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LOOKING BACK: Asma Jahangir, Pakistan

When a blind, 20-year-old servant was raped by members of the family that employed her in 1982, Pakistani law dictated that only one thing could save her from being jailed for adultery: four male eyewitnesses to corroborate her story. But the servant — and the wider world — soon found there was another route to justice: Asma Jahangir.

An attorney by training, Jahangir has devoted her career — and repeatedly risked her life — to successfully champion human rights in her native Pakistan, particularly in cases involving women and girls.1 She has chaired the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan since 1987 and in 2010 became the first woman to head the country’s Supreme Court Bar Association. She is also her country’s best-known and most successful opponent of the so-called Hudood Ordinance, laws enacted in 1979 by Pakistan’s then military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

The Hudood has resulted in thousands of Pakistani women being imprisoned for so-called “honor” crimes. Additionally, it effectively made women criminally responsible for being victims of sexual assault. Without those male eyewitnesses, a rape complaint was instead treated as a confession of adulterous sex punishable by fines, beatings, jail and even death.

A turning point was the case of that domestic servant, Safia Bibi. When Bibi’s father told police that two men in the family that employed Bibi had raped her, it was Bibi who was arrested, charged and convicted of adultery. Her rapists went free. Jahangir took up Bibi’s appeal, ultimately helping free her. The case galvanized Pakistani civil society against the Hudood.

Jahangir had been jailed, harassed, threatened and even attacked at her home by would-be assassins. And her refusal to back down finally paid off in 2006, when reforms meant women could present accusations of rape in civil — not religious — courts. The deck was no longer overwhelmingly stacked against them.


Look, crime takes place in every country. But it becomes abuse when the state is unwilling and unable to protect the life and honor of its citizens.

- Asma Jahangir

SOURCES: 1 Walsh, Declan, “Blood and guts,” The Guardian, July 21, 2007. 2 “Pakistan: Reform Hudood Laws Now,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Nov. 14, 2006. 3 Emerton, Robyn, et al., ed., International Women’s Rights Cases (London: Cavendish Publishing, 2005), 707. 4 “Violence against Women: The Situation,” United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign: UNite to End Violence Against Women. Photo Credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Lymantria.   

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Lymantria