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Courageous woman lawyer fears for her life
by Babette Francis, July 7, 2012

Pakistan’s most renowned human rights activist is in fear of her life after having spoken out against her country’s harsh Islamic law code. Asma Jahangir, the first woman to head the Association of Lawyers of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has publicly opposed the Hudud Ordinance, or Islamic criminal law, and the laws against blasphemy, and now claims that Pakistan’s military and security forces are plotting to murder her.

Pakistan is a particularly tragic country. After the turmoil of India’s partition in 1947, there were hopes that Pakistan would settle into a quasi-secular democracy, albeit with Islamic overtones. However, it is increasingly dominated by a Taliban-type fundamentalism, illustrated by the plight of Asma Jahangir. She says, “I cannot remain silent; they could also kill me tomorrow…. Such a homicide is not conceived at lower levels, but at those of the highest level of power.”

Valentina Colombo, professor of the Culture and Geopolitics of Islam at the European University of Rome and senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, is also president of the association Vincere La Paura (“Conquering Fear”), a foundation for religious liberty and freedom of expression. She wrote in an article for the Catholic news agency Zenit.org that “Jahangir is one of the most courageous and direct women of the Muslim world. She was taught in Catholic schools and is known for defending the rights of minorities and, because of this commitment, has suffered death threats by Muslim extremists who consider her an apostate….“

In March of 2010, during a workshop on women and religion held at the United Nations in Geneva, she, who comes from a Muslim country, exhorted that ‘when there is talk of the rights of women, one cannot interject with ifs and buts in the name of some religion, because it is necessary to speak of universal human rights.’

“[Hers] is not a trivial affirmation. For a Pakistani woman it is a challenge to her government that, for half a century, has sunk to pacts with Muslim radicalism. Since 1977 … Pakistan has witnessed an Islamisation that has led to discriminatory legislation against women….

“It is evident that … an activist such as Asma Jahangir is a bother, a great bother. Because of her battles in favour of women and minorities, because of her lay state, though never having reneged her faith, she is one of the targets of local Muslim extremism.” (Zenit.org, June 15, 2012).

Asma Jahangir supported the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in his opposition to Pakistan’s law against blasphemy. On the occasion of Taseer’s murder in January of 2011, Jahangir launched a heartbroken appeal accusing the Pakistani government of connivance with the Muslim extremists: “Not only was Salman Taseer killed,” she said. “As if that wasn’t enough, there were persons who justified his murder on television.”

Professor Colombo writes: “Even the Minister of the Interior said that if anyone had blasphemed in his presence, he would have killed him. Salman Taseer never said anything blasphemous. He simply reminded that the law should be reviewed. [Jahangir’s] is a very precise J’accuse in confrontations [with] a government which does not succeed in breaking away from rampant Muslim radicalism, which does not have the courage to ferry the country towards modernity.

“Hence it is no accident that the latest threats against Jahangir come from the Pakistani Secret Services which have always maintained an ambiguous relation with the most radical Muslim environments…. Muslim extremists have launched a campaign of defamation against her as an apostate; the pro-government press accuses her of being a pro-Indian traitor.

“It is evident that the life of this courageous woman lawyer is in serious danger. Hence, it is indispensable to launch an appeal to sensitise public opinion and international institutions so that the Pakistani government not only is constrained to give an account of any violent action against Jahangir but that it commit itself, likewise, to initiate a process of internal reform, beginning with the educational system run by the madras [madrassas], which will look to the improvement of the condition of women, in particular, [and] of minorities in general.

“If the world wants voices such as Asma Jahangir’s to continue to speak out and denounce violations of human rights, then the world must remember every day that these voices will only survive if protected and known at the international level.” (Zenit.org, June 15, 2012).

Babette Francis was born in India and experienced life in Muslim-majority provinces in the country before the 1947 partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.


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