Jahangir was fearless, she had it in her genes


By Waqar Mustafa

To my daughter fear is our greatest issue as it impedes development, both personal and collective. But human rights champion Asma Jahangir, who passed away in Lahore only a fortnight after turning 66, had overcome that quite early in her life. Or, should I say, she was fearless by birth. Courage was in her genes. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a civil servant had entered politics on retirement and spent years both in jail and under house arrest for opposing military rule.

Her mother had set up her own clothing business when the family’s lands were confiscated in 1967 as punishment. She was 18 when her father was arrested again and she moved the Lahore High Court for his release. Her petition remained unsuccessful but after she appealed to the Supreme Court, the martial law that had led to her father’s arrest was also declared illegal.

From then on, activism did not remain personal for her. According to Pakistan’s independent watchdog, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which she co-founded in 1986, the human rights movement in Pakistan was founded and is defined by Asma Jahangir. She was also a co-founder of the Women’s Action Forum, which was set up to oppose law that reduced a woman’s testimony in court to half that of a man’s. She served as HRCP’s Secretary General and Chairperson and was currently its Spokesperson and the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, among the numerous other significant appointments. “Asma Jahangir’s unique and outstanding contribution to the human rights discourse is acknowledged by friends and foes alike, nationally and globally. HRCP has not known a braver and more tireless human rights defender than Asma Jahangir,” Dr Mehdi Hasan, the Commission’s chairperson, said in a statement.

I have had the honour of sharing the stage with her, mainly at the launch events of HRCP’s flagship annual report, The State of Human Rights, which I edited for four years. She would make the events lively and vibrant by vociferously and fearlessly speaking in defence of human rights. She wanted to spread the word through radio. She had planned to use some award money for setting up FM radio stations for human rights education in different areas of the country. On her bidding, HRCP, under a two-year project, produced programmes carrying human rights messages for a state-run radio channel.

A dedicated and accomplished lawyer, Asma Jahangir cared less for money and had fought a lot of human rights cases for free. In 1980, she, along with women lawyer colleagues, opened the first legal-aid centre in Pakistan. Over the next decade, she went to prison for opposing military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s chauvinistic laws, and lent voice and legal support to the oppressed – women, children, labourers, political workers and people from minority faiths.

In 2007, she was put under house arrest for her role in the so-called lawyers’ movement, which helped end Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. She became the first woman president of the country’s Supreme Court Bar Association.

A fierce defender of democracy and human rights, she knew her subject and her speech featured logic and reason – both biting and funny. Time magazine honoured her through its list of 100 most influential women. She was repeatedly threatened for raising her voice for the voiceless. Several years ago, she had to briefly send her family out of the country following threats.

Jahangir had won scores of national and international awards. In Pakistan, she was awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the second and third highest civilian honours. Internationally, she was awarded the Unesco/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, an Officier de la Légion d’honneur by France, the 2010 Freedom of Worship Award, Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Right Livelihood Award in Sweden in 2014.

The fiery activist, whose name was virtually synonymous with human rights in Pakistan, will be missed, always and immensely, by all whose lives she touched. She died way too soon! —Khaleej Times

{Waqar Mustafa is a print, broadcast and online journalist based in Pakistan}


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here