A reputation for speaking truth to power

The Times on Asma Jahangir:

Ms. Jahangir, a human rights lawyer, had a reputation of speaking truth to power and defending the weak and the marginalized, women and minorities against injustice. She gained international acclaim for being the voice of conscience in a country where liberal, secular voices have been continuously under threat.

She was the founding chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, and was a trustee of the International Crisis Group. She won several local and international awards and served as the United Nations rapporteur on human rights and extrajudicial killings.

Ms. Jahangir never minced words while defending democracy and human rights, despite threats to her life, both from military dictators and militants. She championed the rights of religious minorities — especially those who were charged under the country’s blasphemy laws — and women and men killed in the name of honor.

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Sara Faruqi/Dawn

She got a law degree from Punjab University in Lahore in 1978.

Ms. Jahangir was exposed to politics and activism at an early age. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a civil servant and a left-wing politician who was frequently jailed for opposing military dictators. Ms. Jahangir initially appeared in court to represent her jailed father.

Her first foray into politics was in 1969, when she participated in a women’s march to the residence of the governor of Punjab and clashed with the police. In 1983, she was put under house arrest and later imprisoned when she campaigned for women’s rights and democracy during the rule of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

The military and right-wing nationalists hated her, especially because she advocated peace with India.

To many women in the country, Ms. Jahangir was an inspiration.

“Asma Jahangir was a voice of the oppressed and an icon of courage and valor,” said Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter and political heir of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “She endured so much but chose to be on the right side of history.”

Critics often questioned her focus on the country’s minorities and on women’s rights. She fended off such criticism as misplaced.

“Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India or against Rohingyas in Burma or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa. But obviously I am going to be more concerned of violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them,” Ms. Jahangir told Herald.

“And I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is butchered to death.”

Pakistan can’t afford to lose people like her – the world can’t afford to lose people like her.

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