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Interview with Hina Jilani

Pakistani women. (Brajeshwar/Flickr)

Pakistani women. (Brajeshwar/Flickr)

Hina Jilani is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a human rights activist whose mission is defending the rights of women, minorities and children through activist and legal strategies. She is currently the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders.

Ms. Jilani founded the first women's law firm in Pakistan in 1980, where a significant number of cases concern the violation of women's right to security of person, liberty and equality. She also founded Pakistan's first legal aid center in 1986.

She has received several national and international awards, including the UNIFEM 2001 Millennium Peace Award for Women.

In an interview with Asia Society, Ms. Jilani discussed the development of the women's movement in Pakistan, its involvement in peace and security issues, as well as Pakistan's role, historically and presently, in Afghanistan.

 

You have spoken recently about the role of women in the peace movement in South Asia. Do you think there are enough people and that there is enough mass mobilization for it to be called a peace movement? What qualifies it as such?

The peace movement in South Asia began with the interaction of people in the sub-continent. This contact between civil society actors from Pakistan and India (for instance the Pak-India Forum) triggered off a debate on people's participation in peace initiatives. The peace movement actually emerged from this discussion, debate and dialogue.

Initiatives do not become movements only because of the number of people involved, but can be called movements if there is significant impact of the initiative on the state and civil society, and if they are able to engage the interest of the population in general.

I call it a movement because broad cross-sections of the population in both countries have organized around the issue of peace in South Asia, multiple initiatives have resulted from this collective thinking on the prospects for peace and these initiatives have addressed states and their bilateral policies.

This transformation of a people-to-people dialogue into a peace movement was also the result of the nuclear tests by both the countries in 1998. This movement is at the moment preoccupied with peace in the sub-continent since hostilities between India and Pakistan are the major cause of tension and the biggest threat to peace in the region. However, the involvement in this initiative of key elements of civil society from other countries of the region is itself evidence of the growing importance and scope of this movement.

How did women become involved in peace and democracy initiatives in Pakistan? You suggested that they began by opposing the Islamization program initiated during the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq and advocating women's rights in that context, but how then did they expand their goals to include peace initiatives having to do with Kashmir?

It is true that women in Pakistan have never been disassociated with the struggle for democracy. However, its adoption by the women's movement as a key concern and cause really did result from experiences gained because of their struggle against the imposition of unjust laws and policies during the Zia years. Women were struck by the relationship between democracy and the level of recognition and respect that states accord to human rights. For the first time women, as a collective, saw a stake in democracy.

The women's movement gained more maturity in its understanding of national issues because of this interaction and participation in the movement for democracy. Over the years, women have been engaged in the debate on regional insecurity and instability and its links to critical domestic issues like poverty, economic and social disparities, discrimination, and development (in its broader context). The need for peace was never a mere slogan for women and other peace activists, but a need felt so critically that despite all odds, the expression of this need took the form of a movement.

You also said that many of the women involved in these movements felt that a more "secular" approach was necessary for them to gain equality. Do you feel that Islam is not open to interpretations that afford women equal rights? Is Islam bereft of such emancipatory potential?

The argument that there must be a more secular approach to determining rights and formulating law has nothing to do with Islam or the potential of the religion to offer equality or gender justice. The argument stems from the conviction that laws have to be clear and unambiguous. The administration of justice can be severely hampered if laws emerge from different understandings or perceptions of religion, and their application becomes uneven because of the religious, moral and social beliefs of those administering these laws. Islam and almost all other religions of the world have sectarian and denominational differences. If a national polity is founded on religion, these differences will be manifested in political tensions as well as oppressive restraints on dissent. Those able to gain power enforce their brand of Islam, whether liberal or orthodox. This is certainly not conducive to creating a stable foundation for the promotion and protection of human rights or of democratic norms.