Asma Jahangir’s sudden death has come as a shock to many of us. Not only because at 66 years she had many miles to go and many causes to serve. We have known her as a champion of democracy and human rights, defending the rights of women and speaking out courageously against authoritarian systems, in her own country as well as in the rest of South Asia.
Her strong defence of human rights was evident when, even as a student, she took up the legal defence for her father Malik Ghulam Jilani who was jailed by General Yahya Khan in 1971 for protesting the imprisonment of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. When others remained silent she spoke out against Ziaul Haq’s military rule. This led to her imprisonment in 1983, for her pro-democracy campaigns. Again in 2007 she was kept under house arrest for protesting the removal of the Supreme Court Chief Justice.
She also institutionalised her work for human rights. As a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, Asma took up cases in court and campaigned in public. She held the UN mandate as Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Killings from 1998 to 2004 and Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2004 to 2010.
I came to know Asma closely when we worked together with other human rights activists to form South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), which was dedicated to the promotion of human rights in South Asia. As the first co-chair of the organisation, Asma set high standards not only to create awareness of rights but for collective responses to state violations in the region. It was as a result of her leadership that SAHR was able to document cases of torture and custodial violence.
As a strong advocate of women’s rights she challenged the Hudood Ordinance in Pakistan and spoke out for women’s freedom and dignity in different forums. In Pakistan, Asma Jahangir secured a number of victories, from winning freedom for bonded labourers from their "owners" through pioneering litigation, to a landmark court case that allowed women to marry of their own volition.
During a visit to Dhaka she addressed a meeting of human rights activists and spoke out against Pakistan’s military action in Bangladesh in 1971. But her influence went beyond South Asia. As a member of the Asia Pacific Women and Law Network based in Chiang Mai, she inspired all of us in the struggle for women’s rights across Asia.
At the time of her death she was UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights in Iran. Although she was not given permission to pursue her mandate within the country, she collected evidence of human rights violations and documented these for her submission to the General Assembly.
We will remember Asma for her activism in the court in her own country, in international platforms and her contributions to regional fora. In recognition of her work she has received several awards and accolades during her life, including the 2014 Sweden’s Right to Livelihood Award and France’s Officierde la Légiond'honneur in 2014.
We will continue to respect Asma for her undaunted courage and perseverance in the defence of human rights. The best tribute to her is to continue our collective struggles for human rights, democracy and justice. And to do so without fear or favour.
Hameeda Hossain is a prominent Bangladeshi human rights activist and academic.