She was indispensable

Moni Mohsin in the Guardian on Asma Jahangir:

Looking through social media I am not surprised by the number of tributes to her, but by the fact that they come from her detractors as well as her supporters. The conservatives who branded her a traitor until last week are now acknowledging her courage. Whether that is out of political expediency or genuine feeling I cannot say. But for the besieged liberal community and the religious minorities of Pakistan, she was indispensable. When plainclothes security men barrelled into my sister’s home one night in 1999, dragging away my journalist brother-in-law at gunpoint, the first person she called was Asma. That’s how it was. If you wanted someone in your corner, you called Asma. And she would respond at once.

When I heard the news of her death, my first thought, regrettably, was for myself: “Who will have our backs now?” I was not the only one. A legal watchdog and a political fighter, Jahangir 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.

She began her legal career as a family lawyer. In 1980, along with her sister Hina Jilani and two friends, she set up a firm specialising in divorce, maintenance payments and custodial cases. It was her work with women that brought her to politics. She realised early on that while it was important to fight for oppressed individuals, what was needed was institutional reform and societal change. So when Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s third military dictator, amended the constitution to discriminate against women and religious minorities under the guise of an Islamising agenda, Jahangir publicly challenged his ordinance, questioning its moral underpinnings. He was a brutal dictator with a taste for public floggings who responded by slapping a blasphemy case against her, yet she did not shy away from the fight. Many years later, she wrote: “We may fight terrorism through brute force, but the terror that is unleashed in the name of religion can only be challenged through moral courage.”

Terry Gross interviewed her in 2001.

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