'The courtrooms of Islamabad High Court will miss Asma's valorous voice'

Pakistan mourns loss of celebrated human rights activist and lawyer.
Published February 11, 2018
  • 'A giant has passed'
  • An iconic lawyer and activist, Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore at the age of 66 on February 11, 2018. In a legendary career spanning decades, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Women's Action Forum. She was awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the Pakistani government. During her lifetime, Asma inspired and changed the lives of many. Who was Asma for you? Share your tributes and memories at blog@dawn.com

    Hadiya Aziz, legal practitioner at Islamabad High Court:

    "It is now that she is gone that it has truly hit me what an icon and legend Asma Jahangir was and what a loss this is going to be to the profession of law.

    As a female lawyer in the legal fraternity, it was always very reassuring to know that a female leader exists at the top tier of the bar.

    Her presence not only made our journey easier in a largely male-dominated society of lawyers, it also gave us an inspiration and a mentor to look up to.

    Her absence will also mean lack of representation of women in the power circles of bar politics, which will effect young female lawyers till grass root levels.

    Even otherwise, the entire country has lost one of the best human rights activists and legal practitioners it has ever boasted of.

    One thing that stood out in her personality was her courage, which is a scarce trait these days.

    The courtrooms and corridors of Islamabad High Court will miss her valorous voice rising for a cause she believed in.

    Her arguments always warmed my heart and instilled so much passion in me to continue my own journey.

    From here on, my own practice, successes and wins will be a tribute to the great inspirational leader."

    Zainab Malik, Justice Project Pakistan

    "I still remember the first time I saw Asma Jahangir on TV. Having grown up without powerful female role models in post-Zia Pakistan, I couldn’t believe that a woman’s voice could make the most powerful institutions in Pakistan quiver with fear.

    When it came to standing up for what is right, she feared no one. The military, clergy, politicians, judiciary, feudals, and even men in general — she was always a moral compass by which to judge them.

    In a society where problems seem insurmountable, her spirit and fortitude gave me strength. Whenever someone asked me what I, a woman, hoped to get out of my law degree, I gave her example.

    Her steadfast presence with a black coat and a raised fist was what pushed me through law school and into a career in human rights.

    Asma was responsible for breathing life into the fundamental rights chapter of our constitution. It was because of her resolve that adult women in Pakistan can marry without a guardian, and that bonded labourers have a legal basis to seek their freedom.

    Having had the honour of working with her at AGHS legal aid cell, I witnessed the innumerable women and children she helped everyday without expectation of recognition or fame.

    In a society that is quick to only critique and malign its heroes, she blazed on unaffected, standing up for the most unpopular views and defending the most unworthy of defendants.

    In my brief career, whenever fear has pushed me to stay silent, her struggle compels me into moving forward.

    Her presence as a leader of the bar, a champion of human rights, a stalwart for justice beckons me and many other women to keep pushing against repression, especially when hope is at its bleakest.

    Now more than ever, must women band together to fill the void that she has left behind."

    Osama Siddique, Legal scholar, academic, author

    "Perhaps it will never be possible for one to truly appreciate what the loss of Asma Jahangir means unless one actually abhors the very opposite of what she stood for.

    If one is unperturbed by the prevalence amidst us of a culture of servility and flattery in the pursuit of parochial ends, she hardly matters.

    If one is still largely unclear or ambivalent about the aspirations and goals of pluralism, tolerance, democratic choices, human rights and protection of vulnerable people, she is of course a nobody.

    If one’s heart does not even feebly protest against the notion of opaque and unaccountable exercise of power, political abuse of religion, and the abuse and exploitation of the weak and the meek in the name of religion, then she is not newsworthy.

    If usurping political administrators in camouflage fatigues don’t appear offensive to one’s eyes and any criticism of how we have been and continue to be governed is anti-state and unpatriotic, then she is someone better soon forgotten.

    Actually, it may even be fairly easy to be persuaded to believe that she was the most incorrigible person to inhabit this country and hence a few manly swear words ought to be in order to cement one’s own patriotism and religiosity.

    However, if one happens not to be afflicted as described above, one would actually appreciate just what it took to fight the battles that she regularly fought.

    And to also get some sense of the perseverance, steadfastness, clarity of mind, and courage of conviction with which she fought them.

    One could have disagreed at times with some of her views – rather rarely in my case – but never with her resolve and forthrightness.

    And when the chips were down, one could always be certain that hers would be one of the first voices raised.

    As we remain embroiled in the various dispiriting battles that will determine our children’s future, hers will be a distinctive and authoritative rallying voice and a shining example that will be much missed.

    But history tells her that she will also inspire many more to follow her lead."

    Shandana Minhas, author

    "Somewhere in the archives of an early iteration of the blogosphere is a piece I once wrote about Pakistani women. The world had just begun to call us oppressed, and 20-something me had felt compelled to do a list of Pakistani women that were, in fact, strong and fearless. Asma Jahangir was at the top of it.

    A child of Zia – I would have been 7 when February 12, 1983, came around ─ I was benefiting from her fierce, unrelenting opposition to dictators before I knew what dictatorship was. Zia, blasphemy, the Hudood Ordinance, workers rights… She was battling the gradual constriction of an insular, avaricious, venal ideology while we played happily, clueless about what was closing in on us, what was to come. She was battling it for us.

    I never met Asma Jahangir. Yet I feel I have a claim to her, that I am mourning one of my own. Asma Jahangir, like Edhi before her, did something for a certain generation of Pakistanis that they, and most of us, were unaware they did: they were our mothers and our fathers.

    Our real mothers and fathers might have taught up to be upright and moral, but ─ out of love and fear ─ they mostly also taught us to be upright and moral in private, and detached and apolitical in public. That is a fragmentation from which most of us have never recovered.

    What a revelation it was, for young me at least, to get a hint that insides and outsides could be same to same, that yes you should not shut up you should speak louder; what a gift, the idea of a life lived with meaning and purpose.

    And what a gift, also, her constant lived reminders that strength is not simply the ability to do violence – as the security state would like us all to believe – but the ability to resist it.

    Rest in power, Asma Jahangir."

    Usama Khilji, Director of Bolo Bhi

    "Asma leaves behind an unmatched legacy and inspiration for all of us to follow: on how to stick to our principles in face of any challenge, how to demand the enforcement of laws and demand fundamental rights, and how to speak truth to power with responsibility.

    Asma Jahangir had a brilliant knack for understanding power structures, and aligning her fight and picking her battles accordingly, strategically and fearlessly. No amount of propaganda and mudslinging could deter her.

    This is an irreparable loss for progress in Pakistan; but I am so thankful for all her contributions that we can look up to forever.

    Whenever I have felt hopeless in face of challenges in activism, her statements, interviews, and speeches have given me hope."

    Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International

    "She was the bravest person I knew. She fearlessly confronted injustice wherever she saw it. She spoke up for what she believed in, whatever the risks.

    She was a relentless tormentor of dictators, thugs, and misogynists. She was the greatest champion of the marginalised and the dispossessed.

    The fact that someone like her existed gave people strength. We are all weaker without her."

    Imtiaz Alam, journalist

    "It is very hard for me to speak, it is a huge tragedy. She stood for minorities, for women, bonded labourers, the women action forum, the human rights commission...she was against every martial law, against child labour. She didn’t care that people were ready to kill her, that extremists were thirsty for her blood. She was secular. She was a custodian for human rights. She fought for democracy, civilian supremacy and for the constitution.

    She has worked all over South Asia. We would get courage from her bravery. She was ready to do anything for justice. She was the pride of Pakistan, the pride of our nation. She was a champion for missing persons, the voice of justice, She didn’t care if she was alone, if her life is at threat.

    The whole nation is at a loss today."

    Mazhar Abbas, journalist

    "Asma Jahangir is a rare gem in the legal fraternity. It is difficult to find an individual who is so consistent and who stands by their principles.. She never compromised on her principles."

    Sherry Rehman, politician

    "We have old relations with her. For Pakistan, for humanity, for women this is a huge loss. She had very clear thoughts about democracy, there was no confusion in her that no matter how broken democracy is it should be supported. She has taught a lot of people many things. She has introduced the concept of human rights to a generation of Pakistanis. I’m looking at a photo of myself, her and Iqbal Haider in Lahore from a rally where the Punjab government had stopped women from attending.

    I don’t know how we will fill this void. We should learn from her life. We need to take her legacy forward."

    Ashtar Ausaf, Attorney general, Pakistan

    "With the passing away of Asma Jahangir we have lost a voice and an opinion. She was an iron lady and will be missed."

    'A giant has passed'