The World

Pakistan Has Lost Its Moral Leader

Asma Jahangir wasn’t a politician, but she was the country’s most formidable force for good.

Asma Jahangir.
Pakistani human rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Asma Jahangir in Lahore, Pakistan, on Oct. 4, 2014.
Arif Ali/Getty Images

On Sunday, Pakistan’s greatest champion of human rights, democracy, and equality—Asma Jahangir—died in Lahore, at age 66, from a heart attack. She leaves behind her husband, three children, and a country that became fairer and more decent because of her work. Jahangir challenged military dictators, lambasted Islamist extremist groups, protected women’s rights, helped to found and lead the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and put herself at great risk by defending her country’s besieged minorities. She accomplished all this with her fearless voice and a dedication to the hard, practical work of politics and the law.

Jahangir came from a wealthy family in Punjab, and was only 6 when Pakistan faced its first coup, in 1958. Her father, a civil servant, decided to oppose the new military regime; he was arrested, for the first time, three years later, and his life was continually in danger. Jahangir’s response was precisely not to be cowed into believing that activism in a country like Pakistan is best undertaken hesitantly and intermittently; instead she was inspired to become an activist and human rights champion herself. By her late teens, she was demonstrating against the same dictator who had imprisoned her father and in favor of women’s rights. When she was 18, after her father had been arrested again, she even filed a petition to the Lahore High Court seeking his release. It was unsuccessful, but after she appealed to the Supreme Court, the martial law that had led to her father’s arrest was declared illegal.

The next decade, the 1970s, was Pakistan’s most turbulent, and by the time it was over, the country had lost half its population; East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh and the remaining western “wing” was ruled over by another brutal dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. Jahangir again chose to act, this time by studying law, and in 1980, she opened the first legal-aid center in Pakistan. (All the lawyers were women.) Over the next decade, she went to prison for contesting Zia’s misogynistic laws, and gave voice and legal support to victims of sexual assault. Zia’s Hudood ordinances, which he pushed through in his Islamicization drive, left women vulnerable to punishment for adultery (if, say, they were raped) and other sexual behavior. Jahangir bravely opposed them and took up a key case that helped ensure that adult women did not require a guardian’s approval to marry.

It’s easy, when going through Jahangir’s career, to feel like you are reading or typing an endless list of causes, achievements, and struggles. But the breadth of the battles she engaged in and causes she upheld are integral to understanding what was important to her and why she was so important to Pakistan. Like many heroic lawyers the world over, she often grounded her activism in the earthy realities of procedure; she fought for clients, trying to assure that they would have access to a fair trial, and she attempted to enunciate both why Pakistan would be better off if everyone had recourse to the law and why many of the laws should be more equitable. In 2007, she was placed under house arrest for her role in the so-called lawyer’s movement, which helped end Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. Jahangir viewed her legal career as something that could help individual people and could lead to large-scale societal change. She eventually became president of the country’s Supreme Court Bar Association.

A friend related to me that when he and someone else were facing tear gas and the prospect of arrest during that same 2007 crisis, their thoughts immediately turned to getting Jahangir’s help if anything bad happened to them, or they were arrested. It was also Jahangir whom abused women were known to mention to their husbands, as if to say, “You keep this up, and I will go to Asma.” If she couldn’t help everyone, she at least gave the less fortunate—too often women—hope that there was someone out there standing up for them. That this same woman was willing to stand up to dictators and Islamist radicals—in a country where Christians and Muslim minorities face severe threats—is part of what made her so formidable.

While her death is a reminder of the ways Pakistan is not yet the country she fought for, her attachment to the place was profound. She refused to leave the country when she was in danger, and yet she also never let her commitment to Pakistan blind her to its flaws; the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, she explained, would continue its focus on outrages in the country, even though turning the spotlight on other countries, like India, would have eased the nationalist pressure and cries of treason that she faced.

Her death occasioned a number of tributes from across the Pakistani political scene, proving once again that spineless, shameless politicians will always try to appropriate names or causes that they would never have stood up for in the heat of political battle. (The death of Martin Luther King Jr. had the same effect on the American political scene.) But don’t let the universal acclaim today mislead: Jahangir championed causes and people that few others would. And when they did, they often ended up like the former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated seven years ago for speaking out against the country’s blasphemy law. Jahangir was not blind to the flaws of the civilian politicians who today have celebrated her, but she understood that civilian supremacy—rather than military rule—was a necessary condition for Pakistan to flourish. “However flawed democracy here is,” she once told the New Yorker, “it is still the only answer.”

Jahangir’s leadership was unique, but she was not fighting alone. It was impossible to meet anyone in the Pakistani activist or journalist community who did not have a story about her supporting their cause, pushing for their release from prison, or helping out a friend or relative. One journalist recounted to me the story of Jahangir reaching out after seeing her television report in order to offer aid to the person who had been profiled; it was, she told me, “one of the only moments where I felt I’d made a difference.” Many Pakistanis—especially liberal or secular ones—often speak of politics with a practiced, amusing cynicism. That was never the case when anyone brought up Jahangir; she was spoken of reverently, with real awe. She must have had to make compromises in her life—as everyone does, especially if you want to get things done in a country like Pakistan—but she appeared as unsullied by hypocrisy as humanly possible.

And yet, if Jahangir occasionally seemed to have a saintly glow, she was also biting and funny in public—just see her Twitter feed—and would get down in the muck with her adversaries. Heroes sometimes take the guise of apparitions, or seem unwilling to get their hands too dirty. She was the opposite. There was nothing she wouldn’t push for. The amount of good work and courage she showed should make us all wince a little bit, because it is an uncomfortable reminder that we could all be doing a little more to make our countries better and fairer. How fortunate we are to live among people who will never stop fighting—at least until they are lost to us, much too soon.