The tragedy of Asma Jahangir's sudden passing away at only 66 years of age, on February 11, is that she has left the world at a time when it needed her most. As a singular voice against injustice and intolerance, she seemed to be one of the last remaining courageous warriors in a world ruled by cowardly bullies. And the best part is that she spoke for the voiceless and disempowered not just in Pakistan but in all of South Asia and beyond. We are now living at a time when democracies are facing an existential crisis as more and more leaders are taking the quick route to power—through authoritarianism and compromise with undemocratic forces. The result is a cauldron of an unidentified stew, the ingredients of which defy the commandments of the preparation, in this case the principles of democracy. With the voices of intolerance getting louder and louder—causing wars, displacement, inequality, gender discrimination, and meaningless violence—Asma Jahangir's was one that challenged the status quo and exposed it with fearlessness and clarity.
A human rights lawyer and social activist in a country that has increasingly become a victim of toxic religious extremism, political opportunism and manipulation, Asma has exhibited a rare kind of courage that defied all odds. She actively participated in a movement for restoration of political and fundamental rights during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq for which she was put under house arrest and later imprisoned in 1983. She was again put under house arrest in November 2007 after the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan.
In 1987, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and served as its Secretary General until 1993 when she became its chairperson. She was also the co-chair of South Asians for Human Rights. She was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions and later as the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. She won countless awards including the 2014 Right Livelihood Award (along with Edward Snowden), 2010 Freedom Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award, 1995 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.
The tributes paid to her within hours after the news of her death are a testament to the value of her relentless efforts to establish social justice and promote peace and equality. Marvi Sirmed, a senior Pakistani journalist who knew her personally, writes in The Daily Times how as a teenager she was inspired by “Asma ji's perseverance, her clarity of purpose, her strength of character…her itch to question the powers of the time, and her passion to fearlessly fight for the oppressed and whatever she considered right, come what may.”
One of the most significant acts of bravery was Asma's determined battle against the anti-women Hudood laws that Zia-ul-Haq had introduced. With her sister and fellow activists, Asma established a law firm, the first ever by women. Together, they formed the Women's Action Forum that campaigned against the Proposed Law of Evidence, where the value of a woman's testimony was reduced to half that of a man's testimony, and the Hudood Ordinances, where victims of rape had to prove their innocence or else face punishment themselves. Asma defended a blind 13-year-old who had been raped by her employers and had become pregnant but was sent to jail charged with “zina.” She was sentenced to flogging and three years' imprisonment. The verdict was overruled by an appeals court thanks to the efforts of Asma and fellow activists. She was a strong critic of family laws that discriminated against women.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that she co-founded has defended religious minorities in blasphemy cases as well as taken on cases of honour killings. Such courage comes at a high price in a country like Pakistan, where religious extremism is increasingly infiltrating politics and daily lives of people. In fact, Asma has faced death threats—once she had to send her family away to safety. Yet nothing stopped her from speaking out against injustice, whether it was at protest marches on the streets, interviews on television, or speeches at universities abroad.
A recurrent concern for Asma was the increasing intolerance she witnessed not just in her own country but all over the world, and this she considered was the root of all evils. This intolerance was not just that of religious elements but also the so-called secular forces. It was the cause of polarisation in societies leading to conflict and war. In a lecture at the London School of Economics (LSE) she says: “Religion and fear has been politicised so that they have played into electoral politics, into policies, into institutional discrimination…The double standards are more visible—think of the Patriot Act, the laws on migration…” She cites Aung Sung Su Ki's unwillingness to protect the Rohingya as an example of how “intolerance seeps into politics and the level it has seeped immobilises politicians.” She points out how long it took the UN to recognise the blatant injustice of Jewish settlements in Palestine territory.
Such candour in a climate where truth is vilified by the most powerful leaders of the world, is rare and badly needed in a global scenario where the basic tenets of democracy are being attacked—whether it is freedom of expression, freedom of speech, or freedom from discrimination based on race, religion or gender.
It is a sad fact that a person's true worth is revealed after they die—in the outpouring of grief and overwhelming expressions of admiration and respect. But it is also a great achievement for any human being to be remembered with such unabashed adoration and reverence. This is what Asma Jahangir has been rewarded with in her passing, an endless trail of admirers and followers who will carry the torch she has so tenaciously held on to.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.