On Sunday, 11 February 2018, Asma Jahangir left us. Her spirit lived on. The same day the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) had organized a memorial to Pakistan’s Women’s Day. Asma was due to speak about the protest organized by WAF on 12 February 1983 against the anti-women Hudood Laws at The Mall, Lahore. On Tuesday, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men at Asma’s funeral prayer at the Gaddafi Stadium breaking with cultural convention. Asma’s spirit had lived on through them. Since her early years, Asma Jahangir had played a role in almost every significant event in Pakistan’s history.
This journey started in 1970 as a petitioner when an 18-year-old Asma Jilani filed a case in the High Court and then Supreme Court proclaiming the illegitimacy of the martial law government. Asma, along with her sister, Hina Jilani, grew up in a dissident household. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a member of the Awami League in Lahore. She told the story of how Sheikh Mujib’s Six Points were announced at her house. The label ‘traitor’ was applied to him. They had heard it as children. By the time East Pakistan became Bangladesh, they knew their father was on the right side of history. Their father the ‘traitor’ had been the true patriot. Speaking up for the rights of the people of East Pakistan, warning that Pakistan would not survive if the unequal relations would continue. It was not that Asma was ever in doubt. In her later life when one of her detractors questioned her patriotism for criticizing the Pakistan army, she mentioned her father’s story and elegantly retorted: “what you condemn us for saying today is what you will say ten years later.” Her father had fought a lonely struggle. Asma was never as lonely but could appear so. It was a function of having more energy than everyone else. It was also a function of the legal profession that she had adopted.
It was the founding of the AGHS, Pakistan’s first all-woman law firm in 1980, that would have been enough to cement her place in history but the law firm was made of women who could not be restricted to the courtroom. Starting with domestic disputes, they were pulled into organizing the first public protest against the Hudood Ordinance in 1983. WAF was formed. Around the same period, Asma began to take on human rights cases for brick kiln workers, who have been bonded labour for generations. By 1987, Asma was amongst the founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The HRCP, as with most things to do with human rights in Pakistan has continued to attract controversy, but it has been able to chart out a degree of respectability that has protected it from the truest patriot in Pakistan – the intelligence agencies. This is not where she stopped. It was the Iqbal and Rehmat Masih case in 1993, which put her in life in serious jeopardy. Having managed to secure their acquittal in the Lahore High Court, there was a break in in her mother’s house, which the family was able to flee miraculously. This confirmed what had already been known since Asma was accused of blasphemy in the mid-80s before the introduction of Article 295C and the mob lynchings on blasphemy becoming common practice – her life was never secure. But this was a risk Asma was willing to take for the principles she believed in. The honour killing of Saima Waheed in the AGHS office in the same years shook them all – but it did little to shake their resolve. It only became stronger.
The founding of a women’s shelter became the way to protect women who continued to be threatened by their patriarchal families for choosing how to live their life. In her later life, she continued to become larger than life figure. Adept at the most brutal critique of the Pakistani state while charting out a successful political path in the highly politicized lawyers community. Her male counterparts still refer to her successful bid to become the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010 with a combination of misogyny and respect. But it was a testament to her political astuteness that she was able to become the most powerful lawyer in the country after taking on some of the most controversial cases. In many of the establishment’s intrigues against democratic governments, Asma found herself on the opposition bench in the Supreme Court whether it was the Memogate case or the constitutional challenge to the 21st Amendment, which gave the constitutional mandate to military courts.
As a public persona, Asma continued to draw the ire of the country’s powerful military establishment with her witty critiques, including one when she was asked whether she would tone down her criticism of the military in which she referred to the military leadership as ‘duffer generals.’ In a country where military’s role in politics and business continues to generate such deep fissures, she was one of the few who was never fooled by military generals even when they wore a liberal mask. It was the memory of the damage the involvement of the military had done to Pakistan past, present and future that she understood with a clarity that many of progressive Pakistanis around her continue to waver on. Her political role became greater as she grew in age. She spoke powerfully at the Shia sit-in when the Hazaras in Quetta refused to bury their dead after another terrorist attack. She spoke powerfully at the Pashtun sit-in days before her untimely death. When she publically stated in 2012 that the ISI had threatened her life, it was almost 10,000 peasants from the Okara Military Farms movement that organized a protest in her favour. She continued to represent them and other oppressed communities throughout her life. Amongst the many cases she had still been involved in were those of jailed Okara peasant leader Mehr Sattar and jailed Gilgit Balistan activist Baba Jaan. Only last year, she had agreed to take on a case to restore student unions on our request. She was more enthusiastic than we were to take on the case and continued to follow up on it herself. She was representing the families of dozens of missing persons who had been abducted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. This was her patriotism.She had more commitment than any of the self-proclaimed patriots that have accused her of representing an anti-Pakistan agenda.
If Asma’s vision for Pakistan had ever become a reality, it would be a much better place. But it is hard to talk about dreams. It is the reality of a country which shapes who we make of ourselves. Throughout her life, Asma stood with the oppressed and the marginalized, whether they be women, religious minorities, brick kiln workers or peasants. Asma, like her father, was on the wrong side of Pakistan’s historical consensus. It will not matter to those the shallow patriots that line up outside GHQ waiting for a glimpse of their master’s boots that she did more for Pakistan than any of the golf playing property dealers sitting inside those walls. It will be for us terrified of a future without Asma behind our backs that will have to step up and be as unshackled by fear as she was. The rebellion was stirred at her funeral by the women who insisted that they would stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Asma’s spirit was alive. It must become our spirit.