On the auspicious occasion of Asma Jahangir’s birthday, we take a moment to remember the fearless woman who fought tirelessly for the rights of minorities.
Jahangir was a pro-democracy activist and was jailed in 1983 for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which agitated against military dictator Ziaul Haq’s regime. She was also active in the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement, for which she was put under house arrest. Moreover, she further co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Women’s Action Forum.
A day after the birth anniversary of the women who can easily be deemed one of Pakistan’s most vocal human rights activists, we take a look back to remember some of the valiant ways she fought for the rights of those who couldn’t fight for themselves.
The struggle for women’s unilateral right to marriage
In 1997, the Lahore High Court upheld a 22 year old Pakistani women’s marriage without the consent of her guardian. The court further called for changes in Pakistani law to enforce parental authority and discourage courtships.
Jahangir played a crucial role in the setting aside of the LHC judgement. As a result of her tireless work in this case, in 2003 the Supreme Court held that Pakistani women had the unequivocal right to marry of their own free will without needing the consent of a ‘wali’ (a women’s father or brother).
Moreover, the Supreme Court maintained that the LHC had no right to adjudicate on a woman’s unilateral right to marry given that the matter had already been decided by the Federal Shariat Court in 1981.
This ruling was historic and instrumental for the rights of women in Pakistan, particularly in the context of forced marriages which is such a prevalent problem in the country.
Enforcing punishments against ‘honour crimes’
Jahangir has a successful history of representing victims of honour killings before the Supreme Court. In one notable case, the apex court overturned the LHC’s reduced prison sentence against family elders, who had murdered a woman and seriously injured her husband, for marrying against the elders’ wishes.
In this cases, Jahangir litigated that the elders’ actions were not due to “grave and sudden” provocation as the high court had held, rather, the actions were premeditated with the intent to kill. This resulted in the elders’ being sentenced to life imprisonment.
The struggle for juvenile rights
Jahangir contested the indiscriminate arrest and search of child vagrants by the Punjab police under the Punjab Vagrancy Ordinance of 1958.
She challenged the Ordinance and argued that since Pakistan as a welfare state had failed to provide education, healthcare and employment benefits to its citizens, there was no justification for imposing harsh restrictions on the poor and needy citizens.
Although the petition was dismissed by the LHC, the court instructed the administration to distinguish professional beggars from beggars by necessity in order to determine whether a detention was applicable on basis of individual circumstances.
Fighting for custody rights
In a child custody/welfare matter, Jahangir successfully restored custody of a male minor to his mother in accordance with Muslim law, whereby the father had unlawfully deprived the mother of custody for years.
The fight for minority rights
Jehangir successfully represented a Christian accused of blasphemy, whereby the Supreme Court granted the accused bail. The accused had remained in jail for more than three years, during which the prosecution against the accused was subject to extended delays beyond the mandatory statutory period, and the prosecution did not conduct a semblance of a proper trial against the accused.
In this way, Jahangir proved to be instrumental in the ongoing struggle for human rights and rights for minorities in the country. Her death will forever serve as one of Pakistan’s biggest losses and people from across the nation, in particular women, should be inspired by her effort and fight for what’s right.
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