Asma Jahangir- Personifying The Human Rights Debate In Pakistan

Asma Jahangir- Personifying The Human Rights Debate In Pakistan
Asma Jahangir’s journey of human rights activism since the 1980s signifies the interplay, shifts, and conflicts involving [Pakistan’s] dualistic legal and normative rights regimes as they have clashed, converged, and sometimes settled at temporary stalemate.

Her advocacy for democracy and the rights of workers, women, and religious minorities provoked contestations with the state, the military, and political parties. Looking at some of the causes she championed, this essay revisits core debates over the positioning of Islamic and Western value systems in women’ s and human rights movements in Pakistan over the past four decades.

[It] discusses the progress of women’ s human rights within Pakistan’ s legal,social, and cultural oppositional political context. It takes into account the interrelations of rights in both dictatorial and democratic regimes, and across theological and universalist arguments on women’ s human rights. It also focuses on key legal cases involving the two constituencies with which Asma was most intimately associated: women and religious minorities. Her involvement with cases of violence against women and the persecution of religious minorities through the blasphemy laws has altered the course of human rights in Pakistan….

The “ Enlightened Moderation”  regime of General Musharraf was repeatedly exposed for its paradoxical attempts to defend women’ s/human rights in some Sharia-compliant manner. Asma, as the representative of the combined causes of women’ s and religious minorities’ rights, became the adversary in the eyes of Islamists and conservatives.

For her critique of the military’ s interventions into democratic governance, she was painted as the traitor.  For her efforts at peace talks with Indian human rights groups, she was maligned an anti-Muslim Hindu-lover.  Her work and reports on violence against women in international fora earned her suspicion of behaving like a native informant. For her support of religious minorities such as the Ahmedi sect, which was declared hereticalby the state of Pakistan, she was cast as an apostate herself…..The Khatme Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum of Pakistan, which strongly opposes the Ahmedi sect, has been especially critical of Asma.

The campaigns against her peaked when she contested and won the bar elections to become the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010. The maligning of her reputation influenced people beyond Pakistan’ s borders: Asma was appointed in 2016 to serve as rapporteur for the human rights situation in Iran, and Iran’ s state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) News and other outlets mimicked the accusations, accusing her of being a “heretic” and a “Qadiani” (i.e. follower of the Ahmadi sect, itself described as a “misguided cult created by the British, just like the Baha’ i” )…

…Asma Jahangir’ s mass-attended funeral was held in Lahore on 13 February 2018. It encapsulated what she represented over the course of her lifelong commitment to human rights. In a show of radical departure from Muslim tradition (which does not observe mixed gender funerals), women activists, colleagues, lawyers, and well-wishers participated alongside men at Asma’s funeral and last rites. The funeral sparked a posthumous controversy: right-wingers lashed out on social media at the mourners for warring against God; prominent clerics declared her funeral to be null and void; edicts were issued; and a legal petition was prepared that accused Asma’s daughter and others who attended the funeral of blasphemy. Political activist, Ammar Rashid cautioned against using scriptural justifications for this defiant act, pointing to the “dubious interests” of Islamists whose “tenuous claims to gender justice” serve as a mask for their vested interest in gender segregation and who officiate as the “perpetual vanguard of patriarchy.”

Asma Jahangir’s approach to human rights challenged precisely the cultural, nationalist, and faith-based values that threaten the lives of women and religious minorities. She refused to reify those values or look for a compromised, apologetic, patriarchy-boosting, and therefore, ineffectual middle path. The notion of a variable Sharia may gain consensus among those who are not invested in a more accountable, human rights-based civil code, but the question remains whether that should be the legacy of Asma Jahangir’s activism for Pakistan.

Excerpts from author's essay in ‘THE ROUTLEDGE HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS,’ Edited by Jean H. Quataert and Lora Wildenthal (p. 392-411). First published 2020 by Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon. (ebook available 2019, Taylor and Francis.

The Routledge Histories is a series of landmark books surveying some of the most important topics and themes in history today and is edited and written by an international team of world-renowned experts.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist scholar based in Karachi and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (SAP, 2018). She has written for various news outlets in Pakistan and abroad. Afiya Shehrbano Zia can be reached at