Who is Asia Bibi?
Asia Bibi was born Aasiya Noreen in 1971 in Ittan Wali, a tiny rural village 30-miles from the capital city of Lahore. A progressive, cultural center, Lahore lies in Pakistan’s Punjab Province and is home to more than 11 million people.
Lahore is a very old city, and a very young city. Old, because its roots reach far back into antiquity, and many empires have left a mark on its rich heritage. New, for many reasons critical to understanding the place where Asia Bibi was born into a Christian minority. The place in which she would someday be sentenced to die as a blasphemer.
In 1947, a third of Lahore’s population was made up of Hindus and Sikhs living in tightly-knit enclaves throughout the city. When Pakistan was separated from India later that same year, the city’s Hindu and Sikh populations left and were replaced by Muslim refugees from India.
The most recent census numbers put Lahore’s Muslim population at 94%, Christians 5.8%, and small numbers of Bahá’ís, Hindus, Ahmediya, Parsis, Sikhs and Jews. Additionally, 40% of Lahore’s population is under the age of 15.
Before she was put on trial and sentenced to hang under Pakistan’s very controversial blasphemy law, the life of Asia Bibi was unremarkable.
Bibi and her family were the only Christians in the villiage where she was born and raised and they undoubably felt pressure to convert to Islam. In general, religious minorities were and are relegated to menial labor and lower-paying jobs. Asia Bibi was a farm laborer and she worked to help support her family. Her husband worked as a bricklayer and together they cared for their five children.
A book could be written about what happened that day in June 2009. Here is a helpful timeline and a few uncontested facts:
- Asia Bibi was harvesting berries with a group of other women when she was sent for water.
- An argument ensued between Bibi and the other women over water and the sharing of drinking utensils.
- One of the women accused Bibi of speaking against the prophet Mohammed, a charge which Bibi has always denied.
- Several days later, a group of people, led by one of the women, accosted Bibi, dragged her away and brought her before the local imam.
- Bibi was subsequently arrested by the Pakistani police and imprisoned for over a year before being charged.
In November 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a local judge found her guilty and passed a death sentence.
After enduring her trial for blasphemy alone, her husband and their children dared not attend due to threats on their lives. Asia Bibi would go on to spend the next 10 years alone. Kept away from the other prisoners for her own safety, and even allowed to prepare her own food for fear of poisoning, she did manage to avoid the deadly fate of others imprisoned for blasphemy.
At first, Salman Taseer, then governor of the Punjab, visited her with his wife and daughter, but he was later assassinated in January of 2011 for supporting Bibi. She would see her lawyer from time to time, as she appealed her conviction. Very occasionally, her husband would be allowed to come out of hiding, risking his own life, to visit her but it would be many long years before her long solitary imprisonment would be over.
In October of 2018, in a courageous decision amid fierce backlash from extremist Islamist elements in Pakistan, Asia Bibi was acquitted.
To truly understand what happened to Asia Bibi, and indeed what could happen to anyone who might run afoul of Pakistan’s religious blasphemy laws, two other key factors must be explored a little more closely.
What are religious blasphemy laws? What does it mean to commit religious blasphemy and why does it carry a death sentence in Pakistan?
The laws have been misused and much maligned in the international community, but hard-line Islamists aren’t backing down. What does that mean for the people of Pakistan?
For Pakistan to move forward it will need to come to terms with the fact that laws like these need to be overturned.