When I was told of the death of Asma Jahangir I thought that she may have been assassinated. On February 11, 2018, she collapsed while on a telephone call and died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. She has left behind her husband, two daughters and a son.
Born in 1952 into a Muslim family and raised in Lahore, Asma attended the Convent School of Jesus and Mary. Later she received her bachelors’ degree from Kinnaird College with further studies from Punjab University. During the 1980’s she became a pro-democracy activist and was imprisoned by the military regime of Zia-ul Haq. Some years later Asma was placed under house arrest by another military dictator, Pervez Musharaf.
Asma co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987 and in the early 80’s The Women's Action Forum. She was the U.N. Special Reporter on Freedom of Religion from 2004 until 2010, as well as serving on the U.N. panel for inquiry into Sri Lankan human rights violations and on a fact finding mission on Israeli Settlements.
Though short in stature, Asma stood tall against the powerful bigots who were her biggest opponents. They were scared of her. Her relentless fight for justice and for the rights of the people made those in power uneasy. Her fearlessness made them shudder and her quest for regional peace earned her the wrath of the war mongers. Asma was the conscience of the nation. She was an iconic lawyer, activist, valiant and brave champion of human rights and stood undaunted in the face of extreme pressure often shrugging off death threats. Friends, colleagues among the law community, intellectuals, minorities, politicians, civil society members and her many admirers were in a state of shock and disbelief on hearing of her sudden death.
Columbans in Pakistan had the utmost respect for Asma and found her to be an inspiration. We had active support and solidarity from her in issues of bonded and enslaved labor. She was a pro-active advocate in the movement to put an end to bonded enslavement of brick kiln workers in the Punjab. Columbans were on mission in Sheikhupura Parish for many years where many parishioners struggled to make a living under the very oppressive Peshgi system operating in the brick kilns. This system operating as a cash advance that very poor laborers would have to take from the brick kiln owner to supplement their meager earnings or for an emergency, such as medical attention for a family member. This would send the laborer into further debt with the owner having more control over them. Working in a brick kiln factory in many ways could be compared like being in a prison from which there is no escape. The majority are illiterate and under this Peshgi system brick makers became lifelong debtors whose descendants had to continue to pay off the debts.
As a leader in the Human Rights Commission Pakistan, she fought for the rights of bonded farm laborers in Sindh. In the late 1990s and early 2000s thousands of these poor people were freed from the clutches of feudal landlords. Many of these were rehabilitated on church land in Matli Parish, then run by Columbans. Asma herself visited Matli and interior Sindh on a number of occasions offering solidarity and support. On one occasion she donated money, having received it for an international award that she had won, and purchased land to rehabilitate freed laborers.
Her sudden death has jolted us and those who shared her vision in Pakistan and throughout the world. United Nations Secretary General, Antonia Guterres said that her passing away was “echoing within her native Pakistan and across the world. We have lost a Human Rights giant,” he declared. Asma was a torch bearer of human and minority rights, who put up huge resistance against intolerance and retrogressive elements of all kinds.
Friends recall her courageous defense as the “voice of the voiceless.” She took on dangerous cases that no other lawyer would touch such as the Christian man Salamat, who had been falsely accused of blasphemy. In 1985 she rattled the Ulema/Islamic scholars Council who were promoting anti blasphemy laws. She did not win that fight but suffered being vilified by them and others. She did make it a priority to defend victims of the blasphemy laws. Asma was a brave and outspoken woman who showed resistance to dictatorships and struggled for the restoration of democracy. She was a principled fearless yet kind woman who possessed a determination to confront evil, defend the vulnerable and insisted that Pakistan live up to its democratic, constitutional and secular foundations. She was an “iron lady” who had the aura of grit and determination to fight “tooth and nail” to champion the cause of oppressed women, children, bonded laborers, religious minorities, the disappeared, journalists, and confronted injustice wherever she encountered it. In her death the country may have lost its bravest soul and a fearless street fighter, but her legacy lives on.
In Pakistan the institutions of democracy are weak and the systems for protecting fundamental rights are under attack. Asma Jehangir fought the good fight till her last day. Darkness continues to sweep the country. New champions of democracy, human rights and human goodness need to follow the inspiration of Asma and rise to the struggle that she so gallantly lead.
Columban Fr. Dan O’Connor lives and works in Pakistan.