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Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water

The shocking case study of the abuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan to settle personal grievances

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water, URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/reviews/blasphemy-memoir.html>.

Publication Information

Bibi, Asia and Anne-Isabelle Tollet, Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water, Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2013, pp.160, (paperback).

Pope Francis receives Asia Bibi's family at Vatican in 2015

Blasphemy, in Pakistan's Legal Code, is a criminal offence, penalties ranging from fines to death. From 1987 to 2014, over 1,300 people were accused, mainly for desecrating Qur'an texts, a radical increase on earlier rare use of the law, following the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. Over 50 accused have been murdered, as well as the Punjab governor and the Minister for Minorities, both of them favouring repeal of the law. Accusations are often followed by violent destructive riots. Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water is one case study of a middle-aged woman, still in prison under sentence of death four years after conviction. Co-author Tollet, a French journalist, sent a list of questions to Bibi with her husband on his weekly prison visits and compiled the book from Bibi's spoken answers, plus a fair sprinkle of journalistic imagination. It is written in the first person as Bibi's words.

Bibi is a 46-year-old illiterate Catholic fruit-picker from the village of Ittan Wali, of 300 families, in Pakistan's Punjab, mostly Muslims with two Catholic families. It is dusty and hot in summer. Bibi's one-room dwelling housed them and four daughters. Early in 2009, there were wild murderous anti-Christian riots in nearby Gojra, where some Christians were burned to death, provoked by a banned extremist militant group.

Her husband was a brickmaking labourer. Bibi picked fruit when there was money to earn. On the season's hot first day, she got involved in a verbal spat with a bad-tempered neighbour over a cup of drinking water from a "Muslim" well, and next time she went picking, a mob marched out and attacked her, threatened to kill her and dragged her to the village imam's house. She refused to instantly convert to Islam and was savagely beaten until police arrived and took her away in their van. She was accused by the other berry-pickers of insulting Mohammad, though nobody was interested in what she had said—accusation was enough. So she was driven by the police to Sheikhupura prison. Her husband received death threats, so he took his family from the village for their own safety.

A year later she was tried, found guilty and condemned to death by hanging and a fine of 300,000 rupees. The courtroom crowd cheered. Her husband had not dared appear in the courtroom, fearing a lynching. She was locked into a tiny cell with a leaky roof and a bucket drainhole-toilet, emptied only weekly and often overflowing till the place stank. She was attended by a bullying, foul-mouthed guard, to whom she was chained when being walked to the interview room to see her husband.

Book cover: Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water by Asia Bibi and Anne-Isabelle Tollet

Tollet/Bibi paint a word picture of a bucolic family life of simple, illiterate peasants toiling in fields or brickworks, pious religious observance, inability to afford expensive schooling for their five children, remembering songs grandmothers sang when they were infants, Bibi cooking Christmas feasts, attending church as a family and keeping a very low profile in the generally hostile village to avoid any offence to anybody. They were ever passive and unobtrusive, not eating in public during Ramadan, for example.

She was visited by the Catholic Minister for Minorities (there are 7 million non-Muslims in the 170-million population), Shahbaz Bhatti, who promised help, offered refuge to her husband and children to keep them safe from lynch mobs. The regional governor, Salman Taseer, sympathized, organized a press conference in the prison, which she attended and shyly spoke to journalists, and he promised to help her obtain a pardon. He was involved in efforts to abolish the blasphemy law, but soon after was machine-gunned by his own bodyguard. A few weeks later, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed by a Taliban gang. Bibi was put into solitary confinement in a windowless cell for her own safety and left it only weekly to see her husband in the interview room. She cooked her own food so she couldn't be poisoned.

Bibi recalls conversations with other women prisoners, mostly imprisoned for adultery, and nearly all of them rape victims. International efforts to pressure the Pakistani government to release her have included pleas from the Pope and from Hilary Clinton when US Secretary of State.

The book is short, necessarily, as Tollet had little to go on and her subject is illiterate, but it presents a strong argument about the vicious abuse of blasphemy accusations to persecute people in score-settling behaviour and the inhumanity of the death sentence in such a corrupt legal system. One fanatical mullah offered 500,000 rupees for her assassination. Achieving inter-faith tolerance seems beyond hope in such an inflamed and prejudiced society.

Four years later, there is ongoing international effort to pressure the Pakistani government to release and pardon Bibi and ensure she leaves the country safely with her family, but the government is anxious about inciting hysteria among extremists, so she languishes there yet.

Proceeds from the sale of the book support Asia Bibi's family, which has been forced into hiding.

To find out more about Asia Bibi's case, visit:

Copyright © 2016

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