In Realm of Religion, Women Lose Out

By Nilanjana S. Roy, New York Times

In the week before a prominent Pakistani politician was assassinated for questioning the country’s blasphemy laws, a news report from Erbil in northern Iraq underlined how laws of this nature can be used against women.

Thirteen Iraqi Kurdish women’s rights activists were accused by a prominent Muslim cleric of “blasphemy and demoralizing Kurdish society,” because of their work in promoting gender equality.

The women have filed a police case and reportedly fear for their lives. An accusation of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly, as Aasia Bibi knows.

For the past year, the name of this Christian woman, a laborer and mother of five children, has become synonymous with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In June 2008, Ms. Bibi had an altercation with other female laborers, all of them Muslim. The exchange began after Ms. Bibi fetched water, and some of the women refused to drink it because she was Christian. This led to heated talk on the subject of Christianity and Islam.

The exact words that led to Ms. Bibi’s prosecution under sections 295-B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code have not been disclosed. Since this was an accusation of blasphemy, to repeat the words would be to perpetuate blasphemy. But they were apparently enough to make her the first woman to be sentenced to death under this law.

Ms. Bibi is still in prison. Early last year, newspapers and human rights advocates said that she had been paraded in the streets and gang-raped in Nankana Sahib, a district in Punjab Province.

Last week, the blasphemy laws claimed a prominent victim. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Mr. Taseer’s assassin was showered with rose petals by crowds who approved of his act. Mr. Taseer had drawn much criticism in Pakistan for his defense of Ms. Bibi and his demand for changes to the blasphemy law.

At prayers last Friday, witnesses were quoted in newspapers as saying that the imam of the Sultan Masjid mosque in Karachi denounced another outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws, Sherry Rehman, a journalist and former minister of information and broadcasting, who has also called for revisions to the blasphemy law. According to the reports, the imam called Ms. Rehman a “kaafir” — an infidel — and “wajib-ul-qatl” — fit to be killed — in the course of his sermon.

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie notes blasphemy is considered unacceptable regardless of the gender of the accused. But the prohibition is part of a larger web of laws and practices that have served to restrict women’s rights.

“It was only a very few years ago that the Hudood Ordinance — among the most misogynistic laws ever made — were de-fanged, though it was impossible to overturn them because the right threw up such a stink,” she wrote in an e-mail, referring to the 1979 statute in Pakistan intended to reinforce Shariah law that led to many women who brought accusations of rape being prosecuted for extramarital sex. The 2006 Women’s Protection Bill transferred rape to the civil code. “A rise in power of the religious right invariably sees a decline in women’s rights.”

“What has become very clear these last few days,” she added, “is that if anyone invokes ‘Islam’ as reason for any action there are very few people willing to argue the point — even those who disagree are often silenced through fear. This is more true than ever in the aftermath of the Taseer assassination (or rather, the lionizing of his assassin). So those who invoke Islamic law as reason to keep women oppressed will be further emboldened.”

For Asian women, the consequences of questioning or speaking out against faith can be particularly sharp. In the early 1990s, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s novel “Lajja” was banned, and she was forced into exile for her apparently blasphemous call for revisions to the Koran. Women’s rights groups in Bangladesh noted that the attacks on Ms. Nasreen by Islamic fundamentalists happened against a backdrop of rising intolerance and an increase in honor crimes against women, including the caning and stoning of women who were seen to have transgressed Shariah law.

In Britain, performances of “Behzti,” a play by Gurpreet Bhatti set in a gudwara, or Sikh temple, that explored sexual violence within the British Sikh community were shut down shortly after its opening in 2004. The play was not performed until 2010, six years after Ms. Bhatti had received abduction and death threats from other Sikhs.

“Religion is assumed to be the domain of men, and women do not have much role in it,” the Indian feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia said in an interview.

“But women generally do not have the right to question religion — this is something men hold on to tightly, and it’s not only in Islam. Look at all those so-called honor killings in India — all of them under the guise of religious sanction and tradition.”

This is the context against which Aasia Bibi’s case should be understood.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to persecute ethnic and religious minorities and to shut down free speech in general. But, as Ms. Butalia noted, there is a difference even here for women like Ms. Bibi and now Ms. Rehman.

“While the threat of death or excommunication hangs over all of those who dare to question religion, men or women, as in Taslima’s case, or Aasia’s case, or indeed Rushdie’s case,” she said, referring to the British writer Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats, “for women there is also the additional threat of sexual violence, and, while they remain alive, sexual stigma and targeting.”

“If Aasia was let off, she would have to live all her life with the tag of ‘bad’ or ‘blasphemous’ woman,” she said. “The threat of rape — the traditional weapon of humiliation — is very real indeed.”

Filed Under: Around the WebChristianityFeaturedIslamWomen


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