Asma Jahangir: Through the Years

Anish Gawande is the director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, which promotes collaborative creative dialogue around Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. He can be found on Twitter as @anishgawande.

Fierce, vocal, and incredibly eloquent, Asma Jahangir transformed the landscape of human rights legislation and activism in Pakistan over the course of her life. In the face of repressive regimes and public vitriol, she championed causes ranging from the protection of religious minorities to the pursuit of judicial reform. 

Here are 15 documents written across her lifetime that chronicle Jahangir’s greatest victories and most vulnerable defeats. They speak to her passions, her changing ideologies, and to her negotiation with larger frameworks of public opinion and resistance. They serve, then, as reminders of a life well lived – but a life that struggled tirelessly to achieve every outcome we celebrate today. 

  1. When her father was arrested by Yahya Khan in 1971 for speaking out against the Bangladesh war, an 18-year-old Asma Jahangir filed a petition in the Supreme Court to demand his release. She gave an interview later recounting those formative years and the process of filing that first petition.

  2. PLD 1972 SC 139 was one of the first judgements against excesses by military dictatorships in Pakistan. Ijaz Batalvi, who helped Jahangir file the petition, wrote an incisive piece (in Urdu) on Asma Jilani v Government of Punjab and its wider implications for Pakistani jurisprudence.  

  3. In the 1980s, Jahangir started the AGHS Legal Aid Cell and the Women’s Aid Forum to defend women and minorities in the face of Zia-Ul-Haq’s increasingly repressive policies. Her 1984 USAID paper on “Impact of Islamization Policies on Pakistani Women’s Lives” [pdf] details the fraught nature of activism in those years.

  4. As she stepped into the role of a lawyer-activist, Asma Jahangir spoke out against repressive legislation like the Hudood Ordinances that targeted women and minorities. Following the sentence of stoning to death awarded to Zafaran Bibi in 2002, Jahangir wrote a powerful piece for Dawn that traces the struggle to protect women from zina laws.

  5. In 1987, she founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987. In contrast, neighboring India only got its own commission in 1993. The HRCP remains one of the most vociferous defenders of the rights of minorities. Here’s the HRCP report after the Chak Sikandar riots, one of the first to document Ahmadiyya persecution in the country.

  6. Her work stirred powerful reactions from the state and its religious apparatus. Zia’s newly created Majlis-e-Shoora was set to try her for blasphemy for a speech she had given in Islamabad. A friend and colleague, Tahira Abdullah, had luckily recorded the entire speech and was able to prevent any action from being taken against Jahangir. Here are snippets of media coverage from 1988 that cover the case.

  7. The protection of religious minorities, especially against regressive blasphemy laws, was the hallmark of Asma Jahangir’s career. Her defense of the 14-year-old Christian boy Salamat Masih, sentenced to death for allegedly drawing anti-Islamic graffiti on a mosque wall, led to a 1995 Amnesty International report [pdf] condemning death penalties for juveniles.

  8. Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoner in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir’s book on juvenile detention, came out in 1993. Chronicling the staggering exploitation of children handed prison sentences by courts across the country, the book introduced – perhaps for a first time – a comprehensive index of all the child rights laws in Pakistan.

  9. The new millennium began with Asma Jahangir’s scathing “Whither Are We?” in Dawn on 2 October, 2000. She lashed out against Pakistani foreign policy for claiming the moral upper hand in Kashmir while ignoring internal human rights abuses. The article is strange: cited everywhere, it can be found nowhere. Except hidden here, on the SACW dispatch.
     
  10. “Teach the bitch a lesson. Strip her in public.” Asma Jahangir suffered all this and more for leading a 2005 mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to expose the hypocrisy of Pervez Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation.” Ali Dayan Hasan was at that marathon and described how Asma Jahangir was beaten in the full glare of the news media. 

  11. Jahangir was also – and this is rarely discussed – at the forefront of fighting for LGBT rights in Pakistan. She was one of the signatories of the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, which laid down principles to ensure dignity for sexual orientation and gender minorities. 

  12. Asma Jahangir was the first woman to be elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2011. Irreverent, Asma was as comfortable smoking a beedi at the bar as she was trekking to Gilgit-Baltistan to investigate rights violations. Here’s a rare interview of Asma on her election campaign that describes what she thinks of bar-bench standoffs.

  13. Not one to shy away from controversy, Asma Jahangir went as far as meeting Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in 2008. In 2015, she agreed to defend Altaf Hussain’s right to free speech in court. Here is her BBC Urdu interview with Shafi Naqi Jamie explaining her opposition to a media blackout against the MQM leader. 

  14. Jahangir was at the forefront of demands to reform honor killing laws in Pakistan. Here is her 2016 Newsweek Pakistan piece tracing the fight to get amendments passed in Parliament that mandated life imprisonment for perpetrators of honor killings.  

  15. Her work took Jahangir beyond national boundaries. With the United Nations, she investigated rights violations in countries ranging from Sri Lanka to Israel. Most recently, as UN Special Rapporteur to Iran, she released a hard-hitting report [pdf] in August 2017 that remains more relevant than ever in the face of feminist uprisings in the nation.

The spirit of Asma Jahangir cannot be captured in mere platitudes or condemnations. She fought a lonely battle: carving an ideology for herself, she fiercely defended her work in the face of backlash from both liberals and conservatives. Her life must be read as a ceaseless struggle to ask the questions that few had the courage to ask. We must keep asking those questions.

— by Anish Gawande

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