The death of Asma Jahangir is not just a blow to Pakistan, but a collective loss to human rights campaigners around the world.
Once I frantically called Asma to get her advice on a decision and she said, “Bachoo, jab mein chali jaoon gayee tou kya karo gay, woh karo” (Kiddo, do what you would do if I were gone).
I laughed it off and she did sort it out. It never crossed my mind that this day would eventually come. She was our excuse, our insurance policy, the banyan tree to hide behind after messing up.
Many of us who are part of the human rights movement in Pakistan did not have to do the hard bits – the dangerous stuff – and we ignored the misery with a clear conscience since there was Asma for that. It was in masterly hands, being taken care of. The victims she stood up for have been orphaned, and our cowardice will now be spotlighted.
To explain the full impact of the Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, to a non-Pakistani is difficult. Beyond words of high praise, by now uttered all around the world from the Secretary General United Nations (UN) to Malala to Jeremy Corbyn and small human rights groups in Bengal.
No country in South Asia has an Asma parallel and very few in the world do. It could have been Aang San Suu Ki before her fall from grace in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Pakistan makes up for an absence of institutions by relying on larger than life, extraordinary individuals. Asma was a product of the unique era of 1980s Pakistan – a repressive, misogynist dictatorship under General Zia ul Haq.
She died one day before the 35th anniversary of the historic debut protest by the Women’s Action Forum on February 12, 1983 on the Mall Road, Lahore.
There were public floggings and executions going on at the time, and women had to produce four Muslim eye witnesses to prove rape or else be charged with adultery. Political activity had been banned, and a group of young women burning dupattas and challenging the regime in the heart of the country was unthinkable. The Zia ul Haq regime jailed Asma - however the damage had been done. As always, she had thrown the first punch and taken the first blow, reassuring everyone that we are not made of glass. The fight thereafter becomes significantly easier
Thousands of men and women publicly prayed together at the funeral of Asma Jahangir on Tuesday; this was the first time this had happened in Pakistan's second largest city, Lahore. It was another ceiling shattered by Asma. However, it did not seem like a protest or an act of heroic courage. It was simply down to the idea that leaving the women at home to privately mourn Asma was unimaginable, and no quibbling mullah or petty bureaucrat would have dared to say otherwise - not on that day.
This normalisation of courage and fairness and the seemingly unimaginable was Asma’s life. Being the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association was of course unimaginable; however so was smoking beedis in the “men’s” bar room and holding court.
Asma looked as natural in her role as the United Nations Special Rapporteur as she did while navigating – in Punjabi – the complicated space of lawyers’ politics. Asma’s first battle and victory came as a nineteen-year-old petitioner challenging the military dictatorship of General Yahya Khan in 1970.
There has been a cost to this life that she chose.
A young girl who preferred to marry of her own choice and had Asma as her lawyer, was assassinated in her office. Asma’s daughter had to be sent away to boarding school after a failed assassination attempt on her life for representing Salmat Masih, a man accused of blasphemy (the High Court judge who acquitted Masih was assassinated).
After the lawyers’ movement was done and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhary, riding on a populist wave was overstepping his constitutional limits, it was Asma, alone at that time - who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.
Her picture with Bal Thackeray, the leader of the fascist, Hindu supremacist party, Shiv Sena has been taken out of context, photoshopped and widely circulated for years. She met Thackeray as the UN Special Rapporteur investigating human rights abuses against religious minorities in India.
She was the first person to bring bonded laborers to the High Courts demanding their release and was initially told by the courts that “bringing these people in dirty clothes” offends the “decorum” of the courts.
However, Asma always prevailed. Journalists who ran smear campaigns against her, had only her speaking for them when they were threatened by the courts or the military. Politicians who had declared her a “traitor” had her by their side when confronted with anti-democratic forces. Even, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the late leader of the religious Jamaat-I-Islami, a lifelong opponent of Asma, found her as an ally during his imprisonment under the dictatorship of General Musharraf.
Asma was a fierce fighter, she was also a conciliator who brought people to her point of view. She did it not by being flexible but by being steadfast. Her greatest strength was clarity, she did not tiptoe, did not hedge. She was not reckless either, it was always a thoughtful response however it was consistent and her resolve was unshakeable.
For two days, many people mused and speculated about what sort of funeral Asma would have wanted. She certainly would not have wanted a state funeral, she belonged not to the state but to the people. And a people’s funeral she had with brick kiln workers, two generations of women rights activists, landless farmers, journalists, lawyers, religious clerics, Christian pastors, Sikhs and many others in attendance.
We are now condemned to live the guessing game of “what would have Asma wanted?” for years, if not decades.
At Asma’s house hours after her death on Sunday, one young university student came to me and said, “Who will listen to us? There is no one else.”
I had no convincing answer.
Nobody knew who to condole with, everyone wanted to receive condolences, the loss was personal, it was “my friend Asma” for everyone.
Today, it does seem that there is no one else and the human rights movement in Pakistan and millions of victims have been orphaned. However, the march of history will fill this vacuum, hopefully, this time as a collective by taking her legacy forward; waiting for another Asma, while very tempting, is not feasible simply because there is not an Asma for every country or even for every era.
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