Beena Sarwar


Asma Jahangir, a “human rights giant,” lives on as an inspiration and source of strength for millions fighting for rights and justice. This is a portrait of an incredibly courageous woman, lovingly drawn with a collection of memories and anecdotes.


Asma Jahangir, lawyer and human rights activist, was born on 27 January 1952 in Lahore. She was co-founder of the AGHS law firm (1980), AGHS Legal Aid Cell (1983), Women’s Action Forum (1981), and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) (1986). She was involved in the launch of Pakistan–India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, 1994, and of South Asians for Human Rights, 2000. She was also United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (1998–2004), freedom of religion or belief (2004–10), situation of human rights in Iran (from November 2016 till death). She was the first woman to be elected as president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association in 2010.


Asma was all this, and so much more.


After her death on 11 February 2018 in Lahore, the widespread outpouring of grief and tributes from around the world helped cope with the deep-felt personal loss of a mentor and friend. Far away in Boston, connecting with Asma’s family and mutual friends in Lahore offered solace. We commiserated through tears, but there was also laughter, remembering something she said or did, or would say or do.


Every conversation about her ends with resolve. Tributes continue to be held around the world, across Pakistan and India, and elsewhere in Bangladesh, England, the United States (US) and Canada. We must seize this “Asma moment,” to quote a young lawyer, Yasser Latif Hamdani (2018).


Everyone says that the best tribute we can pay to her is by carrying on her work forward. Asma Jahangir always carried on, no matter how great the obstacles and setbacks.


There is relief that she went on her own terms—a heart attack at home—after a late night of laughter and fun with two of her oldest friends; not the assassin’s bullet everyone was bracing for. She herself was well aware of the risk to her life, but it never stopped her.


It was not just threats to her life. Those undermining her would stoop to any level. In May 2005, the police attacked the symbolic mini-marathon that Asma was leading in protest against an attack on women runners training for the upcoming Lahore Marathon. There was a hissed “teach the bitch a lesson, strip her in public,” and a muscular hand grasped Asma’s neckline from behind, ripping the fabric. Her status as a UN Special Rapporteur and head of the HRCP was no protection.


She shared with me later that she avoided facing her mother-in-law after photos of her exposed back appeared in the media. If Asma, who did not buy the concepts of “honour” that mar our society—not just in Pakistan but across South Asia—felt this way, how must the women who are more vulnerable feel? And, yet, they carry on.


Asma’s strength, in large part, came from these women that she represented. I remember a case she related about a village woman whose in-laws had thrown her out, taking away her baby. In court, the judge allowed the mother to hold and suckle the child. The woman then squatted on the courtroom floor clutching her baby and defying anyone who tried to take the child away from her, recounted Asma admiringly.


Shaping the Narratives of Dissent


Going by the media portrayal of Asma Jahangir, you would think she was always angry and liked yelling and being in the limelight. This false impression may be due to the demand of the visually oriented 24?7 media beast for sensational fare. Not that she avoided the limelight; at one time, like many lawyers—including the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—she wanted to be an actor. However, she did not actively seek the limelight. She refused several requests to appear on one television talk show or another. Well aware that the ratings-driven television channels promote binaries, she did not want to be a viewer bait and get embroiled in useless arguments.


But, journalists kept seeking her out. Asma—like the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who would turn to Asma for counsel—was not the “boycotting type.” “Boycott, and then what?” Benazir said when asked to reject the military-supervised elections that were planned in January 2008.


For larger causes, Asma was willing to wade into the muck. Conscious of the strategic importance of getting her point of view across and influencing the public narrative, when she did agree to appear on television, it was on her own terms. The anchor would not cut her off or let the discussion become a slanging match.


In one famous live show in May 2011, the host asked her about the defence committee’s call for Pakistanis to prove their patriotism by supporting the armed forces, following the US operation against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Asma’s measured response was that she did not need to prove her patriotism to anyone, particularly the security establishment. The army, she said, had put Pakistan in a situation “where terrorism is cropping up at every corner and neighbourhood,” they also “encourage and support it, detract from debate. They’ve got a whole propaganda machinery going” (something that many Indians may increasingly relate to).


She reminded the show’s host of the Bangladesh war, when anyone criticising the Pakistan army action in East Pakistan would be branded a traitor, including Asma’s father who was imprisoned. The “faujis” (soldiers), she said scathingly, were “political duffers:” not the ordinary rank and file soldier, but “these generals who play golf and laugh, and keep an eye out for [land] plots.” “Please,” she begged with folded hands, “go back to your barracks, let our children live. We don’t want bloodshed. If you want acclaim, go fight—and win—a war. You fought Kargil, killed the Light Infantry soldiers. You’ve become used to making young boys into human shields. You can’t fight, or run the country, or make policy. You are the ‘qabza group’ [land grabbers] of this country” (Sarwar 2011).


Later, in an interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (NPR 2011), she said she should not have used the word “duffer;” she should, she said, “have said dangerous duffers.” Inskeep asked her about the dangers of speaking the way she did. “I think I have lived enough in this country, and I think enough people trust me where I can say what I think is true and with the voice of my conscience,” she replied. “If I cannot live with a conscience in this country, I’d rather not live.”


Principled Critique


“No one in Pakistan has rejected authoritarian rule so firmly and so consistently as Asma Jahangir did,” I A Rehman (2018), her right-hand man, senior journalist, and former director of the HRCP, wrote. Her opposition to the military’s interference in politics was rooted not in emotion, but in respect for the law and the country’s constitution. These were the weapons she used in court. Elsewhere, her street-smart language and gestures captured the public imagination. It was a powerful combination. In February 2017, a day after a judge of the Islamabad High Court banned public observances of Valentine’s Day in response to a petition that it is un-Islamic, Asma scoffed at his order: “Anyone who has read the law will tell you that this judgement is not based in any legality. Anyway, this judge saab should not be here, he should have been the khateeb [sermon-giver] at a mosque” (Tehelka vids 2017). (Incidentally, the same judge has recently passed an order making it mandatory for all applicants to public offices to declare their religious beliefs before being considered eligible (Imran 2018); an alarming development and one that Asma would have vehemently opposed.)


The vilification against Asma grew in proportion to her increasing fame and outspokenness. The massive turnout at her funeral and the spontaneous outpouring of grief across Pakistan was a fitting response.


“Proof” of her lack of patriotism included false captions of photographs and photoshopped visuals. One photograph of her carrying a basket on her head was captioned “Asma bringing prasaad(religious offering) to Hindu temples.” Some versions photoshopped a red “tikka” to her forehead. Another photoshopped picture shows her apparently praying to M K Gandhi. Her meetings with Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi were proof of “her namaste to Indian heroes,” her orange salwar kurta further evidence of her affinity with the “saffron” lobby. These photos actually speak to some of Asma’s most significant contributions.


One is her role in furthering peace with India, a cause for which she believed women should be on the front line. After the Kargil “war-like situation” in 1999, she and Nirmala Deshpande from India led a women’s “peace bus” exchange, breaking a deadly impasse. They did this with song, dance, and music, gifting each other bangles and dupattas in a conscious reclaiming of these symbols of femininity used as taunts of weakness. Asma’s basket-on-head photo was taken at Fatehpur Sikri when she led a 60-member women’s delegation to India. “Pity that they should portray it as a temple, though I have visited several temples of all religions and churches,” said Asma in a statement later. “Shame on the duffers to waste their time on these dirty tricks.”


Wanting peace with India did not blind Asma to human rights abuses there. She was outspoken about the atrocities in Kashmir, particularly after her visit to the Valley in 2016 when she witnessed the civil uprising against Burhan Wani’s killing.


The Modi and Thackeray photographs were taken during Asma’s visit to India as a UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion. “They could have flashed my photos with the victims also. Or read the report I wrote for the UN in which I blasted them for state complicity,” she said at a press conference. It was, she noted later in an emailed statement, “not only appropriate but essential to get their version on record … Bigoted duffers and their henchmen should at least get their facts right before they embark on a prejudiced campaign of vilification.”


She did not bother responding to the objections to her clothes. Her love for bright colours was no secret. The coincidence of her wearing almost the same shade as Thackeray was too good an opportunity for the propagandists to miss.


Linked to Asma’s understanding of the need to keep the larger picture in mind was her willingness to go beyond political differences and talk, even with her ideological enemies, another trait she shared with Benazir Bhutto.


Asma’s resolve and commitment, large-heartedness and vision for the long term, keeping in mind the bigger picture, were among her defining characteristics. Beyond that was her whole-hearted devotion to the cause of human rights embedded in upholding the rule of law and democratic principles. She was enormously generous with her time and expertise, evident in how she laid her own life open to the cause and also her house. I saw this on umpteen occasions at her inclusive dinners. She was bothered not just about her guests, but also the domestic staff and drivers, ensuring everyone was properly looked after and fed.


Strategic Activism


Her activism was part of a strategic, well-thought-out plan, facing the dangers head on, not reactively or emotionally. “There are times I’ve been scared, there are times I’ve cried,” she said in an interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2010. “But does that mean you give up in the face of brute force? No. Never” (BBC World Service 2018).


The representative cross-section of society at her funeral was proof of how she touched people’s hearts. Thousands flocked to pay their last respects: barefoot peasant women and labourers, transgender activists, powerful political figures, members of political parties, atheists, and even members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa. They all came and wept. Asma’s daughter Munizae Jahangir, a television journalist, said that the latter told her that Asma was defending one of their members in prison charged with “blasphemy.”


Asma was, in fact, a consummate political leader, but with no hunger for political power or office. Her greatness of spirit was evident in how she took on not only the blasphemy case of religious workers, but also cases of those who had been openly against her. She would represent them on principles like freedom of speech, human rights, and freedom of the media. The only former opponent she refused was a military dictator.


Journalist Kashif Abbasi tells the story of an incident when Asma saw him having lunch with another television talk show host at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market and joined them (Maqsood 2018). The other man was Mubashir Lucman, who had often spoken against her. But, that did not faze Asma. She said that he had a right to say what he wanted. She even offered to help Lucman with the contempt of court case he was facing. “There are very few people with that kind of ‘zarf’, forbearance,” said Abbasi.

When I first met Asma in 1989, she was working to redress the centuries-old injustices borne by brick kiln workers, bonded labourers indebted for generations. When she climbed on the bonnet of a jeep early that year to address scores of workers in a field outside Lahore, they came alive as she spoke. That is when she may have come into her own as a political leader, observed former finance minister Mubashir Hasan who has worked closely with her.


Defence of Human Rights


Asma’s activism, coupled with her legal work, led to the ground-breaking Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992, a step towards ending the system of generational debt that continues to hold workers as virtual slaves. As a young journalist in Lahore, I closely followed this issue.


I saw her develop and lead the HRCP, the institution she launched and spearheaded, which I am proud to have been associated with. In 1993, Asma asked me to stand for elections for the HRCP Council, an elected, voluntary, and consultative body. Elected over three consecutive terms to this influential group marked by a high level of debate and discussion, I saw and experienced first hand Asma’s clarity of vision complemented by her persuasive powers, and her ability to get people from different points of view to agree on a minimum common agenda. The issues I followed as a journalist also intersected with several cases Asma represented legally. Two issues that stand out are “blasphemy” and “free will” marriage.


In 1993, she started her defence of Salamat Masih, an illiterate 11-year-old Christian boy accused of writing “blasphemous” words on the wall of a mosque. He and his co-accused, his father Rehmat and uncle Manzoor, were threatened while under trial at the district court. An armed attack outside the court the following year left Manzoor dead, and Salamat, Rehmat, and others injured.


The trial court sentenced Salamat and Rehmat to death in February 1995. After Asma appealed against the verdict in the Lahore High Court, extremists attacked her car in the court premises. Fortunately, she was not in it and her driver escaped with his life.


In another, more frightening, incident soon afterwards, armed men broke into Asma’s mother’s house. One of the intruders panicked when his gun jammed as he pointed it at Asma’s sister-in-law and tried to fire with her two children looking on. As police guards arrived, the intruders fled leaving behind a car that turned out to be stolen. After they were caught, Asma went to see them in the police station. She said later that they seemed surprised that she was not the demon they had been led to believe. Basically, she said, “They were pawns in the hands of powerful people, leaders of sectarian groups who sowed the seeds of hatred in young minds.” Subsequently, she sent her children to boarding schools abroad for their safety. She missed them terribly, but never considered changing her path.


Another ground-breaking case she took on soon afterwards was the “Saima Waheed Love Marriage Case,” as the press dubbed it. With the winds of change sweeping across Pakistan, human rights and women’s rights discourse were gaining ground. Among the young people from all kinds of backgrounds who were increasingly breaking traditions was Saima Waheed Ropri, daughter of a well-known religious leader. In 1997, the 22-year old business administration graduate secretly married her brother’s mathematics tutor, but remained at her father’s house, hoping to bring her family around to her choice. Instead, they arranged her marriage to another man.


Disguised in a burqa, Saima scaled the wall of her family house and caught a taxi to Asma’s legal aid cell, AGHS. She may not have known that this was Pakistan’s first all-women law firm founded in 1980 by Asma, with her younger sister Hina and their friends Gul Rukh and Shehla Zia (named for their initials, AGHS). But, she knew there was someone there called Asma Jahangir who helped women.


Asma took on the case not because Saima’s father was a religious figure, but because she could not refuse to help a young woman who was exercising her right to marry of her own choice. She sent Saima to live at Dastak, the shelter house for women run by AGHS.


The case led to a frenzied debate in Pakistan about the right of an adult Muslim woman to marry of her own choice. The propaganda machine against Asma went into full swing. She corrupted innocent young Saima, said her detractors, pointing to Saima’s new haircut, a bob, and the jeans instead of the traditional salwar and the kurta she wore to court.


“I used to wear jeans at home too, but my father never saw that,” Saima told me smilingly, enjoying the attention. The haircut was the work of another woman at Dastak. Asma had nothing to do with that either. The confrontation between father and daughter exposed the clash of old and new values in a traditional society in the throes of change, especially in urban areas.


Independent Spirit


Asma herself was surprisingly conventional in certain matters. I only ever saw her wear kurta salwar (or straight trousers when they were in fashion) with a dupatta. Although she had married for love, she upheld traditional family values and was a caring wife and devoted mother. Her husband and his family were supportive of her too, but credit also goes to Asma for how she negotiated the joint family. An adoring grandmother to the daughters of her two younger children, she was anxious about her eldest, a television journalist, who was not “settling down.” The happiest I saw Asma was at Munizae’s wedding in March 2017. I knew she wanted Munizae to start a family. She had encouraged me to have a baby too. “Bache pal jatey hain,” she would say, dismissing my concerns that as a working journalist I would not be able to manage it.


However, unlike her detractors who acted in the name of tradition, Asma never imposed her choices, nor used violence or the threat of violence. She was fiercely protective of her children, but respected their autonomy as adult individuals to make their own decisions.


Also, contrary to the propaganda against her, Asma was not against religion. She was against religion being used to exploit people and being misused for motives related to power and the status quo.


Having recently taken to Twitter, she had over 7,50,000 followers. She did not tweet often, but when she did, it was worth paying attention to. She did not waste her energy on responding to the abuses and lies against her, focusing on the causes she was fighting for. When she made a pithy, barbed comeback, it was to set the record straight. She was strategic in how she took on her detractors in terms of language and how she framed criticisms.


Yes, there are other human rights and women’s rights activists and fighters in Pakistan. Yes, Asma had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and family, and she did not act alone. But, this petite woman who emerged as a “human rights giant,” to quote the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, was uniquely Asma.


She is irreplaceable, even though others will carry on the fight. We see this in the 8 March Women’s Day “aurat marches” in cities across Pakistan, in the legal aid cells and human rights and peace initiatives Asma started, as well as others who were inspired by these ventures. In all this, and in so much more, Asma lives on, as an inspiration and a source of strength.




BBC World Service (2018): “The Life and Loves of Asma Jahangir,” 12 February, audio, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05xxwb1.

Hamdani, Yasser Latif (2018): “The Asma Moment,” Daily Times, 19 February, https://dailytimes.com.pk/204452/the-asma-moment/.

Imran, Mohammad (2018): “Declaration of Faith Compulsory Before Joining Civil, Armed

Services and Judiciary: Islamabad High Court,” Dawn, 9 March, https://www.dawn.com/news/1394175.

Maqsood, Faizan (2018): “i k_38(2),” 11 February, Dailymotion video, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6elfnv.

NPR (2011): “Criticizing Pakistan’s Military: Dangerous, As Is Life,” National Public Radio, 31 May, https://www.npr.org/2011/05/31/136800669/criticizing-pakistan-military-dangerous-as-is-life.

Rehman, I A (2018): “How She Became Asma,” Dawn, 15 February, https://www.dawn.com/news/1389434.

Sarwar, Beena (2011): “Pakistan Army Should Butt Out of Politics: Asma Jahangir Says It like It Is,” Journeys to Democracy, 30 May, https://beenasarwar.com/2011/05/30/pakistan-army-should-butt-out-of-politics-asma-jahangir-says-it-like-it-is/.

Tehelka vids (2017): “Asma Jahangir on the Judge Who Banned Valentine’s Day,” 15 February, Dailymotion video, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5bvt0n.


Beena Sarwar (beena.sarwar@amankiasha.com) is a journalist, editor, and rights activist from Pakistan who teaches journalism in the United States.



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