Asma Jahangir
Op-ed

Asma Jahangir: The voice of reason

Maryam Chaudhry

The sudden death of Asma Jahangir is a loss of a strong voice for the marginalised and oppressed. A savior of democracy and human rights. Asma Jahangir was born in Lahore in January 1952.She received a bachelor’s degree from Kinnaird College and an LLB from Punjab University. She was called to the Lahore High Court in 1980 and to the Supreme Court in 1982. She later went on to become the first woman to serve as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. She became a pro-democracy activist and was jailed in 1983 for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which agitated against military dictator Ziaul Haq’s regime.

She was also active in the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement, for which she was put under house arrest. She co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Women’s Action Forum. She received several awards, including a Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2010 and a Sitara-i-Imtiaz. She was also awarded a UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights and an ‘’Officier de la Légion d’honneur” by France.

She also received the 2014 Right Livelihood Award and the 2010 Freedom Award from the International Rescue Committee. In 2014 Ms. Jahangir told AFP news agency she had seen changes in the perception of human rights in Pakistan. “There was a time that human rights was not even an issue in this country,” she said. “Then prisoners’ rights became an issue.”

“Women’s rights were thought of as a Western concept. Now people do talk about women’s rights.” Trained as a lawyer and worked in Pakistan’s Supreme Court from age 30A critic of the military establishment Jailed in 1983 for pro-democracy activities Put under house arrest in 2007 for opposing military leader’s removal of Supreme Court chief justice Co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and of the first free legal aid centre in Pakistan Co-founder of the Women’s Action Forum, set up to oppose law that reduced a woman’s testimony in court to half that of a man’s. The first female leader of Pakistan’s Supreme Court bar association, Winner of several awards including the UNESCO/Bilbao prize for the promotion of a culture of human rights and the French Legion of Honour and Served as UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and on human rights in Iran. She has represented several clients who were denied their fundamental rights.

Asma Jahangir defended cases of minorities, women and children in prisons. Asma Jahangir invited some of her friends over lunch to discuss the possibility of starting a law firm. Late Shahid Rahman, who was the son of a former chief justice of Pakistan, SA Rahman, and an excellent lawyer himself, told her to talk to Shehla Zia, another young lawyer at the time. Asma Jahangir’s equally well-known sister, Hina Jilani, was already working as a junior lawyer with Ijaz Batalvi. The three then roped in Gulrukh – thus, AGHS was formed on February 12, 1980, taking its name from the first letters of the names of its founders. It was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm.

It was the darkest of times. The Hudood Ordinance was already in force. The law of evidence was about to be changed to the disadvantage of women and non-Muslims. It was also the best of times. The Women’s Action Forum or WAF was formed smack in those years. In July 2016, a division bench of the Lahore High Court was hearing a public interest petition against the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train. The petition contended that the project was damaging Lahore’s architectural heritage. A star team of lawyers was representing the Punjab government. There was Shahid Hamid, a legal wizard and a former governor of Punjab. There was the advocate general. There were many assistant advocate generals and deputy attorney generals. The packed courtroom was unusually abuzz with the chatter of minions and acolytes of the government’s lawyers.

Everyone was waiting for Asma Jahangir to argue in favour of the petition. When she stepped forward to the rostrum and began her arguments, one of her co-counsels tried to whisper a legal point in her ear – a relatively common practice in courts. Before he could even start, Asma Jahangir dismissed him with a wave of her hand and almost sternly said, “Stay where you are. If I want your assistance, I will ask for it.” Immediately after the horrific Quetta terror attack on August 8, 2016, Dr Danish, a television anchorperson, tweeted pictures of Asma Jahangir with a caption in Urdu which translates as: “When lawyers were being killed in Quetta, the so-called leader of the lawyers was enjoying herself in the northern areas.” The post was enthusiastically retweeted, shared on Facebook and distributed through WhatsApp groups.

Asma Jahangir was not “enjoying herself in the northern areas”. She was in Gilgit-Baltistan on a human rights fact-finding mission when the attack happened. There was no way she could travel to Quetta the same day. She took to Twitter and responded to the anchorperson: “Shame on you for exploiting facts even when people [are] in grief … Ask [your] spy friends not to stoop to the lowest levels of viciousness.” She penned two books: Divine Sanction? The Hadood Ordinance (1988) and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1992).
It is the loss of the whole Sub continent.”