In remembrance of Asma Jahangir: She had a twinkle in her eye even in the worst of times

Updated February 12, 2020

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Her untimely departure has left behind a huge vacuum, not easy to fill. Dawn/File
Her untimely departure has left behind a huge vacuum, not easy to fill. Dawn/File

LAHORE: Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s most eminent human rights activist and lawyer, passed away on Feb 11, exactly two years ago. She was known as a fierce advocate of peace and justice in the country and abroad and won several awards as recognition for her activism and services.

Her untimely departure has left behind a huge vacuum, not easy to fill.

Her mentor, I.A. Rehman, remembers her as a driving force in the fight against any form of injustice.

“She led from the front in any condition, including in the face of police brutality and torture (during protests),” he says.

Remembering Asma’s activism and fight for justice, Mr Rehman says: “During Nawaz Sharif’s government, there was a bill prompting for Shariah to be floated in the Senate. As soon as she came to know that the legal system was being replaced, she mobilised everybody.”

She worked day and night to mobilise the political leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, Asfandyar Wali, and even Nawab Akbar Bugti, whom she actually woke from his afternoon siesta and the Bill never entered the Senate, he added.

“She was a proud feminist and never missed a woman’s perspective. She never minced her words. With whatever is happening (these days), sometimes I feel so strongly that Asma’s voice is needed here today.”

Mr Rehman urges those who want to take her legacy forward to adopt her qualities of leadership and activism.

One of Asma’s oldest friends, Gul Rukh – represented by ‘G’ in Asma’s legal aid firm, AGHS-Legal Aid Cell, sighs as she remembers her friend, saying that she left everything incomplete.

For Gul Rukh, who took Asma more like her family, the loss was very much personal too.

“We have been together since college, we studied law together, interned together with Mr Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, formed the AGHS together. I veered off towards education, but could see that her work grew more and more. From brick kiln labourers to the blasphemy law, she fought for everyone.”

Their friendship never ended. Asma was known to be always there for her friends whenever needed.

“It makes me happy to see that her students are carrying her legacy forward,” says Gul Rukh.

The AGHS–Legal Aid Cell is now being run by lawyer Nida Aly who laments that the gap left by Asma remains unfilled.

“She was larger than life, always ready to be in the battles bigger than herself,” reminisces Nida about Asma.

“Her courage is unparalleled and we have lost a voice, which openly critiqued (the powers that be) without fear – she had the ability to keep in check the unbridled channels of power.

“Things would have been quite different had she been alive. She would have fiercely stood for independence of (democratic) institutions and never allowed the recently witnessed judicial activism and sham democracy to continue without censure.”

Pushing her mission forward, the AGHS has taken up even more cases after Asma’s demise.

In 2019, the AGHS provided free legal services in 902 cases, facilitated interim relief for 297 women and members of religious minorities through securing their bails. More than 25,000 women were legally empowered through our 16 Paralegal Community Centres. Asma may not be here but her work goes on through the AGHS.

The last two years have been challenging for Asma’s family, as well.

“I still cannot put into words how I feel about the loss of my mother,” says her daughter Munizae Jahangir, a journalist.

“It’s hard to imagine someone so full of life, so spirited and vivacious suddenly gone. My mother left us soon after her 66th birthday. However, she was not ready to go.”

Munizae says her mother had big plans for her life ahead – her legal practice was flourishing, she had earned herself a name at home and abroad. She was a celebrated human rights lawyer at the UN and had served three terms as a special rapporteur.

Even in the worst of times, says Asma’s daughter, when she was in prison or under house arrest, under attack or in the face of harassment, she had a twinkle in her eye, which said ‘I am ready for the fight’.

“Her spirit was unbreakable. The only time I saw her depressed was when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. But she never took herself seriously and always thought of herself as quite ordinary. It was only after she was gone we all realised how extraordinary she was as a mother. I miss her friendship, her wisdom and her ability to see kindness in the worst of people,” says Munizae.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2020