Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani
Photo by Eddie Adams
Human Rights Strategies
"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."
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. In 1980 they helped found the Women’s Action Forum to help women obtain divorces from abusive husbands. In 1981 they founded the first all-women’s law firm in Pakistan, and in 1986 they founded the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, where Jilani serves as chair.
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. In 1998 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed Jahangir Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions. From 2000 to 2008, Jilani was the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders. In 2006, she was appointed to the UN International Fact-Finding Commission on Darfur, Sudan. She is also a member of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights. She was the 2008 recipient of the Editor's Award for Outstanding achievement by The Lawyer Awards. Since 2004, she has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In 2005 Jahangir was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize project. Jahangir is the recipient of the 2010 Freedom of Religion award presented by the Dutch-based Four Freedoms Foundation.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
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JILANI Activism is vital for those who wish to fight for human rights. A human rights defender at the desk is only a reporter. A human rights defender in the field is a foot soldier. We are the ones who will make a difference. Exposing realities is not easy. If people get the message that only extraordinary people do this work, then the movement becomes static and discourages others from joining. That’s why I am always keen to stress we are just ordinary people who have made up our minds that we have a cause we are fighting for.
My sister Asma and I grew up in an environment in which human rights were always talked about. My father was a politician who stood for basic freedoms. He took chances with his political career rather than compromise on fundamental rights. He was also one of the very few people who consistently spoke out for religious tolerance and urged expression of dissenting views.
Asma and I began working as lawyers in Pakistan in the 1980s, fighting martial law. We were dealing with victims of the regime all the time. That experience drew us into the human rights movement. We were able to give impetus to the movement through our work. The law became a tool in our hands that we used in court—though you must understand that there is a limit to what you can do with law in a country like Pakistan, where the rule of law doesn’t enjoy respect. Law has become an instrument of repression, rather than an instrument for change. So human rights involves work both at the legal and at the social level. In fact, you can’t work on human rights in an isolated way—you have to respond and react to the environment in which you live. Under the early days of military rule the strategy was to go out into the streets and make ourselves visible, because the courts were terrible at that time. And though many people were afraid to come out into the streets, those who did joined our movement.
JAHANGIR The priorities have always been that human rights and political development are connected—you can’t say you want human rights only for a specific issue. Rights for children, rights for bonded labor, rights for women, they are all part of our struggle. They are all compromised by the system we are fighting, a system that doesn’t recognize rights. In 1968, the first time I actually organized a demonstration of women, I had just finished school—I was sixteen. Martial law was accepted all over, and people actually associated martial law with economic development and stability. But even as a young girl, I was conscious of the fact that you cannot expect democratic economic development if it does not allow the participation of all people.
Using the court system was nothing new to us. Our father was placed in preventive detention many times for his opinions and he defended himself each time. Once he challenged the law that stopped courts from reviewing preventive detention cases. He argued there had to be an objective reason, not an arbitrary one, for the detention. He put the responsibility squarely on the judicial system, saying, "Who will see the objectivity if the courts are not there to look at it?" And he won, and that tool of government repression fell from their hands.
During the war between East and West Pakistan, he was very vocal about the rights of East Pakistanis. As a result, we went through a very difficult year. I was called a traitor’s daughter many times. I went out one day with some older women who had asked me to come because they had these little pamphlets to distribute that spoke of the rights of East Pakistanis. About seven of us were standing on the roadside and because I was the youngest, they said, "Why don’t you just give the brochure to people as they stop in their cars?" And this one man, while I handed it to him through the window, he rolled down his window and spat on my face. So one has seen that kind of intolerance.
When our father was in jail, I was a student and I just turned eighteen. I organized a petition for him that actually challenged military governance. It was the only case in Pakistan that said that a military government is an illegal government. It was amazing that we could do it. Actually, when you are doing something like that you are not only getting to know what your principal stands are going to be in life, but you also get to know your society, and how it works, and with that knowledge you determine your strategies.
We’ve been fighting honor killings for many, many years. It doesn’t automatically become an international issue—you have to really keep the flag raised, to work the media as well as the courts. It’s very important for a human rights activist to be media-friendly. They want news. And so whatever you do, there has to be news in it; even though you are giving them new statistics, are you giving them a new face? Are you giving them a new story? A new story makes new news. It was through the media that honor killings became a front-burner, international issue.
When I became (United Nations) special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, it was the first issue that I put into my mandate. And now the special rapporteur on independence of the judiciary has also taken it up. Here is an example. One day a client of ours seeking divorce was shot, murdered, at our office by a gunman hired by her father (who felt his daughter’s divorce would bring shame upon their family). Public opinion was already leaning toward us. People had seen films about the issue and were aware of it and the press was aware. And the fact that the government resisted condemning this murder—because the bias of the government was so clear—and worse, that the parliament then resisted it, actually made news for us.
But it got worse. The chamber of commerce put forth a resolution implicating us in the murder! This was reported in the newspapers and there was a demonstration organized against us and open threats. The government stood by as a silent spectator. In fact they helped the murderers, who were never, ever touched. First, the government filed an information report to the police against Hina and me in another city saying that we had murdered that girl. Second, they told the entire administration not to arrest the murderers. Arrest warrants were not even issued until after they managed to get bail, many days after the murder had taken place. We are still in court about it. And now the real murderers have been declared innocent by the police.
So you see that, in this kind of work, you’re fighting in a complex situation. 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 and has an insidious influence with the government. So the most important thing is, it cannot be an individual fight. The formation of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission in 1986 helped focus our work, gave it structure. Today I can stand up in Pakistan and say, "This is wrong." I can do it because I know that colleagues are there who think like me and we will all work together. It is important that we give each other strength. We draw on each other’s strong points. Let me give you an example. We are lawyers, so if there is a case anywhere they will send it to us. But our Human Rights Commission annual report is written by two other colleagues (and I don’t think anyone can write better than they) who are using their expertise in this way. A third colleague is very good at media, communications, at getting the word out. So you get to the front line not because you are actually the person doing the important work, but because you have distributed the work and somehow you evolve as a person who has been chosen for the front line by the whole movement. That’s how I feel about myself. Teamwork is absolutely crucial and essential. And recognition has to be given to all the people out there who made this movement—together.
JAHANGIR As a sister, I work with Hina in the office. But on many of my other issues we really don’t work together. I do my own thing.
JILANI Sibling rivalry is always there. But the point is, though we may be sisters, that is just incidental. We are both independent. Neither of us is inspired by the other alone; instead we are inspired by our surroundings. I am a very laid-back person, but one thing I can’t tolerate is injustice. That makes that adrenaline run, which makes me get up and take action.
JAHANGIR Leadership involves the ability to conceptualize goals, share responsibilities, and set things in motion. Yet the only way that we survive is to have people who are working together and draw strength, draw confidence from each other. None of us is fool enough not to realize what the risks are; nevertheless, we try to mitigate them whenever we can. We are ordinary enough to feel fear at times. We are ordinary enough to feel the pressure. But we just go on.
JILANI I deal with fear by looking around me and saying we’ll survive and we’ll do this again. It’s like one more bridge. I look around and see that others have overcome that fear. It’s not that I am not frightened. I am. Not just for myself, but for Asma at times, at a very personal level. I don’t have children, but Asma has. And I have brothers and sisters and a mother. And they have been attacked. It’s difficult to say how we deal with it. The guilt is there. It happens. And the concern is there—even greater than guilt.
JAHANGIR I honestly tell you, I have been able to overcome fear. It was not easy. But every time I felt frightened I would go to the home of the Human Rights Commission’s director. I would invite all our friends there and we would have a good laugh. A sense of humor and the warmth of the people around has made me survive. If I were sitting by myself, isolated, I would have gone crazy. But the minute I see a half-dozen of my colleagues, well, it’s a jolly day—I don’t feel scared at all. Of course, our families have to pay the price for our commitment, I feel no guilt about it at all. I have thought about it very carefully. I think that if I die tomorrow my children will be well looked after. They have a very good father. They have three grandparents who are still alive. They have an aunt who is not married. They are nearly grown, my children: 23, 21, and 17. So in terms of building their values (which is what I was most interested in as their mother), they’ve got that. They have to learn to live in a society that is very brutal and very violent. There is no guarantee for anything, and I think my children understand that now, appreciate it. They are very worried for me. I have had to sit them down, and explain to them, and even sometimes joke with them and say, "Okay, now what I am going to do is get myself insurance, so when I die you will be rich kids." They have gone through psychological trauma but they have dealt with it. It has made them stronger people.
Once seven armed people came into my mother’s house (where Hina lives), looking to kill me and my children. And they took my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister, and their kids as hostages. Hina had fortunately just left the house in the morning with my mother. We always joke with her that it was one hour to mincemeat. But it was really very scary. That was one time that I was really upset about my family, extremely upset.
And I appreciate very much that my brother and sister, especially, because they are not human rights activists, have never said, "Give up." Never, ever have they said that this danger they experienced was because of me. That has been such a source of strength for me. They make me feel so proud. How can they be so decent about it? How can they be so understanding? It makes me more brave that there are people like them in this world.
The danger is real. Sometimes I have to tell my colleagues in the Human Rights Commission, "Take a back seat." We have a very good understanding on this, because I am already in danger, whether we stop or don’t. So why put another person in danger?
JILANI I never feel a sense of futility — ever — because I think what we do is worth doing. In the years that we have been working, the small successes count for a lot. They may be few and far between but the point is they are significant. We feel that something is there, a light at the end of the tunnel. And we have seen that light many times.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)