Asma Jilani Jahangir (born January 27, 1952 in Karachi) is a leading Pakistani lawyer, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, President Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and human rights activist, who works both in Pakistan and internationally to prevent the persecution of religious minorities, women, and exploitation of children.
She was the United Nations Special Reporter on Freedom of Religion or Belief from August 2004 to July 2010 (first attached to the former Commission on Human Rights, now to the Human Rights Council). Previously, she served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. She is also chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
She is married and has a son and two daughters, Munizae Jahangir, a journalist and Sulema Jahangir, who is also a lawyer.
Jahangir was born into a prosperous and politically active family with a history of activism and human rights work. Her father, Malik Jilani, was a civil servant, who entered politics upon retirement and spent years in jail and under house arrest for opposing military dictatorships. Her father was imprisoned on several occasions for his outspoken views, which included denouncing the Pakistani government for genocide during their military action in what is now Bangladesh. Her mother, educated at a co-ed college at a time, when few Muslim women even received higher education – also fought the traditional system, pioneering her own clothes business, when the family’s lands were confiscated in 1967 as a result of her husband’s opinions and detention. Jahangir herself became involved at a young age in protests against the military regime as well as opposing her father’s detention by then president, Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972. She completed her BA from Kinnaird College, Lahore and her law degree in 1978, and her LLB from Punjab University. She also holds an honorary doctorate from University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
She has spent her career defending the human and women rights, rights of religious minorities and children in Pakistan. Jahangir was and remains a staunch critic of the Hudood Ordinance and blasphemy laws of Pakistan put in place as part of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization program in Pakistan. She is a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and has served as Secretary-General and later Chairperson of the organization.
In 1980, Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, got together with fellow activists and lawyers to form the first law firm established by women in Pakistan. In the same year they also helped form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a pressure group campaigning against Pakistan’s discriminatory legislation, most notably against the Proposed Law of Evidence, where the value of a woman’s testimony was reduced to half that of a man’s testimony, and the Hadood Ordinances, where victims of rape had to prove their innocence or else face punishment themselves. On February 12, 1983, the Punjab Women Lawyers Association in Lahore organised a public protest (one of its leaders was Jahangir) against the Proposed Law of Evidence, during which Jahangir and other participating WAF members were beaten, teargassed, and arrested by police.
The first WAF demonstration, however, was in 1983, when some 25-50 women took to the streets protesting the controversial case of Safia Bibi. In 1983, Safia, a blind 13-year-old girl, was raped by her employers, and as a result became pregnant, yet ended up in jail charged with fornication (zina) sentenced to flogging, 3 years of imprisonment and fined. (Jahangir defended Safia in her appeal and eventually the verdict was overruled by an appeals court due to pressure and protests.); “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.”
In 1982 Jahangir earned the nickname “little heroine” after leading a protest march in Islamabad against a decision by then-president Zia ul Haq to enforce religious laws and stated: “Family laws [which are religious laws] give women few rights” and that “They have to be reformed because Pakistan cannot live in isolation. We cannot remain shackled while other women progress.”
In 1986 Jahangir and Hina set up AGHS Legal Aid, the first free legal aid centre in Pakistan. The AGHS Legal Aid Cell in Lahore also runs a shelter for women, called ‘Dastak’. Look after by her secretary Munib Ahmed.
She is also a proponent of protecting the rights of persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan and speaks out against forced conversions.
Jahangir has campaigned against human rights abuses taking place in government and police custody in Pakistan, i.e. rape in police custody is widespread but vastly under-reported; “Women are arrested, raped and sexually assaulted every day in the presence of female constables, who find themselves helpless in such situations.”
In 1996 the High Court in Lahore ruled that an adult Muslim woman could not get married without the consent of her male guardian (wali). Women, who chose their husbands independently, could be forced to annul their marriages and the repercussions were highlighted by Jahangir, who also took on such cases (i.e. the case of Saima Waheed);”Hundreds have already been arrested. This is simply going to open up the floodgates for the harassment of women and girls by their families and the authorities. The courts have sanctioned their oppression. Thousands more are bound to be affected by this.”
Jahangir has demanded that the government of Parvez 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-Taiba 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.
She is also an active opponent of child labour and capital punishment: “It would be hypocrisy to defend laws I don’t believe in, like capital punishment, the blasphemy law and laws against women and in favor of child labor.”
In her capacity as a UN official, Jahangir was in Pakistan, when Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in 2007. In November 2006, she participated the international meeting for The Yogyakarta Principles as one of 29 experts. On November 5, 2007, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour indicated that Jahangir was among the judicial and political officials detained by the Musharraf government.
On November 5, 2007, The Economist reported that “Over 500 lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists have been arrested. They include Asma Jahangir, boss of the country’s human-rights commission and a former UN special rapporteur. In an e-mail from her house arrest, where she has been placed for 90 days, Ms Jahangir regretted that General Musharraf had “lost his marbles”.
Jahangir is the author of many publications and 2 books, “Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance” (1988, 2003) and “Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan” (1992).
One of her famous publications is titled “Whither are We!” and was published in Dawn, on October 2, 2000
ahangir has received numerous threats over the years due to her activism and human rights work and particularly after defending a 14 year old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, accused of blasphemy and ultimately winning the case in 1995, a mob at the High Court smashed Jahangir’s car, assaulted her and her driver, threatening her with death. Jahangir and her family have been attacked, taken hostage, had their home broken into and received death threats ever since, but she continues her battle for justice.
When Jahangir undertook the case of Saima Sarwar in 1999, who was given shelter at Dastak after leaving her husband, wanting a divorce and later gunned down by her family in an act of honor killing, Jahangir received death threats for representing Saima in her divorce proceedings.
In May 2005 Jahangir announced that she would hold a symbolic mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise awareness about violence against women. This was following the revelations of cases such as Mukhtar Mai. Tensions boiled over, as Islamist groups and supporters of the political Islamist alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) armed with firearms, batons and Molotov cocktails, violently opposed the race, and Jahangir received especially rough treatment from local police and intelligence agents, who began to strip off her clothes in public. Of this Jahangir said “A lot of people tried to cover my back because I could only feel it I could not see my back. When they were putting me on the police van, they assured that my photograph was taken while my back was bare. This was just to humiliate, this was simply just to humiliate me.” A police officer told Jahangir that they had orders to be strict and to tear off the participant’s clothes. In addition she along with other participants was also beaten.
In 1995, Jahangir received the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders as well as the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “greatness of spirit shown in service of the people”.
In 2001 Jahangir and Hina Jilani were awarded the Millennium prize, by UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) in collaboration with the non-governmental organisation International Alert.
In 2002 she was awarded the Lisl and Leo Eitinger Prize.
In 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the 1000 Women for Peace project.
On May 29, 2010 at the International Four Freedoms Award 2010 Jahangir will receive the Freedom of Worship Medal for her human rights and religious freedom activism in a ceremony held in the Nieuwe Kerk in Middelburg, Holland.
On March 23, 2010 for services in Human Rights, she was awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, the second highest civilian award of Pakistan.
On October 27, 2010 She won the Supreme Court Bar Association election by defeating her competitor Ahmed Awais and securing 834 of total votes and became the first ever women President of SCBA in the history of Pakistan. .
On December 10, 2010 she was awarded with the 2010 UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.