Remembering Asma

This week, the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell and Supreme Court Bar Association held its first ‘Justice for Empowerment Conference’ to honour the late human rights defender and lawyer. Some of the panelists included Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar. They discussed everything from the independence of the judiciary and the rights of women and minorities to freedom of expression and enforced disappearances – all topics close to her heart. Asma Jahangir spoke of human rights at a time when the concept was considered difficult in Pakistan. She co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the AGHS legal aid cell in 1987 which influenced 17 pieces of legislation advancing the rights of the vulnerable sections of society: women, children, minorities and labour. These included the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992; Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act 2010; the Anti Rape Bill 2016; the Child Marriage Restraint Act; the Elections Act 2017; and the Acid Control and Crime Prevention Act 2011. For her efforts, she won her share of accolades, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1995), Millennium Peace Prize by UNIFEM (2005), and the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (2010). She also gained her share of detractors.

Where men with greater power and agency cowered, Asma stood fearless in her resolve. She stood for principles, not personality, and spoke against anyone abusing their power. Whether it was the military, politicians, judiciary or men of religion, Asma Jahangir towered over all of them. Always on the frontlines of the right side of history, she never let the batons, bullets, jail terms or smear campaigns derail her from what she believed was right. The void left in her absence will be difficult to fill, but the law firm she left behind continues to work in providing quality legal aid to underprivileged clients. One hopes the politicians, judges and dignitaries who attended the conference show the same courage and resolve that Asma lived.