Friday, January 12, 2007

TIME Magazine: Asian Heroes - Asma Jahangir

TIME Magazine: Asian Heroes - Asma Jahangir

Asma Jahangir
The pocket protector
By Tim McGirk Islamabad

At 152 centimeters tall, Asma Jahangir is a mere sparrow of a woman. But she's got a big voice, which she isn't afraid to use. Jahangir and her colleagues at the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body of lawyers and activists, defend Christians and Muslims sentenced to death by stoning under harsh and capricious blasphemy laws. She shelters women whose families want to murder them—only because they deserted cruel husbands. She investigates the fate of prisoners who vanish in police custody and battles for their release through the courts and in the press. In short, Jahangir rails against the myriad injustices that plague her homeland, a type of cage rattling that doesn't always get popular support. "People aren't willing to believe that these injustices happen in our society," says Jahangir, 51. "But it's all going on next door."

Jahangir's father, Malik Jilani, was a politician who spent years in jail and under house arrest for opposing a string of military dictatorships, so his daughter grew up in Lahore with secret policemen at the garden gate. "Asma was always charging off against bullies," says Seema Iftikhar, a childhood friend, "or challenging the school's silly rules." She earned a law degree in 1978 and managed in the mid-1980s to overturn a death sentence against a blind woman who was gang-raped and then, grotesquely, charged with adultery. Since then, she and I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission, have defended thousands of hopeless cases.

Yet many Pakistanis wish Jahangir would just shut up. President Pervez Musharraf occasionally explodes into fury against her, saying she is unpatriotic. Eight years back, five gunmen burst into her house, searching for her and her young son; fortunately, neither were home. Five years ago, a policeman was caught creeping up to her house with a dagger.

Today, in addition to her work for the Human Rights Commission, Jahangir serves as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, a job that has taken her to Afghanistan, Central America and Colombia. "There have to be principles, justice," she insists. "Otherwise, we fall into a cycle of revenge." And back home, people are starting to recognize that a voice capable of challenging authority is invaluable. Checking in at the Lahore airport recently, she was asked by fellow passengers to confront an immigration official who was harassing passengers for bribes. She did, and the official swiftly backed down. "I couldn't resist," Jahangir says with a laugh. She's a small lady—with a large job.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

More Good Laws

The passage of the Women’s Protection Bill by the National Assembly is undoubtedly a major positive step forward in this country’s history and it is heartening to see the government make use of this momentum to push some other much-needed legislation to improve the lives of Pakistani women. Legislation is to be introduced in the next session of parliament targeting six particular areas of concern. These are related to ensuring that women get their rightful share at inheritance; ensuring that the abhorrent custom of ‘marrying’ girls off to the Holy Quran is stopped; that men are not allowed to divorce women merely by saying the word ‘talaq’ three times in quick succession; and that the cruel ‘traditions’ of swara and wani (child marriage and marrying off young girls into a rival clan as a way of settling tribal feuds), karo-kari and ‘watta satta’ (where young girls are married off in pairs to brothers) are outlawed.

It has to be said that for once one can unequivocally and without any qualification say that parliament will be passing some excellent legislation. The ruling party has said that it will take the views of all parties and stakeholders with regard to this new legislation. This is good though one can hardly understand why anyone would oppose any legislation that seeks to reverse or check the abhorrent misogynistic customs found in our society. That, though, does not necessarily rule out opposition from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal given its behaviour during the passage of the Women’s Protection Bill and its consequent decision to resign from the National Assembly in early December. That said, the alliance of six religious parties will find it hard to not support this new legislation because it is more or less universally believed that no religion sanctions cruel customs like swara, watta satta and karo kari. As for the new laws, they should be passed sooner than later so that the momentum created by the passage of the Women’s Protection Bill can be used as a driving force to offer, finally, some hope and respite to the women of this country, who may now see themselves released from the shackles that have been holding them back since the days of General Zia’s infamous rule. Of course, one should bear in mind that while laws can change, the harder part sometimes is to change centuries-old attitudes and mindsets. Nevertheless, having the law on one’s side does help and that is why the proposed legislation is very welcome.

The next Step

ill to protect Pakistani women
Women's protest outside national assembly in Islamabad
Pakistani women demanding greater rights
The Pakistani government has submitted another bill in parliament to protect women's rights, officials say.

The bill seeks to make forced marriage a crime and safeguard women's right to property and inheritance.

It is likely to be tabled in the national assembly during its next session, due in December.

On Wednesday, the assembly overcame bitter opposition from a alliance of Islamic parties to pass amendments to the country's controversial rape laws.

President Pervez Musharraf's chief political ally, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, was quoted by Pakistan's official APP news agency as saying the new bill was one of a series of steps the government had planned to empower women.

The bill stipulates action against those who deprive women of their property rights, the minister for parliamentary affairs, Sher Afgan, said.

It seeks to outlaw some local customs that prevent women from marrying and hence bearing children who may claim her share in ancestral property.

It also criminalises forced marriages, including those in which young girls are given away in marriage to settle murder feuds, he said.