Asma Jahangir (1952-2018): Pakistan's Lion-Hearted Human Rights Champion

When Asma Jahangir died in Lahore on February 11, Pakistan and the international human rights community lost a great champion of justice and freedom. Asma stood for and by the side of Pakistan's religious minorities as no one had ever done before. As a lawyer and a human rights activist, she was the greatest opponent of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which are the harshest in the world.

Asma founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and used it relentlessly to bring attention to the rights of Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents.

 Asma Jahangir speaking to journalists in 2009 while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Asma Jahangir speaking to journalists in 2009 while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

She confronted military dictatorships and Pakistan’s deep state even when they threatened her and her family with vigilante justice orchestrated by religious zealots. Despite all this, she maintained a marvelous sense of humor and an even greater sense of justice and fair play.

Although Asma Jahangir was a remarkably competent and capable lawyer, she was wholly unimpressed by formalities and undaunted by considerations of her own status.

One would sometimes see her in Islamabad hitching a ride on the back of a motorcycle to get to an urgent hearing at the Supreme Court for victims of enforced disappearances when her car was stuck in traffic. On one trip to investigate extrajudicial killings in Balochistan, she slept on the floor with only books under her head as a pillow.

Her all-women law practice in Lahore bravely accepted cases of those accused of blasphemy notwithstanding threats of violence from religious extremists. She also represented bonded laborers, whose well-connected and influential masters were known for pursuing critics of their unjust practices using private armies.

In the mid-1980s, Asma became such a thorn in the side of the Islamist dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq that his hand-chosen unelected parliament (called Majlis-e-Shoora) retaliated by passing a resolution accusing Asma Jahangir of blasphemy and calling for her to be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was a comment she allegedly made in a Women’s Action Forum (WAF) meeting. General Zia set up a commission to investigate the accusation, but a recording of the WAF meeting proved Asma had not made the alleged statement.

Asma Jahangir secured an unprecedented acquittal for an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles. They had been falsely accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore in 1993. Nevertheless, one of Salamat’s uncles, Manzoor Masih, was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala during the initial hearing of the case.

Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both clients from the Lahore High Court in 1995, the justice who rendered the decision, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

To her last day, Asma remained undeterred by the ongoing threats of violence against her for continuing to oppose these laws as well as discriminatory laws against the Ahmadiyya sect.

Asma Jahangir was a giant of a woman who spent her entire life fighting injustice, be it based on politics, socioeconomic differences, religion, or gender. She has left behind a still-fractured country that needs her now more than ever.

Pakistan’s oppressed and dispossessed will long remember Asma Jahangir, the woman with a huge heart, simplest tastes, and courage of a lion who gave voice to that unfortunate country’s voiceless.  May she rest in peace.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., and a Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute. She is the author of Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017). A former Pakistani politician, Ms. Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012.