Pakistan: Asma Jahangir

For a quarter-century, acclaimed human rights lawyer and UN special rapporteur Asma Jahangir has been a thorn in the side of the powerful and ruthless in Pakistan.

— Asma Jahangir

Asma Jahangir (born 1952) is a thorn in the side of Pakistan's powerful. For a quarter-century, this human rights' lawyer has defended the oppressed in Pakistani society, among them political prisoners, bonded laborers, women, and minorities sentenced under unjust laws. She has also played a pivotal role in building institutional structures to provide free legal aid and monitoring human rights in Pakistan. Internationally recognized for her achievements, Jahangir also works with the International Commission of Jurists, and is a senior UN official.

She is the subject of innumerable media interviews and profiles, has won prestigious international awards like the Ramon Magsaysay Award and holds a high-profile UN post. Despite this, Pakistani human rights' lawyer Asma Jahangir remains a fighter for unpopular causes. She still runs into trouble with the Pakistani establishment for raising issues that many ignore. Asma grew up in the school of hard knocks. She was not yet a lawyer during her first legal battle in 1972: her father, a legislator in the national assembly, had been detained by the then prime minister, Zulgikar Ali Bhutto. Asma filed a constitutional petition in the supreme court challenging his arrest, winning in a year and a half. In 1980, Asma, a law graduate from Punjab University, started Pakistan's first all-woman law firm along with three partners. Pakistan was under martial law and Zia-ul-Haq's regime tried to bring the country under Sharia' diktat. A founder-member of the Women's Action Forum (WAF), Asma earned the nickname "little heroine" for leading a protest march against the laws in 1983. In 1986, Asma set up Pakistan's first free legal aid center, the AGHS Legal Aid Cell. Apart from helping hundreds of oppressed people-minorities, bonded labor, and grassroots women-the AGHS is also highly regarded for its expertise in legal research and its effective lobbying for reforming laws that discriminate against women. The same year, Asma helped set up the Human Rights' Commission of Pakistan, an independent body of lawyers and activists, in which she served as founding secretary general and chairperson. Since 1998, Asma has also been speaking up for the oppressed in some of the world's worst trouble spots, as the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. Married with three children, she lives in Lahore.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRC)