A voice falls silent

In Asma Jehangir we have lost an extraordinary individual known for courage and resilience

Nighat Hafiz
Srinagar, Publish Date: Feb 19 2018 10:03PM | Updated Date: Feb 19 2018 10:03PM
A voice falls silent

“People have a resilience to overcome conflict situations, to overcome great difficulties, to build confidence between themselves.” Asma Jahangir

I was a girl when I realized that I belonged to a gender considered weak and vulnerable and was given less importance. Except in a few groups and families, they suffered a discriminative approach adopted by the society at large. They were considered as inferior, men dominating them with power and force even if they worked harder than them. Women would face a lot of challenges with less access to any type of autonomy. Their social freedom was limited to more and more domestic responsibilities, reducing their roles to childbearing and child rearing practices only.  Awareness about gender parity and rights of women were less heard of and in some acute situations, women were victims of cruelty that went unnoticed and ignored due to the decades of patriarchy; the root cause for their plight. Not that they have overcome all the obstacles but there is a prodigal shift because they have started struggling for their rights and entitlement, making  the world aware about gender- based violence and discrimination that they suffer as a routine.  

“Every great soul murmurs positive power with lots of energy and force, some people just wins others win with indelible style.” Asma Jahangir with all controversial shades stamped ruthlessly on her persona, was able to win with indelible style. A legal defender of vulnerable women and minorities, she was a high esteemed personality with a tremendous power to perform with courage, keeping her excellence and brilliant in shape while facing all odd and even situations that needed courage of iron and steel.  An icon, who took everything in her stride to become a leading human rights activist, she managed to carve a niche in a highly Mullah and military dominated country that often labeled her a traitor and an opportunist who could sell her country for money and status.

Asma had inherited potential to deal with challenges that involved danger and courage. Born in an affluent and politically mobile family, she had a history of activism in a home that was associated with events and occurrences in the then East Pakistan. Malik Ghulam Jilani, her father entered politics after his retirement as a civil servant.  Free from his civil commitments, Malik decided to take a challenge to oppose military dictatorship that had engulfed Pakistan; he raised his voice as high as to bring him confinement and was put behind the bars on many occasions for his activities that went against the military regime. Expressing his concerns about West Pakistan that became Bangla Desh later, he started working against the establishment. The worst came when he categorically denounced military genocide that took place during the war in East Pakistan, in the process, he was imprisoned by the then President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1972. Malik’s detention and imprisonment became a turning point for Asma Jahangir’s thirst for activism.  Her mother, Sabiha Jilani after bearing the brunt of family land confiscation on charges of her husband involvement with the activities contrary to the security of the country, too turned to activism, both parents exerted tremendous influence on Asma’s personality, she became an active force at a young age with her protests against her father’s detention by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and against military and other regimes that had become hurdles in the way to make Pakistan a democratic state. Writes Marvi Sirmed,“Those were the years following Ziaul Haque’s martial law. Then in early 1980s, my mother took me with her to a demonstration where a lot of people were raising slogans [I later learned it was a women’s protest against Zia-ul-Haque’s Qanun-e-Shahadat]. Raising slogans at the top of her orotund and penetrating voice that five feet something woman caught my attention. That was my first introduction to the gusty courageous woman that Asma Jahangir was.”

From there she emerged as a strong democracy activist and started her struggle as a strong feminine hero that spent her career defending human rights, sometimes for women and children and at times for saving the rights of minorities in Pakistan.  She helped to found the human rights commission in Pakistan motivating fellow layers and activists to join in her revolutionary act. Together they worked for injustices in their society. They raised a voice against the atrocities done on women, the women who were victims of rape and who had to prove their innocence or else face imprisonment; for people who faced death sentence by stoning for blasphemous statements. She worked with zest and brave heart and fearlessly achieved many higher positions starting from founding member of Human Rights Commission, Secretary –General and Chairperson, and reaching as high as serving as  United Nations’ Special Rapporteur of the commission on human rights; she was elected as the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, won many awards and honors for her dedication and for taking very serious and complicated cases and winning them through and through with technically correct arguments. 

She won Sweden’s alternative to the Nobel Prize for her decades of hard work and her dedication to the cause. Her courage and willpower were unmatched, braving death threats, beatings, imprisonment and a constant vigil from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] for her tilt and liking for the country in her neighborhood.

 “However, it would be very difficult for people with sharp memory to forget her suspicious meetings in India with the radical leaders like Bal Thackeray whom she met while wearing a specially tailored saffron suit, a color perfectly matching Bali’s dress. Though Thackeray was not the only one whom she met, the question is how long her anti-Pakistan activities would be tolerated by the government and she would be allowed to continue her mud slugging game against the sacred institutions of the country.” Writes Roohi Wanchoo.

Incredibly courageous women of conscience of Pakistan died of a cardiac arrest, leaving a legacy of women empowerment for her gender- similarity. She was not keeping well for some time, and suffering from cancer had remained under treatment for years. Her opponents, critics, and her friends mourned her death alike, leveling all controversies. Condolences poured in from all over the world and Asma Jahangir was offered a state funeral with the national flag of Pakistan flown half-mast on the day she was laid to rest.