Asma Jahangir: the Soul of Human Rights Activism in Pakistan

Contributor Sitwat Mirza is a second year History student at King’s with an interest in South Asian studies, particularly in how the role of women in politics and human rights activism has changed over time.

At the young age of eighteen, Asma Jahangir first became involved in human rights activism at the time of her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani’s arrest for openly challenging army action in the then East Pakistan. This first legal victory achieved the removal of the Martial law under Bhutto’s time as Prime Minister of Pakistan. Today, she is renowned as the voice of human rights in Pakistan; a campaigner and fighter for the rights of women, children, labourers and religious minorities.  

Born into a family of human rights activists on 27 January 1952, Asma Jahangir was the co-founder and first chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Some prominent groups that Jahangir fought cases for were women trying to free themselves from the constraints of abusive marriages, young women wanting to marry against the will of their parents, religious minorities being persecuted for their beliefs and bonded labourers. A large part of her work was focused on women’s rights. Jahangir stated: “You cannot have human rights in a society if you do not have women’s rights.” The Women’s Action Forum campaigned against highly controversial laws such as the Hudood Ordinances, under which raped women had to prove their innocence to get justice. If they could not do this, they were accused of being adulterous. Despite not having strong legal support, these movements and organisations did not become weak in the face of Pakistan’s conservative and powerful government.   

Her human rights campaigning was not limited to cases in Pakistan. She became pivotal in making peace between Pakistan and Indian during times of heightened conflict. In her speech ‘walking together to freedom’ at the University of California on September 27th 2012, Jahangir highlighted the success of binding together human rights associations between the two nations: “people to people dialogue, people to people meeting and people to people understanding has gone so far…where they will not sit quiet if one army is fighting against the people of the other country”.  

She goes on to describe the narrative of an important act that was carried out by activists from both sides in an attempt to showcase the bond of peace that was emerging between the people of the two countries. She says: “On the 14th of August is our Independence Day; 15th of August is India’s Independence Day. So, we used to take candles and meet there facing each other and we were beaten up badly but next year we went again, and this time we took a play with us that was critical of militarisation, that was critical of war. This theatre group performed while the army looked on absolutely horrified”. Songs symbolising unity were also sang by Indian and Pakistani women. The words manifest a powerful message of solidarity: “look sisters are coming having broken all their bonds, they have come, they have come, they have brought an era of change with them”.  

Such demonstrations have left a lasting legacy on Indo-Pak relations today. The people of the two countries are steadily moving towards tolerance and acceptance of each other’s political, religious and cultural differences. There is a growing sense of realisation that there is something beyond these discrepancies; the desire to move forward in human rights. Jahangir herself reminds us that: “religions don’t have rights, it is people who have rights”. She is trying to make people understand that there is a need to look beyond rivalry between distinct groups whether that be politicians, armies or even ordinary people. What unites two fighting countries is the need to fight for the basic principles that govern our lives: human rights.  

Whilst she earned herself a large following amongst liberals in Pakistan, India, and many parts of the West, she was constantly victimised by death threats for openly condemning blasphemy laws in Pakistan and laws that explicitly discriminated against women and other disadvantaged minority groups. In 2005, she organised a marathon in which both men and women participated. This attempt resulted in violent attacks on the women by extremist Islamic groups. The police themselves were involved in brutally beating these women and tearing their clothes off. A direct attack on Jahangir was made in 2007, when she was arrested for criticising the policies of General Pervez Musharraf.

The case of Jahangir is particularly important for the progression of women in politics in this day and age. Despite having lived in a world that is progressively moving towards building societies based on more political, economic and moral equality, Jahangir still experienced hatred and intimidation for just voicing her opinion. What was she being harassed for? For simply raising her voice for the cause of humanity? One needs to realise how difficult it was for Jahangir to get her voice heard in such a highly dangerous political environment, in which even the basic human right of the freedom of speech had been taken away and replaced with a fear; a fear of being ‘punished’ for speaking against government ideals. The fact that she was able to get her voice heard despite this criticism and hatred, is in itself a reason why Jahangir’s work should be praised and remembered as a great contributor to human rights activism today. Her activism was not just successful in bringing to light such issues, but also paved the way for a change in the mindset of today’s Pakistani society and politicians.  

On 11th February 2018, Asma Jahangir died from a cardiac arrest at the age of 66. Even during her funeral, we saw the powerful legacy of her phenomenal achievements in human rights activism. Her funeral was not the typical gender- segregated Muslim gathering; at Lahore stadium, thousands of men and women stood side-by-side, mourning at the loss of such a significant female pioneer in the history of human rights. Even in India, women deeply felt the wave of grief that surrounded Jahangir’s death. They held their own remembrance in New Delhi during the same week.

Central to Jahangir’s agenda was the notion of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’, in which both Muslims would be protected from persecution as well as other minority groups. Asma Jahangir believed that: “What we are living in now was not what Jinnah wanted for Pakistan. We have to build Jinnah’s Pakistan”. This much-celebrated notion of making Pakistan a pure, just, and peaceful nation, serves in itself as a motive for current human rights activists to continue fighting to make Pakistan a better place to live for the diverse population that the country encompasses. Her work is also an important milestone in global campaigning for the cause of the underprivileged. Jahangir was not just a woman who taught the minority and persecuted groups of Pakistan to speak up for their individual causes, but was a woman that disseminated her courage, spirit and a passion to motivate activists around the world to work together to make the world a better place.  

 

References:  

Hussain, Z. (2018). Lawyers hid themselves in Asma Jahangir’s office when they were chased by the security agencies. [online] ThePrint. Available at: https://theprint.in/opinion/lawyers-hid-asma-jahangirs-office-chased-security-agencies/34963/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

Kazmin, A. (2018). Asma Jahangir, 1952-2018, human rights activist and lawyer. [online] FINANCIALTIMES. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/0425a46a-1271-11e8-940e-08320fc2a277 [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].

Picture credit: https://yourstory.com/2018/02/asma-jahangir-human-rights-activist/  

Rajam, K. (2018). Her story: The life and times of Asma Jahangir- Pakistan’s human rights activist lawyer. [online] Yourstory. Available at: https://yourstory.com/2018/02/asma-jahangir-human-rights-activist/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

Schofield, V. (2018). Asma Jahangir obituary. [online] TheGuardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/13/asma-jahangir-obituary [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

University of California Television (UCTV), (2012), Walking Together for Freedom with Asma Jahangir [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIU6XDyHoUM [Accessed 6 October 2018].

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