Interview with Hina Jilani

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.

You suggested during your talk that women in Pakistan should take credit for "not allowing the situation in Pakistan to become like that in Afghanistan." Could you elaborate on that claim?

The imposition of orthodox Islam in Pakistan that we saw in the 1980s began with almost the same vigor as in Afghanistan. The state not only actively pursued policies that sought to restrict women's basic rights, but also encouraged non-state entities to force conformity through violence or the threat of violence. Women resisted this. Not just individually, but as a movement that was confident and forceful. Women in fact refused to be intimidated and were able to formulate successful strategies to mitigate the effects of Zia's policies.

The interpretation of Islam which currently dominates the political landscape in Pakistan has been influenced in part by the madrassahs that multiplied in the country during Zia's regime and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Could you provide some information about these madrassahs (who supported them, how many there are, who attends them and why)?

I would have to write a long paper in response to this question. But briefly: There has been a proliferation of madrassahs since the early 1980s. They are least transparent about their source of funding. It is reported that their funding comes from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and other states, who are promoting sectarianism through these madrassahs. They have been the breeding ground of religious intolerance, extremism, and sectarian violence. There is enough evidence to link them with "jehad" in different parts of the world, especially in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

As far as the present political dispensation is concerned, it has been pointed out in the Pakistani papers that General Pervez Musharraf capitulated far too quickly to American demands to cooperate with their war in Afghanistan. Do you think that a democratically elected government would have put up more of a fight?

General Musharraf had no other option but to capitulate, not because of American "might", but because the Pakistan military establishment was caught with "its hands in the till". The military has been sponsoring religious extremism in Pakistan and has been supporting the growth of militant groups. Their activities have been protected and/or tolerated by the state because the militant groups are important tools for the military-led foreign policy on Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The fact is that the military's dictation of foreign policy has forced Pakistan to pursue security interests that have proved disastrous for the country. Curbing extremism and terrorism is firstly in the interest of Pakistan. It is obvious now that the military's policies were against the interests of the state, putting its security and integrity in grave jeopardy and completely destroying political and social harmony within the country, not to mention bringing it to economic ruin, all in the name of "jehad" in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

If there was a civil government, the military would not have allowed it to take any decision. Eventually, the same thing would have happened, but only after the military had once again impressed upon the Americans that they are the ones who make the decisions, and the Americans, as usual, would have been more than ready to deal with the military leadership rather than the political one.

You have also suggested that women must play a role in determining the broad-based government that is put in place in Afghanistan after the war. Could you please elaborate on this (who will be involved, in what capacity, etc.)?

I think you already have an answer to this question after the Bonn process. Americans may not generally be aware of this, but Afghanis didn't always live in caves. Women had played a significant role in Afghan politics till the mid-1970s. There are women who are in a position to contribute political leadership in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Many have already become active.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society