For defending, protecting and promoting human rights in Pakistan and more widely, often in very difficult and complex situations and at great personal risk.
Asma Jahangir (1952-2018) was Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer. For three decades, she showed incredible courage in defending the most vulnerable Pakistanis – women, children, religious minorities and the poor. She made history when she was elected the first female President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan in 2010.
Jahangir was one of the co-founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent NGO established in 1986. Over the years, she served as both Secretary-General and Chairperson of the organisation, promoting and defending human rights in Pakistan over more than three decades. The Commission has taken up contentious issues, including violence against women, honour-killing, abolishing capital punishment and religious violence.
For her relentless campaigning against laws that discriminate against women and for continuously speaking truth to power, Jahangir was threatened, assaulted in public and placed under house arrest. Besides her work in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir has promoted human rights internationally through her long service with the United Nations. She died of a heart attack at the age of 66 but remains a great source of inspiration for human rights defenders beyond Pakistani borders.
Asma Jahangir's early life
Born into a politically active family, Asma Jahangir's activism began at a young age when she protested against the military government for detaining her father for opposing dictatorship. Campaigning against discriminatory laws and defending the disadvantaged in 1980, Jahangir and three fellow women lawyers got together to form AGHS Law Associates, the first law firm established by women in Pakistan. In 1981, Jahangir supported the Women's Action Forum (WAF), a group that began campaigning against Pakistani laws that discriminated women, most notably against the proposed Law of Evidence, where the value of a woman's testimony would be reduced to half that of a man's testimony, and the Hudood Ordinances, where victims of rape had to prove their innocence or else face punishment themselves. In 1983, Jahangir led a protest march in Lahore against a decision by then-President Zia-al Haq to enforce religious laws.
While protesting against the draft Law of Evidence in 1983, Jahangir and others were beaten, tear-gassed and arrested by the police. Undaunted, in the same year, Jahangir protested against a judgment where a blind, 13-year-old girl, who her employers had raped, had been accused of zina (fornication) and had been sentenced to three years of imprisonment and flogging. Following the protests, the verdict was overturned. Subsequently, Jahangir was placed under house arrest and then imprisoned for opposing Zia's Islamisation policy.
As Pakistan lacks a national human rights institution, Jahangir was one of the co-founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent NGO, which was established in 1986. She served as both Secretary General and Chairperson of this preeminent institution, promoting and defending human rights in Pakistan and monitoring human rights violations. The Commission has taken up contentious issues, including violence against women, honour-killing, abolishing capital punishment and religious violence.
Jahangir was a strong proponent of protecting the rights of persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan and spoke out against forced conversions. In 1995, after she defended a 14-year old Christian boy – Salamat Masih, accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death – a mob outside the Lahore High Court smashed her car window and assaulted her driver. Jahangir and her family have been attacked, taken hostage, had their home broken into and received death threats ever since. Jahangir and her team continued to work on the case, and Salamat Masih was acquitted.
Providing free legal aid and advancing women's rights
Since 1986, Jahangir and her associates at AGHS' Legal Aid Cell have taken on several cases involving women, children and bonded labourers. It also established a shelter for women called 'Dastak'. Dastak is now an independent trust run jointly by civil society organisations in Pakistan.
In 1996, the Lahore High Court ruled that an adult Muslim woman could not get married without the consent of her male guardian. Women who chose their husbands independently could be forced to annul their marriages, and Jahangir, who frequently took on such cases, highlighted the repercussions. She has secured the release from prison of several women accused of adultery or "immoral" sexual behaviour.
In 1999, Jahangir took up the case of Saima Sarwar, who was given shelter at Dastak after leaving her husband and seeking a divorce. Sarwar was subsequently murdered in an act of honour-killing in Jahangir's offices, highlighting the immense risks involved in taking on these sorts of cases in Pakistan.
In May 2005, Jahangir helped to organise a symbolic mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise awareness about violence against sportswomen by religious extremists. Islamist groups armed with firearms, batons and Molotov cocktails violently opposed the event and Jahangir was publicly beaten, stripped and detained by the police.
In November 2007, Asma Jahangir was one of 500 lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists detained when President Musharaff declared a state of emergency. She remained under house arrest for three months.
International work and other achievements
Besides her work in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir has promoted human rights internationally through her long service with the United Nations. She was UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions from 1998 to 2004, and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief from 2004 to 2010.
Jahangir has authored two books: Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan. She has received numerous awards including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the Ramon Magsaysay Award, both in 1995, and the coveted Hilal-i-Imtiaz – the second-highest civilian award and honour given by the Government of Pakistan – in 2010. Her election evidences the esteem in which Asma Jahangir was held among her fellow lawyers in Pakistan as the first female President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, the apex body of lawyers in Pakistan, in 2010.