A Lawyer Like No Other
At a time when women have no semblance of rights, one of them stood up to challenge the norm. She risked her own life in order to bring women’s issue to the fore. Death threats did not deter her and she came to live a closely guarded life because she stood by her principles. In Pakistan, honor killings are taken with a grain of salt. The law does not protect the victims and in a way, even encourages the horrible practice by pardoning assailants once they are “forgiven.”
What would a woman do if her own brother, mother, or father runs after her to take her life just because she defied their orders? It’s not that she did something that tarnished their honor. Most of the time, it’s as petty as falling in love and wishing to marry the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. Or let’s say she obeys them and marries the one they wanted for her to marry. But that man turns out to be a monster—beats her and subjects her to all sorts of abuse. If she stays, her husband would most likely kill her or make her life so miserable that she wouldn’t want to live anymore; if she leaves, her own flesh and blood would go after her to save face.
It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by Hina Jilani’s strength and resolve. As a woman, she knows what it’s like to be treated as a second class citizen. She, however, did something unprecedented. Hina became like a superhero to Pakistani women who were unfortunate to be born into a family who does not recognize their rights and condones abuse and maltreatment. When Hina became a full-fledged lawyer, women and children finally found an ally that doesn’t buckle even in the midst of extremely dangerous endeavor.
This activist lawyer is a trailblazer. She championed several organizations and projects that cater to human rights observance and adherence. Hina co-founded the first all-female legal aid practice with her sister in 1980, a year after she began practicing. AGHS Legal Aid Cell was initially composed of her and two other female lawyers. After a year, she helped set up the Pakistan Human Rights Commission in order to focus more on defending the rights of Pakistani citizens in general. In 1985, she founded the first free legal aid center in Pakistan and after another five years, put up Dastak. Dastak served as a shelter for women whose life is in danger. It provides them the security that is not present in their very own home. Hina’s involvement doesn’t end there. As a lawyer, she was a key figure in promulgating the by-laws of labor regulations concerning children bonded in service. Due to her unparalleled passion in upholding the rights of the marginalized sector of the society, she was appointed Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and became a recipient of the Millennium Peace Prize for Women among many other accolades. United Nations took notice of her and assigned her to become the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. That was followed by two more assignments: the UN International Fact-Finding Commission on Darfur, Sudan and the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.
Looking at her life, we could say that she spent most of her existence helping others out. She does not mind putting her life on the line in exchange of shifting the system for the better. Who is this newest Elder?
Hina Jilani—A Woman Born in a Country that doesn’t Recognize Her Rights
Hina Jilani was born in 1953 in Lahore, Pakistan. She is the daughter of Malik Jilani, an activist politician; and the younger sister of a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Asma Jilani Jahangir. Being extraordinary runs in her blood. Although both women, their father raised Asma and Hina with self-respect and a sharp consciousness for the injustices that were prevailing in Pakistan. Malik led by example and endured being incarcerated for his fearless critique of those in power.
For as long as Hina could remember, she was already involved in politics. It was no surprise when after completing her secondary education, she went on to pursue a career in law. Before she did so, her older sister Asma has already begun studying to become a lawyer. As soon as she secured her license and after practicing her profession for a year, she co-founded AGHS Legal Aid Cell and Women’s Action Forum with her sister in 1980.
Pakistan, being predominantly Muslim, looks at women as men’s possession so much so that their life could be taken from them if they behave in any way that “dishonors” their family. They have a practice called “honor killings” where a relative or a member of a social group takes the life of someone believed to have put them in a bad light or tarnished their name. Most victims of honor killings are women who only wish to live their lives according to what they want. A report on honor killings put together by Amnesty International reads:
“Every year hundreds of women are known to die as a result of honour killings. Many more cases go unreported and almost all go unpunished. The isolation and fear of women living under such threats are compounded by state indifference to and complicity in women's oppression. Police almost invariably take the man's side in honor killings or domestic murders, and rarely prosecute the killers. Even when the men are convicted, the judiciary ensures that they usually receive a light sentence, reinforcing the view that men can kill their female relatives with virtual impunity. Specific laws hamper redress as they discriminate against women.” (Source: Amnesty International)
That is the kind of environment Hina Jilani saw and grew up in—and the very reason why she dedicated her life to pushing the government to recognize the rights of women in the society. She believes:
"I always had this feeling that if you see injustice, you have to speak out against it; otherwise you are not in a position to complain."
The Pakistan Human Rights Commission
A year after offering pro-bono services to women and children, Hina became one of the founders of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission (PHRC) in 1981. According to their website, the goals of PHRC are:
- to promote studies in the field of human rights and mobilise public opinion in favour of accepted norms through all available media and forums, and to carry out every category of activity to further the cause;
- to cooperate with and aid national and international groups, organisations and individuals engaged in the promotion of human rights and to participate in meetings and congresses on human rights at home and abroad;
- to take appropriate action to prevent violations of human rights and to provide legal aid and other assistance to victims of those violations and to individuals and groups striving to protect human rights. (Source: Wikipedia)
Hina became an integral part of PHRC as she found an even far-reaching organization that protects individuals from honor killings and rape brought about by the enactment of the Hudood Ordinance.
Founder of Dastak and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan
A decade after establishing the PHRC, Hina set up Dastak to supplement services extended to women who are at risk of getting killed. Dastak became the shelter of run-away wives. The organization provides services other than shelter; they also do workshops to educate women of their rights and represent them in court.
The following year, Hina was appointed as Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, giving her more influence over the legislation of laws and pronouncing verdict.
Witnessing the Murder of Samia Sarwar
Due to her profound involvement in activism, Hina has been receiving death threats. But even death threats weren’t new for the no-nonsense lawyer. When she was 12 years old, her father was targeted by an assassin in the home where she is staying up to now. A journalist looking down from the balcony of their home was shot dead after being mistaken for Malik. That was Hina’s first close encounter with death. It somehow toughened her up. Since then, death became part of her life and she has learned to welcome it. That makes her work seem a lot less hazardous.
Since 1996, Hina and her sister have been in a 24-hour daily surveillance. But even that did not immune Hina from the horror of seeing a helpless woman get shot in front of her. That was exactly what happened when one of her clients, Samia Sarwar, was cold bloodedly murdered right in her office by her Uncle who was accompanied by her very own mother. Unlike most victims of honor killings, Samia was from an affluent family. She was the daughter of the head of the Peshawar chamber of commerce in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, Haj Ghulam Sarwar, and her mother was a doctor. Samia was married off to an abusive man. She conceived two kids during the marriage. Her family allowed her to go back home provided she doesn’t remarry. Everything was going well until she met Nadir, an army officer, and began a romantic relationship with him. She wished to start her life anew and wanted to marry him but she is yet to get her divorce papers processed. That changed things. Braving death in the name of love, Samia eloped with the man she loves, triggering a manhunt. Not trusting his very own family to spare her life, she sought protection in Dastak. Dastak informed Mrs. Sarwar that her daughter is with them as part of their protocol. In no time, an officer came to Dastak demanding that Samia go back home. When Samia declined, she was visited by her father, something that really scared her to the point of trembling. They then pleaded to have a meeting with their daughter, which Samia again declined. What eventually convinced Samia to agree on having a meeting with them was the phone call from her mother. She offered to give her divorce papers so she could marry Nadir. Samia took her mother’s word for it, probably thinking ‘what kind of mother would harm her own child?’ But nobody expected the turn of events, not even Hina. She tells a reporter:
"I was sitting here and she was sitting there, where you are. We were chatting about her case. The office staff were leaving—it was around 4pm—and suddenly the door opened and this woman entered with a man. I didn't recognize the man. Someone from my office brought them both. But there had been a security lapse as the office was closing. The woman said, 'This is my driver.' I looked up and said, 'You can send your driver away now—come and sit down.'
"Samia didn't apprehend any danger. She said 'Salaam aleikum' to her mother. And just as she said that, this man whipped out a pistol—in a split second, just as Samia was greeting her mother—and shot her. I was still sitting down and I felt the bullet go past my ear. He shot Samia in the head the first time, then in the stomach. I saw her fall down." (Source: The Independent)
Hina is yet to get over that experience. She said she learned a very important lesson—not to trust mothers with the lives of their children. Word has it that Samia’s mother lost her sanity following her murder. That leaves her as another victim of the vicious custom. Determined not to leave Samia’s death unavenged, she sought justice against the family who murdered their own flesh and blood. The proceedings went on for a year and then the family “forgave” the uncle who shot her, bringing the case to a close. Hina describes the Pakistan’s stand on honor killings as:
"There is a law in this country—it's always the family that conspires to kill, so if the father or brother kills, the family forgives him and there's no charge. The law says there can be a 'compromise' at any stage without any evidence coming into court. The trial simply stops if there is a compromise. The court has to give its permission for a compromise—but it always gives permission. This means an automatic acquittal. This means that there is no stain on the murderers." (Source: The Independent)
That is what she wants to repeal from their law. Since Samia’s murder, Hina became even more determined to overhaul the justice system in order to give women equal human rights enjoyed by the male population.
United Nations Profile
Hina’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2001, she was awarded the Millennium Peace Prize for Women by UNIFEM. The year before that, she began working with the United Nations as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders. Out of the 36 reports she submitted during her tenure, 17 of them were handed to the Commission on Human Rights, seven went to the General Assembly, and the remaining eight to the Human Rights Council. Her horizon broadened as she began traveling. She visited a total of 12 countries while in office, namely Angola, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Israel and the OPT, Kyrgyzstan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Nigeria, Serbia including Kosovo, Thailand, and Turkey. In the same year that UN appointed her to become Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Amnesty International recognized her contribution and awarded her the Ginetta Sagan Award.
In 2004, Hina began her work as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. After two years, she was appointed to the UN International Fact-Finding Commission on Darfur, Sudan. By the time her service as the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, she was given a new assignment—Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.
Hina is also a respected speaker and is highly regarded in the academe. In 2009, she delivered the Hal Wootten Lecture, at the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales and another lecture at the McGill Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism. In 2013, she was invited by Kofi Annan to join Nelson Mandela’s The Elders, which she gladly accepted. She is also the recipient of the 2013 Editor's Award for Outstanding Achievement by The Lawyer Awards. Under her belt is the International Human Rights Lawyer Award of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law. She currently serves as a Member of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Women's Action Forum (WAF)
- AGHS Legal Aid Cell
- Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
- United Nations Center for Human Rights
- Carter Center
- UN Conference on Women
- Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights
- Media Legal Defence Initiative
- The Elders
Awards and Achievements
- 1980: Co-founded Pakistan's first all-female legal aid practice, AGHS Legal Aid Cell
- 1980: Co-founded the Women's Action Forum (WAF)
- 1981: Founded the Pakistan Human Rights Commission
- 1986: Founded Pakistan's first free legal aid center
- 1990: Published “The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?” with sister, Jahangir
- 1991: Set up Dastak, a shelter for abused women
- 1991: Instrumental in the promulgation of an act regulating the employment of children
- 1992: Appointed Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan
- 1998: Published Human Rights and Democratic Development in Pakistan
- 2000-2008: Served as the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders
- 2000: Awarded by Amnesty International the Ginetta Sagan Award
- 2001: Recipient of the Millennium Peace Prize for Women
- 2004: Serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
- 2006: Appointed to the UN International Fact-Finding Commission on Darfur, Sudan
- 2009: Appointed to the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict
- 2009: Delivered the Hal Wootten Lecture, at the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales
- 2009: Delivered a lecture at the McGill Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism
- 2009: Spoke at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on "Law vs. Power: Who Rules? Who Makes the Rules
- 2013: Recipient of the Editor's Award for Outstanding Achievement by The Lawyer Awards
- 2013: Joined The Elders
- Member of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights
- Recipient of the International Human Rights Lawyer Award of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law
Wikipedia (Hina Jilani)
Carter Center (Meet The Featured Human Rights Defenders)
Coalition for the International Criminal Court (Ms. Hina Jilani)
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani)
The Elders (Hina Jilani)
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Hina Jilani)
Asia Society (Interview with Hina Jilani)
ABC.net (Interview with Hina Jilani)
Pakistan Herald (Details of Hina Jilani)
Front Line Defenders (Front Line Defenders Board of Trustees Member Hina Jilani appointed to The Elders)
The Independent (Robert Fisk: Relatives with blood on their hands)
ProfilePk.com (Asma Jilani Jahangir)
Google Books (Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Volume 1)
Cause of Death: Woman (The Lawyers)
The Lawyer (Hina Jilani: Leading rights)
Amnesty International (Documents - Pakistan: Honour Killings of Women and Girls)
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (About HRCP)