Pakistan: Women Advocates Aid Religious Minorities

Publication Date: 
August 25, 2011
Women's News Network
Death row inmate Christian minority Asia Bibi talks to assassinated Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer's wife Mrs. Aamna Taseer.

(WNN) ISLAMABAD: In spite of real dangers for those working as advocates with Pakistan’s religious minorities, a number of people have been speaking out against religious discrimination and the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws inside the country.

As internal divisions, casualties and conflict on the northern border and a growing hatred and distrust of ‘the West’ expands, a dedicated group of Pakistani women and men are leading the way on issues of human rights and religious freedom inside the country.

Acts of heroism for women have been happening in Pakistan despite the fact that the country is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. A recent 2011 “Education Emergency Report” by the PETF – Pakistan Education Task Force has revealed that only “one in three” women have attended school in rural regions.

Pakistan has “one of the lowest literacy rates in the world,” says another recent report, “Because You’re a Girl,” by PlanUK and the Royal Commonwealth Society. Newest statistics now show that nation-wide the average Pakistani woman gets only 5.89 years of school attendance in both primary and secondary school.

Given the statistics it is not surprising that women want to pick up the mantle for change in Pakistan.

While two members of Pakistan’s legislature were brutally gunned down, a third fears for her life every day. Emerging as a human rights icon, former Information Minister and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) legislator Sherry Rehman has received death threats, but she remains steadfast.

In spite of policy setbacks and a withdrawal under pressure with her recent parliamentary bill to remove the death penalty from Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Rehman holds her goal to stay in public office to eventually help bring tangible human rights change to Pakistan.

Rehman is not alone in her quest. Numerous other women are taking a similar stand. As Rehman sets her hopes on the women of Pakistan she says: “It’s women who always tackle the difficult, head-on-challenges – always the women.”

Religious rights as human rights in Pakistan is not a new topic. Progressives have been working for many years to bring this to the attention of the legislation. But the push is uphill. The conservative push for laws that prevent diverse belief inside Pakistan is centered in Pakistan’s controversial Blasphemy Laws, which currently require the death penalty in certain cases.

It is considered any action that results in speaking or using  “any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation” that insults the Prophet Muhammad.

“There’s all this focus on the ‘shrinking space for Pakistan’s moderates’ – how about focusing on the fierce determination of so many Pakistanis, against the odds and despite the risks, to consolidate and expand democratic spaces in Pakistan?” says Pakistani filmmaker, human rights activist and investigative journalist Beena Sarwar.

An individual country’s “capacity and willingness to guarantee and protect de jure and de facto freedom of religion of all individuals within its jurisdiction is often the key to developing an appropriate framework for the protection of all human rights, including women’s rights,” says the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. “It ensures that individuals can express themselves fully and dissent, even within their own religion; or, indeed, that they can choose not to have any religion at all.”

Another Pakistani woman working to bring the voice and needs of religious minorities to Pakistan’s legislators is Christian member of the Pakistan National Assembly, Asiya Nasir, who made waves with her March 4, 2011 impassioned speech in the Parliament.

“Today, I address Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the 1947 founding leader of Pakistan),” said Nasir. “When you needed us Christians to create Pakistan, you brought us along. Once Pakistan was made, you labeled us a minority, and pushed our backs up against a wall.”

Tearing the fabric of Pakistan society into polar extremes, the issue of religious freedom and misuse of laws outlining religious expression is causing Muslim progressives and cleric based hardliners to line-up on opposite sides on the issue.

“Since the introduction of 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) by a military dictator in 1986, dozens of persons from religious minority groups have been killed or lynched by mobs,” says the AHRC – Asian Human Rights Commission.  “Pakistan’s courts have also proved themselves biased on blasphemy law.”

When Aasia Noreen, also known in the media as Asia Bibi, became embroiled in the center of a heated dispute involving the Blasphemy Law in June 2009 in the village of Ittan Wali, inside Pakistan’s most populated Nankana District in Punjab, she had no idea she would end up on death row.

According to eye-witness reports, Bibi was taken to a police station for protective custody after violence broke out from enraged fellow women field-workers who had refused to drink water Bibi had shared while they were working in the fields. During the dispute a discussion about Bibi’s Christian religion became the focus. Five days following her arrest, a growing and angry crowd, encouraged by a local cleric, pressured the police to file Bibi’s case as a special indictment under Pakistan’s blasphemy codes.

Bibi’s June 2009 arrest and the ensuing November 2010 death sentence by hanging was made under selective charges of blasphemy. The charges have now left her with few legal options.

“The sentence against Asia is inhumane,” said former Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, , speaking publicly against all religious intolerance in Pakistan before he was killed by one of his own bodyguards who disagreed with Taseer’s views. “I have handed over the appeal (for Aisa Bibi) for a presidential pardon, which I will take to the president and soon Asia will be pardoned,” said Taseer following her imprisonment.

When Taseer sent a formal message asking for clemency for Bibi there was no change in the case. He did not live to see any pardon. “One must be determined and brave in standing up for human rights,” said Taseer during a December 2010 meeting with Bibi’s legal counsel.

Today Bibi is in detention at the Multan prison where she was transferred after increased public threats were made to the local Sheikhupura jail in Punjab Province where she was previously held.

Bibi’s family is now in hiding as many questions and dangers for Bibi’s family still remain. What are the true reasons the women field-workers had rejected Bibi’s offer of water?  Was discrimination based only because of her religion? And most important – why had this incident become an ‘arrestable’ offense?

It was public knowledge that Bibi had refused to convert to Islam. Her former legal councilor, Raza Anjum from the U.K., knows much more about the details of a case that has infringed on Bibi’s dignity since 2009.

“During my time in Pakistan, I used my unique position as the youngest British Muslim councilor and my roots in the region as a means to impress upon the Pakistani leadership the gravity of the case of Aasia Bibi,” said Anjum.

“I will give Rs.500,000 (approx $5,900 USD) to a person who will kill Asia,” said hardline radical cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, prayer leader of the Mohabbat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, during a December 3, 2011 public plea for violence against Bibi following her arrest.

Reports made by the office of former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti state that the police did not properly investigate details in the arrest of Bibi; outlining that Bibi’s legal process was compromised as the legal process of required by the courts was not upheld.

Demanding a legal repeal of the Blasphemy Law, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has repeatedly argued that the law can be used for sectarian witch-hunts and hidden personal vendettas as Christians are caught in a rising storm of discrimination.

Over fifty homes were destroyed as eight people were burned alive in the city of Gojra, 2o7km (120 miles) southwest of Lahore, in August 2010. Expressing deep frustration against ‘the Christian West’ those responsible for the violence used hate-speech against the Christian families calling them “America’s dogs.”

Christian women are particularly in danger because of their often low position in Pakistani society. Many Christians in Pakistan are dalits who are known as part of the lowest caste of the ‘untouchables’ in India. As minority followers of Christianity they face increased exclusion, intimidation, danger and violence.

In Oct 2007, Dr. Ms. Asma Jahangir, the now UN Special Rapporteur for UN Commission on Human Rights said, “The NWFP (North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan) presents a disturbing picture of religious militancy that is increasingly manifesting itself in vigilante actions against the population and creating widespread fear… The government has continuously refused to heed complaints and warnings from both the public and civil society organizations and has adopted a policy of appeasement of militants.” … “The government has chosen to when the militants have blown up girls schools and video shops, threatened teachers, students, doctors, nurses, NGO workers and barbers,” added Jahangir.

“Legal discrimination against religious minorities and the failure of Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments to address religious persecution by Islamist groups effectively enables atrocities against these groups and others who are vulnerable,” says the HRCP.

It has now been widely accepted throughout Pakistan that Shahbaz Bhatti, who was also known publicly as a Christian, was killed because he was an advocate for Christian minorities inside the country.

Pakistan though is not the only country that currently has blasphemy laws in its constitution. Punitive cases in the defamation of Islam (also termed apostasy and ‘hisba’ in some regions) has occurred in Somalia, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Ireland, Greece and Poland also have a history of religious laws that have prevented citizens from speaking against the Christian religion.

Including the death penalty as an option in Blasphemy Law cases in a 1986 amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, the 1991 amendment to the constitution required a a severe mandatory death sentence to the Law.

Asia Bibi’s sentence in her blasphemy case is no exception to this rule.

When an urgent plea from Gojra Christians arrived at the office of former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti he went into the Punjab region. Refusing to leave the police station until the reported violence against minorities had officially been added to the police report, Bhatti stood his ground.

Behind this humanitarian effort lies the problem of the state’s systemic legitimization of religious hatred. Without proper protection it was Taseer and Bhatti’s ongoing advocacy against discrimination that cost them their lives.

“The issue arose when some girls asked me to convert to Islam,” outlined Bibi. “I told them everyone was entitled to their own religion. This is how the dispute arose,” said Bibi her public statement.

“…there have been reports of arrests, flogging, forced conversion and even murders targeted specifically at women in the context of intolerance based on religion or belief,” said the OHCHR – United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Rapporteur’s Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief. “Measures adopted to protect women’s rights, the right to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights should take into account all individuals in society.”

Perhaps it is this Pakistani woman in particular, Aasia Noreen (Bibi), who even when languishing in prison will be the catalyst for change in Pakistan.

Photo: Salmaan Taseer collection.