Asma Jahangir - voice of the voiceless

By Lubna Jerar Naqvi
Tue, 03, 18

If you wonder what kind of people live in a house full of political debates; emphasis on rights of all people....


If you wonder what kind of people live in a house full of political debates; emphasis on rights of all people and fiery exchanges against dictators, you can study the life and work of the champion of human rights - Asma Jahangir.

Jahangir’s home would be the ground for moulding a strong and righteous personality like hers. Her boldness, edged by raw passion, was probably carved during fiery debates between her father and his friends during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was a personality that would be indomitable against all forces in years to come, staring straight into the eyes, challenging those who tried to usurp the rights of the weak.

People will talk about her like a mythical figure in years to come because she is like the mythical characters who achieved feats that seem impossible. Like David, she rose again and again against the Goliath that threatened the weak. Nothing seemed to scare her and she seemed stronger and stronger, as if she was empowered by each challenge.

Asma’s father, politician Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a force to reckon with. He would openly oppose two dictators, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, and pay the price by being imprisoned in 1971. He taught his daughters that there was no shame in standing up for one’s rights even against the most powerful forces. And this was reflected throughout the struggle that Asma and her sister Hina faced while fighting for the rights of others.

Her father’s constant fight and then imprisonment was probably what sealed the fate of the young 21-year-old Asma to become who she was. At a time when the tides were against her, she didn’t falter despite her young age, but fought and won her case to release her father from the dictator’s prison - this case is famously known as Asma Jahangir vs the government of Punjab.

But as impressive as this all sounds, it was not an easy case to fight for her. Asma faced a lot of pressure especially when the Lahore High Court dismissed her petition. She went on and appealed to the Supreme Court. It was a year later that dictatorship ended and Jahangir won her first case.

Her strong personality and mettle even forced her opponents to respect her stance on different topics.

She is famously known to have said that she has spent many good times at jail while visiting her father while he was incarcerated by the dictators. Maybe these visits showed her the vulnerability of those people who had no one to help them and instilled a yearning in her to work for those who had no hope of justice in countries where the system has many issues.

This fearless warrior fought many battles of the vulnerable and gave strength to many more to stand for their rights and fight their own battles.

People from all sections of society looked to Asma to speak up for matters that were most dangerous. Whether it was the misuse of the blasphemy law or the right for women to run a marathon, Asma was always there to show the right path.

Initially, Asma Jahangir began her career as a family lawyer and she realised early that there was a dire need for institutional reform and changes in the society. However, she was yet to face a third dictator in her life and this time again she stood up at a time when the majority were silenced by the dictator.

When General Zia-ul-Haq amended Pakistan’s constitution in the name of religion, Jahangir spoke up and pointed out that it discriminated against religious minorities and women. She challenged the dictator on moral ground asking him to show the cause for this.

Shaken by the bravery of this young woman, General Zia hit back with the most dangerous weapon and slapped a blasphemy case against her. Unmoved by this Asma continued and emerging a victor proving that when you stood for the right, even a powerful dictator cannot hurt you.

Her passion helped her in her role as a human rights lawyer and she along with her sister formed the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to fight for the underprivileged and the weak of society.

But she also worked for women’s rights and was a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum and also set up a centre that helped women to get legal aid and provide refuge to battered women. She spoke out for the right of girls to marry the man of their own choice. As expected, she faced the wrath of men especially religious and tribal leaders. Similarly, she worked for bounded labour and minorities which also caused a lot of waves in the wrong places. Fortunately, Asma was not to be deterred by the emotions of a little misogyny and she continued with her campaigns to help those who needed it.

Her bravery and vigour seem to know no bounds. Once she was fighting for the rights of a Christian boy who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Now this is an extremely dangerous issue in Pakistan which has led towards a lot of violence over the years. And Asma also faced the ire for this and she was attacked by a mob outside the court. However, this seemed to strengthen her resolve to fight against these forces.

And it was befitting that she became the first women to become the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Her colleagues - predominately male - respected her and there is no doubt that many feared her as well.

Later she also served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. And, she went to India - despite getting flak from many quarters and branded as a traitor and worse - she stood up for the right of freedom of the people of Kashmir and spoke candidly that had become her signature.

Her death has created a vacuum in Pakistan where the majority are suppressed and deprived of their basic rights. At this point there seems to be no replacement of this fiery human rights activist, which is a great disadvantage for the country because we need people like Asma to hold the powerful accountable.