A Christian woman activist in Pakistan longs to speak out against oppressive “blasphemy laws” but is hindered by a climate of intimidation.
I see myself as an extrovert person and cannot stop speaking out against injustice and inhuman practices that suppress women and religious minorities in Pakistan. Being a member of a minority community I have always felt I must speak out against the blasphemy laws in my country for their blatant sanctioning of discrimination, prejudices and miseries.
In 2010 I visited Aasia Bibi in prison. The case of this Christian mother was receiving international attention at the time after she had received a death sentence following a false accusation of blasphemy. I accompanied the late Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, with his wife and daughter.
Islamic religious parties and advocates of Islamic extremist groups openly condemned the governor’s support of Aasia through media and public protests. A few leaders of mosques passed religious decrees calling for the governor to be killed.
On 4 January 2011, while I was in class, a classmate entered with the terrible news of the governor’s murder by his own bodyguard, who confessed publicly that he had killed the governor because of his opposition to blasphemy laws and support for a Christian woman.
I was shocked to grasp this news. My pain further increased when one of my classmates thanked Allah and condoned the killing. With tears filling my eyes I expressed my displeasure. I wanted to say much more as she kept on accusing the governor. But with grief I submitted to silence.
I did not have the slightest idea that following this incident a fear would start mounting within me that would discourage me from speaking against blasphemy laws. I could not sleep for five days.
I had spent only 45 minutes travelling with the governor and his family. But the impression he gave was that he was a person of strong nerves and courageous outlook. On my way back home the sentence that repeated over and over in my mind was: “The governor was acting out of his true passion for humanity and was highly concerned about the misery of a Christian woman”.
I wanted to write my account but was stopped by my family and friends, who were worried that it might bring me into some problem. I was also told categorically by the editor of a newspaper that I sometimes write for, that I should not mention my visit to Aasia Bibi with the governor.
From that day onwards I tried to soften and dilute my expressions and descriptions. My fear increased further when I saw that the majority hesitated to speak against blasphemy laws in public.
The level of fear went so deep that when I attended a seminar on Women’s International Day at the premises of the Lahore High Court, a woman speaker emphasised that Islam is the only religion that gives women equal rights. I wanted to reply to her that Christianity allows fullness of humanity but my fear of being misunderstood stopped me from saying a word. This fear keeps telling me that I should not get into a debate with hardline Muslims, who do not allow space for dissent or disagreement.
From my thesis I had decided that I would study the portrayal of religious minorities in school textbooks and Urdu newspapers in Pakistan. But many of my interviewees were so suspicious about my motives that I was forced to change the questionnaire I was using. It convinced me that I could no longer pursue any genuine scientific research on these topics, and I submitted my thesis with half-heartedness.
Now I am faced with a big question: should I leave my country in order to continue my studies? On the other hand, my job at the church gives me peace and joy as I witness the positive results of small-scale women’s development projects that sustain and hold me in my country. But the feeling of being intellectually controlled really disturbs my inner peace.
(Source: Barnabas Aid – January-February 2013 Edition)