Asma Jahangir: Pakistan's fearless life-long advocate for Human Rights Jan 27 1952–February 11 2018 Print E-mail

 

Pakistan - Sunday February 11 2018

Leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir passes away in Lahore (SCROLL DOWN FOR A SMALL SELECTION OF MULTIBLE TRIBUTES)

Renowned senior lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore on Sunday, DawnNews reported. She is survived by a son and two daughters.

The family told DawnNews that she suffered from cardiac arrest and was shifted to a hospital, where she passed. She was 66.

Details regarding her funeral have not been made public as yet.

Known for her outspoken nature and unrelenting pursuit for human rights ­ as well as for remaining undaunted in the face of extreme pressure and opposition ­ Jahangir will be remembered as a champion for the disenfranchised and for her services towards building a democratic and more inclusive Pakistan.

A towering figure
Jahangir was born in Lahore in January 1952.

She received a Bachelors' 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.

She was also active in the 2007 Lawyers' Movement, for which she was put under house arrest.

She co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Women's Action Forum.

She received several awards, including a Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2010 and a Sitara-i-Imtiaz. She was also awarded a UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights and an Officier de la Légion d'honneur by France.

She received the 2014 Right Livelihood Award and the 2010 Freedom Award.

Nation in shock
Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar arrives at Asma Jahangir's residence to condole with her family.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, and other Supreme Court judges expressed deep sorrow and grief on her demise in a statement. They extended their heartfelt condolences and sincere sympathies to members of the grieved family while praising her services for the independence of the judiciary, rule of law and supremacy of the Constitution.

"She was an outspoken and courageous lady, and had risen to prominence by sheer dint of hard work, diligence and commitment to the legal profession," the judges of the apex court said.

Condolences and tributes also poured in on Twitter as Pakistanis reacted to the shock of Jahangir's sudden demise. 

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Pakistan ~ Monday February 12, 2018

Asma the fearless


Editorial
THE shock at the sudden loss is palpable, but so is the intense pride that she lived among us.

Asma Jahangir was a citizen that all of Pakistan could be proud of and whom most can only hope to emulate.

Principled and courageous, Asma’s willingness and determination to confront evil, defend the vulnerable, and insist on Pakistan living up to the ideals of its democratic, constitutional and secular foundations made her truly iconic.

A woman who lived the majority of her adult life in the public eye, Asma eschewed self-promotion for a steadfast and remarkable focus on the issues that ought to be of concern to every right-thinking and sensible citizen.

Asma was a formidable lawyer and a person of remarkable intellect, but always spoke in a universal language of the rights of the vulnerable and accountability of the powerful.

Her eloquent yet forceful defence of victims and the vulnerable everywhere will be greatly missed.

While Asma Jahangir tirelessly travelled the country and the globe to promote humans rights and other admirable causes, it is her lifelong struggle against dictatorship and authoritarianism that is perhaps defining.

Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, bravely denounced military atrocities in what was then East Pakistan, and before long, Asma was fighting the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq in the streets.

Jailed by Gen Zia and placed under house arrest by another military dictator Pervez Musharraf, she never ceased to speak out against the harms of dictatorship and authoritarianism.

While her criticisms would have surely stung, most authoritarians and praetorians appeared to be afraid of Asma.

They needed to be.

Asma’s principled positions made her a formidable opponent. In recent years, the depth of those principles has been on display when it comes to the MQM.

Long detested by Altaf Hussain for her vociferous denunciations of MQM militancy and violence in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh, Asma was also emphatic in her criticism of vicious state action against the party and vigorously defended the right of voters to elect their chosen representatives unimpeded.

Losing an iconic champion of human rights, a lion of democracy and the rule of law would be difficult for any society.

For Pakistan, the loss of Asma Jahangir has come at yet another brittle historical moment, with uncertainty plaguing the democratic project in the country.

Democracy may find a path to continuity, but the challenges to the democratic project, both from anti-democratic forces and from within the political class, are significant.

The institutions of democracy are weak and the already attenuated systems for protecting fundamental rights are under further attack.

Till her last days, Asma Jahangir fought the good fight. Her work is now over, but Pakistan’s is not as darkness continues to sweep across the country.

May new champions of democracy, rights and human goodness arise ­ and soon.

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  Monday February 12, 2018

Pakistan

Long Live Asma Jahangir

By Marvi Sirmed
 
If death is defined as the end of life, Asma Jahangir hasn't really died. The larger than life, iconic defender of human rights and the most daring challenger of the status quo, Asma Jahangir breathed her last at her home in Lahore on Tuesday. With her, we lost the most towering hero of our age, the tallest of Pakistani, rather South Asian, citizen.

My mother broke this news to me calling on the phone from her home in Lahore. With her voice quivering and her words jumbling, she wanted me to tell her that it was a fake news. Something that I kept hoping for several hours to prove true - may this be a fake news. We were not that lucky though.

My friends Asma Shirazi, Ayesha Tanzeem, and Beenish Saleem called one after the other, all shell shocked and unable to speak. Mehmal Sarfraz wrote on WhatsApp and that's when it slowly sunk in my system that something terrible had happened.

The first time that I heard of her was from my mother when I was a toddler. Eventually, her name became a part of regular conversations at our dinner table - of Ammi's talks with her friends and of her heated arguments with Abbu on something that Ammi used to call 'dark days'. I could barely understand whatever was happening. Those were the years following Ziaul Haq's martial law. Then in early 1980s, my mother took me with her to a demonstration where a lot of people were raising slogans (I later learned that it was a women's protest demonstration against Ziaul Haq's Qanun-e-Shahadat). Raising slogans at the top of her orotund and penetrating voice, that five-feet-something woman caught my attention. That was my first introduction to the gutsy and courageous woman that Asma Jehangir was.

In 1989, when I was running for student union elections after Benazir Bhutto's first government reinstated unions for a year, I met Asma Ji - the way I always called her - as an aspiring volunteer. After Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, she was the one who inspired a teenager me so strongly that it became my goal of life to be like both of them in every possible way. Especially, Asma Ji's perseverance, her clarity of purpose, her strength of character, her unprecedented courage, her commitment to human rights, her itch to question the powers of the time, and her passion to fearlessly fight for the oppressed and for whatever she considered right, come what may.

Then in 1990-91 when I was running a campaign as the president of Pre-Medical Students Association for the rights of girl students seeking admissions to medical colleges, I was stunned to receive her call. She told me to remain steadfast and offered her help. We were disgruntled girls with pre-medical certificates of high achievement in our hands but denied admissions in medical colleges as boys with half our achievements were given admissions.

Mian Nawaz Sharif's provincial cabinet was hell bent to brand us 'miscreants supported by Benazir Bhutto' and brush away every argument that we had for open merit as opposed to maintaining 1:2 girl-to-boy ratio in medical colleges. Asma Ji supported us by highlighting our struggle and guiding us for running a successful campaign. By the end of 1991, we had won our case from Supreme Court. I could not thank Asma Ji enough.

From there onwards, there was no point of return for me personally. Ammi was very excited to see that I was following Asma Ji - something that she herself couldn't do because of family pressures. Since then, Asma Ji was there whenever I needed guidance and strength. She pushed me to become a member of the HRCP - the institution of its own kind that she founded as part of her struggle for human rights in Pakistan. Her contribution to my life is just a tiny part of what she has done for this country. Every marginalised and oppressed segment of our society, be it religious or ethnic communities, or issues like rights of children, women, labourers, and farmers, or citizens' right to govern themselves through a democratic system - Asma Ji left her indelible mark in all these struggles, a mark that is impossible to ignore or forget.

Her detractors would call her anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam because of her strong voice against state-sponsored militancy, oppression, extremism, and against usurpers of power. Vile and venomous campaigns would be sponsored against her to demonise and otherise her in bid to discredit her work. Few years ago, a picture of her with Bal Thackeray, India's firebrand nationalist considered strongly anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, became viral. Little did her detractors realise that Asma Jahangir was meeting Thackeray as part of a fact-finding mission about anti-Muslim riots.

The self-proclaimed 'Pakistani nationalists' would criticise her for what they understood as her silence on some of the issues that they wanted to propagate disproportionately e.g., Indian atrocities on the Kashmiris. She remained focussed on the rights of Pakistani people but was hardly silent on human rights violations elsewhere in the world. Last year, the demonstration in solidarity with Kashmiris organised by her and her strong statements in 2017 as UN's Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran against rights violations of religious minorities and against persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar are most recent examples.

What has inspired me most strongly was her unflinching commitment to basic principles of social justice, human rights and democracy. She would not hesitate to help even the harshest of her critics when they needed support in standing up for their rights. She was probably the only one from the 'civil society' of Pakistan who had such a clear idea of the complex nature of Pakistan's politics and civil-military equation. The anti-politician rhetoric, mainly propagated by the undemocratic forces, never swayed her commitment to democracy unlike the rest of our comrades.

She braved most despicable, mephitic and malicious attacks on her integrity, mostly with her signature smile. She would always tell me to never give a slightest hoot to these attacks on social media, which had affected me badly a couple of years ago. Many people would ask me why she was so angry always. She was angry because she cared, because she was strong enough to be angry and to channel her anger into the amazing work that she did at AGHS Legal Aid Cell, HRCP, and through scores of other platforms - international, regional and national. She was the first of the only three Pakistani women appointed as UN's rapporteurs. Just so the readers may know, she was not all that angry all the time. I have seen in her a very bubbly and fun-loving connoisseur of arts and music.

The last time we spoke a few days ago, she was talking about a national dialogue that she wanted to initiate on the concept of 'national interest'. "What exactly it is, have you ever wondered?" she asked, knowing that her question carried the answer. We discussed the matter on a long phone call and ended the conversation with her promise to have a detailed meeting when she comes to Islamabad next. This is just one of the scores of other unfinished agenda items that she has left to us.

Her last public address was at the Pakhtun sit-in in Islamabad. That was her - a woman with resolve to stand up for the oppressed. Her ethnic, religious or national identities hardly mattered for the people she stood for. She transcended these mundane boundaries. So now, she must be seen as an icon of humanism, and a symbol of social justice and equality.

Pakistan was blessed to have Asma Jahangir, who was truly the conscience of this country. She  symbolised the best of human qualities. A hero of this stature cannot just pass away or die with the end of breathing. She is survived by hundreds and thousands of little lamps that she had lit in the form of human rights defenders and activists for democracy and justice. Long live Asma Jahangir, rest in power.
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 Pakistan ~ Monday February 12, 2018

Asma Jahangir: A great voice for rule of law, constitutionalism


ISLAMABAD: A great defiant and effective voice vanished from this world as renowned human rights activist and senior lawyer Asma Jahangir passed away, leaving her family and innumerable people to mourn her demise.

She was an eminent lover of democracy and staunch opponent of role of undemocratic forces in politics, inequality and injustice. She fought for this cause throughout her life. She always stood for democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism as she has the conviction that Pakistan's survival and salvation lies in adhering to these principles.

A woman of immense characteristics, Asma Jahangir was a matchless brave fighter, who could not be coerced by the mightiest, well-entrenched bullies. Even bold people dread to loudly differ with and take them on, apprehending instant reprisals.

She was blessed with the guts to speak without any reservations or fear on topics that even senior politicians, lawyers and commentators wouldn't for expediency. She would never mince her words in ventilating her opinion.

At all times, Asma Jehangir championed and campaigned that all premier state institutions must remain within their constitutionally defined parameters and must not encroach upon others' domain because this spells chaos only. A set of people was never fond of this stand.

She was the unique personality of Pakistan, who received countless life threats and despicable titles like traitor and anti-Pakistan, which were hurled by a peculiar class, having a tunnel view. All this was done simply because of her views and to stifle her voice. But she was undeterred and was never cowed down by baseless allegations.

In several TV programmes, she locked horns and stuck to her opinion when she was attacked by participants belonging to a special section of the society in pursuance of an agenda and script. She was always a decent, down-to-earth and soft-spoken analyst, but would not relent when she would be harangued for her belief and estimation.

Myriad efforts were made to get her standpoint changed on key issues for decades, but to no avail. After every rude attack, she emerged stronger. She sturdily opposed all military rules. She had challenged the detention of her father, Malik Jilani, by the General Yayha Khan regime in the Supreme Court. The famous judgment is known after her name.

Asma Jehangir was not only an illustrious human rights activist, but was also very popular in her own community of lawyers. There have been two groups, one led by her and the other by Hamid Khan.

Recently, her group won the Supreme Court Bar Association election for the second consecutive term as well as the Lahore District Bar Association polls.

Pakistan has no distinguished woman after the death of Asma Jehangir, who can do such straight-talking, having no fear from any side. She will be long remembered for her nerve and poise. She has many international laurels to her credit and figured among the most legendary women of Pakistan at the world level.

Asma Jehangir always valiantly spoke for the downtrodden, the oppressed and the persecuted, and suffered attacks from those having blocked minds. She had firm, consistent views on national and international matters, which were liked or disliked by the same people at different times.

This was a strange phenomenon. People kept changing sides, but she wouldn't. Asma Jehangir always abhorred innuendos, allegations, accusations and mud-slinging in politics and used to counsel the politicians to mend fences to obviate interventions from other institutions. She was of the firm opinion that it was politicians' fault to provide an opportunity to others to come in and then repent. A huge loss. May her soul rest in peace.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~   
  Pakistan ~ Sunday February 11 2018 (Originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue under the headline "The street fighter")

Asma Jahangir: The street fighter

By Saroop Ijaz

 : Asma Jahangir admonishes police personnel at a protest against the Election Commission of Pakistan in October 2007 (Tanveer Shahzad, White Star )

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."

A picture of her from a March 2008 meeting with Bal Thackeray, the now deceased leader of Mumbai's Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena party, created a similar furore. Nationalist websites and media persons wrote thousands of words to denounce her for sharing the same space with one of Pakistan's most vicious detractors. It did not matter that she had met Thackeray in her capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, investigating violence against Muslims in India.

Indeed, many people go ballistic every time her name is mentioned. Haroon Rashid, an Urdu-language columnist with a large fan following, wrote in 2013, "warning" that he would lead a march on to Islamabad if Asma Jahangir was appointed caretaker prime minister. She had said earlier that she had no intention to accept the post.

If anything, these examples suggest a pattern: often wild, unsubstantiated allegations are levelled against her. Often she, too, responds to her detractors in a no-holds-barred manner. In 2012, in typical Asma Jahangir style, she accused intelligence and security agencies of trying to eliminate her. National and international concern and outrage poured in with such vehemence that the plan, if there was any, had to be dropped.

It seems Asma Jahangir seeks controversy ­ her critics attribute it to a search for glory. The Lebanese-American writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a word for it: "antifragile" ­ that is, things and people that benefit from volatility, shock, disorder, risk and uncertainty.

Asma Jahangir does not agree. She argues that she does whatever she does in order to adhere to her core principles ­ not to seek glory, not to benefit from adversity.

In September 2015, the Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to black out the coverage of Altaf Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's (MQM) supremo. Very few, if any, lawyers in Lahore were willing to represent him due to his alleged involvement in acts of violence in Karachi and his volatile speeches and media statements. Asma Jahangir was perhaps the unlikeliest lawyer he would get: the two had never found themselves on the same side of the political divide. In May 2007, MQM had called Asma Jahangir a "chauvinist lady" who should form her own "chauvinist party". An MQM statement had also accused her of having a secret affiliation with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

But she agreed to represent him.

Her opponents took to the streets. A small group of lawyers in Lahore brought out a demonstration, demanding the cancellation of her licence to practice law. Her supporters in bar rooms were also uncomfortable with the idea but they knew she could not be swayed against fighting for someone's freedom of speech ­ no matter if the person concerned was a serial abuser of that freedom. "Well, that is how she is," says one of her supporters, shrugging their shoulders.

When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association's president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group's senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.

Asma Jahangir's earliest recollections of activism are from her time in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a church-run school in Lahore. The head girl there was always selected by nuns but Asma Jahangir, as an O level student there in the late 1960s, arranged a protest demanding that there should be "at least a semblance of an election". The school administration reluctantly agreed to an election process while retaining a veto power. That method for finding a head girl still continues at the school.

Asma Jahangir's exposure to public life happened at a very young age. On December 22, 1971, the military government of Yahya Khan detained Asma Jahangir's father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, under martial law regulations. Malik Ghulam Jilani, a former civil servant and politician, was sent to jail in Multan after his detention. He sent his family a letter through a jail employee, listing possible grounds on which a petition could be filed for his release. Then only 18 years old, Asma Jahangir filed the petition at the Lahore High Court.

"Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father was fighting many cases. He remained in jail in Bannu. He remained in jail in Multan. But we were not allowed to go see him there. He did not want us to go there and see him. We always saw him in courts. So, for me, the court was a place where you dressed up to meet your father. It had a very nice feeling to it," Asma Jahangir reminisces, lightheartedly.

Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri, a lawyer that her family generally consulted on legal issues, was federal law minister then and, therefore, could not be her counsel. The second choice, Barrister Manzur Qadir, a former foreign minister and a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court, was not eligible to appear in the court that he had once headed. Qadir referred Asma Jahangir to M Anwar, considered one of the finest lawyers of the Lahore High Court at the time. Anwar thought it was a strong case because the governor of Punjab had signed the detention order before taking oath of office. (The detention order was changed later, Asma Jahangir says, to remove that anomaly). The Lahore High Court, however, dismissed her petition.

Asma Jahangir went to the Supreme Court. Qadir then decided to be her lawyer in what became known as Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. "The courtroom used to be full," she recalls. "Since I was a petitioner, I got a special seat and felt very important." She remembers Qadir with awe and admiration. The arguments he made were absolutely fabulous, she says. "I have never heard those kinds of arguments again. He was not just a lawyer, he was a philosopher."

Asma Jahangir also credits the proceedings at the Supreme Court for initiating her into the cynical, realpolitik world of courts. "What I saw was the manipulation behind the scenes ­ how cases are won and lost."

In 1972, after Yahya Khan's government had ended, the Supreme Court decided Asma Jahangir's petition in her favour. In a first for Pakistan's apex court, the judges declared the military government illegal and Yahya Khan to be a "usurper". History had been created and a young girl found herself at the centre of it.

(M.Arif, White Star)

Malik Ghulam Jilani waged a somewhat lonely political struggle ­ particularly at the tail end of Ayub Khan's government and during Yahya Khan's regime. He was on the wrong side of the consensus in West Pakistan on the 1971 military operation in what was then East Pakistan and when that region declared itself as the independent state of Bangladesh, he advocated against official Pakistani recognition instantly.

That period in her father's life has had a deep impact on Asma Jahangir. "When we were children, he always talked about fundamental rights and adult franchise and, believe me, I did not know for a long time what adult franchise meant except that he was fighting for it."

Asma Jahangir remembers her mother exhibiting a different sort of character. She was not in any way politically active and was almost nonchalant about the frequent imprisonment of her husband. "Whenever my father got arrested, she would sell her car and would move around on a tonga, believing that everything will work out or she would rent out our house and go to her father's house and put us in his dressing room."

Asma Jahangir comes from a well-off family ­ the spacious house her parents built is located in one of the priciest parts of Lahore's Gulberg area. But she does not see money having played any part in her upbringing. "We never felt that we were privileged or non-privileged," she says.

In July 2016, a division bench of the Lahore High Court was hearing a public interest petition against the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train. The petition contended that the project was damaging Lahore's architectural heritage. A star team of lawyers was representing the Punjab government. There was Shahid Hamid, a legal wizard and a former governor of Punjab. There was the advocate general. There were many assistant advocate generals and deputy attorney generals. The packed courtroom was unusually abuzz with the chatter of minions and acolytes of the government's lawyers.

Everyone was waiting for Asma Jahangir to argue in favour of the petition. When she stepped forward to the rostrum and began her arguments, one of her co-counsels tried to whisper a legal point in her ear ­ a relatively common practice in courts. Before he could even start, Asma Jahangir dismissed him with a wave of her hand and almost sternly said, "Stay where you are. If I want your assistance, I will ask for it."

Her aggression had a direct impact on the opposite side and murmurs immediately died down in the courtroom. The only reaction from the government's lawyers during her arguments was a slight shaking of the head by Hamid. She spoke briefly, vociferously and authoritatively. As she left the rostrum, she paused, turned around and took one step back. She turned towards the judges and Hamid, and said, "You know what the entire problem here is Shahid Sahib? Your chief minister needs training in aesthetics. We would be glad to arrange tutoring." Hamid smiled weakly and continued to shake his head.

This is Asma Jahangir's style ­ mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate. "She is a performer," says Neelum Hussain, her long-time friend and fellow activist.

Asma Jahangir's entry into law did not automatically follow her victory in Asma Jilani versus the Government of Punjab case. She received her law degree from Punjab University in 1978 after she fell in love with and got married to Tahir Jahangir, a Chinioti businessman and her next-door neighbour. "The principal stopped me from attending the [law] college because I was a married woman. It was a college policy," she says. Gulrukh, a friend of Asma Jahangir's, was also married but the principal did not know. "Gulrukh used to take classes and then she would teach me." Asma Jahangir secured a first division in her law exam ­ a major achievement for someone who has always been a "second divisioner".

She did not start her law practice immediately after graduating.

When she had her second child, she started to feel that she was suffering from bouts of depression because of feeling "useless". The depression was "showing on me because I had started to put on weight". She had puffy eyes. She looked unhappy. "Whether I was just imagining things or it was otherwise, I think the respect my husband - or for that matter, my in-laws - have had later for me was not there at the time," Asma Jahangir says. "Everybody thought they could bully me because I was not seen as an entity. I was just a little, out-of-shape mummy." She decided that she had to do something with her life or she "will just be a sidekick for everyone".

Asma Jahangir invited some of her friends over lunch to discuss the possibility of starting a law firm. Late Shahid Rahman, who was the son of a former chief justice of Pakistan, S A Rahman, and an excellent lawyer himself, told her to talk to Shehla Zia, another young lawyer at the time. Asma Jahangir's equally well-known sister, Hina Jilani, was already working as a junior lawyer with Ijaz Batalvi. The three then roped in Gulrukh ­ thus, AGHS was formed on February 12, 1980, taking its name from the first letters of the names of its founders. It was Pakistan's first all-women law firm.

It was the darkest of times. The Hudood Ordinance was already in force. The law of evidence was about to be changed to the disadvantage of women and non-Muslims. It was also the best of times. The Women's Action Forum (WAF) was formed smack in those years.

On February 12, 1983, WAF decided to hold a public demonstration on Mall Road in Lahore against the provisions of the Hudood Ordinance that discriminate against women. Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani both joined the protest as members of the Punjab Women Lawyers Forum. It was the first open denunciation of attempts by General Ziaul Haq's military regime to mix religion and law ­ and it made WAF, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani the most recognised faces of the movement for women's rights in Pakistan.

(M Arif, White Star )
A simultaneous lawyers' movement was also underway in those days against Zia. Protesting lawyers began using Asma Jahangir's office as a place of hiding because the authorities would not consider "coming into a woman lawyer's office looking for male lawyers hiding there". The misogyny of Zia's regime in this case worked in favour of his opponents.

In the 1980s, a woman lawyer arguing human rights cases was largely uncharted territory. In the beginning it had some novelty value. Courts were patronising, even when they were not sympathetic, to a woman practising law and would usually grant Asma Jahangir relief. She started off with family law cases - divorce, child custody and maintenance payment etc - but she was quick to realise that what was required was not temporary relief but fundamental change, and not just for women.

Soon, she started taking up blasphemy and bonded labour cases. "In bonded labour cases, judges would ask me why I had brought those people to the courts who stank. You are here precisely for them, I would respond." Her fierce arguments in favour of those "stinking" brick-kiln workers made people realise how those "labourers with hardly any clothes on their bodies owed debts of hundreds of thousands of rupees." It was then that lawyers and judges started taking her seriously ­ that she was not just a female lawyer or another practitioner of family law.

In the mid-1980s, the Zia-appointed Majlis-e-Shoora passed a resolution, saying that Asma Jahangir had blasphemed and she should be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was an alleged comment she had made in a WAF meeting. Zia set up a commission to investigate the allegation.

Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code that provides for death penalty in blasphemy cases was not enacted yet. "Maybe they enacted it after finding out that they could not put me to death without it," Asma Jahangir says, only half in jest.

Asma Jahangir boycotted the commission and instead lobbied lawyers to gather support. Fortunately, Tahira Abdullah, a renowned human rights activist and a WAF member, had taped the entire proceedings of the meeting where the alleged comments were made. When that tape came out, it was obvious that Asma Jahangir had not made any blasphemous remarks.

In 1993, an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, were accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore. Later, Manzoor Masih was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala where the case was initially being heard. Asma Jahangir represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by a trial court. Lawyer Mehboob Khan, who represents the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and assisted Asma Jahangir in the case, remembers the hostile atmosphere during the proceedings. He also remembers how she remained unfazed through it.

In an unprecedented decision, the Lahore High Court acquitted Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on February 23, 1995. Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the judges who had acquitted the two, was assassinated in 1997. When his killer was arrested a year later, he confessed to have killed the judge for deciding the case in the favour of the accused.

There was an attempted attack on Asma Jahangir's house as well. The assailants mistakenly entered her mother's house who lives next door. Everyone in the house was held at gunpoint, including Asma Jahangir's brother and his wife and their two little children. Frustrated at not being able to find Asma Jahangir, they attempted to kill her sister-in-law but their gun did not work, giving the family enough time to escape and call in security guards to engage the attackers.

Munizae, the eldest of Asma Jahangir's three children, remembers being sent to a boarding school to protect her from possible abduction. Munizae understood from a very young age that her mother was different from most people around her. Still, she was confused when Asma Jahangir was first arrested in 1983. She remembers how her schoolfellows asked her the next day if her mother had "stolen something".

When Asma Jahangir came back home from prison, she was very animated and made her "jail time sound like it was an adventure, a thrilling journey". An intrigued Munizae asked her mother to take her along when she went to jail again.

Back in the early 1980s, Asma Jahangir and her father decided to set up a trust to support political prisoners. The two pooled in their own money to put together the trust, named after her father and headed by Nisar Osmani, a senior journalist and human rights activist. Prominent lawyers such as Khursheed Kasuri, Aitzaz Ahsan and Khalid Ranjha were among its trustees and Asma Jahangir was its first secretary.

The trust made lists of political prisoners and then approached their families to give money. This was not sustainable ­ the lists were never exhaustive and the trust's funds had never looked enough to survive long. In late 1986, Asma Jahangir and Osmani decided to hold a seminar titled 'Dimensions of Human Rights', at the Pearl Continental Hotel, in Lahore. They wanted to test the viability of the idea that there could be a membership-based human rights organisation in the country.

They were pleasantly surprised to find an overwhelmingly positive response to their invitation for the seminar. People from all across Pakistan converged in Lahore to participate and endorse the decision to form HRCP. When the commission was set up in 1987, Justice (retd) Dorab Patel, a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court who had refused to take a fresh oath as a judge of the Supreme Court under Zia's diktat, was appointed its first chairperson.

The most outstanding feature of the newly created HRCP was its overtly secular mandate. The participants of its founding seminar had passed two resolutions, among others, on the protection of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Asma Jahangir fondly remembers how Habib Jalib, the legendary revolutionary poet, bantered with her on the occasion. Earlier that year, she had dragged him to a women's demonstration outside the Lahore High Court where he was beaten up by police. "I am very happy that at least from The Mall you have been able to come to Pearl Continental," was his way of differentiating between street protests and institutionalised civic action.

The shift was neither easy nor smooth. Allegations of foreign funding have dogged HRCP from the start. Even Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, who has the experience of arranging money for his cancer hospital, has questioned the sources of HRCP's finances. Incensed when HRCP stated that his 2014 sit-ins diverted attention from human rights abuses in the country, he thundered in October that year: "You don't need to tell us what is right and what is wrong. Just tell me first what the sources of HRCP's funding are."

("HRCP took a decision early on that it would accept no aid that may be interpreted as compromising its independence. So superpower sources were foreclosed from the start and HRCP had to thankfully decline such offers," reads a post on the HRCP website. The members and the donors of the organisation are encouraged to check its audit reports to know the source of its funding that mostly comes from the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Canada.)

Over the years, HRCP in general and Asma Jahangir in particular have also been branded as "traitors" and "American agents", trying to malign Pakistan and destroy the country's social and political fabric in the name of women's rights and the rights of non-Muslims. The commission is also condemned for highlighting human rights abuses in places such as Balochistan and the tribal areas - as if to embarrass Pakistan - rather than talking about similar abuses in Kashmir and Palestine.

A senior lawyer from Lahore, who does not wish to be named, declares: "Asma Jahangir is working on a specifically anti-Islam agenda and she is getting foreign funding to do that." The same lawyer contested the Lahore High Court Bar Association election as Asma Jahangir's nominee but he could not win. "The liberal lawyers did not vote for me because I have a beard and the religious, conservative ones did not support me because I was backed by Asma Jahangir," he says as he explains how she divides the bar along ideological lines. "She is part of the Illumanti, a secret organisation controlling the world," he then proclaims.

Asma Jahangir is not apologetic about the focus that HRCP has on Pakistan. "Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India, or against Rohingyas in Burma, or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa; but obviously I am going to be more concerned of violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them," she says. "And 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 butchered to death."

Asma Jahangir has been the longest-serving United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and is one of three Pakistanis appointed to the position (the other two being her sister Hina Jilani and Lahore-based feminist activist and sociologist Farida Shaheed). Yet her entry into lawyer politics is of recent origin; it essentially came under the limelight with - and after - her election as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010.

Before her entry, the bar's politics dominated the two groups ­ one led by senior lawyer Hamid Khan (who is also a senior member of PTI) and the other led by Malik Karim (who passed away a few years ago). She has now taken over the leadership of the latter group.

When Hamid Khan talks about Asma Jahangir, there are serious hints that he respects her for being a "formidable opponent" and an internationally acclaimed human rights campaigner. He, however, does not regard her as a competent lawyer. She only had some family law cases to her credit before she fought the bar election, he claims, and then accuses her of using her position in bar politics to bolster her law practice.

Hamid Khan also alleges that Asma Jahangir was "planted" in the bar politics by PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari to counter the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. He cites her frequent criticism of the judiciary as evidence and says she has taken this criticism to a dangerous level where it appears like an attempt to "blackmail the judges".

Asma Jahangir, indeed, has had a number of run-ins with the judiciary, more specifically since the reinstatement of Chaudhry as Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2009. Her opposition to the judicial "activism" of Chaudhry's court over the PPP government's inaction on many political, economic and administrative subjects led many to believe that she was being an "apologist" for Zardari who was then the president of the country.

One of the biggest allegations against her is that she represented Hussain Haqqani, then serving as Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, in the so-called Memogate case. The case revolved around an alleged memorandum written by Haqqani in 2011 to Admiral Mike Mullen, a top American military commander, seeking help from the United States administration for Pakistan's civilian government against the military establishment. The whole controversy was predicated exclusively on the testimony of one Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American with dubious credentials. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then the most important opposition leader, went to the Supreme Court demanding an inquiry and the Supreme Court obliged him by constituting a highly powered judicial commission consisting of three judges.

Asma Jahangir is unequivocal ­ she believes that the judiciary was swayed both by populism and the establishment. The Memogate case is an illustrative example of what is wrong with the judiciary, she contends. "Can anybody justify it today? I do not think even the petitioners can."

The July 31, 2009, judgment of the Supreme Court that summarily dismissed scores of judges across Pakistan on the grounds that they had taken oath under Pervez Musharraf's Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) in 2007 was the precise point when she decided to take the Supreme Court head on. Asma Jahangir's point of view was simple ­ almost all the judges on the bench which had issued that verdict were themselves beneficiaries of a previous PCO. Their outrage against those who did the same later appeared to her misplaced and hypocritical.

Until then, the bar was presented as a monolith and the dissenting voices in the lawyers' movement came from the fringes that did not matter much. Asma Jahangir was the first of the key leaders of the movement to express her dissatisfaction publicly and disassociate herself from Chaudhry.

Initially, it was an individual decision. She remembers being cautioned by friends to refrain from visiting the Lahore High Court bar room a day after she wrote an article in daily Dawn, criticising Chaudhry. His loyalists had the reputation to be rude and rowdy towards his critics. She went to the bar room anyway. Nobody was rude or rowdy towards her; on the contrary, people came up to her and said, "Well done".

"The judges were playing politics," she says when asked about the reason for her criticism. She also views the confrontation in the context of a fight between democracy and authoritarianism.

Hamid Khan claims Asma Jahangir is disconnected from bar politics at the grass-roots level. He attributes her success merely to a "consolidation" of all the small groups of lawyers opposed to his professional group.

Asma Jahangir certainly was an "outsider" in bar politics, as Hamid Khan puts it, before the Chaudhry era. It was, indeed, the movement for the restoration of Justice Chaudhry between 2007 and 2009 that allowed her to interact with a cross section of lawyers. Those interactions allowed lawyers in different parts of Pakistan to get first-hand knowledge of her as a person and a lawyer ­ beyond what they knew through her public image of an elitist, yet fiery, crusader for women's rights.

(M Arif, White Star)

Most crucially, Asma Jahangir's own view of an average lawyer changed. "This man who has dressed up so neatly and nicely lives in a two-room house and does not know in the morning whether he will have money to feed his children or not," is how she summerises her understanding of the financial predicament lawyers face. When asked about the incidents of violence and hooliganism that lawyers often engage in, she responds by drawing attention to their working conditions. "What we do not see is the humiliation that lawyers have to suffer."

Those who have been on the receiving end of bad behaviour by lawyers - and that includes politicians, judges, government officials and often junior-level policemen - may dismiss her argument as mere justification by someone who cannot afford to antagonise her voters.

Asma Jahangir's role in bar politics certainly demands that she win popularity contests (through elections, that is) ­ something Asma Jahangir, the contrarian and the firebrand human rights activist, at best did not care about and on previous instances very deliberately rebelled against. Neelum Hussain believes Asma Jahangir has changed ­ from being a private person to a public agitator to a politician.

Still, Asma Jahangir is different from most of her colleagues in bar politics ­ in more ways than one. She smokes beedis in the bar room, talks loudly and bluntly and makes direct eye contact with those she is conversing with. She is undiplomatic yet she has a disarming common touch. She has the ability to be frank and honest without sounding abrupt and pretentious. She is a contrarian but she is also a conciliator ­ with the ability to find points of convergence.

She is also a wife, a mother and a grandmother ­ and is quite comfortable with her family roles. Her eyes light up when she talks about Tahir Jahangir, her husband. For a moment, she lets her iron lady persona drop. "I was absolutely in love with him ­ madly in love with him. I think in some ways I still am, despite my many differences with him."

She gives him some backhanded compliments. "He was one of the reasons I was able to work. He was one of the reasons I learned to negotiate. He said you can practice law but you cannot go to court. I agreed, but then I went to court. Then he said you can practice law but you will not do it for money. I agreed, but then I did it for money too," she says, laughing.
It was only when Asma Jahangir went to jail that Tahir Jahangir "realised that things had gone too far". She was first put under house arrest in 1983. A few months later, she was arrested and sent to Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore, to face trial by a military court. When she got out of prison, she did not know if Tahir Jahangir would let her back into their house. But he was there at the prison gate to receive her. He patted her on the back even though he "was shell-shocked".

They have an unwritten agreement ­ Tahir Jahangir never listens to any of Asma Jahangir's speeches nor attends any of the protests she organises; Asma Jahangir does not read his columns, mostly written about nature, and mostly refuses to accompany him on trips to the mountains.

Asma Jahangir's daughter Munizae recalls how Saima Waheed, a plaintiff in a famous love marriage case in the mid-1990s, was surprised to see her in shalwar kameez. Munizae, a journalist, wears baggy shalwar kameez to press conferences on the advice of her "very conventional mother" who at times is "horribly conservative". She is a typical Punjabi mother, says Munizae, "who is never happy with how my sister keeps her house or is bringing up her kid". On the other hand, "our brother gets away with the dumbest of jokes all the time."

Munizae had just started her first job as a television reporter for India's NDTV in 2005 when in May that year Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a women-only marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by religious parties and groups. On the day of the marathon, the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and taking them to the Model Town police station.

When Munizae arrived at the site of the marathon, the first image she saw was of her mother with her "clothes torn off, her bare back exposed ­ being manhandled by police officials". Her reporter colleagues had smirks on their faces. They looked at Munizae from the corner of their eyes. She felt embarrassed ­ more than that, she was shocked, traumatised.

Asma Jahangir's husband was out of the country at the time. He immediately came back, only to see Asma's bare back on the front page of a newspaper. Munizae broke down and cried when she saw her father but Tahir Jahangir was unfazed. If anything, he was proud.

Asma Jahangir was later transferred to jail from the police station. When Munizae got there, she saw her mother "in the same shirt, now stitched up with safety pins". She was "shouting and essentially leading a protest in jail".

Nothing, it seems, can ever stop Asma Jahangir from being what she has always been.
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The writer is a lawyer and a columnist and a member of the Human Rights Watch.