LAHORE: Just a few days before her sudden death, Asma Jehangir spoke at the Pashtun protest in Islamabad. Speaking to the crowd, none could have imagined how ill she was, and nor did she feel it was necessary to mention it to anyone.
After all, she had no time for such things; she was much too busy living one of the most consequential lives lived in Pakistan. A woman of incredible foresight with seemingly unending capabilities, there was no point in her life where one can say she was not in the thick of it.
Her sudden passing at the age of 66 has left the country shocked and her admirers rattled. Her significance would have been enough to warrant much grief if she had just been the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, but the life she lived proved to be so much more than that simple accolade.
And that is the one thing which one realises when speaking of Asma Jehangir, that whichever of her achievements you try to frame as her crowning one, there will always be so much more.
A stalwart liberal, Asma Jehangir is one of the few names on that side of the political aisle that brought with it serious weight. In a country like Pakistan, few can claim to be democrats through and through. Even the most hardened of anti-establishment figures have had their dalliances, but Asma Jehangir was pure of any such taint. Her word on all issues was taken seriously. Agree with her or not, everybody took her seriously.
That she suffered in the process of her activism is no secret. Yet nothing stopped her. Fearless in expressing her opinions, Asma Jehangir was a woman that did not shy away from taking to the streets, and asserting herself as the democrat she was throughout her life.
Perhaps one of the lasting images of her life will be the picture of her staring down a riot cop, eyes wide open, in outrage during a lawyer’s protest during the Zia era. In her lifetime she faced house arrest, jail, and much more. As a woman that rose so high in the cut-throat world of law, there is little reason to doubt that her strong will and authority came from a lifetime of struggle.
Her role as a human rights lawyer is something which merits discussion on its own. Not only did she co-found the Humans Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987, she served as its secretary general until 1993 when she was elevated to the chairperson of the forum.
While her constant activism in political issues and her unabashed criticisms of state institutions are what kept her in the public eye more than anything else, her keen interest in social issues and her crusade for women through the Women’s Action Forum she formed along with her sister Hina Jilani proved her mettle.
To say that it was the WAF which has fueled the campaign against discriminatory legislation in Pakistan would indeed be an understatement. It was her actions as a hands-on-lawyer which ingrained her in the hearts of social activists as one of the few people fighting the good fight against honour killings, rape, and domestic abuse.
Another horrific image of her career must have been the cold-blooded honour killing of one of her clients in her very own office. But the event which would have led many away from such a difficult calling, Asma Jehangir went to work the next day to fight for her slain client.
Which is why Asma Jehangir’s life was such an important one. A life well lived. A life of consequence. A life worth mourning.