Asma Jahangir: Human Rights for All
In November 2016, Jahangir assumed her mandate as UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, bringing her unflagging support for human rights to monitoring and publicly engaging on issues of concern in Iran. For decades, human rights defender Asma Jahangir has numbered among the strongest voices for democracy and progressive policies in Pakistan and, more recently, around the world. Her career has spanned legal representation and reform, writing, and advocacy, all for the rights of communities left behind by their governments. Despite death threats, personal attacks, and even a plan by the Pakistani government to assassinate her, Jahangir stands tall for women, minorities, and all those without protection. She refers to these threats as simply “part of the work.” 
In recognition of her courageous work building a movement for human rights in Pakistan, Jahangir has been appointed to other United Nations offices, including Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions (1998-2004) and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (2004-2010).
Former President of Pakistan General Zia ul-Haq
In 1952, Asma Jahangir was born in Lahore, second city of the newly-created country of Pakistan, to a father who was a human rights and political activist. As a child, she quickly learned about her country’s limits on basic civil liberties; her father was put under house arrest for criticizing the first Bhutto regime in 1972. At the age of 18 she filed her first petition, which demanded that her father be released from jail after he criticized the country’s war in Bangladesh.
In July 1977, General Zia ul-Haq took control of Pakistan in a bloodless coup d’etat, beginning a period of martial law that openly violated the basic rights of the country’s citizens. It was in this environment of repression that Jahangir came into her own as an activist: “In our country, where there has been oppression for many years, where there has been military, where there have been autocratic civilian rulers, we have to pick up the pieces together. We have to begin to build it in the hope that we will get one day somebody better in the driving seat.”
Pakistan’s Islamization under General ul-Haq was particularly oppressive to the country’s women. As part of this process, the country instituted the Hudood Ordinances, which introduced fixed punishments drawn from Quranic sources regarding offenses like theft, drunkenness, adultery, and rape. Among these new crimes against the state was zina (sexual intercourse between a non-married man and woman), punishable by death or flogging.
Zia also introduced severe amendments to national blasphemy laws. These changes specifically targeted the Ahmadiyya community and criminalized derogatory remarks toward the Prophet Muhammad, his family, or any of the caliphs.
In her earliest protests against these ordinances, Jahangir met many of the women who would later become her legal clients, jailed alongside her for protesting the imposition of Islamic law.
As a result of these legal changes, those who spoke out against the government were silenced, women were treated as second-class citizens, and religious minorities were forced to live in fear. Jahangir decided to address her country’s needs head-on by training as a lawyer at Punjab University. As an attorney, she chose to represent those neglected or persecuted by the Pakistani government, deliberately undertaking high-profile cases that challenged the legislative structure.
In one outstanding example, she defended Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old Christian boy accused under blasphemy laws of scribbling offensive words on a mosque. In a resounding legal success, Jahangir proved that the boy was illiterate and could not have written the words. His trumped-up charges were thrown out, marking a major victory against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Bringing People Together
Hina Jilani sister and co-activist to Asma Jahangir
In order to amplify the impact of this work in the courtroom, Jahangir and her attorney sister Hina Jilani founded the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, the first all-female law firm in Pakistan, in 1980. As a founding member of AGHS, Jahangir worked tirelessly to change the status quo in Pakistan by defending the rights of women, minorities and children.
AGHS today not only provides free legal aid, but also educates paralegals, publishes texts on legal awareness and research on labor rights, and monitors and advocates for human rights. AGHS also established one of the country’s first private women’s shelters, called “Dastak”, providing an alternative to the infamous state shelters known for their own dangerous environment.
In 1981, Jahangir and Hilani were once again instrumental in founding the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) as a lobbying and advocacy organization to fight for women’s rights. The catalyst for the establishment of the WAF was an “adultery” case in which a fifteen-year-old girl was sentenced to flogging because she married a lower-class man of whom her parents did not approve. Outraged at the trial’s procedure, the sisters banded together with other professional female activists to organize and protest on issues of importance to women, including sexual harassment, torture, professional restrictions, and imposition of a dress code. Since that time, WAF has grown from three regional chapters in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad into a nation-wide, non-partisan organization that allies with other democratic forces to support all aspects of women’s rights.
In 1987, Jahangir founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) to highlight abuses throughout the country and conduct public campaigns in favor of human rights norms. On the need for an independent voice on human rights, she commented that “there was been no change on the ground at all. People are tortured in the same way…but the government of Pakistan is committed to human rights. I wonder whose?”
Since the Pakistani government’s actions still do not consistently promote human rights, the HRCP continues to act as a watchdog to promote change within Pakistan and foster international support.
Reflecting on her work, Jahangir said of her strategy, “The way [Pakistan’s situation] 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.”
An International Voice
As Jahangir neared her third decade of activism, she became known as much for her writing as for her courtroom defense. Her most famous piece, “Whither are we?” was published in the Dawn newspaper in 2000, and offered a scathing report of the withering away of Pakistani civil society.
Shortly afterward, she also published a thorough research study on the legal rights of disadvantaged Pakistanis, Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance (2003). This book would join her earlier Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1993) as a key text for those seeking to understand the human rights situation in Pakistan.
Former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf
When Pervez Musharraf took office as President of Pakistan in 2001, the country saw widespread hope for moderate policies. However, such hopes were quickly dashed as Musharraf proved his animosity toward human rights and accountable government. In 2005, Jahangir helped organize a mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to protest continued religious violence against female athletes, but was beaten and publicly humiliated by police for her efforts.
Just two years later, Musharraf placed Jahangir and some 500 other activists under house arrest, claiming a state of emergency and a national threat due to opposition activity. This repression backfired, however, ultimately drawing greater attention to the plight of human rights defenders in Pakistan. Prominent media and international NGOS like Frontline Defenders, the Carter Center, and The Economist all highlighted Jahangir’s house arrest.
Despite her continued involvement in the day-to-day work of defending human rights in Pakistan, Jahangir became more and more prominent internationally around the turn of the century. She served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions from 1998 to 2004 and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2004 to 2010. In these positions, she wrote UN reports prolifically, ranging in theme from the treatment of children in Pakistan to the promotion of human rights and civil society. Never one to be left behind, she has become a leading voice in the emerging field of LGBT human rights as well: in 2007, Jahangir was one of the experts who launched the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
Jahangir has received numerous international awards that amplified her message of inclusion internationally, including the Millennium Prize, UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, the Freedom of Worship Medal, the Right Livelihood Prize, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Reflecting on receiving the Right Livelihood Award, Jahangir insisted, “This award is not only a recognition for me; it is a tribute to a large number of Pakistanis who have worked relentlessly for better human rights in the country.”
Aasia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010
Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index ranked Pakistan 117th out of 167 countries, and in 2011 it was named one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work after the murder of Asia Times Online writer Saleem Shahzad.
Furthermore, in Pakistan’s most prominent ongoing blasphemy case, Jahangir joined forces with Governor of the Punjab Salman Taseer in opposing the execution of Christian Pakistani Aasia Bibi, only for Taseer himself to be assassinated as a blasphemer.
However, signs of progress continue to emerge. In 2010, Jahangir was elected president of the Supreme Court Bar Association due to the unflagging support of her (mostly male) fellow lawyers, notably those from the minority province of Balochistan.
In another development reflecting years of hard work by Jahangir and her colleagues, Pakistan passed a law in October 2016 mandating 25-year prison sentences for those convicted of honor killings, closing a loophole that previously allowed murderers to avoid punishment by seeking forgiveness from the victim’s family members.
Jahangir shows every sign of taking on her new mandate as Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran with her characteristic passion and determination. Within days of her assuming office, the political prisoners of Rejaishahr Prison were writing to her to report violations of their rights.
In Asma Jahangir, as in her predecessor Ahmed Shaheed, the people of Iran have a powerful and determined advocate.
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Research & Reports
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