir had as many opponents as she did supporters.  She was accused by hard line conservatives and militants of being a spy for foreign countries, and she routinely received death threats from her detractors. At one point, she even survived an assassination attempt.  But her court victories, as well as the support she received from well-wishers, helped her maintain her optimism, her hope, and her tenacity.  She never let the opposition deter her from taking up unpopular causes, and she refused to leave her country and live in exile, as some Pakistani activists had done.

Asma Jahanagir

Often, Asma would take on cases on behalf of indigent women, providing her services entirely free of charge. “She contested almost half of her cases without charging a single penny, but very few know this aspect of her career because she never wanted to publicize her efforts for needy and deserving clients,” according to Chaudhry Akhtar Ali, Pakistani lawyer and politician. “We referred a number of poor litigants to her. She was not only willing to argue their cases but also made arrangements to house them,” he added.

In 1986,  Asma Jahangir expanded her operations by setting up AGHS Legal Aid, Pakistan’s first free legal aid center, which also ran a shelter for women in the city of Lahore. Asma fought bravely against human rights abuses carried out by government officials, as well as the police, and also defended women of minority religions who were being targeted for religious conversion.  Fortunately, a period of political and social liberalism came about after the death of President Zia.  Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister – Benazir Bhutto – came to power in the 1988 elections, and she was followed by President Musharraf, who initially continued many of her policies. Unfortunately, the Musharraf regime had its own share of corruption. As a result, Asma remained ever vigilant, and continued challenging human rights violations wherever they occurred.

“I cannot bear to live where there is so much injustice and I cannot do something about it. Every fair-minded person holding a position of authority must support the few who have stood up against the injustice being perpetrated in the name of blasphemy.”Asma Jahangir

In 1996, when the Lahore High Court decreed that adult Muslim women could not marry without the consent of their male guardian, Asma took many cases to help challenge this new decree.  Women who had freely married a man of her choice suddenly found themselves in situations where their marriages could be annulled against their will, if any male family members disapproved. Furious about the situation, Asma demanded that then President Musharraf over turn this law and improve human rights in Pakistan. After many challenges to this oppressive law, it was eventually overturned by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2003 – due in large part to the efforts of Asma Jahangir.

Asma Jahanagir

A VOICE FOR CHILDREN AND WOMEN

Another issue that Asma Jahangir tackled was children’s rights, specifically targeting child labor and capital punishment for minors.  One of her more prominent cases was defending a 14-year-old Christian boy who had been accused of blasphemy. Although she won her case, a mob of extremists who opposed the ruling retaliated by smashing her car and attacking Asma and her driver. Although she was not seriously injured, the retaliation didn’t end there. Asma and her family (her husband and their three children) continued to be periodically attacked, received death threats, and once had their home broken into. Undaunted, Asma refused to give in to fear and intimidation. Instead, she continued her work defending the innocent, always supported by her family and friends.

Death threats were not uncommon for Asma Jahangir. In 1999, she took a case defending a woman who wanted to divorce an abusive husband. During the court proceedings, the woman’s husband and friends threatened to kill Asma for taking the case. But again, Asma refused to back down. Tragically, however, before the case could be decided, the woman Asma was defending was gunned down by her family in an act of “honor killing.”

This kind of violence infuriated Asma, and she decided it was time to take action beyond the courtroom. In 2005, she organized a large public event – a mixed-gender road race – to raise awareness about violence against women in Pakistan. With a culture steeped in patriarchy, however, local authorities moved quickly to shut the event down. Police and intelligence agents were soon on the scene in force. They arrested Asma and many of those who participated in the race. In addition, they began physically beating Asma and tearing off her clothes to deliberately humiliate her.  Nevertheless, Asma remained undaunted. She survived the incident, and soon after her release, returned to work – determined to continue resisting the forces of repression.

Asma Jahanagir, human rights lawyer

Despite Asma’s best efforts, violence against women remains a major social problem in Pakistan to this day. Among married women in Pakistan, nearly one-third report facing physical violence from their husbands. An estimated 5000 women are killed each year in Pakistan as a result of domestic violence. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, gang rapes, kidnapping, acid attacks, amputations, and the burning of women still occur on a regular basis nationwide. In recent reports, the commission found that more than 1000 honor killings take place every year.

ACTIVE TO THE VERY END

Still, Asma Jahangir fought to protect women from violence in every way possible. Over time, she began to focus increasingly on the role of religion and religious-based laws in fostering negative attitudes towards women. In January of 2017, Asma became the first Pakistani to address the London School of Economics. In her lecture, she called for liberal politics to challenge religious intolerance, arguing that those who committed crimes in the name of religion needed to be confronted on both a national and international scale.

“In 1986, Pakistan got the blasphemy law,” said Asma Jahangir.  “So, while we had just two cases of blasphemy before that year, now we have thousands. It shows that one should be careful while bringing religion into legislation, because the law itself can become an instrument of persecution.”

Early the next year, in February of 2018, Asma undertook her final case, arguing for more flexible penalties in punishing politicians who were found to violate ethical standards. Arguing that many charges brought against national leaders are politically motivated, Asma argued to the Supreme Court that politicians who were found guilty of ethical violations should NOT be disqualified for life. She also highlighted the fact that no ethical charges are ever brought against the military leaders of government during times of military rule, emphasizing that the standard was unequally applied. Despite her best efforts, however, the court unanimously decided against her and upheld the practice of disqualifying politicians for life, with no chance of ever running for office again. Although Asma lost the case, her argument was noteworthy for its eloquence and logic.

Unfortunately, this case marked the last time that Asma Jahangir would step foot in a courtroom. Shortly after the case had ended, Jahangir suffered a massive heart attack. Although she was rushed to the hospital, the doctors there were unable to save her life. On March 23, 2018, she was posthumously awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz medal for her services to international diplomacy.

Although Asma Jahangir’s untimely passing was a loss to the world, and a blow to all those who admired her and her work, her legacy of courage, integrity, tireless dedication and decency are an inspiration to the thousands whom she defended and the hundreds of colleagues who were proud to call her friend.

Asma Jahanagir

Throughout her career, Asma Jahangir established or worked with numerous human rights organizations. She co-founded and served as acting Chair for the “Human Rights Commission of Pakistan” and also served as vice president of the “International Federation for Human Rights.” In addition, she was the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions from 1998 to 2004 and was the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief from 2004 to 2010.

Asma Jahangir is remembered most for her intelligence, compassion, and commitment to social justice.

“We have not only lost a great human rights activist, the most vocal and  courageous critic of dictatorships and the establishment, the most popular and successful leader of the lawyers community, and the emblem and torch-bearer of women’s rights and freedom, but also a wonderful human being.…” – Khawaja Haris, Pakistani attorney