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“A South Asian Union would free us from the slavery of the west”: pro-democracy activist Hina Jilani

Globally acclaimed human-rights defender Hina Jilani believes democracy and secularism are values all South Asian nations need to promote and protect.

June 16, 2021 / 03:15 PM IST

One of South Asia’s leading human-rights activists and a globally renowned defender of women and child rights, Lahore-based activist and lawyer Hina Jilani has put much thought and action in her quest for peace and demilitarisation in the region. She staunchly supports a South Asian Union on the lines of the European Union, and believes that it is civil society in these nations that will have to be vocal and lead the movement, because states never will.

“If South Asian countries started cooperating on economic and security measures, and a regional human-rights mechanism, I think South Asia would thrive. We would become free from the slavery of the west. This would be such a big market, we would not be dependent on the International Monetary Fund or the International Finance Corporation for our development and our growth,” says the pro-democracy campaigner who founded Pakistan’s first all-women law firm, first legal aid centre, and the country’s national Human Rights Commission.

aketa-logo-south-asia-union2-258x258In fact, she says, this is a question that civil society in all our nations should consider. “What benefits would we as South Asians have – economically, socially, politically – if we were at peace with each other, and if we could work in a situation where, as sovereign nations, we could collaborate in order to draw benefit for our populations? This is what I am thinking of today,” says Jilani, who was awarded the Millennium Peace Prize for Women in 2001.

The pioneering lawyer however sees a major roadblock in the way, and it’s not the region’s history of conflict. “It’s not just a crisis of peace and security, it’s a crisis of leadership. I don’t see a statesman in the region who can bring us together, who either enjoys credibility with their own people sufficiently to take their message to the other countries of South Asia, or enjoys complete credibility and respect within the South Asian community,” says Jilani, who is an advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Speaking truth to power

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Jilani has a long history of speaking truth to power, which goes back to her childhood as one of the four children of an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s military dictatorship who was frequently jailed for his outspoken views. “When your father is taken away in the middle of the night and you see a worried mother running around the rest of the year fighting his cases or trying to get him some amenities in the prison, it does affect you,” says Jilani, who was born in Lahore and, as she puts it, has “lived 53 years of my 67 years of age in the same house.”

Having visited prisons several times in her life – earlier on to meet her father Malik Ghulam Jilani and later being jailed herself for speaking up against various political leaderships – only strengthened Jilani’s conviction for the pro-democracy cause. “It took away my fear of repression,” explains Jilani, who founded Women’s Action Forum (WAF) along with her lawyer sister Asma Jahangir in 1980 to take on General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s discriminatory Hudood Ordinances. Starting with a handful of members, the group’s membership now runs in thousands and – despite the harassment its members have faced from the state – it has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s democracy and human rights’ movements.

“Being a young lawyer at the time, you couldn’t turn your face away from the kind of repression that Zia-ul-Haq had imposed on the country in the name of Islamisation of laws that unfairly targeted women and non-Muslims. There was an urgent need to take on his religious, extremist martial law,” Jilani says of the trigger for creating WAF, which mostly drew professional women who found their presence in the public sphere increasingly illegitimised under the military regime.

The group soon understood that the feminist movement could not achieve much unless it went mainstream and declared itself as a political movement. “You cannot say that we as women’s right activists are apolitical. That’s absolute nonsense. No human-rights activist is apolitical. We may be nonpartisan, but we are very political. And we cannot promote human rights unless our strategies are made keeping in mind the political and social environment in which we exist,” asserts Jilani.

In 2013, Jilani joined The Elders, a group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work on solutions for the world’s most pressing issues from climate change to conflict. Other past and present members of the non-governmental organisation include Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Juan Manuel Santos, Martti Ahtisaari, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon, and Ela Bhatt.

Long road to women's rights

In 1990, Jilani founded Dastak, a shelter and legal aid centre for victims of gender-based violence. Due to the nature of their work, Jilani and her sister Jahangir – who passed away in 2018 – were often up against not only the state but also social, patriarchal culture codes that denied women basic human rights.

“Asma and I had always been very secular. We spoke openly against this whole onslaught of over-religiosity, religious extremism, state interference in one’s personal lives to monitor how one is practising religion, and the way that non-Muslims were being marginalised if not actively harmed in our country. We also stood against the military and its interference in Pakistan’s democracy and politics,” she says, explaining why they were often targets of both state and non-state attacks, even physical intimidation.

There were extreme life-and-death situations, as well. In one instance, a young girl who had come to Dastak seeking shelter from her violent husband, and after surviving an attempt at honour killing by her own parents, was shot dead in front of Jilani’s eyes – not just for divorcing her husband but for being audacious enough to seek help from a women’s rights organisation.

“The bulk of my work has been about taking forward the concept of equality and non-discrimination for women, and making not just society but also the judiciary sensitive to what real equality means,” Jilani says, referencing a case when she was trying to explain to a judge that women in shelters should not have to take permission from others to step out.

“The senior judge said to me, ‘But these women can’t go here, there and everywhere.’ And I said, ‘But, sir, they can. They are allowed to go here, there and everywhere.’ You can’t put restrictions on women’s liberties in the name of protection,” says Jilani. “The state has to give women protection without taking away their fundamental rights, like their right to liberty,” she adds.

Cross-border collaborations

Her fight for women’s rights in Pakistan has given Jilani much opportunity in the past for cross-border collaboration and peace forays into other parts of South Asia, and she believes the younger generation of activists must make an effort to develop networks as well.

“Civil-society endeavours have fragmented over the years due to the lack of access to each other as a result of restrictive visa policies. One of the silver linings of Covid was that we started using Zoom to talk to each other. I just hope at some point Zoom doesn’t require visas,” she says with a half-smile on a Zoom call from Lahore.

Jilani asserts that her generation understood one fundamental truth, “that states are not going to make peace in South Asia, leave alone India and Pakistan. Civil society has to become more active, more vocal. People-to-people contact is critical and crucial for building peace in this region.”

The problem, she believes, boils down to leadership: “In our country (Pakistan), the problem is the military; in your country (India), the problem is the politicians, especially those in the past few years who have flared up religious and communal hatred, which have benefitted the politicians of both countries but not the people.” In fact, she adds, there is alienation between the people and state in all of South Asia, from Nepal to Sri Lanka.

The first Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders (2000 – 2008), Jilani is straightforward in her analysis of the current scenario. “Just as India still has to overcome casteism, Pakistan has to cover this new trend of religious extremism. It’s not just conservatism. It is religiosity at its worst,” she says.

“Institutions of democracy (in Pakistan) have become subservient to military domination, and the civil society has become extremely vulnerable because when we challenge militarisation, we don't get support from our institutions of democracy. The Parliament submits and surrenders, as does the judiciary. And from what I hear, it is the same in India with respect to the protection of journalists and defenders of human rights, those who believe in tolerance, diversity and pluralism and the preservation of that diversity. They are the first ones to be targeted,” Jilani adds.

The polarising narratives that some South Asian political or military leaderships have adopted are also a reflection of the shortfall in progress when it comes to changing social mindsets, according to Jilani. “Leaders are not leading, they are following (negative social tendencies). Why do our leaders submit to the basest forms of racism or religiosity? It's because they think they gather political capital from this,” she says, quoting instances of political leaders in both countries discrediting rape survivors, or terming journalists who escaped assassination attempts as “opportunistic” and “using it just to seek asylum in the west”.

“These leaders demean their own people. They have absolutely no respect for the dignity of their citizens, nor for their rights and the rule of law. These are people you would not want to meet socially, and yet you have them making decisions about your lives and your future,” she says.

Holding on to hope

At the same time, she does not want to give in to cynicism or frustration, she says, because that “only depletes your energy”. Instead, she draws hope for change from Pakistan’s feminist movement. “In the early 1980s, speaking about women’s rights could land you in prison. Come 1988, a woman got elected as the prime minister of this country and every political party that contested the 1988 elections just after the martial law ended had a women’s rights programme in their manifesto, even Jamaat-E-Islami,” she says.

So, when one talks about a South Asian Union and visa-free travel, Jilani does not find it to be an impossible mission. “There is nothing that you can’t get. I am a human-rights defender, I am always hopeful. As Desmond Tutu said, ‘We are all prisoners of hope’,” she quotes.

She adds with a smile, “And, I tell you, this is one prison I would never want to leave.”
Aekta Kapoor is the founder of eShe magazine (@esheworld) and the peacebuilding initiative South Asia Union.

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