Asma Jahangir (1952-2018) was Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer. She showed incredible courage in defending the most defenceless Pakistanis – women, children, religious minorities and the poor for about three-decades, and founded the first legal aid centre in Pakistan in 1986. Jahangir courageously took on very complicated cases and won.
For her relentless campaigning against laws that discriminate against women, and for continuously speaking truth to power, Jahangir was threatened, assaulted in public and also placed under house arrest. She made history when she was elected as the first female President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan in 2010.
Her mentor, I.A. Rehman, remembers her as a driving force in the battle against any form of injustice. “She led from the front in any condition, including in the face of police brutality and torture (during protests),” he says.
Starting early in her fight for justice, Jahangir at the age of 18 filed her first court petition demanding the release of her father under the dictatorship of Yahya Khan. She founded the first all-women law firm in Pakistan with her sister, along with co-founding the Women’s Action Forum in 1981. The forum advocated equal rights for women and was outspoken about the sexism and inequality confronting women in the workplace, particularly in the legal profession. On February 12, 1983, WAF decided to hold a protest on Mall Road in Lahore against the terms of the Hudood Ordinance that discriminate against women.
Jahangir protested against a judgment where a blind, 13-year-old girl, who had been raped by her employers, accused of zina (fornication) and had been sentenced to three years of imprisonment and flogging. The verdict was reversed following the protests. Consequently, Jahangir was placed under house arrest and then imprisoned for opposing Zia’s Islamisation policy.
Jahangir was a strong opponent of honour killings and also played a critical role in the Saima Waheed case, as a result of which in 2003 Pakistani women eventually got the right to marry of their own free will and without needing the consent of a wali (the woman’s father or brother).
In 1993, an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, were accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore, Jahangir represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they pleaded before the Lahore High Court against their conviction. In an unprecedented decision, the Lahore High Court vindicated Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on February 23, 1995.
Despite being called a “chauvinist lady” once by the MQM, Jahangir later defended Altaf Hussain when the PEMRA ordered a blackout of the MQM London chief following his ‘anti-Pakistan’ remarks, lawyers called for the immediate suspension of her license for her decision to represent Hussain however she stuck to her beliefs and did not stand down.
Ironically Asma Jahangir breathed her last breath in Lahore on the same day that the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) of which she was a founding member, was set to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the famous women’s march.