A Journey From Blasphemy and Death Row to Safety
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After nearly a decade in prison, Asia Bibi has left Pakistan, where religious minorities still face persecution, for Canada.
By Molly Fosco
Three young Pakistani girls wearing black veils stand in front of their home in Sheikhupura, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. They hold up a faded image of their mother in a tan jumpsuit and matching hat, one hand on her hip, as she poses for the picture. The girls look solemn, worried, sad. It’s 2010 and their mother, Asia Bibi, has been sentenced to death after being convicted of blasphemy for degrading the Prophet Muhammad. Her daughters have no idea if they’ll ever see her again.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending — at least for Bibi’s family. Her conviction was overturned and she was released last year after nearly a decade behind bars. Yesterday, Bibi’s lawyer confirmed that she had left Pakistan — where she had been living in a safe house — and arrived safely in Canada to be reunited with her family. But Bibi won’t easily forget being imprisoned in brutal conditions. And according to human rights groups, Pakistan still unfairly uses its blasphemy laws to target religious minorities.
In 2009, Bibi was working as a farmhand in the fields of Ittan Wali, about 60 miles outside of Lahore. At the request of a landlord, Bibi went to fetch water for her co-workers. When the Christian woman returned, her co-workers refused to touch the water bowl she drank from because she isn’t Muslim, according to Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih. Suddenly, a mob of angry farmhands came toward Bibi, accusing her of making incendiary marks about the Prophet Muhammad. She was dragged to a police station, charged with blasphemy and thrown behind bars.
She has maintained her innocence repeatedly and forcefully.
Bibi’s incarceration was so brutal that she was only allowed access to sunlight for two hours per month.
In her jailhouse memoir, Blasphemy, Bibi describes a simple but happy village life. She grew up Roman Catholic with no education, a country girl among the sugarcane fields. As a Christian, she’s always had to work lowly jobs in Pakistan but says she had a happy marriage to Masih, with whom she had two daughters in addition to three children from his previous marriage. Bibi recalls a time some years ago when her youngest daughter ran away as she tried to comb her hair free of nits. Masih told the girl that if she didn’t get rid of the nits, they might grow as big as rats. Their daughter shrieked and hid under her mother’s tunic.
The memoir was dictated to her husband from jail — Bibi is illiterate and says she wishes she could read and write but notes that it had never mattered before.
She is one of many Christians comprising just 1.59 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million–strong population. Blasphemy is punishable by death or by life in prison. According to the Center for Social Justice, approximately 50 percent of people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are non-Muslims.
After Bibi, 53, won the appeal against her conviction last year, violent protests broke out across Pakistan, led primarily by the country’s Islamist movement, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP). The group burned cars and violated public property until many members were arrested to prevent the protests from becoming even more dangerous.
In 2011, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot and killed by one of his guards for defending Bibi and speaking out against the country’s blasphemy laws. The guard who killed him, Mumtaz Qadri, was then hanged for his crime but was celebrated as a hero by other Islamic fundamentalists. Millions have visited a shrine created in his memory. After speaking out in favor of Bibi’s acquittal, Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also assassinated later that same year.
But Bibi’s imprisonment has drawn support from the international Christian community. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for her immediate, unconditional release, and in February, Bibi’s family visited the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, who reportedly called her a “martyr.”
Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association told the Associated Press that Bibi’s incarceration was so brutal that she was only allowed access to sunlight for two hours per month. She needs time to heal both mentally and physically, he says, and “she must be treated with utmost care and receive appropriate medical care now that she is free.”
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said he would not comment at this time due to privacy and security issues. Bibi and her husband spent the last few weeks getting the right documentation in order to go to Canada, where their two daughters had already been granted asylum. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chimed in with his support for Bibi, adding, “The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”
Bibi has not spoken out publicly since her release. In her memoir, she said, “I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: ‘Kill her, kill her! Allahu akbar!’”
Today, those voices might be just a little quieter.