Sometimes, freedom can be a long plane ride that takes you away from a place that no longer feels like home. Pakistan’s Asia Bibi, the first woman to be sentenced to death under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, arrived in Canada where she has been granted asylum, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld her acquittal and declared her a free woman.
A Roman Catholic, the ordeal of Asia Bibi, 47, of Sheikhupura near Lahore, began on a June morning in 2009 when she had been out working as a farmhand with her Muslim neighbours. A row over drinking water — Asia Bibi had had a drink from a cup that her neighbours were loathe to share — rapidly escalated into accusations that she had defamed Prophet Mohammad, a punishable offence under the Pakistan Penal Code. As Asia Bibi was arrested, convicted and put on death row, her almost decade-long fight for justice sharply polarised Pakistani society, with hardliners such as Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his religious political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, relentlessly campaigning to uphold her death sentence even as some moderate politicians such as Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti spoke up in favour of her release and paid with their lives.
Across the world, an obsession with religious supremacy has led to an increase in vigilantism and mob violence, turning neighbours into strangers, friends to enemies. In a country like Pakistan, where religion guides the legal framework, the blasphemy laws have been a hotbed of controversy, often seen as a means to settle personal scores and as a majoritarian instrument of oppression against the country’s minorities. In upholding Asia Bibi’s acquittal, first granted in October last year and then challenged by Islamist hardliners, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has done its duty by her. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Asia Bibi’s fellow citizens who hounded her with death threats and denied her both the dignity of equal opportunity and the confidence that comes from being among one’s own.