The Case of Asia Bibi
A mother of five. A farm labourer. A practising Christian. Part of the forgotten Christian minority in the majority Muslim Pakistan. In 2009, Asia Bibi was charged with the crime of blasphemy, in which she faced the absolute sentence of death. What should have been a regular day at the farm changed her life in an unimaginable way. Asia was offered out water from a well to her fellow farmhands, a simple and kind gesture was met with a petty animosity from her peers. The Muslim women refused to share the water because she was a 'non-Muslim,' implying that there is a dirtiness that comes with not being Muslim. Allegedly, Bibi had, in turn, said something offensive towards the Prophet Muhammad. After the women reported this to the village cleric, the police were informed and Bibi was charged with blasphemy. She now faces a lengthy eight-year journey on death row, largely spent in solitary confinement. Her case took centre stage in Pakistani politics resulting in the brutal deaths of one of Pakistan's pluralist politicians - Salman Taseer. As the son of Salman, Shaan reports the case has been "extremely traumatic" for Asia and in the last year she was ready to give up, as she had lost her strength and could not take the pressures of the case anymore. Her case also raised the issue of the ambiguity of Pakistan's blasphemy laws making her case one of the prominent human rights cases of the current decade. After an almost decade-long battle, her case claimed centre stage in October 2018. There were calls to Imran Khan, Pakistan's new Prime Minister, who throughout his campaign defended this stringent blasphemy law, to ensure justice was achieved for Asia. As outspoken Ex-Muslim, activist and founder of Empower Ex-Muslims, Rayhana tweets to Khan - "this is your chance to show humanity... If Asia Bibi is killed while you are in power, the world will remember." Khan's response to Bibi's acquittal is that we must have the utmost respect for the law, which allows him to keep his campaign defences in check, whilst not condemning the ruling.
Salman Taseer, a pluralist Pakistani politician, was undoubtedly an incredibly brave man for
campaigning for Asia. He was one-of-a-kind politician in Pakistan, openly condemning
extremism and supporter of repealing the blasphemy law. He pressured the government for a
presidential pardon for Bibi, appeared publicly on television with her in hope to achieve justice
and as a result cost him his life.
January 4th 2011, Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard. Why? Because he was viewed as
a traitor. As Ed Husain writes - "Taseer was part of the English speaking elite who were in
cahoots with the "enemy,"" this enemy being the West and his "public support for a woman
who insulted the prophet Mohamed was ample evidence, in their mind, of this global
conspiracy against Islam and Muslims."
Beyond Taseer's death his son, Shaan remains just as vocal on the Bibi case and Pakistan's harsh
blasphemy laws. As the comments that the blasphemy law is unjust because it is very broad and
vague in its description, but very absolute in it's punishment - death.
A derogatory remark, whether it is direct or indirect, by representation, by innuendo or
insinuation is punishable by death. This caused me to reflect on myself, coming from a Muslim
background myself, my other Muslim friends and I would make jokes about our religion. Now,
taking this in consideration our remarks if heard in Pakistan could have cost us our lives if
heard by the wrong person, even as Muslims ourselves, could be viewed as untrue Muslims for
the jokes we made.
Shaan himself has faced threats against his own life for openly speaking out against the blasphemy law.
Similarly, other human rights activists call for Pakistan to change their attitude towards the law, and
its overall attitudes towards religion. As Mohammed Jibran Nasir says that it "needs to be set in stone
that religion will not be used for petty political gain, that religion will not be used for regional and
short-term gain, not used for certain laws." This implies, as other human rights groups have noted,
that the law is open up to abuse. As people have been using the law to settle personal grudges and
Bibi's acquittal is not the end of her arduous journey, her path to living a life of freedom is still uncertain. In the aftermath of the ruling, a wave of protests conducted by the hardline religious group Tehrak-e-Labbik Pakistan (TLP) calls for her to be hanged, pressuring the Pakistani government into reviewing their decision.
In terms of repealing the law anytime soon, the future does not look so bright. The current PM Imran Khan had publicly defended this law and in the aftermath of Asia's acquittal has failed to take a direct stance on the issue. He is fumbling between appealing Pakistan's hardline religious groups and supporting the verdict. Despite calling the violent protesters "enemies of the state," and supporting the Supreme Court decision, he has allowed a court to review the acquittal and work to prevent Bibi from leaving the country, putting her life at risk. The TLP's influence on Khan and the government is worrying, as their pressures have opened up the case against, caused her lawyer to flee the country and called for her death alongside the three Supreme Court Judges who acquitted her.
With Khan as PM, who has aligned himself with the views of these hardliners, her future in Pakistan does not look promising. Her current location remains a secret and with her children unable to live safely in Pakistan, as her daughter Eisham Ashiq says that she does not go out and if she does she has to with the utmost caution. The only option for Bibi and her family is to seek asylum abroad, as life in their home country is no longer an option. Reports have noted that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has looked to bring Bibi to Canada. Yet, this should not have to be the case, Asia Bibi and her family should be able to live their lives in their home country and should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs. If Pakistan does not do more to change their attitudes towards other religious beliefs and rid their country of the unjust and intolerant blasphemy law, then their reputation on the international playground will suffer.