By Pervez Saleem
“You are fighting with your pen, you are fighting with the instruments of law, against a power with a gun, a power that does not recognize the law.”
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
“If a country doesn’t recognize minority rights and human rights, including women’s rights, you will not have the kind of stability and prosperity that is possible.”
ASMA JAHANGIR is a leading Pakistani lawyer who has dedicated her career to defending the rights of women, minorities, and children from religious extremism, honor killings, and blasphemy laws. Jahangir has served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, and has investigated government abuses ranging from forced disappearances to extrajudicial killings. She is a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
For the past three decades Asma and her sister Hina have been at the forefront of both Pakistan’s women’s and human rights movements. Both have been subjected to twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance by the state since 1996.
Jahangir’s experience with law began with her decade-long fight against the arrest of her father, who was jailed after resigning from the Pakistan National Assembly in protest of the country’s new military dictatorship. When she successfully resolved her father’s case in 1982, she joined other human-rights activists to found Pakistan’s first all-female law firm. The following year she was imprisoned for a month for protesting the government’s new “hudud” laws. Her experience and efforts exposing government abuses and Islamic extremism eventually led to her helping found the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and to her appointments as UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Execution and later, Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Much of Jahangir’s human-rights work in Pakistan has focused on fighting laws that punish victims of rape, deny women the right to divorce, encourage child labor, and violate religious minorities’ freedom of speech. She has published books and articles encouraging the Pakistani government to respect human rights and lauding the domestic and foreign policy benefits of human rights. In her struggle for a secular civil society, Janhangir has earned a variety of international awards, including the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award and the Millennium Peace Prize.
Over the years, Asma has been subjected to government oppression in the form of police harassment, public humiliation, even assault and arrests. She has been targeted by extremists through fatwas, life threats, and propaganda. Her family has equally suffered in the form of abductions, home invasion and consistent life threats, but she has continued her struggle for justice.
Threatened with death from the very halls of parliament when she called for the abolition of repressive shari’a laws contravening constitutional protection of women, Asma Jahangir also put her life on the line in 1993 when she represented an illiterate fourteen-year-old sentenced to death for blasphemous graffiti on the side of a mosque. Muslim extremists stormed the courthouse, smashing Jahangir’s car and attacking her driver. A gang of armed thugs subsequently raided Jahangir’s brother’s home, holding her family hostage.
Struggle for women’s rights
In a society where women have no bodily autonomy, no reproductive rights, and are used as a tool in dispute settlement mechanisms, Asma has been an advocate for gender equality. Historically she has influenced major social and political issues in Pakistan.
Due to this law, hundreds of innocent men and women had been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Women who dared to report rape were, and still are, often accused of zina and locked up while their offenders were never questioned and as a result walked free. Asma came as a saviour for most of these persecuted women some familiar names are Safia Bibi, Mukhtaran Bibi, Jehan Mina, Shahida Parveen.
Pakistan has the grotesque reputation of being one of the leading ‘honour killing’ countries. Millions of women in Pakistan live under a constant threat of being shot, burned, or death by stoning for violating traditional norms. Judicial bias and gender discrimination adds to the affliction of women in Pakistan. Governmental response has been mostly indifferent. Thanks to Asma, many cases of injustice towards women have come to light and have resulted in international criticism of women’s status in Pakistan.
She has also proposed interactions on the civil society level through social exchange combined with efforts to uplift the status of women and at the same provide financial stability through business and job opportunities to poor Pakistani.
An equally vicious law, commonly known as the Blasphemy law, has been responsible for persecuting thousands of minorities; Asma has spoken out against this law and has represented a number of people falsely accused of blasphemy.
Asma Jahangir has raised concerns all over the world on religious/ethnic discrimination, sectarian conflicts, constitutional violations, and child labour in Pakistan.
“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
“Those who stand for different causes during different generations often experience the same oppositions and the same difficulties as those of the previous and the next generations. That is the basis of history repeating itself.”