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  • Arjun Gananathan

Assassination Attempts

In Pakistan, public figures who choose to protest unjust societal norms often place their lives at risk. When Hina Jilani’s father joined the political opposition in 1958 in dissent of General Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship, her family received numerous death threats. At some point in the years following, Jilani recalls a vivid assassination attempt: A group of hitmen had arrived at their gates and fired several rounds into their house, thereby killing a journalist who had been interviewing her father. Jilani further describes the tragic story of her close friend, a fellow colleague at the Human Rights Commission, who was murdered for his representation of blasphemy-accused defendants. Many trial-court judges, Jilani expounds, fear for their lives when presented with controversial cases, and typically defer controversial decisions to the appellate courts.

Hina Jilani is no stranger to a life of risk and peril. A human rights defender with almost forty years of experience, Jilani has spent her career advocating for women and children fleeing violence. She has helped oppressed women file for divorce against abusive husbands, litigated in Pakistan’s courts for women’s freedom of movement, and even sheltered women at risk of serious injury or death.

One such woman was Samia Sarwar, the daughter of an affluent Peshawar couple. Her parents had arranged her marriage to a cousin, with whom she had two children. Alleging physical and emotional abuse, Sarwar filed for divorce and moved in with her parents. Eventually, she fled to Lahore, seeking refuge and legal aid at Dastak, the women’s shelter established by Hina Jilani only a few years earlier. Wanting to meet with her daughter, Sarwar’s mother organized a meeting, and travelled south from Peshawar. She arrived at Jilani’s office accompanied by an assassin, who shot Sarwar dead. Jilani narrowly escaped with her life.


It was Samia Sarwar’s death that instigated a group of parliamentarians to write a resolution

which would condemn the practice of honour killings.


Recounting the story, Jilani explains how ultra-religious communities were openly applauding the honor killing. To many in Pakistan, Sarwar’s death was warranted. To Jilani, Sarwar’s death was galvanizing. After the murder, Jilani and fellow human rights defenders coordinated a protest outside the Pakistan Senate, demanding that a resolution be introduced condemning and outlawing honor killings. Although the resolution was never tabled, Jilani contends that Pakistan has made tremendous progress. It is now unacceptable to publicly endorse or glorify such killings, and there is more advocacy for the freedom of women than ever before.


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