We have suffered a terrible loss. Asma Jilani Jehangir, lawyer and activist, passed away suddenly on the weekend. This is no ordinary passing, because she was no ordinary woman. On the basis of a legal education had at Punjab University, she began her career when she was called to the High Court in 1980 (the Supreme Court followed, in 1982). Thanks to the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq the eighties were a fraught time to be a lawyer, much less a political one, and Jehangir and her sister Hina Jilani, who survives her, were both. To gild the lily, they were both women.
Their father was an activist who spent time in prison and under house arrest for opposing military dictatorships, and his daughters followed suit.
Jehangir and Jilani (with two other lawyers) formed AGHS, Pakistan’s first law firm established by women, in 1980. Jehangir was also one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum, who are celebrating 35 years of resistance today, the twelfth of February. On the same date in 1983 the Punjab Women Lawyers Association, led by Jehangir (amongst others) were joined by WAF to protest Zia’s proposal to change the laws of evidence. Quite famously, the protest was met by a heavy state hand and participants were beaten, tear-gassed and arrested. The black and white photographs of that march, especially the one of Asma confronting a policewoman floating around on social media, were taken by artist Lala Rukh, another WAF stalwart, who passed last year.
Asma Jehangir was no armchair activist or all talk and no action. Jahangir and Jilani set up AGHS Legal Aid, the first free legal aid center in Pakistan, in 1986. AGHS has also been running Dastak, a shelter for women, since 1990. Jehangir also co-founded and chaired the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which monitors and collects data on human rights abuse in Pakistan, agitates for and spreads awareness about human rights in Pakistan. It’s an impressive list of accomplishments, and this is outside of the honorary degrees and awards, including the Hilal-e-Imtiaz and Four Freedoms award, which has been awarded to people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nelson Mandela.
Each time someone from that generation leaves us, a shiver runs through me. My generation has grown up in the shadow of lionhearted women, women who have led the resistance in ways we have only until now admired. Asma Jahangir was arrested, put under house arrest, mocked and insulted countless times. People—mostly men, no surprise there—accused her of being a spy, an agent, a traitor, an Ahmadi. She was none of those things, because what she really was a principled, fierce woman who unflinchingly and cussedly dedicated her entire life to defending the rights of women. Even now one would use her name as a byword for ferocity. As a woman, if you really wanted to legally stick it to someone, the first person you’d think of was Asma Jahangir. She was a hero, that way, a legend. More than that, she was someone who was intelligent, focused and fearless. She didn’t care what other people thought of her and she didn’t mince her words telling you so. That wasn’t all, though. You couldn’t typecast her as some dried up, angry woman. Asma Jehangir was a woman who married and had children. She was a good friend to many. So many people, younger and older, speak of her not just with admiration, but affection too. She was a mum, a wife, a friend, a grandmother—and also one of the bravest women in the country. Her outspokenness got her into trouble over and over again, but speaking the truth has always done that. She was there to fight for women’s rights during Zia’s horror show of a dictatorship. She was there to get Musharraf out during the Lawyers’ Movement. She was there, incisive and vociferous, every government, every regime, saying loud and clear: I see you, and this will not stand. Most of all, she was just one woman. She was one small woman with the heart of a lion and a roar as loud, and whether you agreed with her or not, she was a constant. How many of us can say that for ourselves? That we have been cussed, that we have never given up, that we have repeatedly thrown ourselves into the path of danger because that was a by-product of doing what we believed in, which was work for the greater good?
Goodbye, Lionheart. This is a blow to the cause of justice and liberty in Pakistan; we have lost a champion but your work, the wheels you set into motion, will carry on and we will all be the better for it. Thank you for everything. Rest in Power.