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February 12, 2018

Rights activists mourndemise of Asma Jahangir

Lahore

February 12, 2018

LAHORE: Children of a lesser god have become poorer with the departure of Asma Jahangir as hardly anyone is left to fill the shoes of the human rights stalwart standing like a rock to champion the rights of the deprived over a period spanning almost five decades.

“The marginalized and persecuted segments of society have been literally rendered orphan today as the 66-year-old former UN special rapporteur and human rights activist died of cardiac arrest,” according to her sister Hina Jillani, who is herself a human rights activist growing under the shadow of the HR giant.

Asma's supporters took to social media to offer their condolences and express shock at the news of her death, while her opponents poured venom over her ideological differences with them. Asma - also known as a street fighter, received France's highest civilian award in 2014 and Sweden's alternative to the Nobel Prize for her decades of rights work.

Few Pakistani rights activists have achieved the credibility of Asma Jahangir. She secured a number of victories during her life span, from winning freedom for bonded labourers from their ‘owners’ through pioneering litigation to a landmark court case that allowed women to marry of their own choice. She was a fierce advocate of women emancipation and gave voice to marginalised female strata of society crumbling the under the patriarchal mindset.

In the late eighties, Asma Jahangir along with some other passionate human rights activists floated the idea of establishing the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which received overwhelming response from people from all over Pakistan. When the HRCP was set up in 1987, Justice (retd) Dorab Patel, a former Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court, who had refused to take a fresh oath as a judge of the Supreme Court under Zia’s diktat, was appointed its first chairperson.

The most outstanding feature of the newly created the HRCP was its overtly secular mandate. The participants in its founding seminar had passed two resolutions, among others, on the protection of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Asma Jahangir was never apologetic about the focus the HRCP has on Pakistan. She said, "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. 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 my own backyard."

She braved death threats, beatings and imprisonment to win landmark human rights cases and stood up to dictators in the face of adversity.

The violence still exists against women, discrimination against minorities and near-slavery for bonded labourers, but Asma believed that human rights causes have made greater strides in Pakistan than it may appear. “Women’s rights were thought of as a Western concept. Now people do talk about women’s rights that even political and religious parties talk about it,” Asma said in one of her interviews.

Munizae Jahangir, daughter of Asma Jehangir, was devastated on the loss of her mother. “We will announce the day and time of her funeral later, as we are waiting for my sister and other relatives to come from abroad.”

Hina Jillani said, “This is not only the loss of a family. It’s a loss of a nation.” She said that Asma was a lady, who stood up for the persecuted and fought for them. She was never afraid of anyone for she believed she was fighting for someone’s rights.

Deep Saeeda said that it’s an irreparable loss. "She was the only one of her kind. Many journalists and lawyers avoided speaking about missing persons but she was the only lady who spoke about them and even fought for their recovery. She never charged money for working for civil society," she added.

Jibran Nasir, a social activist, said that even the worst critics of Asma Jahangir could not deny that they were indebted to her for guarding their freedoms and rights. "She has helped shape all of our lives through her struggle for democracy and she’ll live on in our conscience," he added.

Dr Mehdi Hassan said that Asma was a symbol of human rights and democracy. "In the era of Zia, when there was a serious discrimination against women she stood up for their rights and freedom. Sadly, there is hardly any left of her stature to fill the vacuum," he added.

Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Khalil Tahir Sandhu expressed sorrow and grief over her death. He said that her services for the legal fraternity and humanity could not be forgotten.

Supporters of Asma Jahangir believed there wasn’t anyone left to stand up for the poor and needy in moral and legal support. Political prisoners, labourers, student federations, NGOs and every person who ever will need freedom of speech, have to seek other options. She was the lady with cause and fierce eyes.

Throughout her life, she didn’t compromise for less. She argued that she did whatever she did in order to adhere to her core principles — not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity. They have demanded a state funeral for the iron lady.

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