Asma Jahangir – Pakistan

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005

Asma Jahangir – Pakistan

For a quarter-century, acclaimed human rights lawyer and UN special rapporteur Asma Jahangir (born 1952), has been a thorn in the side of the powerful and ruthless in Pakistan. During this time, this human rights’ lawyer, working for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRC), has defended the oppressed in Pakistani society – among them political prisoners, bonded laborers, women, and minorities sentenced under unjust laws.

She has also played a pivotal role in building institutional structures to provide free legal aid and monitoring human rights in Pakistan. Internationally recognized for her achievements, Asma Jahangir also works with the International Commission of Jurists, and is a senior UN official.

An interview with AsiaSource was conducted while Ms Jahangir was in New York for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders presented at the Asia Society, and published on their website on October 27, 2005.

You have recently been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. What does this position entail, and how does it compare with your work as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions?

My work as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief entails monitoring the situation worldwide. I have to monitor the growing trends, or patterns, of violations, and point out the countries or regions where intolerance is increasing. Basically my work is regulated by the 1981 Declaration on Religious Intolerance. My previous mandate as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was a very hard mandate in the sense that it was concerning people’s lives but this one is intellectually more challenging and more complex. The previous one was more or less black or white. So I think they are both very different and very difficult in their own way. But this certainly is more complex. (See the rest of this interview on AsiaSource-Interviews).

Biography: Date of Birth: 27 January, 1952.

Academic Qualification: 1968- Senior Cambridge- “O” Levels Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore 1974- Bachelor of Arts, Kinnard College, Lahore. 1978- Bachelor of Law, Punjab University. 1998- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law Lahore, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Professional Career: Advocate 1980 Advocate, High Court, Pakistan 1982 Advocate, Supreme Court of Pakistan 1992.

Publications: Divine Section The Hadood Ordinances 1988, Children of a Lesser God 1992, Papers on Child Labour, Bonded Labour and Slavery, Women’s Empowerment, Gender and Justice, Independence of the Judiciary, Strategies for Human Rights and Electoral Process in Pakistan.


1980 : Convenor, Punjab Women Lawyer’s Association

1985-1987 : Executive Member, Women’s Action Forum

1985-1987 : Executive Committee Member, Lahore High Court Bar Association

1985-1987 : Council Member, LAWASIA Sydney, Australia

1987 : Trustee, Malik Ghulam Jilani Foundation

1986-1988 : Vice- Chairperson, Defence for Children International, Geneva, Switzerland

1987-1990 : Member, Steering Committee, Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development, Malaysia

1987-1993 : Secretary General, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

1993 : Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

1990-1993 : Director, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Canada

1988-1993 : Executive Member, Punjab Bar Council

1988-1990 : Chairperson Standing Committe on Human Rights Lawasia, Sidney

1997 : Board Member, Interights, London

1997 : Board Member, Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, London

1998 : Board Member, International Commission of Jurists, Geneva

Awards: American Bar Association, 1992 Sitara-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan, 1995 Martin Ennals Award, 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award, 1995.

Asma Jahangir – Pakistan

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.”

Today, there 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.


Women of Pakistan;




UN special rapporteur;

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