Legal watchdog who became Pakistan’s social conscience

Asma Jahangir obituary: born January 27th, 1952 – died February 11th, 2018

Asma Jahangir: her greatest ire was reserved for religious extremists and military dictators. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Asma Jahangir: her greatest ire was reserved for religious extremists and military dictators. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images


She stood a smidgen over five feet and had fine, delicate bones. But the bird-like frame contained a courageous heart, an indomitable will and an unflagging social conscience. The death of Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani activist, lawyer and human rights campaigner who passed away last Sunday after suffering a cardiac arrest at her home in Lahore, has left a nation reeling with a profound sense of loss.

A legal watchdog and a political fighter, Jahangir patrolled the rights of secular liberals, religious minorities, the politically disenfranchised, wronged women and abused children; she even fought for the constitutional rights of the very same religious extremists and hard-right nationalists who would have had her silenced.

Jahangir was six years old when her politician father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, opposed Ayub Khan’s martial law in 1958. In 1971, when her father was arrested by another military dictator, Yahya Khan, the teenage girl filed a petition for his release in the Lahore high court: Asma Jilani v the Government of the Punjab.

“Courts were not new to me,” she joked with her customary levity. “Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Multan. He remained in jail in Bannu. But we were not allowed to go see him there. We always saw him in courts. So for me, the courts were a place where you dressed up to see your father. It had a very nice feeling to it.”

The Lahore high court dismissed her petition. Undaunted, Jahangir appealed to the supreme court. In 1972, after Khan’s dictatorship had ended, the court decided it had been illegal and declared him a usurper. Jahangir had won her first case.

Societal change

She began her legal career as a family lawyer. In 1980, along with her sister Hina Jilani and two friends, she set up a firm specialising in divorce, maintenance payments and custodial cases. It was her work with women that brought her to politics. She realised early on that while it was important to fight for oppressed individuals, what was needed was institutional reform and societal change. So when Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s third military dictator, amended the constitution to discriminate against women and religious minorities under the guise of an Islamising agenda, Jahangir publicly challenged his ordinance, questioning its moral underpinnings.

He was a brutal dictator with a taste for public floggings who responded by slapping a blasphemy case against her, yet she did not shy away from the fight. Many years later, she wrote: “We may fight terrorism through brute force, but the terror that is unleashed in the name of religion can only be challenged through moral courage”.

What rattled her nationalist detractors the most was her consistent critique of human rights abuses in Pakistan. They labelled her a traitor and accused her of being an Indian spy or an American agent. Why couldn’t she highlight similar abuses in other countries? Why must she spread negative propaganda against Pakistan?

The fact was that she did call out human rights abuses wherever she found them. She alerted the world to the plight of the Rohingyas, the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, but she was most exercised by atrocities at home. As she said in one interview: “I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris, but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is battered to death.”

Extremists and dictators

Jahangir fought on many fronts, but perhaps her greatest ire was reserved for religious extremists and military dictators. She lampooned mullahs mercilessly, mocking their frizzy beards and fuzzy thinking. When other activists called out the ISI, Pakistan’s feared intelligence service, they did so cautiously. Jahangir alone had the courage to go on live television and say: “These duffers, these duffer generals . . . need to return to their barracks and stay there.”

Activism such as hers did not come without a price. She had stints in jail, was placed under house arrest and was beaten when she took part in rallies. The right-wing media waged a vicious personal campaign against her, impugning her integrity and her faith.

On social media she was trolled endlessly, with threats of sexual violence directed not just at her but her daughters. Her life was always in danger. She was the target not just of religious extremists, but the ISI and, at times, even her political opponents, who hated her persistence.

Jahangir’s response was to go on the front foot. In 2012, she publicly accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to kill her and in so doing turned the spotlight on them. If there was one thing that made her anxious, it was the safety of her three children, whom she eventually sent abroad. But for herself, there was no question of going anywhere. She stayed in Lahore until the very end, fighting the good fight. – Guardian News and Media 2018