Conscience of a region
Asma Jahangir fearlessly broke new ground in her crusade for human rights and dignity – from the earliest period of her activism to her final years.
Asma Jahangir’s struggle for human rights began with her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani – who was a politician and a parliamentarian associated with the Awami League. He took a strong position against Yahya Khan’s attempts to curb Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan through military force. In an open letter that he wrote to Yahya Khan on the 7th of April 1971, Jilani openly accused the predominantly West Pakistani military of conducting genocide and gross human rights violations in East Pakistan. Commenting on the letter in an interview, Jahangir called it an ‘open invitation’ for arrest by the military.
And that is indeed what happened – Jilani was arrested and charged with treason. Jahangir was eighteen at the time. She found out about her father’s arrest through a message from an employee at the jail where Jilani was incarcerated. The message said that a member of the Jilani family would have to file a petition for Jilani’s release. Due to certain circumstances, Asma Jahangir’s mother could not sign the petition for her husband’s release, so Jahangir had to sign the petition herself. This was the famous “Miss Asma Jilani Vs. Government of Pakistan” case, which went on to become a landmark case of pivotal importance to Pakistani history – given that in its aftermath, military governments were declared illegal for the first time in Pakistan’s history.
In the 1980s when Pakistan was being transformed and mutilated by Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization laws, Asma Jahangir stood up for the rights of the country’s women. This was when she founded the AGHS Legal Aid Cell and the Women’s Aid Forum to defend the rights of those communities becoming marginalized by the Islamization process and Zia’s draconian Hudood Ordinance laws. Jahangir’s 1984 USAID paper “Impact of Islamization Policies on Pakistani Women” details how the legal standing of women as witnesses in court was reduced to half that of men during Zia’s era, and how independent educated women – including herself – were simply expected to bow down to the state’s interpretations and diktats under the guise of Islamic teachings. She elaborates how those opposing her activism against the Hudood Ordinance – particularly the Zina clause of the ordinance – accused her of holding beliefs contrary to Islamic values and attempting to promote ‘vulgarity and obscenity’ in society. In 1983, Asma Jahangir and other Women’s Action Forum protestors were subject to violence at the hands of the police. It was then that she was arrested for the first time.
Yet Jahangir soldiered on long after Zia was sent to the dustbin of history. In 2002 when Zafaran Bibi – a woman who had conceived a child as a result of rape – was awarded the sentence of death by stoning, Jahangir wrote an opinion piece in Dawn entitled “A law to lament”. The article elaborates in painful detail the plight of women and girls who have been convicted of adultery in Pakistan after being raped. Jahangir also wrote that 46 percent of the women in Pakistani jails were there because they had been accused of adultery, saying that hundreds of women in Pakistan are arrested for adultery every year. She rightly wrote that the state cannot be expected to guarantee Pakistani women any dignity as long as laws that allowed raped women to be prosecuted for adultery remained in place.
In 1987, Jahangir founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). This was a milestone for a country which was undergoing the most authoritarian military regime in its history. In comparison, India didn’t have a commission for human rights till 1993, despite never having undergone military rule. This is one of Jahangir’s greatest contributions to the preservation of human rights in Pakistan. Even today, international organizations and foreign governments use data collected by the HRCP to assess the situation of human rights in the country. Had the HRCP not existed, it is quite possible that there would be no records of the human rights violations faced by marginalized segments of Pakistani society. The anti-Ahmedi Chak Sikandar riots of July 1989 are one of the many outrages documented by the HRCP. In the report, the HRCP reports that the Ahmedis and orthodox Muslims of Chak Sikandar had lived in harmony until 1988 – they even shared the same mosques. It was after the implementation of Zia’s Islamization policies that tensions rose in the community over who would control the mosques, since by law Ahmedis could not attend the same mosques as orthodox Muslims any longer. The report finds that Chak Sikandar’s Ahmedi population was attacked without provocation, resulting in the deaths of three Ahmedis – including a ten-year-old girl. Six persons sustained bullet injuries, including children. Burning and looting of Ahmedis’ homes resulted in damage to 64 dwellings. To make matters worse, the Ahmedi community was even denied the opportunity to assess the damage done to their property or to make the arrangements necessary to preserve what remained of it. Most shockingly, the report finds that the local police was complicit in the riots. Furthermore, no arrest was made for the death of three Ahmedis.
Unfortunately, Pakistan continued to steep to explore new lows in its persecution of religious minorities. On the 9th of February, 1995, Salamat Masih, an 11-year-old Christian boy, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Allegedly he had written blasphemous words on the walls of a mosque in Kot Ladha. In a further travesty of justice, the boy was convicted in a courtroom where hardline Islamists were also present, shouting death threats at the boy during the trial. Thanks to Asma Jahangir, Masih was acquitted on February 23, when she proved in court that he was illiterate, and hence could not have written the blasphemous graffiti on the wall of the mosque. Jahangir faced death threats throughout the case.
Jahangir continued to struggle for the rights of Pakistani children. In her book, Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan, she chronicles the horrifying exploitation of children who are handed prison sentences by Pakistani courts. With this book Jahangir compiled a comprehensive index of laws related to children’s rights for the first time in Pakistan’s history.
Jahangir didn’t just fight for the status of Pakistani women through her human rights activism and legal work, but also through her own achievements. She was the first woman to be elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2011. Commenting on why she chose to contest this election in 2010, she said that she did so in order to ensure the dignity and impartiality of the bar. She said that she would be able to do this because a large number of lawyers tend to vote based on politics, while her own supporters voted for her on basis of principle. She admitted that this could also be one of her campaign’s limitations. In the event, she won.
In 2016, Jahangir wrote an article in Newsweek, entitled “Killing in the name of honour”. She cites many heart-wrenching incidents of honour killing which took place the same year the article was published. One incident was of a 16-year-old girl who had been strangled and set on fire for helping her friend elope with her lover. Another was of a man slitting the throat of his 20-year-old sister for talking to a boy on the phone. In the article, Jahangir says that honour killings have been committed with impunity in Pakistan throughout its history. She says that even though Pakistan’s laws do not prohibit women from marrying a man of their own choice, the country’s courts have adjudicated honour killing cases according to the moral values of the presiding judge, which is a gross miscarriage of justice. Honour killing cases became even more complicated after the introduction of the Qisas and Diyat laws during Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure, which allowed murder to be ‘forgiven’ by the family of the victim. Using these laws, families murdered their women and then forgave themselves. It wasn’t until 2012 that the law was finally amended to prohibit ‘forgiveness’ for honour killings.
Jahangir’s human rights work was not limited to Pakistan alone. She was the second Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the re-establishment of the mandate by the Human Rights Council. Her August 2017 report on Iran is very relevant to the women’s movement and democratic forces in Iran. She has also served as Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions and freedom of religion.
Asma Jahangir dedicated her life to Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. Much like her father, she took her principled stances at great personal risk. Her death has been a great loss to Pakistan, specifically its most vulnerable segments – but also to the global human rights movement.