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February 12, 2018

Asma Jahangir


February 12, 2018

On Sunday, both Pakistan’s vulnerable people and frail democracy lost their most resilient champion: Asma Jahangir – lawyer, activist, defender of democracy, protector of women and minorities and the main moral compass for the country’s progressives. If there were one person who could be considered indispensable to the nation – its most courageous voice – it was Asma Jahangir. In her 66 years, Asma could not be silenced. She spoke out bravely and with immense courage for all the oppressed people of the country, essentially acting as the conscience of Pakistan. Only her sudden death could silence her and steal away from us the bravest of the brave this country has produced.

Not one to shy away from her principles – whatever be the consequences – Asma’s foray into the legal system started at a young age. The decision in the 1972 Asma Jilani case – against the detention of Malik Altaf Gauhar and Asma’s father Malik Ghulam Jilani who had been imprisoned under martial law regulations – declared Yahya Khan’s martial law illegal, and Yahya Khan a usurper. And for the rest of her life, Asma Jahangir was seen standing up for Pakistan’s vulnerable democratic system every time it faced a threat. Imprisoned by two military dictatorships, first while resisting the brutal rule of Gen Ziaul Haq as part of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s and then during the reign of Pervez Musharraf, Asma was wholly devoted to the cause of democracy and always vigilant in calling out any encroachment on civilian rule – right till her last days. Needless to say, this earned her the hatred and vitriol of anti-democratic forces, who led the most rabidly vicious campaigns against her, only serving to highlight just how terribly Pakistan needed this petite but fierce pro-people warrior.

As a lawyer and women’s rights activist who became a feminist icon, Asma co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was a founder member of the Women’s Action Forum and became the first woman to head the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association. Her work with sister Hina Jilani and colleagues at AGHS – the country’s first all-women law firm – led her to take up some of the most contentious women’s rights cases. It was her work in the Saima Waheed case that eventually led to one of the most important verdicts in our legal history, with the Supreme Court ruling in 2003 guaranteeing adult Pakistani women the right to make their own choice in marriage.

Throughout her activism – fought both in the courtroom and the streets – Asma Jahangir bore the brickbats of the right-wing with humour and poise, and extremely brutally honest retorts. At a time when Pakistan finds itself deeply polarised, and with an increasingly vocal anti-rights right wing, it is important to remember that many of those who targeted her in the most vile terms would end up seeking her assistance when they themselves came in the crosshairs of anti-democratic or retrograde forces. Those whose lives she touched due to her dedication to the rights of every citizen are too numerous to mention. Perhaps among the first to defend those falsely accused of blasphemy, Asma also became the first lawyer to successfully earn an acquittal in a blasphemy case (that of Salamat and Rehmat Masih). For this, she lived under the threat of death, surrounded by bodyguards for the rest of her career. That case also served as a reminder of the constant danger faced by those who worked for justice. Asma Jahangir was never afraid of speaking up for the thousands of ‘missing’ persons in Pakistan, for minority groups like Ahmadis who were targeted by state and society, and for the general cause of democracy. Even though she herself had no need for ceremony and state honours, the state of Pakistan would only honour itself by arranging a state funeral for the fearless Asma Jahangir. We have lost the one person who could always be counted on to speak truth to power – at great personal risk to her own safety – and the whole nation is poorer for it.

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