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Asma Jahangir: Alternative Nobel prize an 'honor for Pakistani activists'

Pakistani activist Asma Jahangir is one of the five winners of this year's "alternative Nobel prize." Jahangir talks to DW about the threats she faces for defending and promoting human rights in the Islamic Republic.

Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir is to receive this year's Right Livelihood Award - also called the "alternative Nobel prize" - along with US whistleblower Edward Snowden, British journalist Alan Rusbridger, Sri Lankan rights activist Basil Fernando, and US environmentalist Bill McKibben.

The Sweden-based award "honors courageous and effective work for human rights, freedom of the press, civil liberties and combating climate change," according to a statement released by the Right Livelihood Award committee on Wednesday, September 24.

Created in 1980, the annual award acknowledges efforts that its founder Jacob von Uexkull felt were being ignored by the Nobel Prizes. The winners have been invited to the December 1 award ceremony in Stockholm.

Jahangir is the first Pakistani to have won the prestigious award. The lawyer is the country's leading human rights activist and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of the nuclear-armed South Asian nation. She is also the former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental rights-based organization, and has worked with the United Nations as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Activists of the National Christian party shout slogans in the support of a Christian girl who was accused of burning papers containing verses from the Koran, in Karachi on September 4, 2012 (Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/GettyImages)

Jahangir: 'This is also an award for the voiceless people'

In a DW interview, Jahangir says the "alternative Nobel prize" is not an individual award, but a recognition of all rights activists of Pakistan who work under very difficult circumstances.

DW: How significant is the award for you as an individual and for Pakistan's human rights activists in general?

Asma Jahangir: It is significant enough to show to the world that not everything is negative about Pakistan, and that there are people who have consistently struggled against oppression over the years. Also, the award is proof that Pakistan has come a long way as a country thanks to the efforts of so many people towards achieving democracy and the rule of law.

The award jury says it has selected you for the prize in recognition of your work "for defending, protecting and promoting human rights in Pakistan and more widely, often in very difficult and complex situations and at great personal risk." What kind of threats do you and other activists face in the Islamic nation?

There have always been difficult situations for activists in Pakistan. In the 1960s, people fought for linguistic and ethnic rights in relation to the Bangladesh movement and the struggle of the people in the western Balochistan province. I can recall from the time when these ethnic minorities were crushed by the establishment. Then we saw the use of religion in politics in the 1980s under the regime of former military dictator General Ziaul Haq. We were not allowed to criticize the military because it was deemed anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam.

The interaction between human rights campaigners from Pakistan and India was a big taboo in the 1980s. When we started traveling to India to increase people-to-people contact between the two nations, we knew that we would face serious repercussions back home. To this day, we are called "traitors." But we were able to overcome these hurdles. And it was not an easy task.

How difficult was it for you as a woman to be a leading human rights activist in a male-dominated society?

It has been difficult in terms of social conventions. And it is not just about women's issues. Even when we talked about child labor, we were frowned upon. But then you know that you have to speak the truth irrespective of the repercussions. I had to face imprisonment and house arrests, but it made me tougher. As a lawyer, many a time I took up difficult and sensitive cases dealing with minorities' and women's rights. Yes, I constantly receive threats, and to be very honest, at times it is very scary. But I have to continue my work.

Pakistan has a larger civil society and a relatively freer media now. Is it easier to campaign for rights in the country than before?

Indian Journalist Burkha Dutt with Pakistani Human rights activist Asma Jahangir at Karachi Literature Festival (Photo: DW/Shadi Khan Saif)

Jahangir: 'To this day, we are called "traitors"'

Yes, we have come a long way. People are more aware. Politicians are more sensitive towards human rights issues. We believe that when there is a democratic set up, we have a greater voice. The freedom of expression has also improved in the country. But there are still taboos – for example, you cannot talk about oppression in the name of religion or the military's suppression. Some of us do, but we have to face the consequences. In 2012, the country's agencies plotted to assassinate me, but fortunately it got leaked. This was later confirmed by Edward Snowden, who is also receiving the Right Livelihood Award 2014.

Will this award be helpful in connecting the Pakistani rights movements to global campaigns?

This award is not only a recognition for me; it is a tribute to a large number of Pakistanis who have worked relentlessly for better human rights in the country. It is also an award for the voiceless people and all others who have been victims of human rights abuses. Pakistan has changed a lot in the past four decades, but there is potential for a greater change.

62-year-old lawyer Asma Jahangir is the former president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association and a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country's leading independent human rights body.