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The Express Tribune

Published Date: Mar 15, 2014

Inspiring women Asma against viewing rights through the prism of religion

The major challenge facing Pakistani women at the moment is
dealing with an extremist mindset that is spreading across geographical
borders, according to eminent lawyer and rights defender Asma Jahangir.

Jahangir, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar
Association, was speaking at a new seminar series launched by the Sustainable
Development Policy Institute (SDPI) on Friday.

The series titled “Inspiring Change: Women of Substance”
will attempt to rediscover the life and work of brave and accomplished Pakistani
women, said Dr Maleeha Aslam, Head of SDPI’s Gender and Human Security
division, who was in conversation with Jahangir during the session.

In a candid talk on personal and professional aspects of her
life, Jahangir said the major challenge for women is a growing "talibanisation
of the mind that ranges from childhood to every institutional level."

She qualified that this mindset is not limited to Pakistan
or a geographical boundary. At the same time, she said, human rights, which are
about helping vulnerable groups and supporting fundamental liberties, have
gained importance.

"Human rights are far more important than anything else
because they are the only binding force left between citizens and the state."
She said there has been a shift in the social contract in Pakistan so that
religion or ethnicity was no longer a binding force. “It is only this now: if
the state will protect my rights, then I will be a part of the state," she

The dimensions of human rights are also increasing; it is
impossible to describe every right through the prism of religion, Jahangir
said. “They now encompass rights for people with disabilities and talk of
rights for the LGBT community, which will hopefully add to human dignity.”

In a system that promotes corrupt individuals and
discourages talented ones, Jahangir said there was no other option left but to
fix the “dysfunctional state.” The Pakistani public is out of options, she
added, referring to political candidates.

The Council of Islamic Ideology, she said, is a testament
that elected representatives who appoint people to such constitutional bodies
do not take religion seriously. “The council might be a joke, but the
frustration of a rape survivor who burnt herself alive was legitimate and
valid. The incident should remind Pakistanis about the country’s flawed
criminal justice system and force action.”

Pro-women laws have brought some noticeable changes in
Pakistan, she said. "Changes that can be quantified by the reduction in numbers
of women arrested under the Hudood Ordinance and of women seeking bail."

She believes some aspects of women-specific laws were not
well thought out and Pakistanis have developed a tendency for
“over-legislation.” Consideration should be given to the laws’ implementation
the same way a framework for the application of the anti-workplace harassment
law was developed.

On a personal note, Jahangir talked about growing up
independent, about her sister Gul Rukh who taught her everything she knows
about law and about the fearlessness that has come with turning 60. "I want a
dignified life," she said. "If I have to live by the rules of bigots, I’d
rather die."

Despite systemic harassment and the poor state of women,
society now recognises women should be empowered. There are more opportunities
than ever before, for example, for a woman to become a judge in Pakistan, she

"(But) we shouldn’t forget there are women out there who
suffer," she said. "We should not get arrogant and we should realise that we
owe to women who are suffering."