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A fearless activist

Shamil ShamsNovember 28, 2014

Pakistani activist Asma Jahangir is one of the five winners of this year's "alternative Nobel prize." A fearless critic of the Islamic country's military establishment, she is the first Pakistani to have won the award.

Asma Jahangir die Anwältin und Menschenrechtlerin aus Pakistan
Image: Mukhtar Khan/AP/dapd

Jahangir is to receive this year's Right Livelihood Award - also called the "alternative Nobel prize" - on Monday, December 1, along with US whistleblower Edward Snowden, British journalist Alan Rusbridger, Sri Lankan rights activist Basil Fernando, and US environmentalist Bill McKibben in Stockholm, Sweden.

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.

62-year-old Jahangir is Pakistan's leading human rights activist and a former president of the South Asian nation's Supreme Court Bar Association.

Demonstration für Frauenrechte in Pakistan 2007 Frauentag
'It is a tribute to a large number of Pakistanis who have worked relentlessly for better human rights,' says JahangirImage: AP

She is also a 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.

An award 'for all activists'

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

"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," said Jahangir, adding that the award was proof that Pakistan had come a long way as a country thanks to the efforts of so many people towards achieving democracy and the rule of law.

Jahangir admits that it is difficult for a woman to lead human rights campaigns in a male-dominated society: "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."

In an interview with DW in 2012, Jahangir claimed her country's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), plotted to murder her.

A long struggle

Asma Jahangir was born in an affluent family in Lahore. In the 1960s, when Islamabad suppressed the independence movement in its former Eastern wing - today's Bangladesh - Jahangir's father protested and was repeatedly jailed or put under house arrest. Jahangir says this experience had a tremendous impact on her.

"What I have learnt is that you are no longer materialistic after that. The way my father worked altruistically, and the manner in which he used to go behind bars and come back home smilingly was inspirational.

He passed away when he was only 61. He had cancer, and we knew he would leave us soon. I remember that my sister and I were sitting at his deathbed, and he looked at us and said, 'I am not going to die, I will live through you'," reminisced Jahangir, who later founded a women's rights forum in 1980 together with her sister, Hina Jilani, a lawyer herself.

Right Livelihood Award Logo
The Right Livelihood Award acknowledges efforts that its founder Jacob von Uexkull felt were being ignored by the Nobel Prizes

In Jahangir's numerous jobs, she has raised her voice against the discrimination of religious minorities, against "honor" killings, or the treatment of minors in Pakistani jails.

It's been a long journey. The winner of this year's Alternative Nobel prize says there is now more awareness among the people of Pakistan. "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," Jahangir said.