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Asma Jahangir: Pakistani human rights lawyer who risked her life to challenge dictatorship and religious unreason


She was branded a traitor to Islam and her homeland, accused of blasphemy, attacked by angry mobs and thrown into prison. A US intelligence reported leaked in 2012 suggested she survived an assassination attempt by Pakistan’s security forces. She was hailed as a courageous crusader, awarded dozens of international honours, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and described as “the gutsiest woman” in Pakistan.

Leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir passes away in Lahore

Dawn News

She received a bachelor’s degree from Kinnaird College and an LLB from Punjab University. She was called to the Lahore High Court in 1980 and to the Supreme Court in 1982. She later went on to become the first woman to serve as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. She became a pro-democracy activist and was jailed in 1983 for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which agitated against military dictator Ziaul Haq’s regime.

‘An indomitable will’ – why Asma Jahangir was Pakistan’s social conscience

Moni Mohsin

She stood a smidgen over 5ft 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 on Sunday after suffering a cardiac arrest at her home in Lahore, has left a nation reeling with a profound sense of loss. Looking through social media I am not surprised by the number of tributes to her, but by the fact that they come from her detractors as well as her supporters. The conservatives who branded her a traitor until last week are now acknowledging her courage. Whether that is out of political expediency or genuine feeling I cannot say. But for the besieged liberal community and the religious minorities of Pakistan, she was indispensable.

Asma Jahangir: Who will succeed the woman who fought for Pakistan’s soul?


It has been said that no combination of the tributes paid to Asma Jahangir can adequately define her, but perhaps the one that best encapsulates what it was like to come up against her was “street fighter”. Pakistan in 2018 is a place which still faces many of the problems she spent decades fighting. It is a deeply divided society, where invisible forces battle over the direction of the country, where people suddenly disappear, and where, rights groups say, abuses are still routine. She took on oppressive military regimes and fought relentlessly against abuses, she set up legal aid firms and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).


Asma Jahangir, my fearless friend

Amartya Sen

It is hard to find a measure of Asma Jahangir’s greatness. She was a brilliant intellectual, a superb humanist, a great political leader, an epitome of kindness, a personification of indomitable courage. Asma was all these things – and much more. Professionally she excelled as a magnificent lawyer, who did more than anyone else I can think of to defend and save helpless people from the unjust wrath of authoritarians and tyrants. As one of the most distinguished human rights lawyers in the world, Asma used her legal knowledge to protect the vulnerable and unimaginably strengthen people’s rights. As it happens, Asma Jahangir’s first legal victory came before she became a trained lawyer. She won a great legal victory in freeing her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a parliamentarian and critic of the military who had been unjustly incarcerated by the government. At the time of her victory at the Supreme Court (in a case celebrated as ‘Miss Asma Jilani vs the Government of Punjab’), Asma was barely twenty years old. Later, with professional legal training and far-reaching vision, combined with her exceptional intelligence, Asma became the leading defender of human rights in Pakistan, in the company of other great human rights activists like I A Rehman and Dorab Patel.

Asma Jahangir: The street fighter

Saroop Ijaz

Immediately after the horrific Quetta terror attack on August 8, 2016, Dr Danish, a television anchorperson, tweeted pictures of Asma Jahangir with a caption in Urdu which translates as: “When lawyers were being killed in Quetta, the so-called leader of the lawyers was enjoying herself in the northern areas.” The post was enthusiastically retweeted, shared on Facebook and distributed through WhatsApp groups.

Asma Jahangir was not “enjoying herself in the northern areas”. She was in Gilgit-Baltistan on a human rights fact-finding mission when the attack happened. There was no way she could travel to Quetta the same day. She took to Twitter and responded to the anchorperson: “Shame on you for exploiting facts even when people [are] in grief … Ask [your] spy friends not to stoop to the lowest levels of viciousness.”