Pakistan honors late human rights icon Asma Jahangir | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.03.2018
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Pakistan honors late human rights icon Asma Jahangir

Pakistan has conferred the country's highest civilian award on Asma Jahangir, the human rights icon who died in February. DW talks to Pakistani women who are continuing Jahangir's legacy in a male-dominated society.

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain on Friday awarded 141 Pakistani citizens and foreign nationals for their extraordinary services in many fields, including science, literature, arts, sports and media. These honors are given every year on March 23, which the country celebrates as "Pakistan Day."

Asma Jahangir, Pakistan's most prominent human rights activist, who died of cardiac arrest on February 11, received the "Nishan-e-Pakistan" (Symbol of Pakistan) award for her relentless struggle to promote democracy and advocate human rights. 

Born in Lahore in 1952, Jahingir braved death threats, beatings and, at one time, claimed Pakistan's much-feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency was trying to murder her.

Jahangir was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's powerful military establishment. She was placed under house arrest in 1983 and later jailed for campaigning for the restoration of democracy. Years later, she was detained again by the government of then military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Read more: Asma Jahangir - Pakistan's fearless rights campaigner

Pakistani rights activists have hailed the incumbent government's decision to honor Jahangir's services, but there is also a sense of concern in Pakistan that not many women in the South Asian country can carry Jahangir's legacy forward. 

Read more: Asma Jahangir: 'Panama Papers report aimed at ousting PM Sharif'

Protest in Pakistan (Reuters)

An increasing number of Pakistan women are trying to assert themselves in a male-dominated society

Women's rights – now and then

Jahangir's struggle was also against patriarchy and male domination in Pakistan. There is very limited space for women in politics and social activism, and in the 1980s, when Jahangir gained prominence for her work as a lawyer and activist, the social outlook was even grimmer for Pakistani women.

"The Women's Action Forum [which Jahangir helped establish] was formed in the 1980s during a dark period in Pakistan's history. General Zia-ul Haq had overthrown a democratically-elected government and hanged then Prime Minister Zulfiaqr Ali Bhutto. There was a ban on political parties and the media was facing censorship," Nasreen Azhar, a veteran human rights activist in Islamabad, told DW.

"Women were at the forefront of the pro-democracy struggle," Azhar added.

Azhar says that 36 years on, Pakistan legislators are more responsive to human rights and have passed many pro-women laws.

"Today, the real threat is not from the state but from non-state actors and groups that are using religion to gain political space," she added.

But Ramish Fatima, a blogger, says despite some improvements as a result of efforts by senior feminists like Jahnagir and Azhar, things are not easy for today's general of women activists.

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"A majority of people in Pakistan don't take women's opinions seriously. Social media users often remind me that my following and readership has something to do with my sex and not because of my ideas and writings," Fatima added.

"Many women are still not allowed to receive formal education and they don't have access to health care facilities simply because men don't think it is necessary for women. Domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace are also rampant in Pakistan," she told DW.

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Ongoing struggle

Jaleela Haider, the first female lawyer from the minority Hazara community, is determined to follow Jahangir's steps.

"I am challenging the patriarchal mindset that considers women inferior. I chose my own path and stood for women's rights in a tribal set up."

"Pakistani women have to fight on multiple levels. They have to fight against a system that commodifies them and tells them that their physical appearance is more important than their intellect," she told DW.

"I am proud that I have broken the shackles and I can make my own decisions now."

Blogger Fatima says that although women's rights are acknowledged in Pakistan, the struggle for women's equality is far from over.

"There are women who are not even aware of their rights or they can't exercise them because of social pressures. And society disregards those women who try to assert themselves. They are not tolerated."

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