Eating with a woman is like eating with a witch.
“With armed guards for protection.”
Who: Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir
What: As lawyers, they pursue questions relating to women’s human rights.
Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir are lawyers who run a joint law firm in central Lahore. They were raised in the spirit of opposition, being the daughters of Malik Jilani, a well-known opponent of Pakistan’s various military regimes, a man who spent many years in prison.
We pass through a well-guarded steel door and into the garden of Hina Jilani’s childhood home, where she still lives with her mother. The guard follows us. When Hina is out on public engagements she is protected by two guards. The threat of death is ever-present.
“This house has seen a lot of violence. On this very spot,” – she points to a place on the large veranda – “someone tried to kill my father. I was twelve years old at the time.”
A sniper lay on a roof and mistook a visiting journalist for Malik Jilani. The journalist was killed.
“In 1995 we were held hostage when some Islamists broke into the house to kill Asma and me.”
At that time Asma Jahangir had just won a case in the Supreme Court where she defended a fourteen-year-old boy who was facing the death penalty for blasphemy after – according to the charges – he had written something derogatory about the prophet Muhammed on the wall of a mosque. He was acquitted when Asma was able to prove he was illiterate. The law on blasphemy still exists and is being fought strenuously by the lawyer sisters.
A girl called Sonia talks rapidly and there is a hard look in her eyes when she shows us old burn marks on her arms and feet.
We have arranged to meet Hina Jilani at the law firm, which is located in the house next door, to talk about the murder of Samia Sarwar LÄNK TILL SAMIA, the young woman who was shot and killed inside Hina’s office where she had come to meet her mother and sign her divorce papers.
The waiting room is full. A girl called Sonia talks rapidly and there is a hard look in her eyes when she shows us old burn marks on her arms and feet:
“I’m 13 and I’ve been working as a maid since I was 10. Now I clean and do the washing for a family. My mistress went to the police and accused me of stealing two mobile phones, 30,000 rupies (347 USD) and some jewellery. I didn’t do it, I didn’t take anything. But they beat me and burned me several times.”
The focus of the law firm’s work is on protecting human rights. In Pakistan this all too often means protecting women’s everyday rights, such as the right to earn their own money, make their own decisions - and, not least, to survive.
Hina Jilani spent a year pursuing Samia Sarwar’s case LÄNK TILL SAMIA, and managed to have the family found guilty of hiring someone to commit the murder. Many people questioned her involvement. “It was their daughter. It’s their business if they killed her. Why are you getting involved?” they asked. But Hina Jilani believes that she is fighting for Samia and other victims. That is not an obvious point of view in Pakistan.
Samia’s uncle, her father’s brother, was eventually charged with conspiracy to murder, but Samia’s surviving family – her mother, father and husband (not yet divorced) – ‘forgave’ the uncle, who was released. Her mother got away scot-free.
Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir are continuing their fight for women’s – for everyone’s – human rights. They are fighting the laws on blasphemy, violence in the name of honour, violence against women and child labour. In the autumn of 2010, Asma was elected to chair the influential Bar Association of Pakistan’s Supreme Court and she has, among other things, been the UN’s special rapporteur on questions of freedom of religion and unlawful executions. Hina founded Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission and has been the UN Secretary General’s special rapporteur for human rights questions. All the time with armed guards for protection.