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Asma Jahangir receives UNESCO prize

December 10, 2010

Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir is the recipient of this year's UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights.

UNESCO director Irina Bokova presents Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize in Bilbao, Spain
UNESCO director Irina Bokova presents Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize in Bilbao, SpainImage: picture-alliance/dpa

December 10 is the International Human Rights Day. Other than the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded this year to Liu Xiaobo, numerous prizes for human rights activists are awarded on this day all over the world.

58-year-old lawyer Asma Jahangir, recipient of UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for 2010, is the current president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country's leading independent human rights body.

'It increases one's responsibilities'

She is a brilliant speaker and a relentless champion of people's rights. And yet, there are moments when even Asma Jahangir seems tired: when she talks about how much still remains to be done in Pakistan despite some improvements. Asma Jahangir laughs heartily and admits that she too is a normal human being with strengths and weaknesses. She is happy about the international recognition that comes with the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize.

"It is indeed a matter of happiness and pride, but at the same time it increases one's responsibility. People expect more from you. One has to strategize more, keeping in mind one's integrity. It draws a 'red line' for you."

The journey

Asma Jahangir was born in a rich family in Lahore. When the Pakistani government suppressed the independence movement in the late sixties in East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh, Asma's father protested and was repeatedly jailed or put under house arrest. Asma Jahangir believes this experience has truly formed her.

Asma Jahangir
Asma Jahangir has been campaigning for human rights for several decadesImage: AP

"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 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'," reminisces Jahangir.

Asma Jahangir followed his words. With her inheritance she founded a women's forum in 1980 together with her sister, Hina Jilani, a lawyer herself. In her numerous jobs, for example as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, she has raised her voice against the discrimination of religious minorities, against "honor" killings, or the treatment of minors in Pakistani jails.

It has not been easy for her.

"Women face difficulties at all levels. They face hardship in society and at the workplace. Women also have to struggle within their households. Therefore, if any woman asserts herself, people find it difficult to accept. They can also be very cruel towards that woman," opines Jahangir.

She remembers that her own in-laws also found it difficult to accept that their son had married a woman who was not a typical Pakistani wife. But with time, both her family and society have accepted her achievements.

A demonstration for minority rights in Pakistan
A demonstration for minority rights in PakistanImage: picture alliance/dpa

Dreams for a better Pakistan

For Pakistan, Asma Jahangir has many dreams. "Firstly, I want to see economic prosperity in Pakistan. The indignity of poverty makes me despair. Pakistanis are a very dignified people. They have suffered a great deal. They have resisted oppression. And yet, the image of Pakistan projected in the world is mostly negative. The positive side of Pakistan is not shown. I think Pakistan has wasted its human capital."

She has learnt to suppress her anger, even when she is being accused of blasphemy or treason. But Asma Jahangir emphasizes that a life in anger is not worth living.

Author: Priya Esselborn (tb)
Editor: Shamil Shams