Asma. A human rights giant, and more. My tribute in EPW

Wrote this piece for the Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. 53, Issue No. 12, 24 March 2018). Unedited version here with additional links, photos and videos.

  • Asma Jahangir, lawyer, human rights activist.
  • Born 27 January 1952, Lahore; died: 11 February 2018, Lahore.
  • Co-founder: AGHS law firm, 1980, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, 1983; Womens Action Forum, 1981;
  • Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1986.
  • Involved in launch of Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, 1994, and launch of South Asians for Human Rights, 2000.
  • UN Special Rapporteur: extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, 1998 to 2004; freedom of religion or belief, 2004-2010; situation of human rights in Iran, November 2016 till death.
  • Elected first female President, Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association, 2010.

Asma was all this and so much more.

The widespread outpouring of grief and tributes from around the world helped cope with the deep-felt personal loss of a mentor and friend. Far away in Boston, connecting with Asma’s family and mutual friends in Lahore offered solace. We commiserated through tears but there was also laughter remembering something she said or did or would say or do.

Every conversation about her ends with resolve. Tributes continue to be held around the world, across Pakistan and India, and elsewhere – Bangladesh, England USA, Canada. We must seize this “Asma moment”, to quote young lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani.

The best tribute we can pay is, says everyone, carry on her work. Asma Jahangir always carried on, no matter how great the obstacles and setbacks.

There’s relief that she went on her own terms, a heart attack at home, after a late night of laughter and fun with two of her oldest friends. Not the assassin’s bullet everyone was bracing for. She herself was well aware of the risks, but it never stopped her.

It wasn’t just threats to her life. Those undermining her would stoop to any level. In May 2005, police attacked the symbolic mini-marathon Asma was leading in protest against an attack on women runners training for the upcoming Lahore Marathon. There was a hissed ‘Teach the bitch a lesson, strip her in public’, and a muscular hand grasped Asma’s neckline from behind, ripping the fabric. Her status as a UN Special Rapporteur and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was no protection.

She shared with me later that she avoided facing her mother-in-law after photos of her exposed back appeared in the media. If Asma, who didn’t buy the concepts of ‘honour’ that mar our society – not just in Pakistan but across South Asia – felt this way, how must women feel who are more vulnerable? And yet they carry on.

Asma’s strength in large part came from these women that she represented. I remember a case she related about a village woman whose in-laws had thrown her out, taking away her baby. In court, the judge allowed the mother to hold and suckle the child. The woman then squatted on the courtroom floor clutching her baby and defying anyone to try and take it from her, recounted Asma admiringly.

Shaping narratives of dissent

Family-oriented, fun-loving and a great mimic: A side of Asma obscured by the headline hungry media.

Going by the media portrayal of Asma Jahangir, you’d think she was always angry and liked yelling and being in the limelight. This false impression may be due to the demand of the visually-oriented 24/7 media beast for sensational fare. Not that she avoided the limelight — at one time, like many lawyers including the founder of Pakistan, M. A. Jinnah, she wanted to be an actor. However, she didn’t actively seek the limelight. She refused several requests to appear on one TV talk show or another. Well aware that ratings-driven TV channels promote binaries, she didn’t want to be viewer-bait and get embroiled in useless arguments.

But journalists kept seeking her out. Asma – like the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who turned to Asma for counsel — was not the boycotting type. “Boycott, and then what?” Benazir said when asked to reject the military-supervised elections planned in January 2008.

For the larger cause, Asma was willing to wade into the muck. Conscious of the strategic importance of getting her point of view across and influencing the public narrative, when she did agree to appear on TV, it was on her own terms. The anchor would not cut her off or let the discussion become a slanging match.

In one famous live show in May 2011, the host asked her about the defence committee’ call for Pakistanis to prove their patriotism by supporting the armed forces, following the US operation against Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Asma’s measured response was that she didn’t need to prove her patriotism to anyone, particularly the security establishment. The army, she said, had put Pakistan in a situation “where terrorism is cropping up at every corner and neighbourhood”, they also “encourage and support it, detract from debate. They’ve got a whole propaganda machinery going”. (Something that many Indians may increasingly relate to).

She reminded the host of the Bangladesh war, when anyone criticising the Pakistan army action in East Pakistan was branded a traitor, including Asma’s father who was imprisoned. The ‘faujis’ (soldiers), she said scathingly, were “political duffers” — not the ordinary rank and file soldier but “these generals who play golf and laugh and look out for (land) plots”.

Please, she begged with folded hands, “go back to your barracks, let our children live. We don’t want bloodshed. If you want acclaim, go fight – and win — a war. You fought Kargil, killed the Light Infantry soldiers. You’re used to making young boys into human shields. You can’t fight, or run the country, or make policy. You are the ‘qabza group’ (land grabbers) of this country”.

Later, in a radio interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, she said she shouldn’t have used the word duffer – she should, she said, “have said dangerous duffers”.

Inskeep asked her about the dangers of speaking as she did. “I think I have lived enough in this country, and I think enough people trust me where I can say what I think is true and with the voice of my conscience,” she replied. “If I cannot live with a conscience in this country, I’d rather not live.”

Principled critique

“No one in Pakistan has rejected authoritarian rule so firmly and so consistently as Asma Jahangir did”, as I. A. Rehman, her right-hand man, senior journalist and former director of the HRCP, wrote.

Her opposition to the military’s interference in politics was rooted not in emotion but respect for law and the Constitution. These were the weapons she used in court. Elsewhere, her street-smart language and gestures captured public imagination. It was a powerful combination.

A day after a judge of the Islamabad High Court in February 2017 banned public observances of Valentine’s Day in response to a petition that it is un-Islamic, Asma scoffed at his order with: “Anyone who has read the law will tell you that this judgement is not based in any legality. Anyway, this judge saab should not be here, he should have been the khateeb (sermon-giver) at a mosque”.

(Incidentally, the same judge has recently passed an order making it mandatory for all applicants for public offices to declare their religious beliefs before being considered eligible – an alarming development and one that Asma would have vehemently opposed).

The vilification against Asma grew in proportion to her increasing fame and outspokenness. The massive turnout at her funeral and the spontaneous outpouring of grief across Pakistan was a fitting response.

“Proof” of her lack of patriotism included false captions of photos, and photo-shopped visuals. One photo of her carrying a basket on her head was captioned “Asma bringing ‘prasaad’ (religious offering) to Hindu temples”. Some versions photo-shopped a red ‘tikka’ to her forehead. Another photo-shopped picture shows her apparently praying to Mahatama Gandhi. Her meetings with Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi were proof of “her namaste to Indian heroes” – her orange shalwar kurta further evidence of her affinity with the “saffron” lobby.

These photos actually speak to two of Asma’s most significant contributions.

One is her role in furthering peace with India, a cause that she believed women should be in the frontlines of. After the Kargil “war-like situation” in 1999 she and Nirmala Deshpande from India led a women’s “peace bus” exchange, breaking a deadly impasse. They did this with song, dance and music, gifting each other bangles and dupattas in a conscious reclaiming of these symbols of femininity used as taunts of weakness. Asma’s basket-on-head photo was taken at Fatehpur Sikri when she led a 60-member women’s delegation to India.

“Pity that they should portray it as a temple though I have visited several temples of all religions and churches”, said Asma in a statement later. “Shame on the duffers to waste their time on these dirty tricks”.

Wanting peace with India did not blind Asma to human rights abuses there. She was outspoken about the atrocities in Kashmir, particularly after her visit to the Valley in 2016 when she witnessed the civil uprising against Burhan Wani’s killing.

The Modi and Thackarey photos were taken during Asma’s visit to India as a UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion.

“They could have flashed my photos with the victims also. Or read the report I wrote for the UN in which I blasted them for state complicity”, she said at a press conference.

It was, she noted later in an emailed statement, “not only appropriate but essential to get their version on record… Bigoted duffers and their henchmen should at least get their facts right before they embark on a prejudiced campaign of vilification”.

She didn’t bother responding to the objections to her clothes. Her love for bright colours was no secret. The coincidence of her wearing almost the same shade as Bal Thackarey was too good an opportunity for the propagandists to miss.

Linked to Asma’s understanding of the need to keep the larger picture in mind, was her willingness to go beyond political differences and to talk, even with her ideological enemies, another trait she shared with Benazir Bhutto.

Asma’s resolve and commitment, large-heartedness and vision for the long term, keeping in mind the bigger picture, were among her defining characteristics. Beyond that was her whole-hearted devotion to the cause of human rights embedded in upholding the rule of law and democratic principles. Her generosity not only with her time and expertise, evident in how she laid her own life open to the cause and also her house. I saw this on umpteen occasions at her inclusive dinners. She wasn’t bothered just about her guests but also the domestic staff and drivers, ensuring everyone was properly looked after and fed.

Strategic activism

Her activism was part of a strategic, well thought-out plan, facing the dangers head on, not reactive or emotional.  “There are times I’ve been scared, there are times I’ve cried,” she said in an interview to the BBC in 2010. “But does that mean you give up in the face of brute force? No. Never”.

The representative cross-section of society at her funeral was proof of how she touched people’s hearts. Thousands flocked to pay their last respects — barefoot peasant women and labourers, transgender activists and powerful political figures, members of political parties, atheists and even members of the Jamat-i-Islami and the proscribed Jamat-ud-Dawa came and wept. Asma’s daughter Munizae Jahangir, a TV journalist, said the latter told her that Asma was defending one of their members, in prison on ‘blasphemy’ charges.

Asma was, in fact, a consummate political leader but with no hunger for political power or office. Her greatness of spirit was evident in how she took on not only the blasphemy case of the religious worker, but also cases of those who had been openly against her. She would represent them on principles like freedom of speech, human rights and freedom of media. The only former opponent she refused was a military dictator.

Journalist Kashif Abbasi tells the story of when Asma saw him having lunch with another TV talk show host at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market and joined them. That the other man was Mubashir Lucman who had spoken often against her didn’t faze Asma. She said he had a right to say what he wanted, commented Abbasi. She even offered to help Lucman with the contempt of court case he was facing. “There are very few people with that kind of ‘zarf’, forbearance”, said Abbasi.

When I first met Asma in 1989, she was working to redress the centuries-old injustices borne by brick kiln workers, bonded labourers indebted for generations. When she climbed on the bonnet of a jeep early that year to address scores of workers in a field outside Lahore, they came alive as she spoke. That is when she may have come into her own as a political leader, observed former finance minister Dr Mubashir Hasan who has worked closely with her.

Defence of human rights

Asma’s activism coupled with her legal work led to the ground breaking Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, a step towards ending the system of generational debt that continues to hold workers as virtual slaves. As a young journalist in Lahore I closely followed this issue.

I saw her develop and lead the HRCP – the institution she launched and spearheaded that I am proud to have been associated with. In 1993, Asma asked me to stand for elections for the HRCP Council, an elected, voluntary, consultative body. Elected over three consecutive terms to this influential group marked by a high level of debate and discussion, I saw and experienced first-hand Asma’s clarity of vision complemented by her persuasive powers, and her ability to get people from differing points of view to agree on a minimum common agenda.

Issues I followed as a journalist also intersected with several cases Asma represented legally. Two issues that stand out are “blasphemy” and “free will” marriage.

Salamat Masih: 14-year old accused of ‘blasphemy’ in in 1993 had to flee the country after being acquitted

In 1993, she started her defence of Salamat Masih, an illiterate 11-year old Christian boy accused of writing ‘blasphemous’ words on the wall of a mosque. He and his co-accused, his father Rehmat and uncle Manzoor, were threatened while under trial at the district court. An armed attack outside the court the following year left Manzoor dead, and Salamat, Rehmat and others injured.

The trial court sentenced Salamat and Rehmat to death in February 1995. After Asma appealed against the verdict in the Lahore High Court, extremists attacked her car in the court premises. She was fortunately not in it and her driver escaped with his life.

In another, more frightening incident soon afterwards, armed men broke into Asma’s mother’s house next door to her in-laws’ where Asma lived. One of the intruders panicked when his gun jammed as he pointed it at Asma’s sister-in-law and tried to fire with her two children looking on. As police guards arrived, the intruders fled leaving behind a car that turned out to be stolen. After they were caught, Asma went to see them in the police station. She said later that they seemed surprised that she wasn’t the demon they had been led to believe. Basically, “They were pawns in the hands of powerful people, leaders of sectarian groups who sowed the seeds of hatred in young minds”.

She subsequently sent her children to boarding schools abroad for their safety. She missed them terribly but never considered changing her path.

Another ground-breaking case she took on soon afterwards was the “Saima Waheed Love Marriage Case” as the press dubbed it.

With the winds of change sweeping over Pakistan, human rights and women’s rights discourse were gaining ground. Among the young people from all kinds of backgrounds who were increasingly breaking traditions, was Saima Waheed Ropri, daughter of a well-known religious leader. In 1997, the 22-year old business administration graduate secretly married her brother’s math tutor but remained at her father’s house, hoping to bring her family around to her choice. Instead, they arranged her marriage to another man.

Saima scaled the wall of her family house disguised in a burqa and caught a taxi to AGHS. She may not have known that this was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm founded in 1980 by Asma, with her younger sister Hina and their friends Gul Rukh and Shehla Zia (named for their initials, AGHS). But she knew there was someone there called Asma Jahangir who helped women.

Asma took on the case not because Saima’s father was a religious figure but because she could not refuse to help a young woman who was exercising her right to marry of her own choice. She sent Saima to live at Dastak, the shelter house for women run by AGHS.

The case led to a frenzied debate in Pakistan about the right of an adult Muslim woman to marry of her own choice. The propaganda machine against Asma went into full swing. She corrupted innocent young Saima said her detractors, pointing to Saima’s new haircut, a bob, and the jeans she wore, rather than the traditional shalwar, with her kurta to court.

News report, March 15, 1997 – Saima fled Pakistan with Arshad shortly after the court ruled their marriage valid

“I used to wear jeans at home too, but my father never saw that”, Saima told me smilingly, enjoying the attention. The haircut was the work of another woman at Dastak. Asma had nothing to do with either.

The confrontation between father and daughter exposed the clash of old and new values in a traditional society in the throes of change, especially in urban areas.

Independent spirit

Asma herself was surprisingly conventional in certain matters. I only ever saw her wear kurta shalwar (or straight trousers when they were in fashion) with a dupatta. Although she had married for love, she upheld traditional family values and was a caring wife and devoted, mother. Her husband and his family were supportive of her too as Aitzaz Ahsan has written, but credit for this also goes to Asma for how she negotiated the joint family. An adoring grandmother to her younger two children’s daughters, she was anxious about her eldest, a TV journalist, who was not “settling down”. The happiest I saw Asma was at Munizae’s wedding in March 2017. I knew she wanted Munizae to start a family. She had encouraged me have a baby too. “Bache pal jatey hain,” she would say, dismissing my concerns that as a working journalist I wouldn’t be able to manage it.

But unlike her detractors who acted in the name of tradition, Asma never imposed her choices, nor used violence or the threat of violence. She was fiercely protective of her children but respected their autonomy as adult individuals to make their own decisions.

Also contrary to the propaganda against her, Asma was not against religion. She was against religion being used to exploit people and being misused for motives related to power and the status quo.

Having recently taken to Twitter (@asma_jahangir, now run by her law firm AGHS) she had over three-quarters of a million followers. She didn’t tweet often, but when she did, it was worth paying attention. She didn’t waste her energy on responding to the abuses and lies against her, focusing on the causes she was fighting for. When she made a pithy, barbed comeback it was to set the record straight. She was strategic in how she took on her detractors in terms of language and how she framed the criticism.

Yes, there are other human rights and women’s rights activists and fighters in Pakistan. Yes, Asma had a lot of support from friends, colleagues and family, and she did not act alone. But this petite woman who emerged as a “human rights giant”, to quote the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, was uniquely Asma.

She is irreplaceable, even though others will carry on the fight. We see this in the 8 March Women’s Day ‘aurat marches’ in cities across Pakistan, in the legal aid cells and human rights and peace initiatives Asma started as well as others inspired by these ventures. In all this, and in so much more, Asma lives on, as an inspiration and source of strength.


2 Responses

  1. […] Erbe. Sharing now, a year after Asma Jahangir has passed on. This piece doesn’t include her role for peace in the region and in the UN system that I’ve written about earlier and also detailed in a longer essay to be printed in an […]


  2. […] Erbe. Sharing now, a year after Asma Jahangir has passed on. This piece doesn’t include her role for peace in the region and in the UN system that I’ve written about earlier and also detailed in a longer essay to be printed in an […]


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