Only a few days before Pakistan’s most famous human-rights advocate, Asma Jahangir, was felled by a heart attack, she was speaking out in support of a group of ethnic Pashtuns who had marched across the country from their homes along the Afghanistan border to protest military brutality. A Pashtun boy had been killed on the false charge that he was a terrorist.
Many Pashtuns have been and still are allied with the Taliban—who have wreaked deadly havoc in both Pakistan and Afghanistan—and they are not always welcome guests in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, where the protesters had gathered. The United States accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to curb them. But Jahangir, true to form, saw their delegation as frightened people demanding rights.
“Asma fought tirelessly for anyone and everyone without a voice,” said Kathy Gannon, a Canadian senior reporter for the Associated Press who has spent decades in the region and knew Jahangir well. “She was a fierce and powerful voice for the disenfranchised, for religious minorities, women, democracy advocates. She took on the powerful military, the intelligence services. She stood her ground against Islamic militants,” Gannon wrote in an e-mail on her way to the 66-year-old activist’s funeral in Lahore .
Jahangir was born in Lahore, Pakistan’s most cultured and intellectually vibrant city, and unlike many others from her privileged background, she was educated from primary school to law school in her home country rather than flocking to Western universities. By the end of her life, she was an international figure who garnered numerous awards for her pro-democracy agitations and protests. She was arrested and imprisoned several times under Pakistani military rulers, most notably Muhammad Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.
Some Pakistani democracy advocates were unhappy that she was less critical of politicians than she was of the military. Her criterion for this distinction was that if politicians were democratically elected, voters should be the ones responsible for holding them to account.
In an interview with me after Benazir Bhutto had become the country’s first female prime minister in 1988 and seemed to be stumbling in governance, Jahangir said it was disappointing that Bhutto had not parlayed her enormous popular support into real reform, bringing people out into the streets to demonstrate for child protection—Jahangir was a champion for child laborers exploited in brickyards—as well as for better labor laws and other changes needed after Zia’s long military rule.
Jahangir and her sister Hina Jilani, cofounder with Jahangir of the country’s first all-female law firm, were not only advocates for women’s rights but also influential models for women in the legal professions. They were among the founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which Jahangir chaired.