By **Fatima Bhutto**
Asia Bibi is a forty-five year-old mother of five who earned her wages, a pittance, as a field laborer in a village in the conservative Punjab province. Over one year ago she was arrested on blasphemy charges. The cause for her arrest remains a matter of dispute. According to her husband, Ashiq, also a field laborer, Asia was sent to fetch water for the wife of a village chief who then refused to drink the water brought to her by a “non Muslim”, claiming it was haraam or forbidden. The idea struck Asia as ludicrous, as it was, and she is purported by her husband to have asked, “Are we Christians not human too?” Other accounts tell a different story—in one version put forward by Christian rights activists in Pakistan, Asia was caught up in a discussion on religion amongst some women working in the field. She was pressured to renounce her religion and convert to Islam to which Asia was said to have replied, by way of explaining her faith, “Our Christ is the true prophet of God”. For this she was beaten by the men and women of the village.
Five days later blasphemy charges were filed against Asia at the local police station.
Pakistan’s odious blasphemy laws are a legacy of dictator General Zia ul Haq’s Islamicization of the country in the early nineteen eighties. Under the fundamentalist despot’s rule the blasphemy laws were brought into Pakistan’s penal code and run the gamut of what counts as blasphemous. Article 295C prescribes death for any person found making derogatory statements about the prophet Muhammad, those guilty of denigrating the Koran are sentenced to life imprisonment (article 295B) and perhaps most hysterically article 295A forbids “outraging religious feeling”. The blasphemy laws remain intact in today’s Pakistan. Though no one has been sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws thus far, some ten citizens accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their trials were completed.
Asia is the first woman to be convicted under the blasphemy laws. She was sentenced to death this past week and fined an additional one thousand one hundred and ninety dollars as punishment. Her family has been given a limited time in which to appeal the death sentence. The government, not surprisingly, has been silent on the issue of clemency for Asia.
International organizations such as Avaaz—recently at the forefront of a worldwide campaign pressuring the Iranian government not to execute Sakineh Ashtiani, during which close to a million signatures were collected—have so far been mum on any plans to launch similar movements for Asia Bibi. Pakistan’s allies, Great Britain and America included, have said nothing in the way of urging Pakistan to repeal the insidious and vindictive laws. All that exists in support of Asia Bibi for now is the following petition. Please sign it and pass it forward.
Copyright 2010 Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto writes for the New Statesman and the Daily Beast. Her book Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir was published by Nation Books in September. She is a niece of Benazir Bhutto, who was married to Asif Ali Zardari.