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.”

64 comments

Comments are closed.