Women profiles: Asma Jahangir

Apr 28, 2017 | Multimedia items, News, Video clips

Honorary Member of the ICJ, Asma Jahangir, talks of her experiences as part of the ICJ’s ongoing profile series on women human rights defenders.

Asma Jahangir became interested in human rights legal work after having witnessed the frequent arrests of her father, an outspoken critic of military dictatorships, and seeing the courtroom as a place where justice could be accessed. From these early experiences, Asma identified the importance of rule of law but came to understand that this was something that went far beyond the courtrooms of Pakistan.

As a married women, her in-laws had concerns about her practicing law in a mixed firm so she co-founded Pakistan’s first all-female law firm. Initially the firm was viewed as a hobby but Asma and her other co-founders persevered and the firm still thrives today.

Ms Jahangir spoke about the challenges she faced as a female lawyer where courts and judges were at first patronizing towards her and then became angry at her as she continued to present them with cases that were challenging for them. She worked on a number of landmark cases including about whether women could get married without their fathers’ permission, be entitled to family maintenance and whether women should be judged according to religious or codified law.

Women in Pakistan face many issues in accessing justice, Ms Jahangir said. They lack resources, if they are able to access the courts they are frequently exploited by male lawyers and they encounter prejudice in their cases. In addition many laws are simply discriminatory, however women have been challenging these and will continue to do so.

There has been progress in family law in Pakistan, particularly in relation to the procedures if not the substance, yet Pakistan remains a long way from having equality in the family law framework.

Asma noted that it can be hard to engage men in women’s rights issues but commented that many men who had not considered giving certain rights to their wives had become a lot more conscious about women’s rights issues as their daughters had grown up. Many of her colleagues now ask for internships for their daughters at her law firm and admit how narrow-minded they had previously been in relation to women’s rights and equality.

From 2004 to 2010, Ms Jahangir served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and explained that she worked with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to address the delicate balance in managing freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is currently under threat around the world, Asma commented, and is being undermined in the name of a variety of reasons including security, religion and tradition or social norms. Asma said that freedom of expression is fundamental to basic human rights because stopping freedom of expression stops people from thinking.

“Self-censorship is a by-product of undermining freedom of expression and self-censorship by itself dis-informs people, brings out irrelevant issues, and suppresses the more relevant issues.”

Ms Jahangir told the ICJ that in the course of her work as a human rights activist she has been threatened, put under house arrest and imprisoned. However, rather than deterring her, Asma’s experience in jail made her stronger: “It made every woman who went to jail stronger and more resolute that we want rights.”

There was a particular case that had a strong impact on Asma, which was when she worked in defence of a child who had been accused of blasphemy and was sentenced to death. The initial verdict against the boy knocked her confidence as a lawyer, but senior colleagues encouraged her and she continued with the case, taking this to appeal.

This was a very contentious case that attracted a lot of negative attention against Ms Jahanagir. People claimed she was anti-Muslim and, as she argued for the defendant, crowds gathered outside the court calling for her execution. At one point opposing lawyers asked the judges if they could simply close the case but the judges said that if Asma was prepared to keep arguing they were prepared to hear her arguments.

Asma explained that she was inspired to continue by the defendant himself, a boy of around 14 years of age, who, when given the opportunity to run away whilst on bail, decided to stay and continue the trial rather than risk others being harmed in retaliation if he were to flee. She felt that even if she had to give her life to defend this child then it would be worth it. Ultimately the case was decided in the boy’s favour and he was acquitted.

She advised young women interested in a career as a human rights lawyer not to label themselves as ‘human rights lawyers’ rather than simply ‘lawyers’ or they will not be taken seriously. Asma said that “I think that life where you don’t have dignity and where you don’t fight for people’s dignity is a wasted life.”

Watch the interview:

The series of profiles introducing the work of ICJ Commissioners and Honorary Members on women’s rights was launched on 25 November 2016 to coincide with the International Day to Eliminate Violence against Women and the first day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

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