"I Cannot Remain Silent; They Could Also Kill Me Tomorrow…"

The Case of Asma Jahangir When Extremists Fear Human Rights

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By Valentina Colombo*

ROME, JUNE 15, 2012 (Zenit.org).- “I cannot remain silent. They could also kill me tomorrow […] Such a homicide is not conceived at lower levels, but at those of the highest level of power,” said Pakistani Asma Jahangir, first woman to head the Association of Lawyers of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, who in the past has often pronounced herself against the Hudud Ordinance, or Islamic criminal law, and against the law on blasphemy.

Jahangir is one of the most courageous and direct women of the Muslim world. She was taught in Catholic schools and is known for defending the rights of minorities and, because of this commitment, has suffered death threats by Muslim extremists who consider her an apostate.

From 2004 to 2010 she was Special Rapporteur of the United Nations on the matter of religious liberty and she is one of the founders of Pakistan’s Commission for Human Rights. In her career, she has always fought against the discrimination of women and the violence they suffer.

Jahangir’s positions are clear, they leave no room for doubt. In March of 2010, during a workshop on women and religion held at the United Nations in Geneva , she who comes from the Muslim country by definition, exhorted that “when there is talk of the rights of women, one cannot interject with ifs and buts in the name of some religion, because it is necessary to speak of universal human rights.”

It is not a trivial affirmation. For a Pakistani woman it is a challenge to her government that, for half a century, has sunk to pacts with Muslim radicalism. Since 1977, or with the advent of Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan has witnessed an Islamization that has also and above all led to discriminatory legislation against women.

The so-called Hudud Ordinance and the law of judicial trial, where the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man, are but a minimum example. In cases of sexual violence, in the absence of witnesses, it is the woman who is condemned for adultery. Despite the fact that in 1996 Pakistan underwrote the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it did so with reservations that have to do with points that are opposed to the Shariah, or to maintain discrimination in situations involving women foreseen in Islamic law.

It is evident that, in a similar context, an activist such as Asma Jahangir is a bother, a great bother. Because of her battles in favor of women and minorities, because of her lay state, though never having reneged her faith, she is one of the targets of local Muslim extremism.

Her battle by the side of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, against the law on blasphemy certainly did not improve her situation. And it was precisely on the occasion of Taseer’s murder, in January of 2011, that Jahangir took the occasion to launch a heartbroken appeal, but above all to accuse the Pakistani government of connivance with the Muslim extremists. “Not only was Salman Taseer killed, as if that wasn’t enough there were persons who justified his murder on television,” said the former Rapporteur of the United Nations.

Even the Minister of the Interior said that if anyone had blasphemed in his presence, he would have killed him. Salman Taseer never said anything blasphemous. He simply reminded that the law should be reviewed. It is a very precise J’accuse in confrontations of a government which does not succeed in breaking away from rampant Muslim radicalism, which does not have the courage to ferry the country towards modernity.

Hence it is no accident that the latest threats against Jahangir come from the Pakistani Secret Services which have always maintained a rather ambiguous relation in confrontations with the most radical Muslim environments. In confirmation of what has just been affirmed, Muslim extremists have launched a campaign of defamation against her as an apostate, the pro-government press accuses her of being a pro-Indian traitor.

It is evident that the life of the courageous woman lawyer is in serious danger. Hence, it is indispensable to launch an appeal to sensitize public opinion and international institutions so that the Pakistani government not only is constrained to give an account of any violent action against Jahangir but that it commit itself, likewise, to initiate a process of internal reform, beginning with the educational system run by the madras, which will look to the improvement of the condition of women, in particular, of minorities in general.

If the world wants voices such as Asma Jahangir’s to continue to speak out and denounce violations of human rights, then the world must remember every day that these voices will only survive if protected and known at the  international level.

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*Valentina Colombo (Cameri, Novara, 1964) is a professor of the Culture and Geopolitics of Islam at the European University of Rome and a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy (Brussels). She is president of the “Conquer Fear” Foundation for religious liberty and freedom of expression. She has written several articles and essays dedicated to the Arab-Muslim world and is the translator of the Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Nagib Mahfuz and of so many other Arab authors, classical (Jahiz and Hamadhani) and contemporary (Bayyati, Qabbani, Adonis). Her research is focused particularly on Arab liberal intellectuals and on women’s role in the processes of democratization in the Middle East.

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