Women profiles: Hina Jilani

The ICJ continues its profile series of women’s rights defenders with ICJ Commissioner Hina Jilani.

Hina Jilani is a human rights activist and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, she has served as the first UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to the Secretary-General and has been an ICJ Commissioner since 2013. In 1980, Hina co-founded Pakistan’s first all-female legal aid practice, AGHS Legal Aid Cell (ALAC).

Hina started her legal career at a time of an oppressive military government takeover in Pakistan. The government sought to legitimize their authority on the basis of Islam, which they interpreted as meaning lesser rights for women who were reduced to second-class citizens and denied the same rights as men. This sparked Hina’s passionate commitment to women’s rights work.

The women’s rights movement in Pakistan has declared itself a secular movement, having decided that it is better to separate the question of religion and universal rights. Hina said that Islam doesn’t deny rights to anyone but that when it is used by those in positions of authority they can interpret religion in ways that suit their own political needs and this results in inequality.

Domestic violence is a major problem in Pakistan and Hina said that most women will have experienced this in one form or another at some point in their lives.

Hina identified a lack of social mobility and social prejudices as key challenges that women in Pakistan face in accessing justice.

In a society where women are encouraged to stay at home many women are unable to access the legal and other services they may need if their rights are being abused. Many women do not even have an awareness of what their rights are, nor do they have access to information about their rights or the kinds of people that could provide them with this information.

In addition, where women do seek justice through the legal system they often encounter social prejudices from those administering that system.

However, although the Pakistani judiciary has traditionally been very conservative there has been a lot of progress in this area. Ms Jilani thinks this is a results of women’s rights advocates taking cases to courts and presenting these in a way that makes the social inequalities and injustices apparent and makes it easier for judges to make better decision that challenge these prejudices.

Ms Jilani recommends three steps for eradicating violence against women:

Firstly, it is essential to have strong legislation; having something anchored in the law makes it incumbent for authorities and institutions to provide women with protection and justice.

Secondly, there must be mechanisms on the ground that make it possible for women to assert their rights under any such legislation; this goes beyond legal support and will include cross-sectoral services such as women’s shelters.

Thirdly, there must be independent judges administering the legislation; judges must be independent not only of the executive but also of their own social prejudices.

Defending women’s rights in the courts of law has seen some significant victories in terms of clarifying the whole meaning of equality and equal opportunity. However, Hina said that the most difficult rights protection work women can do is defending women’s rights.

Women’s rights defenders “are seen as change-makers who are not necessarily liked so they are targeted”. They are often vulnerable to exclusion, social isolation and being discredited, both within their wider communities and also, often, within their own families.

Hina Jilani recommends that women who engage in rights defence work develop strong support networks that also makes link with other rights movements. The more it is apparent they are not acting in isolation, the better protected they will be.

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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