Pakistan, blasphemy, and a tale of two women

January 24, 2011

blasphemyprotestFor all the bad news coming out of Pakistan, you can’t help but admire the courage of two very different women who did what their political leaders failed to do — stood up to the religious right after the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his call for changes to the country’s blasphemy laws.

One is Sherry Rehman, a politician from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, who first proposed amendments to the laws. The other is actress Veena Malik, who challenged the clerical establishment for criticising her for appearing on Indian reality show Big Boss.  I’m slightly uncomfortable about grouping the two together — the fact that both are Pakistani women does not make them any more similar than say, for example, two Pakistani men living in Rawalpindi or  London. Yet at the same time, the idea that Pakistan can produce such different and outspoken women says a lot about the diversity and energy of a country which can be too easily written off as a failing state or  bastion of the Islamist religious right.

Sherry Rehman is living as a virtual prisoner in her home in Karachi after being threatened over her support for amendments to the blasphemy laws. She has refused to leave the country for her own safety, nor indeed to accept the position adopted by her party leaders — that now is not the time to amend the laws. Their argument appears to be that trying to amend the laws now would just add more fuel to the fire after religious leaders defended Taseer’s killing and organised huge protests in favour of the current legal provisions.

“There’s never a right time,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted her as saying.  “Blasphemy cases are continually popping up, more horror stories from the ground. How do you ignore them?” 

“We know from history that appeasement doesn’t pay. It only emboldens them,” said Rehman.

For background, here is the text of the original law introduced into the Indian Penal Code by British colonial rulers in 1860:

Section 295: Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class:

“Whoever destroys, damages, or defiles a place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Here is the version of one of the added clauses which have caused so much acrimony in Pakistan, as amended in 1986 by Pakistan’s then military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq:

Section 295-C: Use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh)

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.”

The amendment loses any acknowledgement of intent. Yet intent is not only a fundamental part of any legal system but also an essential attribute of faith. Indeed when Britain abolished its own archaic blasphemy laws in 2008,  and these were replaced with laws against inciting religious and racial hatred, the idea of intent was retained.

The row which caused Taseer’s death was about amending the Pakistani penal code to reintroduce the concept of intent and end the death penalty. It was never about repealing the laws, nor about allowing people to insult Islam or the prophet Muhammed.

That is the reasoned argument. The leaders of the religious right in Pakistan who have brought thousands out into the street in defence of Taseer’s killer would know that both the original colonial law and its amendment were man-made. They would know too, since they are also scholars, the significance of the meaning of intent. But reasoned argument does not work against street power.

Then there was Veena Malik, who according to the Express Tribune, became the first Pakistani woman to reach the top 10 trends on Twitter after she went on television to defend her performance on the Indian reality show.  During a popular talk show (see video here), she talked back, or even over, her clerical detractors,  and accordng to Pakistan newspaper reports, demanded to know why they were so ready to criticise her while failing to condemn suicide bombings or honour killings.

Even those who are probably not fans of reality television (and I’d count myself among them) praised her courage for speaking up at a time when so many have been silenced.

“Her response to the Mufti and the host, brought to the forefront the harassment women have to face that has conveniently been camouflaged as ‘honour and dignity’. But what really pushed me to write this blog was a question Veena asked Mufti Abdul Qawi: ‘Why am I being treated this way? Why am I being questioned? What is my fault, Mufti sahab? Because I am a woman? A soft target?’ wrote Sana Saleem at Dawn.

“I recall thinking at one point during the show, how Veena Malik did not represent me … But after watching her response to the slurs being hurled her way, I take it back. Veena Malik represents me and many, many women in this country who have been subjected to moral policing. In a country where rape is justified, murderers glorified and women threatened by fatwas, Veena speaks for me and many others.”

At the Express Tribune, blogger Saad Zuberi described her as “the only person in Pakistan’s ultra-holy green-tinted limelight right now who isn’t afraid to say it  like it is.”

“She’s bold, honest and pretty straightforward, which is something I can’t say for many Pakistanis out there. Sad, I know, but true. We’re all busy being pathetic and jealous and confused, while this woman has, as a friend aptly pointed out, displayed something lacking from not only our so-called saviours but the country at large: balls.”


Noor Mahmood,

Thanks very much for writing. We need to hear the views of more Pakistanis to get a rich cross-section of views.

Speaking for myself (and I am sure for many other Indians), I do sympathise with the common man in Pakistan, and recognise that the issues facing ordinary people are the same the world over. For example, I have donated (more than once) to Oxfam for flood relief.

I believe that the events of November 2008 (the Mumbai attacks) have unfortunately traumatised countless numbers of Indians and hardened attitudes against Pakistan. It has been an event that changed things forever for so many people. It’s unfortunate that a few people can succeed in creating such strong negative emotions that are not justified when taking the mass of ordinary people into account.

Umair is right that trust takes a long time to build but it can be destroyed by events over a very short timeframe.

We should try in this forum to understand the views of other people, and I hope we do travel some distance in achieving that.

I would once again encourage you to contribute more regularly. It would help us all by interacting with you too.

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

“They are day to day common man issues. It can happen in India too.”

It is already happening in India. Yes the trouble has reached Indian shores. But unlike Pakistan it is not wrapped in religion or caste but plain and straight economics. Indians have been traditionally very good in trade and commerce and are happy to forget the past and move forward provided there are appropriate, favorable and progressive economic conditions for ALL. Thats not the case right now and hence unrest in several parts of India. But definitely its not religion; it never was!

I would agree with Umair that you should not talk of splintering Pakistan all the time. Thats a short sighted policy similar to US whom you condemn so much. You are bound to get back emotional answers for telling someone that his country will be split. I am with Umair on this one. Idea of Pakistan should stay BUT not due to nukes.

@Umair, you listening, NOT with nukes. If Pakistan lives off nukes then you are not letting anyone make a progress. You have nukes and safeguarded your country thats good. Why keep boasting of it. Let someone try to splinter your country and then show them nuke power…why have so much obsession with them?

Had kashmiris really wanted any kind of independence they would have staged far more peaceful protests and would not have harbored people like Geelani amongst them who just want to incite people and make martyrdoms out of those innocents so as to make political gains against Indian central government. For someone sitting outside it is very easy to make foolish comments. Visit Kashmir sometime (instead of using your gut and stomach) and then we can discuss what kashmiris want.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive

They did indeed! Time has moved on, too late for peaceful marches. If I have learned from your fellow citizens post is that kashmiri rebels have been receiving training in Pakistan, and the attack on Indian city of commerce, was supported by Pakistan ISI oufit. If this is true then these guys are not going to like their compatriots kashmiris to go on a peace march after sixty years. Too bad once again your community is going to face violence. Good luck, 2011 has just commenced!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Pakistan: “Time has moved on, too late for peaceful marches. If I have learned from your fellow citizens post is that kashmiri rebels have been receiving training in Pakistan, and the attack on Indian city of commerce, was supported by Pakistan ISI oufit. If this is true then these guys are not going to like their compatriots kashmiris to go on a peace march after sixty years. Too bad once again your community is going to face violence. Good luck, 2011 has just commenced!”

You are still in 1989. You need to come to 2011. You seem to be behind in time. Your mentality itself reflects that perception. Kashmiris have realized that insurgency does not pay. For almost fifteen years, Pakistan sponsored militants into Kashmir and bled itself dry. Kashmiri youth have gone to stone pelting. Now there is only one thing left – trying Gandhian method. You never know, Gandhi’s method is very powerful. It puts unarmed public in front of weapon wielding policemen. The police cannot do anything when the non-violent protester does not give up, filling up jails. If Kashmiri Muslims need their independence, that is the only method that might work with India. Violent methods have been tried and it made Indian grip even tighter. Of course, Muslim kashmiris have been fed on the diet of might being the right, with support for violent ways by Pakistan. So the chances of non-violelnt methods are small. And if any moderate Kashmiri leader tries that, your Mujahideen are there to silence them.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Pakistan is at it again in 2011… ticle1145298.ece

I just dont understand that how with such acts can these Pakistanis expect India to cut down on military presence in Kashmir.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive

“All this feel good attitude in relation to Pakistan’s misery will not help you in the long run.”

I very much appreciate your efforts to maintain civility in this discussion.

Having said that, available evidence suggests your statement above is not true. Weakening of Pakistan internally , weakening of Pakistan diplomatically and economically while India getting stronger has been very helpful from the Indian perspective. It may not be nice or friendly to say this, but this is the reality.

25+ years of Pakistan sponsored terrorism inside India pak “liberals” were having fun. After the attack on Indian parliament, hijacking of Indian Airlines flight, pak sponsored transistor bombs exploding in Delhi buses, etc pak response used to be “he can not retaliate”….

It is like watching a Bollywood flick, the villain is paying the price….naturally there is a sense of relief.

Posted by netizen | Report as abusive

Frequently paks comment that Indians are “obsessed” about Pakistan. There are 6 Indians for every single pak in this world, some of us are interested in Indo-Pak conflict and comment on this.

For 63 years “Pakistan” has existed only as militaristic, terrorist sponsoring enterprise indulging in nefarious activities. Before India started supporting Mukti Bahini, Pakistan had launced 2 wars against India, and was heavily financing insurgent/ separatist groups from East Pakistan before 1971.

Both acquiring and holding on to Kashmir have been due to Indian perspective that a muslim majority state will solidify India’s secular identity..a point repeatedly pleaded by Indian muslim leaders past 63 years…..Never seen any recognition of this from pak “liberals” even in anonymous blogs…

North Koreanization of Pakistan is unfolding …Pakistan has no use for rest of the world except through negative leverage as a source of terrorism, and holding the west hostage in Afghan quagmire.

At the same time, Indians should not get carried away and imagine that paks do not have the desire or capability to launch some other Mumbai style terrorist attack in India.

Posted by netizen | Report as abusive

777xxx777: “I just dont understand that how with such acts can these Pakistanis expect India to cut down on military presence in Kashmir.”

The plan would have been to leave the bodies somewhere and spread rumors about Indian security forces dragging them for interrogation and killing them. Followed by that will be rumors spread far and wide causing agitations and riots. Looks like some elements do not want peace in the region at any cost.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

So in your view, no chance for Kashmiris to escape from the Indian military? And you recommend the myth of Gandhian method?

Million of years ago there was no Kashmir or the himalayas, but an ocean. The Indian sub-continent was also not there either. let us see if in 2011 the earth is going to move or the Kashmiris are going to move the intruders out of their land? It is avery long year! Your friend netizen did make some good analysis.

rex Minor

Posted by fibs | Report as abusive

“Egyptians are the softest among arabs! They are on the move now, I pray that Kashmiris do not follow their example! You have not got the faintest idea about muslim women!
I did not mean to be rude. It is really getting boring.”

***Example of Egypt is not a bad one actually. One of the rare from you. That is applicable to all Kashmiris, however.

Here is the problem about “your idea” of “Muslim women”. Which Muslim women are you talking about: Kashmiri, Saudi, Pushtoon or Bengali? Have we not learned so far that it is hard to generalize given the diverse cultural flavors of Muslims across the globe?

What you are talking about as “muslim women” is is a gender issue, not religion-specific.

Sherry Rehman and Veena Malik case is a gender issue as an example, nothing to do with their religions.

“I did not mean to be rude. It is really getting boring.”
*** On a lighter note, I always mistype your name as Rx before I correct it. I don’t know why. ;-)

Posted by rehmat | Report as abusive


“Indians should try to understand ordinary Pakistan’s issues and be sympathetic. Wishing for the country to splinter up will offer no benefit to anyone including India. Please do not even wish that Pakistan should break up on its own. It won’t do any good to anyone. It will make things worse. Who gets affected by all this? Ordinary people.”

***I agree about your opinion about splintering up of Pakistan. So do many Indians, more than some Pakistanis believe. Most Indians actually do not even think about it. This is just individual opinion but at policy level, India in its own interests will not do it and cannot do splintering etc. This has been stated by PM of India several times that Pakistan’s stability is in India’s interest. For the sake of argument even if India has any such intentions, it cannot do it in post-Nuke era. I have said stressed this to my dear friend Umair several times. Recently Chinese news offered a similar splintering up of India in Chinese interests. All these talks are talks or psychological warfare in the backdrop of past successes (India in 1971 and China in 1962 although China did not split India). I do not foresee Chinese walking across the border and doing stuff in pre-Nuke old way. Same is true for India in the case of Pakistan. Times have changed but we seemed to be stuck in the past.

@”Indians should try to understand ordinary Pakistan’s issues and be sympathetic.”
*** I would extend this to all over the place and everyone should do that, including Pakistanis. If we can not feel for a human just because we do not have a personal connection, we have some problem. In India, in my rough guess, there are people who feel relief that Pakistan is getting its own medicine. It is more of a human behavior than anything else. Others have totally opposite views.

Let us take the positives too. Indians have donated for flood crisis and that perhaps includes some of the Indian posters here too.

From Indian perspective one thing that emerged after Mumbai 2008 attack, and angers Indians in general, is that Pakistanis did not condemn the act with the intensity a normal peaceful compassionate human should do. There was a denial by masses in Pakistan that it could even be done by Pakistan-based terrorists. Let me add here that among those who noticed this trend were compassionate Pakistanis who clearly have no love for AK-47-wielding human out to kill another one. Several years, later despite evidence and admission by Pakistan govt, those people have become muted in their theories but do not condemn that act.

It always amazes me how people suffering from terrorism cannot recognize the pain of another one. We have all kinds of “ifs and buts” to it.

Posted by rehmat | Report as abusive

Pakistan: “So in your view, no chance for Kashmiris to escape from the Indian military? And you recommend the myth of Gandhian method?”

If Kashmiris bank of insurgents and helpers from Pakistan, they will face the Indian military. If they genuinely stood up on their own, I will honor their demand. I may not like to let people go based on religion, but then that is only an opinion. People’s voice must be respected. They make the choice and they pay for whatever consequences that can arise due to emotional decisions. Kashmir’s independence is only the first step in Pakistan’s agenda. Once they make sure India is out of there, they will not care a rats rear end and infiltrate the place with their non-state actors. At least one can throw stones at a military. Who can take the aim at militants? The goal from Pakistani side would be to eliminate anyone who desires free Kashmir and their leaders brutally and bring everyone under the merge-with-Pakistan umbrella. And anti-India venom will be injected copiously to push the population in that direction. Then they can declare openly about people’s choice and will for merging with the nation only Allama Iqbal could dream of. If Kashmiris rebel, RAW will be blamed for training them and creating chaos inside the Islamic paradise. Or to keep the people engaged, the next Jihad will be launched inside India, probably in Punjab and other neighboring states. Missiles will move close to New Delhi. I can see the whole thing coming. That is why I pray that Kashmiris do not lose their minds and commit the next big blunder. But if they still follow Gandhian method, there will be no choice but to give in to their demands and pray for the best.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Poor kashmiris! On a serious note, have you ever considered writing a book?

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Pakistan: “Poor kashmiris!”

Now you understand. That’s good. They will be crushed by the waiting Pakistan if they decide to go on their own.

“On a serious note, have you ever considered writing a book?”

Yep. I am going to write a comedy book with you as the main character in it. am still deciding on the title.

Rex Minor

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

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