“Today we have been orphaned,” was one of the first messages that I received as the news of the death of long-time human rights activist Asma Jahangir became public.
The message was from a rights activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in northwest Pakistan. In the following hours messages poured in: former brick kiln bonded laborers from Punjab, families of victims of extrajudicial killings in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), landless peasants in Sindh, religious minorities, even politicians – all devastated. The sense of loss is being expressed globally, from activists in India and Bangladesh, to women rights groups in Iran, to the secretary-general of the United Nations.
Asma was my mentor, friend, and inspiration and yesterday I understood how she was also a beacon of hope for millions in Pakistan and around the world.
At barely 19, she challenged the military dictatorship of Gen. Yahya Khan, and as a result the supreme court declared martial law as illegal for the first time in Pakistan’s history,. She was the first to oppose the misogynist Hudood laws of the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and was promptly imprisoned. She faced threats and an assassination attempt for representing blasphemy law victims but never backed down. She almost single handedly transformed human rights from being demonized as a marginal, “Western” agenda to a central part of Pakistan’s national conversation, staring down militants, religious fundamentalists, dictators, and corrupt politicians.
The phone is ringing incessantly in Asma’s house. At a time when hate-filled populism seems to be gaining ground around the world, shocked friends are calling to say she will be missed, not just for her unwavering belief in law, justice, and decency, but because she always had the courage to stand up for those beliefs.
Asma will remain a guiding light for the human rights movement in Pakistan and elsewhere. Her life demonstrates what courage, integrity, and tenacity can achieve. The ultimate tribute to her legacy is living up to the principles that she embodied.