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Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Rangita de Silva de Alwis is Associate Dean of International Affairs, University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Global Adviser, UN SDG Fund
“No amount of pressure will deter me from representing women in distress. It has been my life’s mission. Till the last breath, I will stand by them.” -- Asma Jahangir ( 1952- 2018)
“We have lost a human rights giant”—UN Secretary-General António Guterres
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 15 2018 (IPS) - I first met Asma Jahangir, the champion of human rights in Pakistan, who died Sunday, as a teenager in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. In a friendship that spanned political upheavals and turbulent transitions in Pakistan and in Sri Lanka, to the War on Terror in the US, Asma remained my mentor and muse.
In a landmark petition, Jahangir challenged the legitimacy not just of her father’s detention but of Khan’s rule as well. In a watershed moment for Pakistan and South Asia, the Supreme Court ruled that Khan was an “usurper.” Asma learned to fight tyranny both in court and on the street. As a student, she was suspended from her convent school for scaling the walls of the Governor of Punjab to hoist a black flag to protest authoritarianism.
When the principal of her law school told her that as a married woman she could register in law school but would not be able to attend classes, she interpreted that to mean that she could still take the law exams. She had her unmarried friend enroll in law school and take notes for her.
Flouting conventions of the time that forbade women to work, Asma founded the first ever woman’s legal aid office with her sister Hina and two women friends. Her office in Lahore was pock marked with bullets from those who threatened to kill Asma and Hina for defending women from so called “ honor crimes,” women trying to divorce violent husbands, women trying to escape forced marriage, bonded laborers seeking freedom from their abusive landlords, child laborers, religious minorities facing death sentences under the blasphemy laws, and relatives of the forcibly disappeared.
Asma often spoke of Humaira Kakha and Samia Sarwar to show us that there was a human story behind the lawyering, a story of forced marriage and honor crimes, where women are sacrificed at the altar of their family’s so-called honor.
During General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year rule, which ended in 1988, Jahangir organized the first women’s movement in Pakistan– the Women’s Action Forum to challenge the military dictatorship and the Islamization of the law. The group protested in the streets against the Hudood Ordinance that saw women as second class citizens.
One of the first cases that Asma protested was that of Safia Bibi, a young blind woman who had been raped by her master’s son. Safia failed to fulfil the evidentiary requirements under the ordinance which called for four adult men of honorable character to serve as witnesses to the crime of Zina (rape ) in court.
Instead, Safia’s pregnancy due to the rape was considered proof of the crime of fornication under the Hudood Ordinance, and was sentenced to public lashing, imprisonment and fine.
Asma was not without critics, detractors and attackers. She faced death threats, assassination attempts, imprisonment, house arrest, police brutality and most of all ignorance, with stoic courage, puckish humor, and unflinching grace.
My students at Penn Law analyze an article from the Harvard Women’s Law Journal on the story of Muktharan Mai, the Pakistani woman who was gang raped as part of an honor crimes attack. In the article, the author quotes critics who liken Asma and her sister Hina to “Jeans wearing women” who are agents of the West.
Neither woman has ever worn a pair of jeans and both are critics of American exceptionalism and the sometimes perilous double standards of Western powers.
During the Mushraff years, Asma led women in a mixed gender marathon, jogging all the way in a salwar kameez.
The New York Times reported about the marathon in 2005: “The police beat the woman with batons in the full glare of the news media, tore her shirt off and, though they failed to take off her baggy trousers, certainly tried their best. The ritual public humiliation over, she and others – some bloodied – were dragged screaming and protesting to police vans and taken away to police stations. This didn’t happen to some unknown student or impoverished villager. This happened to Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country’s largest such nongovernmental group. The setting: a glitzy thoroughfare in Lahore’s upmarket Gulberg neighborhood. The crime: attempting to organize a symbolic mixed-gender mini-marathon on May 14. The stated aim of the marathon was to highlight violence against women.”
When the Mullah’s criticized the TV coverage of the “unsightly spectacle” of women running a marathon, Asma promptly advised them to shut off their TVs.
In the mid-1990s, when no one else would, Asma took up the case of Salamat Masih, a Christian teenager sentenced to death for blasphemy for allegedly scribbling grafiitii on a mosque’s wall. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become a trap for religious minorities. An accusation can be made on the basis of little or non-existent evidence.
Despite a campaign by extremist forces, Masih was ultimately acquitted on appeal. However, the decision ignited factional violence. Following the verdict, an armed gang charged into Asma’s brother’s house threatening the entire family. In 1997, two years after the acquittal, the judge was killed.
Much is written about Asma the lawyer, and international human rights defender, but Asma was first and foremost a friend, a friend of the powerless. In my visits to her elegant home in Lahore, my most vivid remembrance is of the throng of little children, the barefoot children of the small surrounding tenements, who would rush to her, hugging her, shyly murmuring words of endearment, hanging on to her with their tiny arms, and rubbing their dusty faces on her soft cotton shawl.
I worked with Asma in those liminal spaces between her endless missions at the highest levels of the United Nations, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Execution, Special Representative on Darfur, Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion, and her final UN assignment as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, but Pakistan always was her constant passion and focus. A love so fierce for country and her people, I have yet to witness in another.
A few days before her death, she spoke at Oxford in honor of her friend Benazir Bhutto’s tenth death anniversary. She was a champion of Bhutto, but told me that she refused Bhutto’s offers of high political office in order to remain independent of government patronage, to retain the right to challenge the politics of her friend.
As her mentee, I often feared her criticism, even when it was softened with tenderness, because she always spoke the truth. “Those who pursue perfection never do anything brave,” she would tell me. Asma on the other hand, relished the tumult of her work, the political miasma of the fight for democracy, the brave battles against injustice and impunity, and most of all, the relentless pursuit of the truth, until her last breath.
The Atlantic wrote a few days after her death that “Presidents and prime ministers decorated her with their highest civilian honors” and that Asma “was awarded three honorary doctorates.” One of the doctorates was from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016.
When President Amy Gutmann, President of Penn invited Asma to receive a honorary doctorate in law, it was a way of celebrating Asma’s courage, but also a way of using the university’s significant soft power diplomacy and moral authority to signal a strong message against authoritarian regimes and political tyrants who seek to muffle a hero’s voice.
When Asma spoke that enchanted early summer evening before commencement, in President Gutmann’s garden, she did not speak of the battles or the bullets, the politics or the power, but rather the sheer exhilarating spirit- soaring joy of her work in the frontlines of a women’s movement in an age of change.
A senior US diplomat in Pakistan once told me, “I shudder to think what would happen to Pakistan if something were to happen to Asma and her sister, Hina.” I replied, “But what would the world look like?”
While I continue to cherish Hina, who taught last year at Penn Law, the outpouring of tributes show that Asma has inspired a new generation of lawyers, policymakers, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
As a Penn Law student wrote to me on the evening of Asma’s death, “from Peshawar to Penn Law, women will fight to defend the marginalized because we were touched by Asma.”
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