Pakistan lost arguably its most prominent champion of human rights on Sunday after leading lawyer Asma Jahangir succumbed to a cardiac arrest.

Over her illustrious career, Jahangir used her considerable clout in the highest echelons of Pakistan's legal community to push causes that were closest to her heart.

Her proactive pursuit of a more equitable Pakistan — for women, minorities and those marginalised by the state — enriched and improved the lives of the Pakistani people as a whole.

As the nation grieves her loss, here is a look back at the services she rendered to the country.

Women's rights

Jahangir, who co-founded the Women's Action Forum in 1981, advocated equal rights for women and was outspoken about the sexism and inequality confronting women in the workplace, particularly in the legal profession.

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 joined the protest a member 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 and Asma Jahangir the most recognised faces of the movement for women’s rights in Pakistan.

Jahangir and the other activists were teargassed, beaten up and arrested by the authorities.

Jahangir, a vocal opponent of so-called honour killings, also played a critical role in the Saima Waheed case, as a result of which in 2003 Pakistani women eventually got the right to marry of their own free will and without needing the consent of a wali (the woman's father or brother).

Civilian supremacy

Jahangir, an ardent champion of democracy since her early days, took part in many pro-democracy movements, including the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against military dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, as a result of which she was jailed in 1983.

She was a persistent thorn in the side for totalitarian establishments, outspokenly calling out anti-democratic actions and pushing constantly for the right of the people to rule themselves.

She was arrested in 2007 by the government of then military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and in 2012 claimed that her life was in danger from the country's top spy agency.

A champion of civilian supremacy, Jahangir openly expressed her opposition to the setting up of military courts in Pakistan to try civilians. She had also appealed to the Supreme Court to order retrial in all cases in which military courts have handed down convictions, including capital punishments.

Minority rights

Jahangir was also known for her dispassionate support for the rights of religious minorities and socially marginalised segments.

“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,” she once told Herald.

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. Asma Jahangir represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction. In an unprecedented decision, the Lahore High Court acquitted Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on February 23, 1995.

More recently, commenting on PML-N leader Captain Safdar's anti-Ahmadi National Assembly tirade last year, Jahangir had said: "Around the world, nobody can speak about their minority populations in such a manner. If we do not raise our voice against this incident today, people like this (who make such remarks against minorities), will form a majority."

Freedom of speech

The senior lawyer was a staunch defender of the right to freedom of speech.

Despite being called a "chauvinist lady" once by the MQM, Jahangir later defended Altaf Hussain when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered a blackout of the MQM London chief following his 'anti-Pakistan' remarks.

Lawyers protesting in the Lahore High Court had called for the immediate suspension of Jahangir's license for her decision to represent Hussain, but she stuck to her principles and did not back down.

When she decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, Asma 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.

Missing persons and enforced disappearances

A former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Jahangir highlighted the plight of missing persons at various fora and fought many cases seeking justice for them and their families.

She was often among only a handful of lawyers willing to take up cases for missing persons — who were frequently branded 'enemies of the state' and subjected to abuse without due process or proof — and her invaluable support to the victims and their families resulted in many disappeared persons being united with their loved ones.



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