Much was said about her, and not one to shy away from controversy the diminutive lawyer almost seemed to court it (pun intended). If you are still confused, think about one of the only female legal professionals to have made it in a conservative patriarchal society. Asma Jahangir was a household name. Whether it was for her political activism, the controversial cases she took on, or the accusations that she levelled on national television, Asma Jehangir ventured where few would have dared tread. And though many lauded her bravery, her outspoken nature, to say that there were her share of detractors, would be an understatement.
Asma Jehangir experienced fame from an early age, barely twenty, she set out to free her unjustly incarcerated Parliamentarian father, Ghulam Jillani. Free him she did, and in doing so what is famously known as the landmark Asma Jillani vs. The Government of Punjab, she paved the way for the restoration of democracy. Yahya Khan was declared a usurper, the case was followed by the interim Constitution of 1972 and then by the permanent Constitution of 1973, and due to the judicial pronouncement in the case of Asma Jilani, Bhutto was compelled to lift the Martial law, in effect at the time. And thus, Asma had firmly cemented her feet in the annals of legal history. Young lawyers and young people should read the judgment. It is enlightening and thrilling, not least because of her tender age.
To truly understand Asma Jehangir we have to understand the environment where she fought. The legal community in Pakistan is almost exclusively an old boys club, and though we have a couple of well known female High Court Judges and lawyers, women are still a scant, underrepresented breed. When being interviewed for my own legal license, the panel was exclusively male. The two hours I sat in the ladies common room, I saw young aspiring lawyers were aside from memorizing civil procedure, anxious about whether to cover their heads to appease the more conservative judges on the interview panel. or to go without a veil. Finally, as our names were called out one by one, having donned the dupatta on my head for a split second I decided to do away with it.
Our anxiety was for naught, although conservative, the Justice interviewing us, asked us but two questions and off we went; though many of the sheep off to the block decided to stick to their guns and thus cover their heads on the way to fit in, in an increasingly conservative environment. And there you have it, in such an environment where women feel the need to conform, we had Asma Jehangir, who being exposed to the turmoil of her father being persecuted, developed the seeds for rebellion at an early age. Questioning her surroundings, leaving conformity to her less daring peers.
Being the daughter of Ghulam Jillani, and belonging to a rigorous intellectual circle also helped nurture her personality. From an early age Asma Jehangir was exposed to all manner of intellectuals, politicians and people of such ilk. Asma then went on to marry into a similarly affluent industrialist family, her in laws and husband were supportive of her career, another novelty in Pakistan, especially because Asma was often in the headlines for her controversial stances.
Asma Jehangir for all her accomplishments and charisma, was a down to earth and unassuming lady. I happened to encounter Mrs. Jehangir quite randomly; I was visiting some friends in Russell Square and lo and behold we saw her smoking outside. We rushed outside to talk to her. She was staying with her daughter and invited us for lunch the following day. We were quite excited and schemed to pool in and take her somewhere nice. The following day Asma came with her granddaughter in tow on a pram. And thus this random occurrence led us to a Thai restaurant on the Russell square High street. She spoke about legal practice in Pakistan, asked us all who we were, what our aspirations were and advised us to teach part time whilst practicing law, because law as we would soon find out does not exactly pay the bills, in the beginning.
We were all doing our Masters at that time. Being taken seriously by a senior litigator left us all in high spirits. I would see Asma Jehangir again in the High Court, in the years to come, always organized, composed and looking just about ready to take on anything or anyone. Though many were in awe of the great litigator, many still demonized her. Whenever I would so much as mention her name to my male colleagues, they would go spinning the most baseless theories: “Oh she’s foreign funded” they’d say, “she’s an Indian agent, she’s just here to give the nation a bad name.” Sometimes the attacks would centre on the fact that she didn’t give two hoots about appearing feminine and fragile; “Oh she’s a man.” But this fearless lady continued to argue and take a stand for whatever cause or case she was spearheading.
She also had a wicked sense of humour, she once famously replied to a troll on twitter on Valentine’s day. She was writing about the absurdity of banning Valentine’s day, to which one twitter user saucily quipped:
“Plz give me your daughters number, I want to wish her a happy valentine day.”
“Wish me one first.”
We millennials of course loved the savage retort. Though many accused her of being unpatriotic, dramatic and alluded all manner of disgraces to her character, she was a fundamental lawyer essential to this nation, a dissenting voice in a sea of sycophants, cool, funny and very human and approachable. I do not know if in my time I will come across another powerful female Pakistani role model who dared to take on the patriarchy. She challenged the status quo and was one of the greatest activists this country has produced. A President of the Bar Association, a great litigator. and in that brief moment I witnessed a doting grandmother. She was a patriot, let there be no mistake about that. Asma Jehangir, may she rest in power.
By Rabia Amir