A sip of water

November 24, 2010


Illustrations by Faraz Aamer Khan

The news reports say it was a spat. Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old woman in the village of Nankana Sahib, was sent to fetch water. When she brought it, some of the Muslim women labourers working in the fields said they would not drink water collected by a Christian. The ensuing events are a matter of contention.

According to Ashiq Masih, Aasia Bibi’s husband who is also a field labourer, his wife took offence and asked ‘are we not human?’ The incident took place in June last year but the actual case against Aasia Bibi was not launched until five days later.

This month, over a year after the incident, a trial court in Nankana Sahib sentenced Aasia Bibi to death under Section 295 C of the Blasphemy Act.

Delivering his decision, Judge Naveed stated that there were “no mitigating circumstances” in the case and there was “no chance” that Aasia Bibi had been falsely implicated. According to documents filed in the case, Aasia Bibi’s accusers alleged that she had defamed the Quran and the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Since her sentence of death by hanging was handed down, her case has grabbed headlines both within Pakistan and abroad with top officials looking into the matter. Speaking to an audience in Vatican City some days ago, Pope Benedict XVI urged freedom for Aasia Bibi. Human rights organisations in Pakistan and abroad are also circulating petitions asking President Zardari to grant clemency to Aasia Bibi and cancel her death sentence.

The furore over Pakistan’s poorly drafted and astoundingly ambiguous blasphemy laws is not a new phenomenon. The repeated persecution of religious minorities, whether it is the targeting of Ahmadi places of worship or rampaging mobs burning down the houses of Christians or Hindus, is becoming common. The past several years have seen acts of unparalleled barbarity against Pakistanis who are not Muslim.

As has been pointed out by human rights activists, the blasphemy laws’ sordid existence, their presence on Pakistan’s law books, institutionalises the persecution of religious minorities and allows anyone wishing to target them an avenue through which all manner of personal or political vendettas can be avenged. Once an allegation emerges, the inferno of hatred and suspicion so effectively coddled by religious fundamentalism and rampant illiteracy erupts with ferocity, engulfing scores like Aasia Bibi in its wake.

The current case is thus yet another example of the cycle of allegation and persecution that typifies blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan. But the specifics of her case point to realities that go beyond the crushing injustice represented by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the core is the prejudice that insists that water or food touched by a non-Muslim is unworthy of consumption by a Muslim. This unfortunate belief is not limited to the ignorant and illiterate field workers who are the perpetrators of the allegations against Aasia Bibi. In homes around Pakistan, whose owners are both educated and worldly far beyond the poor of Nankana Sahib, cooking and drinking utensils given to non-Muslims are separated from those used by the family.

Unfortunate vestiges of caste-based beliefs that have no basis in Islam, these prejudices provoke the mistreatment of non-Muslims. The perpetuation of these practices thus constructs the foundation on which further persecution of minorities can be readily justified. If non-Muslims are not good enough to drink from the same cup or eat from the same plate, how can their account of events ever take precedence over those of believing Muslims alleging that they have committed blasphemy?

Aasia Bibi’s story also reveals how Pakistani women are socialised into becoming instruments of mistreatment of other women. In the present case, the accusers and the victim are all women most afflicted with crushing poverty that is the lot of field workers in Punjab. Against the backdrop of such want, an altercation based on the purity of Muslim women against the impurity of Christian ones presents a graphic illustration of the pettiness that prevents Pakistani women from coalescing around gender-based injustices.

It is almost undoubted that Aasia Bibi as well as the women who accused her face a precarious existence, defined by the vagaries of labouring in the fields and serving at the behest of rich landowners that view them as little better than expendable units of labour who can breed future field workers. Instead of organising themselves against these everyday tortures, exacerbated by the ravages of poverty, women choose to condemn one of their own for her perceived impurity, their blindness to their common burdens ensuring decades of further servitude.

Aasia Bibi’s case is thus a representation of the triad of terrors: an unjust, ambiguous and discriminatory law that allows for the persecution of minorities based on mere allegations, the socialisation of women to perpetuate prejudice against each other and the collective curse of poverty and illiteracy that ensnares millions of Pakistanis.

In the centre of all of these is Aasia Bibi who, in speaking out against the ignominy of beliefs that treat non-Muslims as pariahs, now stands to be hanged. Those educated Pakistanis who acknowledge the travesty of justice that her case represent must do more than simply shake their heads in consternation. Confronting the acts of silent condemnation that take place everyday will perhaps engender the realisation that protecting the sacred is not the provenance of laws that condemn the disenfranchised to death on the back of shaky allegations. Rather, the need is to enable an egalitarian society that actually embodies true justice.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.