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Honoring Asma Jahangir, Pakistani Feminist Trailblazer and Human Rights Activist
Asma’s life and work is the very definition of South Asian feminism and in many ways is also a blueprint for future human rights and feminist activism in Pakistan and beyond.
Fierce and fearless Pakistani human rights activist, feminist trailblazer, and democracy advocate Asma Jahangir died on Feb. 11, in her hometown of Lahore, but not without leaving behind a phenomenal legacy anyone would be hard-pressed to match.
Even in death, Asma Jahangir continues to smash the patriarchy: While local custom does not permit women to attend public funerals, women turned out in droves to honor this iconic woman who did so much to further the rights of women, children, religious freedom, as well as democracy not just in Pakistan, but around the world. The presence of women at her funeral — breaking from so much patriarchal oppression and tradition — quietly echoes her attempt in 2005 to host a mixed-gender marathon in to promote awareness of violence against women. Thankfully Jahangir’s funeral did not result in the state-sponsored assaults against women protesters, including Jahangir herself, back in 2005.
At home, Jahangir was the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. She was the co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987, holding the role of Secretary General until 1993 when she was promoted to chairperson. With her sister Hina Jilani and a cohort of human rights lawyers/activists, Jahangir founded the first ever law firm started by women in the country. Through their law firm, Jahangir and Jilani established AGHS Legal Aid, Pakistan’s first ever free legal service that also ran a shelter for women.
Jahangir defended women’s rights to choose who they would marry when the law required her male guardian’s consent. She fought for the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan, including Hindus and Christians who were being unfairly targeted by the Muslim-majority government. She worked to separate religion from government, and in particular spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and warned in her 2017 Amartya Sen Lecture at London School of Economics, “One should be careful while bringing religion into legislation, because the law itself can become an instrument of persecution.” She was a member of the Lahore High Court and Pakistani Supreme Court, one of the few women to have been appointed. Jahangir was also placed under house arrest multiple times due to her work with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a program aiming to dismantle the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq that was setting human rights back in Pakistan one decree at a time.
Nothing stopped her tireless work for the betterment of her country and fellow citizens she would continue until she died.
Abroad, Jahangir was the vice-chair of Defense for Children International in Geneva. She was the vice president of the International Federation of Human rights, as well as co-chairing the South Asia Forum for Human Rights. She was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions from 1998-2004, and I personally had the opportunity to listen to her chilling presentations of findings from around the world during the 2002-2004 UN Commissions on Human Rights in Geneva. She was eloquent, fierce, and held all governments accountable for their crimes, not just her own. From 2004-2010 she was the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, investigating human rights violations during the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka as well as inquiries into Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She became the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran in 2016, a post she maintained until her death.
The Guardian’s Declan Walsh sums up Jahangir’s human rights work beautifully:
“…She has championed battered wives, rescued teenagers from death row, defended people accused of blasphemy, and sought justice for the victims of honour killings. These battles have won her admirers and enemies in great number.”
Asma’s life and work is the very definition of South Asian feminism and in many ways is also a blueprint for future human rights and feminist activism in Pakistan and beyond. Sadly, she does leave quite a void in her wake that won’t be easy to fill, especially in Pakistan’s hostile political and military environment that she fought so hard against her entire life. Rest in power, Ms. Jahangir. You will be missed, and sorely.