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Asma Jahangir: Feisty Fighter, Pakistan’s Conscience


By Khaled Ahmed

February 13, 2018

 Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer, Asma Jahangir, died of a heart attack in Lahore on February 11, aged 66. There was a spontaneous outpouring of grief in Pakistan, even from those who didn’t like her challenge to an increasingly fundamentalist state that deprived minorities and women of their rights in the name of religion. She opposed the military dictators whom many in Pakistan didn’t mind. And, she put off the religious parties by her opposition to the laws they backed in order to create a male-dominated utopia in which women suffered and non-Muslims languished under anti-blasphemy laws.

Daughter of Malik Ghulam Jilani, who himself fought military dictatorship all his life not knowing it would become a permanent feature even under democracy, Asma attended Convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore and got her BA from Kinnaird College in Lahore. She got her law degree from the Punjab University in 1978 before plunging into a long career of human rights advocacy. In 1983, she went to jail for defying the General Ziaul Haq regime. She was to visit jail again under General Pervez Musharraf during the Lawyers Movement of 2007, not that the lawyers of Lahore, most of them from small cities and of conservative mind, loved her for her defence of the non-Muslims and women. She thumbed her nose at them by being elected the 13th president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Islamabad.

During General Zia’s rule, she was out on the street agitating against the inhuman aspects of Islamisation, which still haunt Pakistan. Under the Penal Code of 1860, based on the social customs of India, the adultery law punished only men; under the Zina Ordinance of General Zia, women began to be punished while men walked. The victimised were exclusively poor women. In 1988, almost half the poor women prisoners in Punjab faced trial under the Zina Ordinance.

Her response to her persecution under dictatorship was measured. She helped set up the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in 1987, and served as its Secretary General until 1993. Pakistan has still not digested the fact that HRCP brings out annual surveys of how the state continues to crush its Hindu and Christian minorities — including the Hindus of Tharparkar who travel to Lahore to describe how Hafiz Saeed persuades them to embrace Islam if they want to benefit from his charity.

The world took note of her quickly enough. She was appointed the United Nations Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran in September 2016, pleasing neither the clergy of Iran nor that of Pakistan. She was in Congo and East Timor for the UN when atrocities there were directed mainly on women. She worked with Indians like Urvashi Butalia, writing about the suffering Hindu and Muslim women of Kashmir. She had the same worldview as Arundhati Roy who watches India returning self-destructively to religion after 70 years of secularism. And she was unpopular back in Pakistan, perhaps in the same way as Butalia and Roy are in some circles in India. Two years ago, Asma was on the stage in Lahore with Romila Thapar during the Lahore Literary Festival discussing the upsurge of religion and the resultant injustice in South Asia.

Pakistan has undermined its own writ by giving birth to the so-called “non-state actor” organisations fighting its covert wars in neighbouring states. Sensing that the deep state is behind these proxy warriors, the courts look the other way when they commit crimes in the name of religion. Asma’s house in Lahore was attacked with explosives in a style typical of the offended warriors, at times acting for the state.

On April 11, 1997, Jamaat-e-Islami’s youth wing, Shabab-e-Milli, organised a sit-in at Dastak, a victimised’s home run by Asma’s sister and rights lawyer, Hina Jilani. Dastak had offended it by giving refuge to Saima, who had contracted marriage without the permission of her father. The Shabab-e-Milli siege was led by a notorious “student” killer. The city was rife with accusations that Dastak was being run by Qadiani apostates with the help of Jewish funds. One poster alleged that the “insulters of the Prophet had planned to subvert the message of Islam’s true Prophet in order to spread criminal sexual freedom in society”. It alleged that Asma Jahangir had “become the apple of the eye of Western powers”

Asma opposed child labour and stood with the slave labourers in the brick-kilns of Lahore and the Bheel and the Kohli agricultural slaves of Sindh. There was a time when right-wing politicians like Nawaz Sharif, under the tutelage of military dictators, condemned her for undermining the sovereignty of Pakistan on the instigation of “foreign enemies”. Then came a juncture when Sharif morphed into an opponent of the army’s mandate of a permanent state of war with India. She supported him, forgetting the past, and opposed Imran Khan’s campaign against Sharif. She was on the phone with a Sharif lawyer when she died of a heart attack.

Her latest rebellion was her disagreement with the Supreme Court of Pakistan on involving itself in the political battle between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. She saw the process as judicial kowtowing to the fiat of military dominance “just because [among other allegations] Sharif had welcomed Narendra Modi” to his house in Lahore. She rebuked the self-dramatisation of the Supreme Court judges in their anti-Nawaz verdicts and condemned their populist in-court obiter dicta as miscarriage of justice after they dismissed the the prime minister for not being “Sadiq” (truthful) and “Ameen” (honest) like the Holy Prophet under General Zia’s Article 62 of the Constitution.