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In Pakistan, A Spelling Mistake Can Ruin Your Life

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It was a spelling mistake that would cost Faryal Bhatti more than just a grade on her exam.

A member of Pakistan's Christian minority, the 13-year-old girl was responding last September to a test question about a poem praising the Prophet Mohammed. However, when she tried to write the Urdu word for "praise," an unfortunate typographical error instead produced the word for "curse."

Bhatti was hauled before the class, beaten by her teacher, then expelled from school. Her mother lost her government nursing job and her family was evicted from their home. Bhatti may yet be formally charged under Pakistan's religious blasphemy laws.

The case has reinforced perceptions of Pakistan as a backwards, intolerant state, slipping ever further into religious extremism. Despite cases like this, there are also grounds for hope.

Last week, Canada was visited by an internationally-recognized defender of human rights who shows us there's another side to Pakistan, one the headlines often miss. While extremists push for more inequality and intolerance, Pakistani activists like Asma Jahangir are pushing back just as hard.

One of our team met Jahangir in Ottawa April 3, before she went to Toronto to receive the 2012 Award for Human Rights Education from Canadian human rights organization Equitas.

To look at her, you'd never guess this small-statured, soft-spoken 60-year-old is one of Pakistan's most prominent lawyers and human rights crusaders who has headed her country's top legal and human rights organizations and has twice been engaged by the United Nations to investigate global human rights issues.

Jahangir got her start in a very politically-minded family. Her father was a dissident opposition politician, her mother a college-educated entrepreneur.

"I was learning about things like the constitution even before I knew what those words meant," she recalled.

At the age of 18, Jahangir was already learning how to wage a legal fight for rights, helping prepare the defence case for her own father who had been arrested by the military government.

Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, have become a powerful team for change, launching Pakistan's first-ever women-founded law firm, the first free legal aid clinic, and creating a women's advocacy organization, the Women's Action Forum (WAF).

In 1983, the WAF took to the streets to protest the case of a blind 13-year old who was raped and became pregnant, and was then arrested for the crime of zina (having sex outside of marriage) and sentenced to imprisonment and flogging.

Jahangir took the case and successfully appealed to overturn the verdict.

There has been no shortage of cases like this one in Jahangir's 35-year legal career.

Jahangir described a 22-year old woman who came to her in 1995. The woman had married against her parents' wishes, and they obtained a court order forcing her to leave her marriage and return home. She sought shelter, fearing they would kill her for dishonouring them if she went back.

Even though hostile judges and prosecutors dragged the case out for a year and a half, trying to wear down the resolve of Jahangir and her client, they persevered. Jahangir won an appeal and reversed the court order.

Through her cases, Jahangir has fought oppressive religious laws like the blasphemy laws persecuting Faryal Bhatti. Jahangir appealed a similar case in 1995, saving the 14-year-old Christian boy Salamat Masih from a death sentence for blasphemy.

Jahangir's work has put her at considerable risk. She has received numerous threats to her life. Leaving the court house after winning the Masih case, Jahangir's car was attacked by a mob.

In 2005, Jahangir organized a mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to raise awareness about violence against women. The participants were attacked by radical Islamic groups. When the police showed up, they too turned on Jahangir and the participants, beating them and ripping their clothes off to humiliate them.

Sipping her tea as she sat chatting in Ottawa, Jahangir seemed unphased by the danger of her work.
"I take it in my stride," she said.

She certainly is not letting the risk stop her.

"If I had to live an undignified life, I would not want to live," she explained. "I would consider it an undignified life if I did not speak up against injustice."

Jahangir's accomplishments and her bravery have earned her a multitude of awards from organizations around the world.

"Facing death threats and imprisonment, she has championed the cause of women's equality, bonded child labourers and the rights of minorities in Pakistan and internationally. It is hard to imagine a more deserving recipient," said Equitas Executive Director Ian Hamilton, explaining why Jahangir was chosen to receive his organization's award.

Yet as powerful and extraordinary an individual as Jahangir is, it is critical to realize she is not a lonely or isolated voice in Pakistan. It is a point Jahangir herself emphasized strongly: "I am only one amongst many."

It's easy to view Pakistan as a problem -- the country is a supporter of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the source of nuclear tensions with India. Jahangir admits that Pakistan has seen a "backward slide" in rights and equality since she was a girl.

However, Jahangir and thousands more like her are working to strengthen justice and human rights in Pakistan. Canada can help acheive that by supporting Pakistan's civil society and leaders like Jahangir.

As Jahangir said, "There is always hope in Pakistan."