On Sunday, Pakistan’s greatest champion of the rule of law, justice and equality, Asma Jahangir, passed away in Lahore, at the age of 66, from a heart attack. During her lifetime, she fearlessly fought for the voiceless victims of domestic abuse, blasphemy accusations and state repression – this earned her both fans and enemies, in great numbers.
Jahangir was thrown into the spotlight of the judicial system at the young age of 18 in 1969, after her father – a noted left-wing politician – was detained during General Yahya Khan’s military rule. Whilst her schoolmates were solving algebra problems, Jahangir challenged not only the legitimacy of her father’s detention in court but also of Khan’s rule, through a landmark petition, and, surprisingly enough, the martial law that had led to her father’s arrest was declared illegal. Jahangir had made her name in the Supreme Court, and there was no stopping her after that.
Later, in the 1980s during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, Asma Jahangir was one of the leaders of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which protested in the streets against oppressive, misogynistic laws. She quickly became known as the face of feminism in the country. As a qualified lawyer, she also gave legal support to victims of sexual assault, who were targeted by Zia’s Hudood ordinances. Asma Jahangir considered her legal career to be a tool for helping others and driving forward large-scale social change.
In 1978, she established Pakistan’s first all-female legal firm, which focused on controversial cases of women trying to divorce abusive husbands, women marrying of their own volition, bonded labourers wanting freedom from their owners, religious minorities on death row for allegations of blasphemy and relatives of the forcibly disappeared. Many victories in such cases became landmark court cases, through pioneering litigation.
In the mid 1990s, Jahangir fought perhaps her most high-profile case. She chose to defend a Christian teenager, Salamat Masih, who had been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy after allegedly vandalising a mosque wall. The highly charged case attracted great press attention and the public’s emotions ran high. In fact, at one hearing, Jahangir was not even allowed to speak. Ultimately, Masih was acquitted on appeal and walked free. In the aftermath, an armed gang broke into Jahangir’s brother’s house. Two years later, the judge who passed the verdict was killed.
Of course, her unapologetic brand of activism did not come without a price. She was constantly slandered by right-wing politicians and media, arrested numerous times, placed under house arrest for her role in the lawyer’s movement that led to Pervez Musharraf’s ouster, beaten and stripped in the streets during protests, threatened with sexual violence and regularly sent death threats. Despite this, she refused to leave the country under the guise of ‘family time’ – popular with others in such a situation. Instead she said, “I will not leave. My ancestors are buried here and my life is here”. True to her word, she continued to stand on the right side of Pakistani history until the very end and now joins her ancestors in being buried here.
A complete list of Asma Jahangir’s achievements in her career would take up the whole issue of this publication. For most of her life, and indeed for most of Pakistan’s existence, she was an icon of hope and courage, with her name being synonymous with justice. She serves as an uncomfortable reminder to the rest of us that there is always something we could be doing to improve our country. And though she was taken from us much too soon, her legacy lives on in those that she inspired.