"All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to
equal protection of law." This and other fundamental rights are enshrined within the
Constitution of Pakistan. Yet recent efforts to Islamize Pakistan have compromised the
secular spirit of the constitution: laws protecting women have been weakened; blasphemy
against the Prophet Muhammad is now punishable by death. According to the Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan, it is common in Pakistan today for women and girls to be
assaulted, raped, and murdered without any practical recourse to justice; at the same
time, minority sects and free thinkers in the country stand virtually unprotected against
malicious attacks by religious zealots.
Under these vexing circumstances, Asma Jahangir, a lawyer, strives to apply the laws of
her country fairly; but where the laws of Pakistan do not conform to a humane and
equitable standard, she also strives to change them.
Jahangir was only eighteen years old when she stepped into the limelight to challenge
her father's arrest by Pakistan's martial law government. By the age of twenty-eight, she
had married and opened a law practice in Lahore with her sister, Hina Jilani, and two
other women. Most of her clients were women. For them, Jahangir and her partners often
represented the only hope for justice in a society where traditional attitudes and
practices weighed heavily against females. As her law practice grew, Jahangir threw
herself into the broad struggle for reform in Pakistan. She clashed fearlessly with the
military government of Zia-ul Haq and, in 1984, was arrested for sedition. In 1986, she
became founding secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, dedicated to
documenting the rampant mistreatment and exploitation of women, children, minorities, and
laborers and to bringing Pakistan within the pale of international human rights standards.
Under new laws promulgated amid the Islamization of the 1980s, a woman in Pakistan who
accuses a man of rape may easily fall victim to the countercharge of zina, the crime of
adultery and sex-out-of-wedlock. Over 80 percent of the women in jail in Pakistan today
have been arrested on exactly this charge. Jahangir's law firm advises and defends such
women and pleads forcefully against laws that jeopardize females; meanwhile, its free
legal aid center provides reader-friendly pamphlets and a team of paralegal assistants to
educate women about their current rights and legal options.
Pakistan's blasphemy law is notoriously subject to abuse. Victims of spurious charges
(in some cases, illiterate youths and targets of personal vendettasChristian and
Muslim alike) have been herded into court or, worse, beaten or murdered by fanatical
self-anointed religious Purifiers. Jahangir calls the law "terrifying" and has
defended several of its victims, winning important victories in the Supreme Court. She is
mobilizing support for the law's repeal and, in the meantime, for safeguards against its
Asked to become Pakistan's first woman judge in 1994, Jahangir declined, saying,
"It would be hypocrisy to be a judge and defend laws that I don't believe in."
Working ten hours a day and more, with not enough time to savor her three children,
Asma Jahangir struggles on many fronts to stem the tide of theocratization and lawlessness
in Pakistan. She is optimistic. As the outcome hangs in the balance, however, her bold
stand for pluralism and fundamental human rights angers the country's religious
conservatives and zealots. Some merely stigmatize her as a "modern woman."
Others threaten to kill her.
In electing Asma Jahangir to receive the 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service,
the board of trustees recognizes her challenging Pakistan to embrace and uphold the
principles of religious tolerance, gender equality, and equal protection under the law.