Asma Jahangir: a death mourned with superlatives

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By Tarik Masood

“Terrible, terrible news” and “good riddance” are the two extreme reactions her death has elicited.

She may very well have liked these strong reactions for she never treaded the grey herself. Neither did she bother who she was against or for. She looked at the issue at hand, front and centre, and gave out a clear stance, setting direction for the undecided. We lost the “moral compass” in her death, one tweet came.

Defiance was in her blood. She inherited it from her father Malik Ghulam Jilani, a civil servant, who fought the Ayub and Yahya regimes, suffered incarcerations, had his property confiscated and, in the process, prepared her two daughters, Hina and Asma, for the future fights.

Zia’s was the most feared regime. Certain provisions of the Hudood Ordinance were discriminatory against women.  Asma stood against it and became the face of resistance during the early 80s.

On February 12, 1983, Women Action Forum, a rights organization she co-founded, held a public demonstration on The Mall Road in Lahore to protest the ordinance that reduced the weight of a woman’s evidence to half that of a man. It was the first open denunciation of military regime’s attempt to mix religion with law.

Human Right Commission of Pakistan is another initiative to her credit that is accepted as a byword for all things human rights in Pakistan.

In 1980s, as she formed AGHS – an all-woman lawyers chamber taking initials from all its four members, she defended three Christians accused of blasphemy and herself had to face blasphemy charges.

In 2005, when she announced to hold a symbolic mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise awareness about violence against women, religious groups armed with firearms and batons opposed the race. Asma was beaten and her shirt was torn off her back in public. The picture adorned newspapers’ pages the next day.

When in 2013, when some circles suggested her name for interim prime ministership, people threatened to march on Lahore.

William Dalrymple, writing for The New Yorker, described Jahangir as Pakistan’s “most visible and celebrated—as well as most vilified—human-rights lawyer”, adding that she had “spent her professional life fighting for a secular civil society, challenging the mullahs and the generals.
State institutions that considered themselves beyond the pale of law were the ones she most vociferously lashed against. She walked with a swagger where others feared to tread. For her such actions, she was often branded as an Indian or American agent and labeled as a traitor.

Nawaz Sharif who she had nothing in common with received her support after his disqualification last year from the top court. She urged the Parliament to amend the law to give the right of appeal to the aggrieved in cases concerning fundamental rights. She said that the judiciary gave decisions against politicians, but it had never shown the courage to deliver a verdict against the powers that be.

She also said that Pakistan should start trading with neighboring countries, rather than relying on smuggling which, she claimed, was allowed to continue because its proceeds were pocketed by certain elements.

Her very last tweet was in support of PML-N’s Nihal Hashmi who has been sentenced in a contempt case.

In her profession as a lawyer, she not only excelled as a jurist but also represented Supreme Court Bar Association as its president. It was during the same time that she gave a tough time to then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who in his eight-year stint as top court chief had become a law unto himself.

In the death of a tireless crusader, as some wonder who might fill her shoes, many will start to breathe easy.

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