Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director, celebrates Asma Jahangir (1952-2018) as part of Equality Now’s 30 for 30, featuring 30 women and changemakers who have played a key role in making equality reality as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations.
I am immensely fortunate to call Asma Jehangir, the most influential person in Pakistani human rights, my mentor, and my guide. Asma was fearless and outspoken, and throughout her monumental career, she took on government and religious leaders and took risks that most would not. I recall one interview where she said,
“Everything is a risk in Pakistan: If you defend women, it’s a risk. If you defend non-Muslims, it’s a risk. If you discuss religion, it’s a risk. But you can’t really sit there like a vegetable in your own society. And I’m committed to that society… and I feel I need to turn around and speak as I should.”
I started working with Asma at 17 years-old, when I was still in high school. This was seven years after the introduction of the Zina Ordinance in Pakistan, which conflated rape with adultery. Women, who were previously scarce in the prison system, were being incarcerated under adultery charges after surviving a sexual assault. Asma brought me to work in Multan Women’s Prison, taking the testimony of women prisoners so we could effectively represent them.
She sent me to so-called “shelters,” where women were imprisoned after leaving their homes due to abuse, to help see how we might secure their release. The result was Asma opening her own shelter, Dastak, to house these women and to persuade the court to release them under her “guardianship.”
Asma took me to court with her to witness firsthand the misogynistic attitudes of lawyers and judges, showing me the immense work to do, and strengthening my resolve to do it. One of my fondest memories of Asma, to this day, happened during a visit she made to deliver an address on campus while I was a student at Harvard Law School. She could have spent her time in receptions or caught up with me over dinner at one of Cambridge’s lovely restaurants. Instead, that evening, Asma coaxed me out to a local pub in Cambridge to take out our “frustrations with the patriarchy” on the dart board. Next to her commitment, ferocity, and genius, Asma was also immensely fun.
Asma once said, “Duplicity in matters of religion is not confined to Pakistan, but it hurts the most in societies where debate on religion is asphyxiated, and preachers of hate have become keepers of the faith.” She took this sentiment with her as an advocate for women on the international stage, where she was incredibly strategic in using the law to help advocate for Pakistani women and girls.
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Punishments, Asma started reporting on case after case of so-called “honor killings,” where male family members were killing women in the name of honor, and governments were not protecting the women or prosecuting their murderers. Asma established these crimes as extrajudicial killings, ultimately leading the UN Secretary-General to commission the first global study on violence against women in 2005, setting the stage for global advocacy on this issue.
Asma inspired me to follow in her footsteps, not just to dream of a more just world, but to make it happen every day. Her passing in 2018 left a huge void in Pakistan and my life.