Asma Jilani Jahangir was an eminent lawyer and activist, who fought for the rights of women, children and religious minorities in Pakistan and co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Asma was born in Lahore, Pakistan, on 27th January 1952. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani was a civil servant and politician who spent many years in jail for opposing the military dictatorship and denouncing the genocide in what is now Bangladesh. Her mother, Begum Sabiha Jilani was a businesswoman who pioneered her own clothing business.
Asma’s involvement in politics rooted back to her youth, where she became involved in protests against the military regime. After graduating with a B.A. and law degree from Kinnaird College, Lahore in 1978, she received an LLB from Punjab University in 1978. In 1980, she was called to the Lahore High Court, and in 1982 to the Supreme Court. Asma and her sister Hina Jilani, along with others, founded the first law firm established by women in Pakistan.
Asma was a staunch defender of vulnerable women and girls. In 1983, she represented Safia Bibi. Safia was a blind 13-year-old girl who had been raped by her employers and had fallen pregnant but had been charged with fornication and sentenced to flogging, 3 years imprisonment and a fine. Eventually, the case was successfully overruled on appeal.
In the 1980s, Asma became a prominent activist for democracy, forming the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) with her sister in 1981, which campaigned against Pakistan’s discriminatory legislation. She criticised the Hudood Ordinance and blasphemy laws, which added new criminal offences of adultery and made it difficult to prove accusations of rape. Consequently, women who came forward were being arrested for adultery themselves. Asma participated in a protest in 1983 against the proposed law of evidence stipulating that the value of a woman’s testimony was half that of a man. During the protest, Asma and others were tear-gassed, beaten by the police, and jailed.
Undeterred, Asma continued to campaign for human rights and her work started to gain global recognition for fairness and defending the most underprivileged. Along with her sister Hina Jilani, she set up the AGHS Legal Aid in 1986, the first free legal aid centre in Pakistan. In 1987, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation which promotes human rights and tracks violations. She later became its chairperson.
A fervent critic of religious intolerance, she was concerned by the politicisation of religion, saying in a lecture at LSE in 2017 “the law itself can become an instrument of persecution” when religion is brought into legislation, citing the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Asma and her family received numerous death threats throughout her career because of her work defending the most vulnerable and campaigning for human rights. In 1995, after winning a case at the Supreme Court a mob assaulted her, smashed her car and threatened her with death. In May 2005, Asma announced a mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise awareness of violence against women. Islamist groups violently opposed the race, and local police began to beat participants and stripped off Asma’s clothes in public, which she interpreted as an effort to humiliate her.
Asma served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions from 1998 to 2004, and as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief 2004 to 2010. She also became Pakistan’s first woman to serve as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association from 2010 – 2012. In 2016 she was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran.
Sadly, Asma died on the 11th February 2018 aged 66. She will be remembered for her unwavering defence of women’s rights and liberal democratic values in the face of challenging opposition.
Written by Rosana Siddique, a third-year law student at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.