Remembering Asma Jahangir, Pak’s Most Powerful Agent of Resistance

Human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir’s death has dealt a blow to Pakistan’s fight for democracy.

5 min read
A file photo of Asma Jahangir.

Asma Jahangir’s last ten days before her sudden death were spent arguing a landmark case in the Supreme Court to determine whether politicians can be disqualified from contesting elections for life. This was reportedly the exchange between her and the Chief Justice of Pakistan:

Asma Jahangir: My Lord, we have to look at the heart of the Constitution.

Chief Justice: Madam, I assure you that we have understood your argument. When you said ‘heart’, I drew a heart too.

In response, Jahangir said, “I’m grateful my Lord, as long as you don’t give it to me.” Jahangir was cheeky, and always at the forefront of the intellectual and political life of her country.

Pak’s Most Formidable Agent of Resistance

Jahangir travelled to Oxford University, to deliver a lecture on another iconic Pakistani woman, Benazir Bhutto. She returned to Islamabad and two days before her heart attack, delivered a fiery speech at a protest in Islamabad, organised by the Pakhtun community to demand the arrest of a police officer involved in killing a young aspiring model accused of being a terrorist in a staged police ‘encounter’.

On a chilly night outside the National Press Club, on the ninth day of the protest, coughing, with a bottle of water in hand, she said:

I have been fighting cases for those boys locked up in military internment centres. I know who has occupied their homes. Without the Pakhtuns, without Bacha Khan, Pakistan would be a narrow-minded Pakistan.

Then, the night before her death, she appeared on a prime time current affairs talk show in her capacity as the former president – and first female president – of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

She died at the age of 66 of a heart attack, even though during her lifetime, her brave heart never failed her.

Jahangir was an internationally acclaimed lawyer and human rights activist, but most importantly, she was Pakistan’s most formidable agent of resistance against the mullah and the military. In the forty years of her public life, Asma Jahangir fought legal battles and street battles against the powerful, for the powerless.

A Mind Without Fear, A Head Held High

During a lawyers’ protest in the movement against former President and Pakistan’s last military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in 2007, as police unleashed tear-gas shells and baton-charged, physically lifting up another prominent lawyer to arrest him, Asma taunted the police, “Aao. Mujhey maaro, mujhey maaro.” (Come. Hit me if you can.)

Black and white photographs of the young Asma being beaten up by policewomen in the women’s protest against military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and his regressive legislation are now the stuff of legends. As is the fact that she was just 18 when she successfully fought a case to get her father released from detention under the military dictatorship of Yahya Khan.

Arrests, threats and attacks by extremists, or intelligence agency plots to have her killed did not deter Asma, nor did the abuse and propaganda of her detractors. If Supreme Court justices crossed into judicial overreach, she publicly critiqued them, without fear that as a practicing lawyer, she would have to face those same justices in court the following day.

Here is why the loss of Asma Jahangir cuts so deeply: no one else in Pakistan spoke as bluntly, or as fearlessly, or as consistently in favour of democracy, the oppressed and the rule of law. Her positions on such abstract principles were mounted on the bedrock of clarity and work ethic. No one else would dare call popular politicians or military generals “duffers” on television.

Fearless Even on Camera

I, like many others invited her to my current affairs show on local television whenever we needed a credible and honest voice to talk about human rights or the military’s involvement in politics. She would scold us if our crew was late, or if she was asked to comment on a case for which she was the defence lawyer. Jahangir would warn us:

I will speak about the principles and law, not the case itself.

Once, when we were doing a show on Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law Captain Safdar’s speech in Parliament against the Ahmadi community – a minority sect persecuted by state and society – Jahangir cautioned my other guest and I about talking outside the ‘safe zone’ of the Constitution off camera. But on camera, she was her characteristic outspoken self.

I have never heard such a bigoted speech in the National Assembly. We may have heard such speeches from people we call militants and extremists but for a member of the National Assembly to say something like this, it’s astonishing. I didn’t feel as sorry for Nawaz Sharif when he was disqualified as I do that he has a son-in-law with such a small mind, so full of hate.

In Pakistan, even the most off-hand comment defending Ahmadis leads to death threats or a fatwa.

Testimony to Jahangir’s Command

I first met Asma Jahangir in 2000 during my first year as a reporter. We travelled to India as a group of professional women representing Pakistan. I was awestruck as she was feted and interviewed by the Indian press and intelligentsia, but I also saw another side to her, as she danced, without a care in the world, to Indian songs after dinner.

Her opponents called her anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan, a RAW agent, an Indian ‘witch’, but she stuck to her guns on peace between India and Pakistan, while also condemning human rights abuses in Kashmir and Gujarat, both as a public figure and on fact-finding missions as the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights. It is a mark of the power of her ideas, that Jahangir’s critics resorted to morphed images and lies to muddy her reputation.

I last spoke to Jahangir on 2 February, to invite her to one of my last shows. She regretted that she could not make it because she was travelling from Islamabad to Lahore. She also told me that she was sorry I was no longer going to be hosting the programme. “It was one of the few balanced and brave shows on Pakistani TV.” At least I was able to tell her how much her praise – from a personal hero – meant to me.

Asma Jahangir’s last ‘act’ of resistance was seen at her funeral, as men and women, shoulder-to-shoulder, praying, flying in the face of tradition, in a sports stadium packed with her family, friends, lawyers, politicians, disciples, Christians and Sikhs congregated to pay their last respects. It is an expression of her impact, and hope for the endurance of her legacy.

(Amber Shamsi is a multimedia journalist who has worked for international and national media organisations as a reporter and on the editorial desk. She currently hosts a news and current affairs show on Dawn TV. She can be reached @AmberRShamsi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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