Fearless and a formidable fighter, Asma Jahangir personifies the struggles Pakistanis have initiated against shameful cultural practices, discriminatory legislation and executive excess. A frail woman has kept the torch of public liberties, freedom and democracy alive for decades. Born on January 27, 1952, in Karachi, Asma Jahangir during the last forty years has become a champion of women, child and minority rights and in many ways the conscience of Pakistan.
A leading Pakistani lawyer and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Jahangir is most renowned for her role as a human rights activist, a role which has made her confront military dictatorships of General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf and the civilian autocrats. In 1972, Asma Jahangir was only 18 when she filed her first petition to have her father — who had been arrested for denouncing the genocide in Bangladesh — released from prison. In a landmark judgment ten years later, she won the case. In fact, the earliest and perhaps the only judgment against a military coup is now attributed to her name. Her resistance to army’s role in politics has been legendary. In 1999, when Pakistan’s so-called civil society welcomed the secular Musharraf with two dogs in his lap, hers was the only clear, unequivocal voice against military intervention. A decade later when Pakistan rallied behind the judges and lawyers to oust Musharraf, Jahangir was once again at the forefront.
In 1980, Asma Jahangir and her sister Hina Jilani partnered with a few rights activists and lawyers and formed the first law firm established by women in Pakistan, named the AGHS Legal Aid Cell. To date, AGHS has provided legal services to several women and members of minority groups and continues to be the benchmark against which legal profession and public law in Pakistan will be judged in the annals of Pakistani history.
During Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, Asma was also at the vanguard of activists who created the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). In 1982-1983, Asma Jahangir used these platforms to organise protests against the enforcement of fundamentalist laws, specifically the Law of Evidence (which made a woman’s testimony inferior to that of men), together with demonstrating against the conviction of a 13-year-old blind rape victim for zina (adultery). WAF was the first spark of resistance against the military rule and inspired Pakistani men and women of all faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds to rally against a repressive dictatorship.
Her struggles continued through the 1980s and later when the civilian governments were ruling Pakistan. She was as outspoken as before and refused to adopt a partisan line.
Asma Jahangir is a graduate of Kinnaird College, Lahore, and later completed her law degree from the Punjab University. She also holds Honorary Doctorates in Law from the University of Saint Gallen, Switzerland, Queen’s University, Canada and Amherst College, USA. She has also served as Professor of Law at the Quaid-e-Azam Law College. Noting her stellar contributions to human rights and the advocacy of the marginalised segments of Pakistani society, she received global acclaim and became a symbol of progressive and liberal-democratic elements within Pakistan.
Her credibility at home was, however, challenged by bigots and members of the establishment who called her all sorts of names and did not shy away from declaring her as a Western agent, sometimes an Indian stooge. The reason was clear: she stood for peace, equal rights and a discrimination-free society that was and continues to be haunted by the demons of sectarianism and chauvinism. The United Nations honoured her and Asma Jahangir has been serving as a Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. From 1998-2004, she also worked as a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions, a job which took her to Afghanistan, Central America and Colombia.
At home, another key contribution has been the establishment and nurturing of the formidable Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Today, it is the biggest network of rights’ activists with a presence in all corners of the country and is doing commendable work of alerting the citizens about how the state continues to abuse rights. Asma Jahangir has remained the Co-Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for several years until earlier this year when she resigned to contest for the elections for the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) which she subsequently won. In addition, Jahangir has been one of the founders and co-Chair of South Asia for Human Rights since 2000.
Asma Jahangir is recipient of several national awards, including Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Distinction) in 1995. In recognition of her services in the field of human rights, she was awarded the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award in 1992 and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995. She was also honoured with the Bernard Simons Memorial Award of the International Bar Association in 2000. She has authored two books: Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance (1988) and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1992).
Her consistent stance on principles of human rights and democracy has unnerved every ruler in the country. During Musharraf’s time, she was a fierce critic of his regime and he even named her several times in disparaging manner. In 2005, she was abused and manhandled during a mixed gender marathon, which had been organised to raise awareness about violence against women. Little wonder that after the imposition of state emergency by Pervez Musharraf, she was placed under house arrest for 90 days.
Unlike several others in Pakistan’s undefined civil society, Jahangir has also shunned public offices. Benazir Bhutto in her two stints as prime minister wanted Asma Jahangir to become a judge of the superior courts; other offices were also offered but Jahangir refused. Her first foray into a semi-formal office as President SCBA has come about through an election and that too a bitterly contested one. Sections of lawyers’ community, fundamentalist parties and elements within the media crossed the red line on several occasions. She was called an agent once again, a Qadiani and an enemy of Islam (to borrow a line from a notorious Urdu columnist) but the lawyers knew better. They elected her from almost every city with a majority.
There is another significant message here. The hyper-activism of the judges in the last two years and the transgressions by lawyers have also created controversies. Jahangir’s bid for the election was to provide a sane discourse to the voices for rule of law and constitutionalism divorcing Pakistan’s extraordinary public movements from personalities. Similarly, the bars have also claimed to be the foot soldiers of judges in the past and this was neither in the interest of the judges nor the lawyers. Asma Jahangir’s election campaign revolved around making the apex bar a professional, non-partisan body working for the advancement of rule of law and not the agenda of anti-government partisan lawyers.
The pendulum, which had swung the other way, has now reached the middle. No longer, a few corporate lawyers can claim that their politics and uncomfortable alliance with the bench has the absolute and popular backing of the entire legal fraternity. This is extremely healthy for the profession, the rule of law and the democratic evolution of Pakistan.
There is no question that Jahangir faces a series of challenges from within the lawyers’ community and outside. But she is a fighter and after decades of struggles wiser about the way realpolitik is played out. Her opponents are many but they all agree on one point: Jahangir is consistent about her principles. Pakistan has to find a balance between the courts, the parliament and the executive. Asma Jahangir’s historical victory comes at a critical juncture where she will be at the centre of these systemic adjustments and collisions. It gives the overwhelming number of Pakistanis some comfort that she will be there in the middle of these struggles. And, that is no mean achievement for all of us. Jahangir is not known for betraying her ideals. What more could one ask for?