Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s leading liberal voice and iconic rights activist, has died.
According to a statement from her family, the lawyer died suddenly after suffering cardiac arrest on Sunday afternoon in the southeastern city of Lahore, her hometown. She was 66.
Monday was declared a public holiday and day of mourning in the southern province of Sindh, in honor of Jahangir, whose funeral will be held at Lahore’s 2,500-capacity Qaddafi stadium on Tuesday.
There have been calls for a state funeral by various politicians and activists, but this has so far not been confirmed.
Journalist Raza Rumi, a close associate of Jahangir, told CNN that while a “a state funeral will be a recognition of Asma’s contributions, she deserves a people’s funeral so that ordinary citizens pay homage to their timeless defender.”
Jahangir devoted her 40-year long career fighting in and out of courtrooms to defend democracy and justice, advocating loudly and passionately for women and minorities in her country.
Jahangir’s fierce determination for fighting for human rights in Pakistan was exemplified by a series of firsts. She was the first female leader of the country’s Supreme Court bar association, and, along with her sister, set up the country’s first free legal aid center as well as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – the most prominent independent monitor of human rights abuses in the country.
“Her sudden exit has created a void,” Rumi said. “She was heroic and brave and her activism was unique in that it was very purpose oriented. She leaves behind an entire infrastructure of human rights organizations that she helped set up in the country.”
In a country known for its tenuous civil society and one which has seen several years of tumultuous military regime change, Asma Jahangir was known for her steadfast criticism of the military establishment, a cause for which she was both revered and reviled.
Jahangir who was out on the streets leading protests against military dictators from the late 60s onwards, had been arrested and teargassed countless times but was celebrated for never giving up on her convictions.
She was an outspoken critic of military dictators General Zia-Ul-Haq in the 1980s and of General Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s, on whose directions she was placed under house arrest for ninety days in 2007.
She fearlessly took up a whole spectrum of cases which many in the legal fraternity were too afraid to touch, defending Christian men accused of blasphemy, journalists abducted by the military and women threatened with death by their husbands and families.
In the 1980s, along with her colleagues at the Woman Action Forum, she protested Zia-Ul-Haq’s Hudood Ordinance – an attempt to bring Sharia law into Pakistan’s legal system. The protest made her the face of the feminist movement of Pakistan, which were the first outspoken vocal critics of a military dictator attempting to mix religion and law.
Her demise has been mourned and her life’s work feted by a spectrum of journalists, activists and politicians across Pakistan and around the world.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi led the tributes lauding her “immense contributions towards upholding the rule of law, democracy and safeguarding human rights.”
A former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and on human rights in Iran, Jahangir was ominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and was the recipient of the Unesco/Bilbao prize for the promotion of a culture of human rights as well as the French Legion of Honour.
Fighting to the very end, Jahangir gave her last public speech two days before her death outside Islamabad’s press club championing ethnic rights and democracy. She is survived by two daughters and a son.