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.