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Asma’s legacy for justice

An annual gathering in Lahore this coming weekend (April 27-28) to remember the late Asma Jahangir for her services to promote justice in Pakistan could not be more timely for the future of the country.

Pakistan faces growing challenges to basic rights on multiple fronts, ranging from questions over the quality of democracy after February’s parliamentary elections to a continuing failure to lift the quality of life for the segment of the population that has become increasingly marginalized.

Besides in daily lives, Pakistan’s poorest of the poor remain entangled in legal battles. The increasingly prohibitive cost of waging a legal defence for some of Pakistan’s increasingly defenceless and impoverished individuals has pushed them to face the worst nightmare they could ever imagine.

As many of Asma Jahangir’s friends and admirers gear up once again to recognize her services, her rich legacy during a life dedicated to protecting Pakistan’s human rights remains simply without a parallel. It is therefore hardly surprising that just over six years after Asma Jahangir’s sudden departure, her powerful legacy lives on.

Institutions such as the AGHS Legal aid cell or the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) not only remain powerful reminders of her commitment to serving humanity across her country but also shed light on the multiple gaps surrounding the daily needs of human beings waiting to be served.

Many Pakistanis from a generation or two first became sensitized on matters ranging from the plight of labourers in bondage to the rights of children, women and non-Muslims through Asma Jahangir’s work. Her commitment to these and other causes elevated her persona on the global stage as a fearless campaigner from Pakistan.

And coming out of the weekend event in Lahore, many of Asma Jahangir’s friends and devotees will inevitably feel charged in their commitment to promote her mission across Pakistan. A fresh clamour to promote justice in Pakistan, though timely, will only make a powerful headway with a range of stakeholders including the country’s ruling elite joining a new push for reforms.

For long, campaigns for the rights of marginalized people globally were seen by many as more of a luxury than an essential feature of overall development. But time has proven beyond doubt the close connection between rights and societal progress such as the quality of access to healthcare, education and personal protection being centrally linked to economic progress in some of the world’s most successful countries.

For Pakistan, transiting from where the country stands today to a sustainable era of continuity and stability requires a deep commitment to two interrelated lessons left by Asma Jahangir.

It is essential to include every community no matter how numerically irrelevant at the centre of a journey to progress. This is especially relevant in a day and age when information travels fast with global policymakers instantly taking notice of trends – progressive or regressive.

In February this year, the widely publicized case of a mob in Lahore’s ‘Ichhra’ neighbourhood seeking to take the life of a young woman on allegations of blasphemy was a powerful reminder of the lingering threat to Pakistan’s daily life. Yet, the same event also powerfully highlighted the example of fearless police officer Syeda Sheharbano Naqvi, who bravely rescued the about-to-be-attacked woman from the angry mob.

Officer Naqvi represents the progress achieved by Pakistan – a country once far removed from women serving in the higher judiciary, the police, government administration and the armed forces. Together, the case represented the good and the bad in Pakistan’s journey.

It is now essential for Pakistan’s future progress to build a broad coalition across the country, representing every shade of beliefs and opinions to back progressive change.

On the other hand, a powerful change for progress will not be sustained unless Pakistan’s ruling elite joins that journey. A country that continues to keep a large segment of its population marginalized will only do so at its peril. Seeking impressive economic change requires reforms that help lift prospects for a broader spectrum of Pakistan’s population. In this long overdue journey, progressive legislation must be the first step backed by a commitment from key stakeholders to bring the fruit of that change to every segment of the population.

In Asma Jahangir’s powerfully lived life, the cause of human progress built upon human rights was central. For Pakistan’s stakeholders across the board, there could be no better recognition than launching a fresh national initiative to celebrate Asma Jahangir’s well-lived but short life. Her journey, though all too brief, brought visible change – such as the inclusion of more women in the public space. That journey needs to continue and broaden for a more stable Pakistan.

Farhan Bokhari, "Asma’s legacy for justice," The News. 2024-04-25.
Keywords: Social sciences , Human rights , Societal progress , Blasphemy , Judiciary , Syeda Sheharbano Naqvi , Asma Jahangir , Pakistan , HRCP , AGHS