She was branded a traitor to Islam and her homeland, accused of blasphemy, attacked by angry mobs and thrown into prison. A US intelligence reported leaked in 2012 suggested she survived an assassination attempt by Pakistan’s security forces. She was hailed as a courageous crusader, awarded dozens of international honours, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and described as “the gutsiest woman” in Pakistan.
For more than three decades, Asma Jehangir, who has died aged 66, was a sharp-tongued activist and Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer and champion. She spoke out for women abused in the name of “honour”, defended non-Muslims harassed as “infidels”, denounced religious extremism and marched for democratic freedoms under dictatorship.
Jehangir often seemed to be everywhere at once – a vocal and visible presence at many historic public confrontations in Pakistan over military rule, religious intolerance and cruel traditions. Her barbed, witty comments in hundreds of news conferences, TV interviews and more recent tweets delighted liberal fans and infuriated conservative critics.
To be a successful activist lawyer, she once noted, one must “have an eye for what’s hot, the right case, the right bench.”
One high-profile moment came in 2007, when Pakistan’s indignant legal community launched a street protest movement to demand an end to military rule under army Pervez Musharraf. At the time, Jehangir was chairing the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission. A state of emergency was declared, and she was among key protest leaders placed under house arrest.
A decade later, long after democratic rule was restored, she was still denouncing the power of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments and the façade of civilian control. In a lecture at Oxford University in 2017, she charged that “the military controls the country through the deep state”, while “the politicians are playing at democracy,…