Asma is dead – long live Asma!
One of the greatest champions of human rights, equality, empowerment of citizens and sovereignty of constitutionalism that Pakistan has ever produced – Asma Jahangir – is no more. Considering that the story of Pakistan is a story of an unfinished battle for the rights and dignity of people, her loss is tantamount to a body-blow for Pakistan’s persecuted classes.
The battle for the supremacy of fundamental human rights and justice in Pakistan has had several stalwarts in its ranks over the decades. But the greatest symbols of resistance against forces of darkness in our times in Pakistan – and also the greatest symbols of progress and positivity – are, amazingly, all women: Benazir Bhutto, Asma Jahangir and Malala Yousafzai. Now the country has lost two. Benazir was assassinated for her fight against extremism in 2007 and Asma has now been felled by fate. Malala is too young to fight physical battles inside the country as has her illustrious predecessors did. For now the tens of millions of people for whom she symbolizes hope will have to contend with just her exiled but spirited advocacy as a fighter-in-the-making.
There are some veterans still in the field, of course, such as I A Rehman, Farhatullah Babar, Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, etc., but the fact that one struggles to list people who volunteer to battle for the public, and who are willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of their progressive ideologies beyond only words, there is discernible a pall of gloom descending on our beloved but blighted land.
Asma was extraordinary is every sense. She did not become a symbol of hope for the underdogs and an icon of resistance for the oppressed by just sitting at home and accepting her fate. She was just 21 when military dictator Yahya jailed her father for opposing the military operation in East Pakistan. When no lawyer was courageous enough to defend him, she herself became his lawyer at the Supreme Court and won the case. She did not stop at that. In a milieu of fear and cowardice, she pursued a case against military dictatorship and got it declared unconstitutional by the apex court.
She thus won both a personal case and one for the people. But this was merely the beginning of an illustrious career not just as a lawyer but as a champion of rights. In 1983 when young Safia Bibi was prosecuted against by military dictator Zia’s courts for adultery for failing to produce four witnesses to her rape and pregnancy, it was Asma who voluntarily fought her case and saved her. This was also a legal victory against a dictator’s twisted manipulation of religion for personal interests. It was in these years that Asma was at the forefront of taking out protest rallies against dictatorship when even many men daren’t do so. She also co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that to this day remains the premier watchdog of human rights in a country that has never cared for them.
In 1993 Asma was the only one to come forward to volunteer to defend the 14-year-old Salamat Masih who had been awarded the death penalty for alleged blasphemy and managed to get the capital punishment overturned. It was Asma again who took up a case to overturn the law that prevented the right of women to marry of their own accord without the necessity of her guardians’ hitherto mandatory permission. Such was her grounding and predilection for justice and rule of law that in an interview with BBC’s Tim Sebastian she argued for the right to fair trial of militants charged with terrorism. She also opposed military courts arguing the same right to free trial of every accused. She tirelessly championed for missing persons and their families and campaigned for a legal recourse for any wrongdoing they may be suspected of by a suspicious State.
Asma not only opposed and fought the dictatorships of Ayub, Yayha, Zia and Musharraf, she also fiercely opposed the democratic governments of Bhutto, her personal friend Benazir, and Sharif. And now she is tragically dead at the age of only 66, leaving still formidable battles for justice and rights law unfinished.
Perhaps the biggest political battle of Pakistan encompasses a fight to sew eternal truths into its mission statement – the Constitution – and everyday practice that the rest of the world had already enumerated on December 10, 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pakistan is a signatory to this but in concept only. Eighty years later it is still unable to practice what it endorses. After some decades of non-legal discrimination among its citizens on the basis of faith, the country’s parliament on September 7, 1974 amended its constitution to declare Ahmedis non-Muslims, thereby instituting a legal framework to discriminate among its citizens on the basis of faith. This is ironical considering that the movement for Pakistan was premised on fighting discrimination on the basis of religion!
Such battles require several Asmas but the only Asma we had has gone down fighting. And yet while Asma may be dead but the idea of Asma in a muddled Pakistan still to institutionalize human rights, justice and emancipation of all, still lives. While that may be so, the immediate task before the progressives of Pakistan is to organize themselves better to keep the fight for human rights and justice aflame.
About the author: Adnan Rehmat is an Islamabad-based political analyst and media development practitioner.