Last Friday, a Christian woman was sentenced to death by a court in Sheikhupura, near Lahore, “after prosecutors accused her of insulting the Prophet Mohamed and promoting her own faith,” reported The UK Independent. According to reports, though, this is what actually transpired – In June 2009, Aasia Bibi had reportedly been asked to fetch water while working in the fields near Nankana Sahib, in Punjab province. Some Muslim women laborers reportedly refused to drink the water, claiming it was “unclean” because she, a Christian, had touched it, subsequently “sparking a row.” You see, Aasia Bibi felt it was in her right to speak out against this brazen prejudice that has plagued our society for decades.
According to the Telegraph, “The incident was forgotten until a few days later when Mrs. Bibi said she was set upon by a mob. The police were called and took her to a police station for her own safety.” Shahzad Kamran, of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, told the news agency, “The police were under pressure from this Muslim mob, including clerics, asking for Aasia to be killed because she had spoken ill of the Prophet Mohammed. So after the police saved her life they then registered a blasphemy case against her.”
So here we are, more than a year after Aasia Bibi, a 45 year old mother of five, was held for a crime based on hearsay, prejudice, and intolerance, and she has just become “the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.”
I am not sure what’s worse – that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws [sections 295 and 298 of the Penal Code] are still in effect and arbitrarily used to persecute the country’s minorities, or that Aasia Bibi’s case is only really garnering headlines now, not a year ago, when this case first transpired.
On Monday, Ali Dayan Hasan from Human Rights Watch echoed my sentiments exactly when he wrote for Dawn,
Aasia Bibi’s case is so unremarkable, so commonplace, so routine in its casually callous violation of basic rights that it did not even register in the public consciousness. And, of course, it is no secret that the belief that Christians, and non-Muslims in general, are ‘unclean’, though not propagated by any known school of Islamic thought, has widespread currency, particularly in Punjab. In all likelihood, the police felt the mob was justified. There is a thin line between faith-based lack of hygiene and blasphemy goes this logic. And it is crossed if you refuse to view your faith as filth.
The most tragic part of Aasia Bibi’s case is that it was not the first of its kind and it’s by no means the last. Last April, more than 50 houses were set on fire by an angry mob in Gojra, again in Punjab province, burning at least seven Christians alive. Much like the Ahmadi case a few weeks ago, when authorities bowed to the hysteria of a mob and made a grieving family exhume the body of their relative, the police in these situations cower to the masses. Because, you see, intolerance and prejudice in Pakistan are encased by the pristine cowardice of law. And that, over all reason and rationale, reigns supreme.
There are currently petitions circulating to free Aasia Bibi. By all means sign them. But also consider the root causes behind such a case in the first place, and why, over and over again, such laws are arbitrarily wielded to justify the persecution of Pakistan’s dwindling minorities. Contemplate why our justice system delivers no such justice. Our police do not police. Our politicians cry crocodile tears in the aftermath of such incidents, and yet do nothing to challenge the law that allowed it to happen in the first place. We turn a blind eye to prejudice because even we do not realize how entrenched it is in the very fabric of this society. Aasia Bibi has a face today because the news deemed it so, giving her case well-deserved attention. But she was faceless a year before that, when the injustice first occurred, as are the many victims of similar atrocities committed on a daily basis in Pakistan.
Sign a petition to free Aasia Bibi. But for God’s sake, also decry the laws that allowed her to be imprisoned in the first place. Where’s the petition for that?