LAHORE - Globally known and acknowledged as a great champion of human rights and democracy, Asma Jahangir inherited political activism from her family and swam against the tide throughout her career.

Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, entered politics upon retirement from civil service and faced imprisonment for opposing General Yahya Khan and the civil Martial Law of Z.A Bhutto.

Asma fought the case of her father and got him released at a very young age when no lawyer was ready to take the case for the fear of Martial Law regime.

She was herself imprisoned on several occasions for her outspoken views against dictatorship and religious bigotry.

She had a vast following at home and abroad for her progressive views and struggle against religious extremism. But she also faced strong criticism from religious groups for defending the cases of people accused of blasphemy and raising voice for the victims of honour killings.

Pakistan’s military establishment always questioned her patriotism as she was often branded as “traitor” serving the interests of India and the West.

Her struggle for women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities was also seen as an attempt to malign Pakistan and to destroy the country’s social fabric.

In the later part of her life, she spoke highly of the Army Generals castigating them for their alleged interference in political affairs.

Her contemptuous views against the clergy won her enemies in the religious circles.

As her human rights work brought her into public criticism, Ms Jahangir also received numerous threats from religious groups particularly after she defended the case of a 14-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, who had been accused of blasphemy. She won this case in 1995.

Asma Jahangir also received death threats when she undertook the famous case of Saima Sarwar in 1999 and gave her a shelter at Dastak, a place she had established for women facing persecution from their families.

The poor lady was later gunned down by her family in an act of honour killing.

She also took up the case of Saima Waheed in 1996 when the Lahore High Court ruled that an adult Muslim woman could not get married without the consent of her male guardian (wali).

Ms Jahangir also faced the wrath of the police and extremists in May 2005 when she announced to lead a mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise the issue of violence against women. She had then received rough treatment from the police and religious parties. Other participants of the race were also beaten.

Earlier in February 1983, Ms Jahangir and other women activists were tear-gassed, beaten and arrested by police in Lahore during a public protest held against the proposed Law of Evidence reducing the value of a woman's testimony to half that of a man's.

Late Asma was a graduate from Kinnaird College, Lahore and got her law degree from Punjab University in 1978.

She also held an honorary doctorate from University of St Gallen, Switzerland, Queens University, Canada, Simon Fraser University, Canada and Cornell University of United States.

She was a staunch critic of the Hudood Ordinance and blasphemy laws introduced by dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s.

Being one of the founding members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, she served as Secretary-General and later Chairperson of the HRCP.

She first came to limelight when the police baton-charged Habib Jalib in early 80s at Regal Chowk Lahore.

The late poet was very critical of the military regime and the latter had no tolerance for critics.

She raised a strong voice against the police action.

She worked in close coordination with the late Mazhar Ali Khan, Editor, Weekly Viewpoint.

At the time the magazine’s office was on the road between Masjid-i-Shuhada and Plaza Chowk. However, subsequently the HRCP offices were set up in Tipu Block of Garden Town.

Here the HRCP compiled reports on human rights across the country. It also published a magazine that highlighted the situation on this front.

At the HRCP, she also worked in close collaboration with veteran journalists, I.A Rehman, Hussain Naqi, Professor Riaz and Kamila Hyat (who was the granddaughter of the late Mazhar Ali Khan and Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan).

Asma also joined hands with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, an Opposition alliance against the military regime of Gen Zia.

Her anti-establishment and pro-democracy role was admired by people of all shades of opinion. “There’s no doubt that she played an active role against establishment and in favour of democracy”, said senior lawyer Akram Sheikh, who is also a former President of the Supreme Court Bar.

Asma Jahangir served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions from 1998 to 2004, and as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief from 2004 to 2010.

She also penned down a report on violations of human rights in the Indian Held Kashmir.

In August 2017, Ms Jahangir pleaded the case of families sentenced to death by military tribunals before the Supreme Court seeking retrial in all the cases. But she lost this case as Supreme Court upheld the sentence awarded to convicts by the military courts.

Of late, Asma also spoke against the five judges who disqualified Mian Nawaz Sharif who lost his office as a result of their judgment.

She had then also questioned the inclusion of military intelligence officials into Joint Investigation team.

She also authored books like “Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance (1988, 2003) and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1992)”

Amen Jalal, a Yale student from Lahore who organised Asma Jehangir's visit to the great institution in 2016, said in her comments to The Nation on Sunday: “In her interactions with Yale students over the course of her visit, Ms. Jahangir at once stoked a fire of inspiration and a wave of envy among her audiences.

We left her talks rattled by the continuous ordeals she had to face as a female human rights lawyer in Pakistan, but also reassured that in countries like ours, even when everything falls away, there will be people like her standing tall in the face of injustice.

It is heartbreaking to hear that she is no more, but we hope her legacy gives wings to another generation of lawyers and activists, and most importantly, women who otherwise find the odds to be insurmountable. She has left foot marks in the toughest of terrains for us to follow.” 

Commenting on her death, Incharge complaint cell, HRCP Mr Khan, who worked with her for 40 years, said: “She was a friend of the downtrodden, religious minorities, especially the Ahmadis, and smaller units of federation.

She also raised the issue of camel kids in Dubai and visited India at a time when tension between the two countries was high, but her visits helped reduced the tension, he added.   

Although the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and its office-bearers are there, they will not be in a position to play the role Asma Jehangir played in her life. The reason: not everybody will like to take the risks Asma used to take for the rights of others.

She was recipient of several national awards, including Sitara-I-Imtiaz in 1995. In recognition of her services in the field of human rights, she was awarded the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award in 1992, the Martin Ennals Award and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995.