Asma Jehangir, a force to be reckoned with

Published: April 7, 2017

Leading human rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Asma Jehangir gestures as she gives an interview to AFP in Lahore. PHOTO: AFP

Growing up, I was filled with loathing for Asma Jehangir and yet somewhere deep down I had a sense of respect for her, however grudging it may have been. Today, I have come full circle and openly admit having deep and uninhibited respect for her. My dislike for her was primarily caused by her views which portrayed her as ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘against’ Islam. But I was way different back then as I used to be a typical product of state-tutored nationalism and considered any criticism of the state as anti-Pakistan.

This brand of nationalism, instilled through textbooks and the media, creates deep mistrust of the outside world and shuns introspection by the baseless glorification of the past, as well as the present. Moreover, this type of nationalism, since it fuses patriotism with religion, also leads to a mistrust of any criticism of religious practices and laws. A huge majority of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporters today could be called archetypal products of this kind of nationalism. Unsurprisingly, if you follow Jehangir on Twitter, you would immediately find that many PTI supporters regularly troll her. Looking at their reprehensible behaviour, thank God, I have changed.

However, as already mentioned, even in those days, I felt some grudging respect for her. It was mainly because of her guts and her ability to stand up for what she believed in. Despite disagreeing with her statements on various issues, I could not help but admire her outspokenness and her sense of self-belief. No artificiality there.

Then came the critical juncture in my ideological development and Jehangir played an important role in it. What started to transform me as an individual was 1995’s case of Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old illiterate teenager accused of blasphemy. He was merely 11-years-old when he was originally accused of blasphemy. By all accounts, he was illiterate and yet he was sentenced to death along with his father in early 1995 by the sessions court. Before the verdict, he had also survived an attack on his life.

According to media reports, the lower court was under tremendous pressure to sentence the accused and hence complied. In my mind, it was unfathomable that a minor should be sentenced to death and that too when he was unlettered. The matter went to the High Court and Jehangir was the lawyer representing Masih and his father. In Pakistan, even taking such cases is like playing Russian roulette. But there she was undeterred, defending a minor accused of blasphemy. And in spite of the odds, she won the case! The case simultaneously jolted me out of my ideological slumber and instilled respect and admiration for her.

From that point onwards, I started to gradually change as a person. I began to read and understand the way some religious laws were being used for settling personal scores and for subjugating women. I realised that many of Pakistan’s problems are due to a particular mindset, and unless we are able to change this mindset, we won’t be able to break out of this bubble. I figured that we have to discard this textbook nationalism and adopt a more introspective approach. Unless this happens, we will not be able to change as a nation. I finally understood that critics of the state, like Jehangir, are actually more patriotic than the phony patriots who constantly perpetuate and glorify false narratives.

My respect for her grew with each passing year. Here was a woman who was risking her life on a daily basis to speak for women’s rights and the protection of minorities. In 1997, she risked her life to defend a woman who had married out of her own choice. In that famous case, the girl’s family tried to harass her and even ransacked her office. She did not relent and eventually won the case.

Jehangir has also been a staunch democrat who believes that democratic governments should be given a chance. When Pervez Musharraf took over, many were swayed by his ‘liberal’ credentials but she was not. At a time when people were afraid to criticise military rule, Jehangir stood up and counted all its missteps. She understood that no institution including the military was above criticism.

Furthermore, she has been willing to be unpopular and has raised her voice on matters like the missing personsBalochistan, and lately, the establishment of military courts a number of times. Her position on all these issues have been anti-mainstream and unpopular.

Apart from her courage, what really sets her apart is that her support and opposition for any institution or political party is based on principles and therefore may vary over time rather than staying constant. For example, she was at the forefront of the lawyer’s movement and yet was critical of the judiciary when it became too strong after restoration and started to indulge in undue activism and political biasShe was critical of the Muttahida Quami Movement’s (MQM) violence in Karachi and yet represented its leader when there was a media blackout against him. She drew the ire of the lawyer community in the process but did not sway from what she believed.

I don’t know whether Malala Yousafzai deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize or whether Abdul Sattar Edhi deserved it more, but along with being the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, I feel Jehangir should be the next recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s people like her who help see the other side of the picture. People like her are an asset to society, and as long as she is there fighting, there is no reason to lose hope.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • PatelPara

    THis is how Pakistani media portrays anti-nationalists in a sweet fashion so that people can buy this trash.

    when you lose your basic values then you will like those who have already lost their values for money or for something.

    you can be like Tarekh Fatah in the future if you go astray.Recommend

  • Farhan

    Great article. I wish her the best.Recommend

  • Omar

    yea so is TTP and other terrorist that she so compassionately tries to save from punishment.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    She is the Iron Lady of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Farooq Ali

    I have great respect for her and i agree to most of her arguments but her criticism towards PTI and thus the response (not that i agree the way pti social media fans respond) is due to biassness towards Imran Khan. And the reason for this biassness is not based on Principles. She was one of the favorite candidates to become care taker Prime Minister in 2013 elections and the only reason for her not becoming one was PTI’s mistrust towards her. Since then she has been over critical of the party. I will have more respect if i see that her criticism towards PTI is based on principles.Recommend

  • Rahul

    “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Charles MackayRecommend

  • Saleem

    Yes, she is the one who criticized role of Pakistan in 1971 war when she along Hamid Mir were awarded prize by Bangladeshi government for their support against atrocities committed by Pakistani armed forces. Though neither she nor Hamiod Mir ever came out and spoke against role of India, which by the way was narrated no other than Modi himself. What a way to go!Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    I don’t know whether Malala Yousafzai deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize or whether Abdul Sattar Edhi deserved it more, but along with being the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, I feel Jehangir should be the next recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

    It is good that students like RHR have no say in granting Nobel Peace Prize. It is great to read his articles .

    Rex Minor.
    PS The Nobel prize committee was in the process of nominating one of the trumpers but for the latest military strike, they will need to look elsewhere.Recommend

  • ar

    Beautifully written about one of the most courageous women in this country.Recommend

  • Muhammad Adeel

    Absolutely right. She indeed is a daring woman and i respect her a lot, even though i have some reservation on some issue with her.
    But i admire her courage and her ability to stand for the right stance mostly.Recommend

  • Aamir – Toronto

    Every patriot Pakistani troll her not just PTI supporters…….she bites the same hand that feeds her. I consider her an Endian and Western stooge who will never spare an opportunity to lambaste Pakistan !!!!Recommend

  • Parvez

    There are those who admire Asma, like the author, and there are those who don’t …. and then there are those, like me, who fell she is too much of an idealist and not enough of a pragmatist, but I do respect her.Recommend

  • Sane

    She has only one agenda…malign Pakistan as much as possible. That’s her bread and butter.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    Asma is the best person I have seen in my whole life. Such persons are born in centuries. She takes sides with justice and honesty and she is not biased.Didn’t we
    deprive Bengalis of their right of premiership in 1971-2.?Recommend

  • Osama

    This has always been the case with anti-pakistan media that glorifies and reveres personalities like Asma jehangir who don’t miss a single chance to defame Pakistan …
    Yet whenever you speak up they attach slogans of extremism with you … It’s not too long that she remarked against the chief justice of high court suggesting that he should be Imam of some ….
    An intolerant lady giving you lessons against extremism .. What an irony on one side and joke on the other …Recommend

  • RHR


    How are you? Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    r u kidding me?

    rather a force that needs to be locked up or confined in or soemthingRecommend

  • Jahanzaib Pasha Turk

    All praises for her. but their are stout demerits in her criticism specially she has outspokenly given statements about one of the most prestigious institutions of Pakistan. I.e Pak Army. One thing should be kept in mind that by taking into account our geographical location and internal security challenges, which immensely grown up , we need to stand by our Army and it supposed not be bashed. And one other thing you have indicated several time in your opinion that textbook nationalism is merely causing slumber. well i guess there is need to pen down more clarification of your this statement. if you try to establish that telling our young minds about the roots of making Pakistan, about the strong determination of our leaders ,sacrifices of our ancestors , and ideology of Iqbal is only glorification of past , you would definitely need to see in deep to overrule your superficial statementRecommend

  • ab

    Her pictures with bhal thakray suggested that she is not a force to rekon with. very famous on social media. she is a free person she can meet anybody but to match his dress color by color? Asma Jahngir , who exactly you are?Recommend

  • Hasan

    Glad you grew up Raja.Recommend

  • nimra

    Her courage is indeed admirable!Recommend

  • siesmann

    She is one “man” among a country of emusculates.Recommend

  • siesmann

    People of your bent are doing a good job maligning Pakistan .You don’t need someone like Asma Jahangir to do that.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Wow!;And you are living in Toronto.Biting hands is the same phrase.Recommend

  • siesmann

    She is a “man” Recommend

  • siesmann

    You much more than she.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Criticizing an institution doesn’t mean being against it.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Hardly anybody outside of Pakistan knows about Asma Jahangir or cares about what she is about. It is your own inferiority complex that is the problem.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Your statement and feeling about Malala shows your state of mind.It is people like you that people in Germany rightly think are the ones who don’t belong in their country.It is OK to criticize Nobel Committee about their methodologies,but to downgrade Malala and her sacrifice is sad.Recommend

  • siesmann

    It is not Asma or Hamid Mir who lost Bangla Desh.It is people of your thinking that did it.Recommend

  • siesmann

    DOes she have to go by your “principles”?Recommend

  • siesmann

    You mean Pakistan doesn’t allow for a defense of an allegation?That is exactly why she is needed.Recommend