Illustration by Shenuka Corea

In Memoriam: Asma Jahangir

Pakistan and the world mourn the loss of the nation’s prominent human rights activist.

Feb 17, 2018

Her small stature often belying her courage and her unbendable will, prominent Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir spent her entire life fighting for the fundamental human rights of the people of her country. Her death from cardiac arrest on Feb. 11, 2018 left a nation mourning and in shock. For a country that has one of the worst human rights records in the world, it was as if one of the last remaining lights in a sea of darkness had gone out.
Born in 1952 into an affluent family in Lahore, Pakistan, Jahangir was exposed to politics and the justice system since her childhood. Her father was a left-wing politician who often ended up in jail for protesting against military dictators. Fighting his detentions in court as a teenager and protesting by his side gave Jahangir a taste for social activism that would remain with her for life. In 1969, at the age of 17, she scaled the gates of the Governor's House in Lahore to plant a black flag as a protest against the lack of democracy in the country.
Jahangir founded Pakistan’s first all-women law firm in 1980, much to the objection of her husband, and followed it up with the creation of the Women's Action Forum a few years later. Both events occurred at a time when the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq had ushered in the darkest period of human rights abuses in Pakistan. In 1983, she became the face of the movement against the Hudood Ordinances, a set of laws that discriminated against women and minorities. Her actions first led to a house arrest followed by a brief period of imprisonment. More dangerously, the government attempted to convict Jahangir for blasphemy and sentence her to death.
It was avant-garde for someone in the Zia era to take on human rights cases, but it was absolutely unheard of in the highly misogynistic environment of that time for that someone to be a woman. Yet if one had to describe Jahangir in one word, avant-garde would certainly fit the bill.
As a lawyer, she was not attracted to high profile cases. Her preferred clients were the poor and oppressed, who she frequently refused to charge any fees.
One of her most prominent cases involved two Christian men accused of blasphemy. A judge who acquitted the two was later shot to death; the killer confessed that he had acted out of anger at the decision. Jahangir herself was threatened too. Assailants broke into her mother's home and tried to kill her sister-in-law, failing only because the gun was jammed. She sent her children to a boarding school out of fear that they would be kidnapped, but her own spirit never wavered.
In 1987, Jahangir succeeded in setting up the overtly secular Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in an increasingly Islamist climate. Over the years, HRCP and Jahangir, who later served as the Commission’s chairperson, were portrayed as traitors and accused of working to destabilize the nation in the name of women's rights and rights for minorities. Despite these obstacles, Jahangir remained unfazed.
In 2003, she was instrumental in drafting a legal challenge that led to a court decision allowing Pakistani women to marry without the consent of their male guardians. She also worked to highlight the enforced disappearances and the lack of due process that many Pakistanis have been subjected to by the state. In a country where such acts are an unspoken everyday reality, Jahangir was the one who raised her voice at these injustices.
She was a champion of democracy in a country where democratic governments are rare and weak and where the military remains all powerful. “However flawed democracy is,” she told the New Yorker, “it is still the only answer.” Where others refused to criticize the generals for fear of persecution, Jahangir would go on live television and say: “These duffers, these duffer generals ... need to return to their barracks and stay there.” When she felt the pressure building on her in 2012, she retaliated by going live on TV and publicly accusing the intelligence agencies and the military of trying to kill her.
She also campaigned vociferously for freedom of speech. When the Pakistani media regulatory authority ordered a media blackout of a prominent politician, Jahangir agreed to represent him in court, even though the politician had made many derogatory statements against her in the past. Her ideals were more important than any personal grudge she may have had.
Being beaten and harassed by the police at public protests was an everyday part of her life. When covering these events, Pakistani news channels would often cut to videos of her urging a policeman to shoot her if he so dared. In 2010 there was a media campaign against her led by Pakistan's largest media group. Six years later the same media group engaged her as counsel to represent them in front of Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Her activism wasn’t just limited to Pakistan. Jahangir was the longest serving United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. In that capacity she worked actively against summary executions and extrajudicial killings, for freedom of religious belief and against human rights abuses in Iran.
She was a truly global icon for human rights and the tributes in her death have been universal, coming from all kinds of world figures and organizations.
UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a statement saying, ‘’We have lost a human rights giant. News of the death of Asma Jahangir today is echoing within her native Pakistan and across the world. She was a tireless advocate for inalienable rights of all people and for equality – whether in her capacity as a Pakistani lawyer in the domestic justice system, as a global civil society activist, or as a Special Rapporteur.’’
The US State Department stated, “Her death is a great loss to the world and she will be missed as a champion of her country, its people, and the millions more around the world on whose behalf she spoke.’’
Jahangir’s death has left her nation and the world with a profound sense of loss. Every time a cause needed championing or the oppressed needed defending, one could have counted on Jahangir to be there, leading the charge. In some ways, she represented the moral consciousness of the Pakistani people. One can only hope that there will be more figures like Jahangir, for the world certainly needs them.
But even in death, Jahangir did not go quietly. At her funeral, which was attended by thousands, women boldly stood alongside men in paying tribute to her in the same way that she had stood alongside men her entire life. This violation of local customs and traditions that restrict funerals to men did not go down well with the powerful conservative elements of society, who are in uproar. One last time, it seems Asma Jahangir has managed to smash the patriarchy in a way that only she could have.
Sobha Gadi is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at
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