Five decades ago, it was a custom at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore that the head girl in the school would be appointed by the nuns themselves. Realising the democratic deficit in the appointment process, an O Level student staged a protest against the arbitrary power of the nuns.
The young girl resolutely demanded that there should at least be some impression that elections are held to select the head girl. The school administration grudgingly succumbed to the pressure created by the girl and introduced a system whereby a head girl was elected.
At that point of time, no one could have predicted that this young girl, Asma Jillani, (later Asma Jahangir), would one day transform into an iconic human rights lawyer and a valiant social activist. Asma was indisputably a messianic figure who vociferously and fearlessly championed the cause of helping the vulnerable and oppressed segments of our society.
It will not be an exaggeration to assert that she was solely responsible for breathing life into the chapter on fundamental rights embodied in the constitution. The iron lady, with utmost commitment, selflessness and valour, empowered battered wives, defended those who were accused of blasphemy, unshackled brick-kiln workers and sought justice for the victims of honour killings.
Human rights and the legal fraternity of Pakistan suffered an irreparable loss on February 11, 2018 when Asma passed away in Lahore. The UN secretary-general billed her as a “human rights giant” and William Dalrymple described her as Pakistan’s “most visible and celebrated human rights lawyer”.
Asma emerged on the legal and political landscape of Pakistan in 1971 when the callous military government of Yahya Khan unlawfully detained her father. In pursuit of her father’s liberation, 18-year-old Asma filed a petition in the Lahore High Court. Despite having strong merits, the petition was dismissed. Subsequently, she knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The apex court declared Yahya Khan a “usurper” while his military government was deemed “illegal”. Asma created history and the verdict made her an overnight star. The case became what we lawyers now ardently and romantically celebrate as ‘Asma Jillani v the Government of Punjab’.
After ousting and eliminating Bhutto, Zia enacted the Hudood laws and amended the blasphemy law in order to cement the foundations of his illegitimate rule. In a milieu of totalitarianism and state-sponsored fanaticism, Asma emerged as an intrepid activist and became the first person who openly condemned Zia’s Machiavellian attempt of mixing religion with the law.
The generation that witnessed these developments in the 1980s still vividly remembers the wrath inflicted on Asma and her companions by law-enforcement agencies when they protested in 1983 against the discriminatory Hudood Ordinance and proposed amendments in the law of evidence. Zia despised Asma and was afraid of her unremitting nature. Once the Majlis-e-Shoora (on Zia’s instructions) passed a resolution declaring that Asma had committed blasphemy and demanded a death sentence for her. Zia excitedly set up a commission to investigate the allegation. However, the commission found Asma to be completely innocent.
Asma not only raised her voice on the streets but also fought perilous legal battles in the courtroom on behalf of the poor and defenceless. In 1983, Safia, a 13-year-old visually-impaired girl, was raped and impregnated by her employers. Under Zia’s draconian legislations, she was charged with fornication and sentenced to flogging and three years in prison. At the appeal stage, Asma heroically defended Safia and won the case.
In 1993, eleven-year-old Salamat Masih was accused of inscribing blasphemous words on the walls of a mosque and was convicted by the trial court. Despite receiving death threats during the appeal stage, Asma represented Salamat in the Lahore High Court and won the case by proving that the boy was illiterate and could, therefore, not have written the words. Unfortunately, the judge who ordered the acquittal was assassinated in 1997 and an attempt to murder Asma was foiled when her potential killers mistakenly entered into her mother’s house.
Asma had both unfaltering supporters and vicious detractors. The bitter truth is that her haters outnumbered her admirers. The widespread hatred for her appears natural in a staunchly patriarchal and polarised society that is haunted by the demons of chauvinism and extremism.
Asma was an iconoclast. She negated the idea that women are required to be subservient to men. She stood for equal rights and a discrimination-free society. Moreover, she challenged the oligarchy of the generals and the religious fanatics.
False campaigns full of hate, lies and derision were launched against Asma on electronic and social media. She was frequently targeted by frenzied patriots, bloodthirsty ideologues and self-appointed spokesmen of the military. Asma was repeatedly labelled as a ‘traitor’, ‘Western agent’, ‘Indian employee’ and an ‘enemy of Islam’.
Even cursory inquiries proved that all the allegations levelled against her were mere assertions that had no basis in reality. For instance, when as a UN Special Rapporteur Asma met a Shiv Sena leader to investigate freedom of religion in India, she was declared an ‘Indian agent’. No one took the trouble to read her report wherein she criticised Shiv Sena and drew attention to religious discrimination in India.
We often ask ourselves: will our acts echo through the centuries? Will the coming generations hear our names long after we are gone and speculate about who we were and how we lived? Asma was ahead of her time. She espoused and fought for ideals that our confused, thankless and social-media indoctrinated generation can’t comprehend at the moment. In the long run, history will do complete justice to Asma and the memory of her bold and selfless acts will echo through the centuries.
All those who strive for democracy, rule of law and human rights will miss her and continue to be inspired by her life. People rise and fall, but some names never die. If they ever tell the story of my life, let them say that I walked in courtrooms of Pakistan with the gladiators of legal arena and among those gladiators, the tallest and bravest was Asma Jahangir.
The writer is a Lahore-based advocate of the high court.