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The Profane in Pakistan

In Pakistan, two young women have recently become the target of violence and accusations of blasphemy, as retribution for speaking out about modernisation and education, or for simply belonging to a minority group, highlighting ongoing divisions in the country.

Malala Yousazai , a 15 year old girl, was attacked earlier this month for being an activist for the rights of children and education for girls. [1]  Malala was shot in the head by a member of the Pakistani Taliban, for what a spokesman for the Taliban claimed as ‘obscenity’ and bringing secular and Western ideas to Pakistan. She has since been moved to a military hospital then to the UK, and while there are hopeful signs she remains in a critical condition. This incident has resulted in public outcry within and outside Pakistan, suggesting that violent and unjust acts may not be as acceptable as the perpetrators appear to believe.  Avaaz has started a petition to support Malala and the right of Pakistani girls to receive an education.

The attack on Malala follows the 16 August arrest in Mahrabad, Pakistan, of a 14-year-old girl on a charge of blasphemy.  Rimsha Masih spent two weeks in remand in an adult prison after her accuser said she had been carrying a bag of refuse which included burnt pages of the Koran. As blasphemy laws in Pakistan decree a life in prison for anyone who defiles the Koran, and require no evidence other than the word of the accuser, there is little hope for most who are accused. [2]

In the nearly 20 years since blasphemy laws were established in Pakistan, between 1,200 and 1,400 people have been accused to blasphemy, and few are able to successfully challenge the accusations. However, Masih’s age and reports that she is intellectually disabled resulted in concern, both internationally and within Pakistan, that may turn this case in a different direction. In addition, evidence has been revealed that the man who accused Masih, Mullah Mohammad Khalid Chisti, framed Masih and fabricated the evidence. Chisti then found himself accused under the same law he’d cited against Masih. Since this news, groups that are known to be consistently conservative, such as the All Pakistan Ulema Council, and high profile politicians such as Imran Khan, have come out in support of Masih and condemned the actions of Chisti.  The case has yet to go to court, so Masih’s future still hangs in the balance. However, her success at winning bail, the first person to do so since the establishment of the blasphemy laws, perhaps indicates that not only public opinion but the justice system are on her side.

However, regardless of the outcome of either Malala or Rimsha's situations, there is no indication that the blasphemy laws will be repealed. The situation with Rimsha is related to the larger issue of class in Pakistan, as she is from a Christian family. In addition to being outnumbered by approximately 97% of the population who are Muslim, Christians and other minorities are seen as the lower levels of the caste system, and are heavily persecuted. There is little condemnation from the government and religious authorities of the persecution and violence, and it continues to escalate. Two who have protested against the blasphemy law - the former governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the government - were shot dead in 2011. [3]

These cases are not isolated incidents, but rather a sign of the deep divisions within Pakistan. If the unjust laws and extremism that allow the attacks are not reformed, people will resort to attacking those who dare to speak up, or can’t defend themselves, and girls like Malala and Rimsha will continue to be in danger.

[1] ABC News.
[2] Jon Boone, the Guardian.
[3] William Dalrymple, Canberra Times.