Asma Jahangir – Laureate of the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights 2010

Asma Jahangir © All Rights Reserved

The UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights is awarded to Asma Jahangir (Pakistan) in recognition of her exceptional and courageous contribution to building a universal culture of human rights, her role as a human rights defender and as a lawyer committed to upholding the human rights of religious minorities, women and children, and for fostering interreligious and intercultural dialogues, tolerance, mutual understanding and cooperation for peace.

Biography

Lawyer, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, she is a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and has served as Secretary-General and later Chairperson of the organization. Asma Jahangir has dedicated her life to the defense of human rights and upholding constitutional law. She works both in Pakistan and internationally to prevent the persecution of religious minorities, women, and exploitation of children.

A lawyer by profession and a leading human rights activist, Asma Jilani Jahangir was born in 1952 in Lahore, Pakistan.

She did her BA from Kinnaird College, Lahore and her LLB from Punjab University. She also holds Honorary Doctorates in Law from University of Saint Gallen, Switzerland, Queen’s University, Canada and Amherst College, United States of America.

Historically Asma Jahangir has influenced major social and political issues in Pakistan.

In 1980, soon after her LLB, Asma Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, got together with fellow activists and lawyers and formed the first law firm run by women in Pakistan, which was followed by AGHS Legal Aid, the first free legal aid centre in Pakistan. Initially, the activities were focused on providing legal aid to women, but gradually these activities increased to including legal awareness, education, protection from exploitation, legal research, counseling and providing legal assistance as well. The AGHS Legal Aid Cell in Lahore also runs a shelter for women, called 'Dastak'. In 1980, Asma Jahangir and her fellow activists also helped form the Women's Action Forum (WAF).

Asma Jahangir has been an advocate for gender equality. She has been a staunch critic of laws discriminating the rights of women, and has been involved in a number of law suits generated thereby. Her commitment led to imprisonment and later to her house arrests. She and her family received various death threats. On 12 February 1983, the Punjab Women Lawyers’ Association in Lahore organized a public protest (she was one of its leaders) against the Proposed Law of Evidence, during which Asma Jahangir and other participating WAF members were confronted by the police and arrested. Thanks to Asma Jahangir’s efforts, many cases of injustice towards women have come to light and she managed to alleviate the life of many persecuted people. Some familiar names are Safia Bibi, Saima Waheed, Jehan Mina and Shahnaz Bibi. One of the most controversial cases was her advocacy of Safia Bibi, a blind 13-year-old girl who was raped by her employers, and as a result became pregnant, yet ended up in jail charged with zina (adultery). In protest, 25-50 women members of WAF held their first street demonstration in 1983 to protest against this case defended by Asma Jahangir who with her fellow activists managed to overturn her death sentence.

In 1995, she received numerous death threats for her defence of Salamat Masih, a fourteen-year old Christian boy sentenced to death for allegedly writing blasphemous words against Islam on the wall of a mosque. In 1999, Asma and her sister, Hina Jilani, a fellow lawyer and activist, were again subject to death threats after representing Samia Sawar, a 32 year-old woman who was seeking divorce from her abusive husband. Samia had turned to her family for help but they had refused to help her obtain a divorce. When Samia continued to seek a divorce, Samia’s family had her murdered in broad daylight in the very law offices of Asma and Hina. Apparently, the family believed that Samia's actions were dishonourable to the family.

To promote gender equality and empower women, Asma Jahangir has also proposed interactions on the civil society level through social exchange combined with efforts to uplift the status of women and at the same provide financial stability through business and job opportunities to poor Pakistani.

In addition to being an advocate of Supreme Court of Pakistan, Professor of Law at Quaid-e-Azam Law College, Lahore, she worked as Chairperson and Honorary Board Member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Since 1987, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has developed, under the leadership of Asma Jahangir, to become a broad-spectrum, countrywide human rights body. Nationally, HRCP has established a leading role in providing a highly informed and independent voice in the struggle for human rights and democratic development in Pakistan - a role increasingly recognized internationally. It is an independent, voluntary, non-political, non-profit making, non-governmental organization, registered under the Societies Registration Act (XXI of 1860), with its Secretariat office in Lahore. Its mission includes:

  • working for the ratification and implementation by Pakistan of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of other related Charters, Covenants, Protocols, Resolutions, Recommendations and internationally adopted norms;
  • promoting studies in the field of human rights and mobilize public opinion in favour of accepted norms through all available media and forums, and carrying out every category of activity to further the cause;
  • cooperating with and aid national and international groups, organizations and individuals engaged in the promotion of human rights and participating in meetings and congresses on human rights at home and abroad;
  • taking appropriate action to prevent violations of human rights and providing legal aid and other assistance to victims of those violations and to individuals and groups striving to protect human rights.

On 27 October 2010, Asma Jahangir was elected as President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association. She is now the first woman to lead the most prestigious association of the legal community in Pakistan.

Asma Jahangir was actively involved in the human rights work at the international level.

She co-chaired South Asians for Human Rights.

She is Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

From August 1998 to July 2004 she served as a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions, a task that had taken her to Afghanistan, Central America and Colombia.

From August 2004 to July 2010 she served as a Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Her efforts advance the mutual understanding of religions in a time of confrontation and violence. In her official capacity she has initiated and encouraged intercultural dialogue between countries. She operated on the assumption that religion is part of culture, and that different religions share sufficient values and standards to allow them to show respect for each other’s worldviews.

Asma Jahangir is recipient of several national awards, including Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Distinction) in 1995 and Hilal-i-Imtiaz (2009) – the highest civilian award. In recognition of her services in the field of human rights, she was awarded the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award in 1992, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in 1995. She was also honoured with the Bernard Simons Memorial Award of the International Bar Association in 2000. In 2001, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani were awarded the Millennium Peace Prize.

In 2010, she was awarded the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.

She has authored two books: Divine Sanction? The Hudood Ordinance (1988) and Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoners of Pakistan (1992).

She is a mother of two daughters and a son.

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