Two Sisters' Courageous Struggle

For 25 years, sisters Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani have fought to uphold human rights, especially women's rights, in Pakistan. Today their Lahore law firm is known throughout the country. By Bernard Imhasly

photo: AP
Pakistani women rally on International Women's Day in Karachi. They carry placards bearing the slogan "Women's Rights are Human Rights."

​​It is one of Pakistan's best-known law firms, but from the outside it could hardly be more anonymous. There is no nameplate to show visitors the way.

Once they find the entrance to the building, they must pass two armed guards before a locked door finally opens to reveal the familiar accoutrements of a law firm: busy young women and shelves stacked with files. But the visitors in the waiting room bear no resemblance to the clients of a first-class law firm – shabbily dressed women, wrapped in cheap scarves or burkas. Some are accompanied by men, while others huddle together, whispering.

Twenty-five years of struggle

photo: 'The'
Asma Jahangir

​​For Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, both the women and the armed guards are something of a trademark. For 25 years now they have been fighting to ensure that the rights of the poor are respected and upheld in a country where they are often treated with contempt. The guards are living proof that the lawyers have succeeded in raising awareness.

Ten years ago posters began to appear in Lahore showing Asma Jahangir's picture and a fatwa declaring her execution to be an obligation for every good Muslim.

And five years ago a man and a woman entered Hina's office just as she was consulting with a young woman client. The man drew a gun from under his shirt and killed 29-year-old Samia Sarwar with a single shot. Then the two left the office as if nothing had happened.

photo: 'The'
Hina Jilani

​​Jahangir's and Jilani's reputation is not based on these attacks alone, but rather on the way they reacted to them. When asked whether she went underground after the fatwa, like Salman Rushdie, Asma Jahangir replied with a smile: "Go underground? To let those mullahs gloat over my fear? No, I went on going to court every day. The only difference was that I wore sunglasses."

The lawyers learned to stand up for their convictions from an early age. Their father, a politician, spoke out openly against the military dictatorship, and spent more time in prison than at home. In 1970, at the age of 18, Asma Jahangir petitioned the Supreme Court for her father's release – and won.

Three years later, the sisters were arrested along with 17 other women from the Women's Action Forum when they took to the streets to protest against Ziaul-Haq. In an attempt to legitimize his military rule, he had introduced a medieval Islamic law code – the "Hadud Ordinance".

The mother came with a contract killer

But Samia Sarwar's murder was too much even for Hina Jilani. "I'm a strong woman. But at that moment I stood there and my legs began to tremble." What shook her was not the fear that she might be next. The woman accompanying the murderer was the mother of the victim.

Several months before, Sarwar had left her abusive husband in Peshawar, fleeing to Lahore, where she took refuge in a home called "Dastak" (Knock) founded by Jilani for victims of domestic violence. The parents tried to rescue the family's honor by bringing Samia back.

When all their efforts failed, the mother came with a hired killer and had him shoot her daughter. Five years later, the parents and the killer are still free. Not only that: the father has filed a suit against Jilani.

He accuses her of kidnapping his daughter, putting her in a Lahore brothel and having her killed. Even today Jilani must still travel to Peshawar to conduct her defense. But that is not what continues to horrify her today. It was the sight of the woman lying on the floor in her own blood and her mother refusing to bend down to her.

"Domestic violence is our fate"

The mother's inhuman behavior gives an idea of the severity of traditions legitimated by religion and tribal custom. According to a report by Amnesty International, 40 percent of women in Pakistan accept domestic violence as their fate.

Recently the state did increase the representation of women in the parliaments and district councils. However, 20 years after it was introduced by the military regime, the "Hadud Ordinance" still has legal force. It is clearly unconstitutional, but for the Sharia Court, which enjoys a status equal to that of the Supreme Court, it has religious legitimacy.

Because of the ordinance, the vast majority of women prisoners today are in custody for "Zina" (adultery and indecency). The "Zina" paragraph makes it easy for a man to get rid of his wife, as the law gives less weight to a woman's testimony than to a man's.

The same is true when a woman is raped and presses charges; she must bring four men to testify that force was used against her. If she cannot do so, she runs the risk of being imprisoned for illegal sexual contact.

Almost 1,000 women a year fall victim to "honor killings"

The two lawyers were unable to save Samia Sarwar, like the almost 1,000 women a year who fall victim to "honor killers", but they have defended countless women against the draconian "Hadud Ordinance", saving them from imprisonment and whippings.

So far they have not succeeded in outlawing the punishments themselves. Recently a member of parliament received death threats after he proposed changing the laws to this effect. "We are fighting against deep-rooted social prejudices which cannot be changed overnight", says Jahangir.

Their real adversary is the state, which uses these laws as a tool of social repression to serve its patriarchal (or purely opportunistic) motives. Two years ago President Musharraf promised to revise the "Hadud Ordinance". However, there has been no action so far, as the president is dependent on the domestic support of the Islamist parties.

A dysfunctional legal system

The two dauntless lawyers think little of most of their colleagues, saying that they will do anything for money. The judges still operate under the shadow of the military dictatorship as well.

The "Doctrine of Necessity" with which the courts legitimized military putsches has left its mark on the judges' relationship to the state. The legal authorities have yet to learn how to define their role in a democratic state, says Jilani.

At the same time, she is aware of the difficult circumstances under which judges must administer the law – badly paid and lacking a professional infrastructure. And she praises the few swallows that may actually herald a summer to come: "There are judges who stand up for human rights." Asma adds that, though death sentences for blasphemy are easy to pass, no court has yet dared to carry one out.

This stubborn optimism illustrates the moral authority of these human rights activists even more vividly than their anger at the pervasiveness of social injustice. The realization that their struggle for justice will be a long one prevents them from succumbing to pessimism.

Hina Jilani even admits that their work is more difficult right now than it was 20 years ago. Compared to the period of the military dictatorship, there are fewer young people who are willing to put their career on hold and stand up for civil rights issues.

Despite everything: progress is being made

Still, the lawyers would rather discuss the triumphs of the human rights movement in Pakistan than their personal disappointments. The harsh punishments for indecency or adultery demanded by Islamic law are seldom carried out.

Though many women are in prison, the rate of acquittal in "Zina" cases is now 90 percent. And even if many "honor killings" are still being committed, nowadays at least everyone knows that it is a crime.

The two women have also worked to ensure that their work will go on without them. In the 1980s the Women's Action Forum emerged as the heart of the democracy movement.

Jahangir and Jilani are co-founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which now has branches throughout the country and has become the most important body monitoring the violation of fundamental rights.

Working free of charge

Their law firm employs 14 women lawyers who take on every case that is brought to them. In the vast majority of cases they work free of charge. The institutionalization of human rights work in Pakistan also enables the two lawyers to share their experience with international organizations.

Asma Jahangir has served two terms as UN Special Reporter on "Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions". This year she will give up the post. She is also a commissioner at the International Lawyers' Commission in Geneva and co-founder and president of the non-governmental organization South Asia for Human Rights.

Her sister is also a member of numerous international human rights organizations and often serves as a consultant for UN agencies.

Their international activities have shown the sisters that even though there may be more human rights violations in Pakistan than in western countries, injustice such as domestic violence against women is widespread in rich democratic countries as well.

The two lawyers have received numerous awards, but despite their honorary doctorates they continue to take to the streets and demonstrate. "Anger is what keeps me going," says Jilani. "Anger and the realization that I can't leave it at that. I have to do something with my anger."

Bernard Imhasly

© Bernard Imhasly/NZZ/ 2004

This article was originally published in the Swiss daily NZZ.

For more information about the work of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan click here