By Vrinda Saxena
Sunday, 11th February, came as a Black Sunday for human rights activism around the world, with the passing away of Asma Jahangir. She succumbed to a cardiac arrest at the age of 66. She is survived by two daughters and a son.
Life and achievements
Born Asma Jilani Jahangir on 27 January 1952, she was a Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist who co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987 and chaired it till 1993. She was a prominent democracy activist and came into active limelight with her participation in the ‘Lawyer’s Movement’ (after which she became Pakistan’s first woman President of Supreme Court Bar Association) and the movement for the restoration of democracy against the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. She also briefly served as the Vice-Chair of the Defence for Children International. Jahangir co-chaired the South Asia Forum for Human Rights and was the Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights. She worked as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (1998-20014) and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (2004-10). In 2016, she was named as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, remaining until her death.
Jahangir’s notable career was graced by prestigious awards including the famed UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1995) and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz (2010), among others. She was awarded an Officier De La Légion d’honneur by France. She has authored prominent works like the ‘Hudood Ordinance: A Divine Sanction?’, ‘Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan’, and ‘Whither are We!’.
An Asian Joan of Arc
Asma Jahangir, along with her sister Hina Jilani, formed Pakistan’s first all-women law firm. Among their indispensable contributions to the emancipation of women is the fact that they also helped form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a pressure group campaigning against Pakistan’s legislations discriminatory stance against the fairer sex, most notably the Hadood Ordinances, where rape victims had to prove their testimony or face punishment themselves, and the Proposed Law of Evidence wherein a woman’s testimony was valued as half against that of a man’s. In 1986, they set up the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, targeting women, children, prisoners, bonded labourers and religious minorities, aiming at strengthening respect for human rights.
Known popularly as the ‘Asian Joan of Arc’, Jahangir certainly shared qualities with the character her title was coined on. She was a one-man army, crusading the battle against fake blasphemy charges, rescuing children from death row and championing the cause of women’s rights. She stayed away from power corridors mostly but at the same time stood by her beliefs of allowing democratically elected governments to function effectively and taking strident efforts to turn this into a reality, sometimes despite staunch opposition. After founding the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, she became the indisputable voice of the voiceless and shelter for the poor and the helpless.
Leaving behind death threats and conspiracies of assassination, Jahangir, relentlessly pursued the path of principles, be it at the candlelight march at the Attari-Wagah border with Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar on August 14-15 for Indo-Pak peace or standing with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in the case of his disqualification on the basis of corruption charges.
With Asma Jahangir, the world lost a great pioneer, indeed. However, what she left is a legacy—and she will live on till the legacy does.
Featured Image Source: Pexels
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius