‘Feel outrage at injustice, do something about it,’ says the woman at the forefront of Pakistan’s human rights movement

Lawyer Hina Jilani talks about the importance of networks, the need for informed advocacy and why healthcare is central to the fight for human rights

Hina Jilani is a Supreme Court lawyer and a human-rights activist from Pakistan. She is a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of the country. Jilani has been a part of several international commissions and bodies, including the United Nations Center for Human Rights, the UN Conference on Women and the UN High Level group on health and human rights.

In 1980, Hina Jilani co-founded the country’s first all-women legal aid organization along with her sister the late Asma Jahangir. In this interview with Anubha Bhonsle, she talks about the importance of persistence, the connection between health and human rights. She explains the importance of having women in leadership positions, saying one woman can open the door for many others.

AB: I wanted to start with your work at the UN High Level group on health and human rights. You have talked about “realising human rights to and through global health”. What would that mean and what does that entail?

Hina Jilani: This particular health and human rights panel was set up by WHO (World Health Organization) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in May 2016. The purpose was to secure support for the implementation of the global strategy for women, children and adolescent health.

The right to health is connected so much to the broader category of rights, the right to life, for instance, the right to quality of life, the right to good governance through social security and delivery of services. Because we found that there are such serious implications for human rights that flow from the absence of adequate healthcare facilities.

For instance, when I was working in South Asia on bonded labour, we discovered that much of the bonded debt was accumulated because of people becoming ill or their families being sick and women who were delivering children needed healthcare support. Lack of adequate healthcare by the state also brings with it a potential risk of slavery and indebtedness and bondage. This is not an obscure connection, it is so clear to see.

AB: What does the presence of women leaders at this level bring to the conversation?
Hina Jilani
: More women in leadership roles can bring more focus to certain issues and strengthening of state-level measures for vulnerable populations. It’s important that decisions made by leaders are influenced by real-life experiences. But just sensitivity is not enough. Women leaders also have to be properly informed and be aware of what needs to be done if they are to do the job well.

AB: So merely a seat at the table is not enough?

Hina Jilani: No, a seat at the table is never enough. In fact, it’s sometimes a kind of window dressing, which diverts your advocacy efforts, and in some ways says, “Okay, we’ve got these women here at the table”, but they are not really there to make a difference. We want women leaders at the table, but we want them to be in a place where they can make a difference.

AB: We spoke to Dorji Choden, Bhutan’s first female minister and she spoke of one woman at the table, not being enough and how we need a critical mass. What are your thoughts on that?

Hina Jilani: I agree to some extent but I would also say that one woman can start the process. One woman can, in many ways, open the way for others to join. One woman can also give truth to all that we’ve been saying for many years. One woman has often made a difference. In my own profession, it was a handful of lawyers that opened the way for so many women to come into the profession. In South Asia’s context, there have been several women – we may not agree with their politics, but they did open avenues for others to follow.

AB: How was it like during the early years of your legal practice when your sister, late Asma Jahangir, and you co-founded the first all-women legal aid practice in Pakistan?

Hina Jilani: This was the late 1970s and the early ’80s. Pakistan had just experienced the deep trauma of the execution of a popular civilian leader (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979) and a military government had taken over. It was one of the most pernicious times.

The first category of people hit were women and non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan. There was this environment of fear and discriminatory laws coming into force one after another against women. Women were being relegated to almost a contemptuous place in Pakistan.

We were young lawyers at that time, and you couldn’t really ignore this disturbance of the constitutional order. There was a swelling of the female population in prisons because of these terrible laws. We felt that we had to get up and do something. So we started this all-women law firm, where we started legal aid for women, especially those that were hit by the discriminatory criminal laws that targeted women.

Asma and I had grown up in a house where politics was like food, and struggling against military governments was a tradition. My father had struggled against the military government since 1959, and he had suffered for it, he was in jail, most of my childhood, in and out.

So, in many ways, we had gotten over that fear of repression in many ways. It was a special time…it became a learning period for us on how to fight for rights, how to make sure that you are able to stand up and speak truth to power…and without in any way feeling afraid that repercussions will come, even though we knew that repercussions will come. I was arrested many times. But we stood steadfast and we eventually won the battle, although it took us 25 years to get rid of those notorious laws.

AB: You’ve seen the full arc of repression – what is the kind of support system at a personal and institutional level that keeps you going?

Hina Jilani: As a human rights defender, I’ve come to realise that my sense of security really comes from the people in the circle that I am…the network of human rights defenders. Having strived for in the early years of our movement in the 1980s to build these networks paid off. Secondly, my family. They are very supportive…they have been attacked because of the activities of my sister and I. But my family has stayed supportive…they never said give it up.

AB: You mentioned networks in your previous answer. How important is it to build networks and collaborate?

Hina Jilani: Absolutely. To build a network over issues and bring together people who are willing to take forward a certain message that they accept and own is very important. Networks also broaden your outreach, and a lot of feedback comes through the networks which can make your strategies more sound, more feasible, more implementable.

AB: We have had a spectrum of women leaders in South Asia. Is there something about leadership in the region that can serve as an example for the rest of the world?

Hina Jilani: We have all had our frustrations with leadership, and I don’t think that it’s particular just to South Asia. There is frustration everywhere. As far as women leaders are concerned, I think we’ve been very lucky that we’ve had women leaders, and I say lucky, because despite the criticism and cynicism about the women leaders – be it Benazir Bhutto, (Sheikh) Hasina Wazed in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Bandaranaike – each one of them left a footprint.

AB: What advice do you have for young women and men who want to work in the space of defending human rights?

Hina Jilani: Number one, you must feel the outrage when you see injustice. Number two, you must feel it a responsibility to do something about that injustice. Expect results – strive for them and the results will come. Taking a long time doesn’t mean you give up the cause.

And always do informed advocacy. When you take up a cause, as a human rights defender, you don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated or cynical. Our job is to strive for something. And we go on striving. It took us 25 years in Pakistan for the women’s movement to get rid of what we used to call the Hudood laws or the Zina laws. And one of my young relatives once said to me, “We’ve seen you on the street, standing with this placard in your hand down with this Zina law for 25 years and all you’ve gained is weight.” And I told him, that’s not all I’ve gained, I’ve gained weight, but I also gained a lot. And a lot of women have gained so much because a few found the courage to speak.

(This interview has been edited for brevity.)