Asma Jilani Jahangir (1952-2018)

The importance of being Asma


Pakistani human rights lawyer, social activist, and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

For a couple of years, Mohammed Hanif followed Asma Jahangir on her annual fact-finding missions to Balochistan.

In the lawns of the district’s rest house in Pishin there are more than one hundred men sitting in a circle. They are important men, Pakhtuns, Maliks, Supreme Court lawyers, local lawyers, ulemas, more ulemas from the other party, fathers whose sons have been abducted by intelligence agencies, the chairman of the local town committee, the chairman of the local market committee.

This is what Pakistan looks like outside of big cities. Important men talking to their equals or less important men. Here, Asma Jahangir is chairing the meeting.

She is visiting to find out what is happening in Pishin and the surrounding areas. She is one of the three or four women in the circle. She is smoking a beerri and listening to these men moan about everything under the sky: complaints about the government, about lack of governance, about Taliban setting up a camp in a nearby forest, about madressahs, about lack of madressahs.

She knows some of these men from her previous visits. Some older ones know her from when they used to visit her father’s house in Lahore. She has supported some of the lawyers in bar elections, she has been trying to trace missing sons. Fathers of missing sons get more time to speak than others. The azaan starts at a nearby mosque, Asma pulls her dupatta over her head and continues to puff on her beerri.

She is like a pir who has come to a village where everyone has a long wish list. For the young and old Baloch lawyers she is an intimate friend and they want to spend every second with her.

Dawn for more

My friend Asma


A little lawyer from Lahore became the greatest defender of human rights in the subcontinent. What a life to celebrate for a long, long time

I cannot recall exactly when and how I first met Asma. Did I see her when I was invited to dinner by her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, to meet Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was staying with him? Not sure. But in the early 1980s I have several images of her in my mind. In one image she is standing between me and Aitzaz Ahsan, whose protégé she at that time was supposed to be, by the bedside of Mahmud Ali Kasuri. Mian Kasuri sahib was unwell and wanted to discuss with his young friends how to strengthen the Lahore High Court Bar Association’s challenge to the Zia tyranny.

However, I was soon attracted by Asma’s campaign against the Hudood Ordinances and her defence of its victims, especially the visually impaired Safia Bibi, who had been sentenced to imprisonment and flogging for committing zina. She established herself, in my estimation, as a doughty fighter worthy of our respect. This impression was deepened when she was accused of having provided justification for the addition of the blasphemy provision to the Penal Code. I was among the many defenders of civil liberties who rallied to her defence.

This was a period of great ferment in Lahore’s political circles. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD, a name coined by top journalist Nisar Osmani) had been founded in 1981. Ziaul Haq had used the hijacking of a PIA plane to fill the jails with PPP leaders and a large number of leftists, and to proclaim the first Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). He had also embroiled Pakistan in the Afghan conflict. At the same time the world had started looking at Zia’s arbitrary curtailment of the legal protection to citizens. All these developments influenced Asma’s mind and she decided to broaden her concerns and address human rights.

The News for more

Remembering the Extraordinary Life of Pakistani Human Rights Lawyer & Activist Asma Jahangir


AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement, “We have lost a human rights giant.” As one of Pakistan’s most powerful lawyers, Asma Jahangir founded Pakistan’s first legal aid center in 1986, went on to serve as the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. This is Asma Jahangir, speaking in a video produced by the Right Livelihood Awards, which she won in 2014.

ASMA JAHANGIR: When you start off, there’s something inside you telling you to do it. And it comes because you have a heart and an eye and the courage to stand up against those forces—and there are plenty of them, believe me—that do not wish to see people free. Human rights, it’s not a job, it’s a conviction. I have used the law as an instrument, and I’ve used the courts, but I have been on the streets, as well. I’ve been in protest marches. I have been to prison. I’ve been under house arrest. So, for each issue and for each incident, there has to be a thought-out strategy. Justice is a rare commodity in our part of the world. Very rare. But sometimes even shouting for justice gives you some satisfaction that you’re being heard. And you must be heard. You knock, and you knock, and you knock, and you knock, and you knock, and one day they are going to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Asma Jahangir. She died on Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan, after suffering a heart attack.

We’re joined now by one of her dear friends, Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University and the Fletcher School. She was not only a close personal friend of Asma Jahangir, she is also the author of a number of books, including The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics.

Professor Jalal, our condolences to you on the death of Asma, first and foremost.

AYESHA JALAL: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Asma’s significance in the world and what she represented and did.

AYESHA JALAL: I mean, she’s an icon of human rights internationally. But within Pakistan, she was really the symbol of the restoration of democracy. It was her petition to release her father that led to, basically, the principle being enunciated by the judiciary that martial law was not above the constitution. So, I don’t think we can ever—

AMY GOODMAN: Her father was a progressive politician in Pakistan?

AYESHA JALAL: That’s right. That’s right. And he was in jail and under martial law. And she filed a petition, and she won. And that led to the process for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. So I really see her as that. History will remember her for that, in the context of Pakistan. Internationally, of course, she is an icon of international human rights.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: She’s also recognized as a pioneer of women’s rights in Pakistan. Could you talk about her advocacy on behalf of women within Pakistan?

AYESHA JALAL: I mean, she has been transformative in women’s issues, bringing women’s issues into the public. It’s because of her that many women acquired the courage to go and seek justice. She set up a special home for women who suffered abuse, called Dastak. So she did a great deal for human—for women’s rights in Pakistan. And I think she has really helped change the discourse on women’s rights in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her jailing under Zia ul-Haq, her house detention, when she led lawyers protesting the dictatorship?

AYESHA JALAL: I mean, Asma was incorrigible, and she was not to be deterred by any military dictator. I think that she—there was a certain sort of personality that she sort of—you know, that she became, under military rule. And under democracy, she had a different sort of attitude. She wanted to improve democracy. But with the generals, she was ferocious. So I can tell you this, that she was never, never cowed down by either Zia ul-Haq or Musharraf. And that’s what made Asma so great.

Democracy Now for more

Asma Jilani Jahangir & Amartya Sen – Religious Intolerance and its Impact on Democracy


Watch the video

Asma Jahangir on Wikipedia

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