February 27, 2018
Wilberforce A!lert: Remembering Asma Jahangir — Courageous advocate and defender of dignity
On February 11, Pakistan and the world lost a formidable human rights champion with the untimely death of Asma Jahangir. The 66-year-old lawyer, known by many as the “voice of the voiceless,” died suddenly of cardiac arrest in Lahore, Pakistan. Hailed as the social conscience of Pakistan, Asma was viewed as an activist with an indomitable will. Her death comes “at a time when her country needed her most,” wrote Amnesty International’s Omar Waraich.
Asma may not have fit the stereotype of a stalwart defender of human rights and religious freedom, yet this determined woman—small in stature but mighty in spirit—proved fearless in her pursuit of justice.
London-based Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin lauded Asma as a legal watchdog who “patrolled the rights of secular liberals, religious minorities, the politically disenfranchised, wronged women, abused children; she even fought for the constitutional rights of the very same religious extremists and hard-right nationalists who would have had her silenced.”
Born into a Pakistani Muslim family, Asma was educated in a Catholic school like her mother. She became active in politics as a young woman, advocating at age 18 on behalf of her own father, who was detained as a political prisoner by then-president Yahya Khan. In 1978 Asma, her sister, and several other female lawyers formed Pakistan’s first woman-run firm. In 1987 she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and in 2010 she became the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan.
Asma held several positions at the UN, including that of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2004 to 2010, and most recently until her death, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran.
Although Asma worked for the rights of individuals around the world, her primary devotion was to her home country of Pakistan. In a country whose blasphemy laws are some of the harshest in the world and where those who speak in defense of the accused are frequently intimidated (including Asma) or killed by mobs, Asma worked tirelessly to confront this evil. She sought to bring dignity to the poor, weak, and disenfranchised. “Human rights is not a job,” she said. “It is a conviction.”
One of Asma’s most notable cases involved an 11-year-old Christian boy accused of blasphemy. Farahnaz Ispahani, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recounts the story: “Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both of them from the Lahore High Court in 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who gave the decision, was assassinated in the chambers of the Lahore High Court in 1997. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.”
Religious minorities, women, children, and those who hunger for human dignity in Pakistan have lost a powerful voice with the passing of Asma Jahangir. Yet her legacy remains, vibrant and lasting. It is our hope that her life’s work and devotion will energize and inspire a new generation of leaders.
Abigail Berg, Director of Government Relations
- Listen to Asma in her own words in this interview with New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof
- Learn more about the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan; read Farahnaz Ispahani’s book, Purifying the Land of the Pure
- Sign the petition to free Asia Bibi, a Christian woman imprisoned since 2009 and sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan
[Photo credit: KM Chaudary/AP]