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Asma Jahangir
by Laila Kazmi

In his inaugural address to the nation in 1947, the founding father and first Governor General of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, advised people of the newly created nation, "[If you] work together in a spirit that everyone of you no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make."

With the loss of the guiding spirit of Muhammad Ali Jinnah shortly after independence and with passing of time the hope of freedom and opportunities which gave birth to a new independent nation diminished into hopelessness brought on by poverty, rampant corruption, and illiteracy. It is an environment ripe for fundamentalists who wish to sway the public with emotional religious rhetoric. Rather than aiming to subside illiteracy and corruption, most often it is the women and minorities who get subdued and repressed by these religious fundamentalists. In such circumstances, human rights activists dedicated to the cause of obtaining equal rights and justice represent hope for those being persecuted. Asma Jahangir is one such human rights activist and lawyer.

She has spent most of her career defending the rights of women, religious minorities, and children of Pakistan. Aided in her mission by fellow activists and colleagues from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, she has continued her battle for justice amidst constant threats to her safety. Her willingness to relentlessly defend victims of rape, women seeking divorce from abusive husbands, people accused of blasphemy, her work on the issues of child labor, and her continuous criticism of political parties has made her one of the most controversial figures in Pakistan. She has served as the chairperson of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. In 1998, she was appointed Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Asma learned the business of law and politics at an early age. Her father spent much of his life in and out of prison for his political views which included open criticism of actions of Pakistani military in Bangladesh. Asma was eighteen when she filed her first petition to have her father released from jail and started working with lawyers on his defense.

In 1980, Asma Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, got together with few fellow activists and lawyers and formed the first law firm established by women in Pakistan. They also helped form the Women's Action Forum (WAF) in the same year. The first WAF demonstration was in 1983 when some 25-50 women took to the streets protesting the famous Safia Bibi case. Safia, a young blind girl, had been raped yet had ended up in jail on the charge of zina. "We (their law firm) had been given a lot of cases by the advocate general and the moment this demonstration came to light, the cases were taken away from us." Asma recalls. (Dawn-The Reviewer, April 2, 1998, “A ray of hope”)

Asma has been a staunch critic of the Hudood ordinance and blasphemy laws of Pakistan. These laws were introduced in the Pakistani constitution during the 10-year dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. According to the of the Hudood ordinance, a person accused of adultery or zina can be sentenced to death and according to the blasphemy law, a person accused of speaking or acting against Islam can also be sentenced to death. Whatever the initial intents of these laws might have been, the result has been false imprisonment of hundreds of innocent men and women. Women who dare to report a rape are often accused of zina and locked up in prison while their offenders walk free and are never questioned or brought to justice. The blasphemy law has also resulted in false imprisonment and even death of many Pakistani Christians, Hindus, and even some Muslims.

In her article for Dawn, published October 2, 2000, titled "Whither are We!” Asma demands that the government of General Musharraf work to improve the record of human rights domestically. Citing examples of human rights abuses, she wrote, "A Hindu income tax inspector gets lynched in the presence of the army personnel for allegedly having made a remark on the beard of a trader. Promptly, the unfortunate Hindu government servant is booked for having committed blasphemy, while the traders and the Lashkar-e-Tayaba activists were offered tea over parleys. A seventy-year-old Mukhtaran Bibi and her pregnant daughter Samina are languishing in Sheikhupura jail on trumped-up charges of blasphemy."

In 1995, Asma Jahangir received numerous death threats for her defense of Salamat Masih, a fourteen-year old Christian boy sentenced to death for allegedly writing blasphemous words against Islam on the wall of a mosque. In 1999, Asma and her sister, Hina Jilani, a fellow lawyer and activist, were again subject to death threats after representing Samia Sawar, a 32 year old women who was seeking divorce from her abusive husband. Samia had turned to her family for help but they had refused to help her attain a divorce. When Samia continued to seek a divorce, Samia's family had her murdered in broad daylight in the very law offices of Asma and Hina. Apparently, the family believed that Samia's actions were dishonorable to the family.

"Eventually things will have to get better. However, the way they will improve is not going to be because of the government or the elite leadership, or the political leadership, or the institutions of our country, most of which have actually crumbled. It will be the people of the country themselves who will bring about the change in society because they have had to struggle to fend for themselves at every level." - Asma Jahangir, Interview by Farahnaz Junejo, Zameen, Dec 1997.

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