Pakistan’s Women’s Rights Organizers Accused Of Blasphemy

Accusations of blasphemy are being used by conservatives in Pakistan to discredit the organizers of the annual “Aurat Azadi March”  (Women’s Freedom March). The Pakistan Penal code treats blasphemy as a criminal offence punishable by fines, incarceration or death. The law is frequently exploited to persecute minorities and groups perceived to pose a threat to the state. 

The allegations are accompanied by doctored photographs and videos which depict participants from this year’s march promoting blasphemous slogans. The claims are unsubstantiated and have already been dismissed in one court in Lahore. In a statement released earlier this week, the organizers of the Aurat Azadi March declared that “the incidents which are being falsely framed as blasphemous in these charges are not even from the Islamabad March and the allegations regarding them have been thoroughly debunked by both media outlets and the respective city chapters where they came up […] We are being incriminated for crimes we never committed, slogans that were never raised, and banners that were never carried.”

The blasphemy accusations are merely the latest in a string of attempts by various parties to counteract the efforts of the Aurat Azadi March organizers. The march, which commemorates International Women’s Day, has recently been subject to increasing opposition from right-wing groups. Writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar told DW that “Feminism is a foreign concept and these women (women’s rights activists) get funding from Europe and the U.S.”  Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government accused women’s rights NGOs of advocating western values and accepting funds from foreign organizations in 2018. The crackdown resulted in the forced closure of 18 international NGOs and is widely seen by women’s rights activists as a mechanism to silence their efforts. Activist Ismat Shahjahan told DW that the media, right-wing organizations and the state had engaged in “coordinated efforts”  to distort the public’s perception of feminism and quash support for the movement. 

Accusations of blasphemy are particularly damaging to the feminist movement because of the prevalence of Islamic authority in Pakistan, which has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws of all Muslim-majority countries. Presenting feminist values as incompatible with or threatening to Islam is likely to engender significant public resistance. Human rights activist Medhi Hassan told DW that “Pakistan is not a democratic state but a religious state where clerics wield a lot of influence.” Hassan notes that “Hurling allegations of blasphemy amounts to jeopardizing the lives of people here. We fear that the lives of women activists are in danger because there are so many extremists out there in the streets who could target them at any time.”

Accusations of blasphemy have previously resulted in street vigilantes, murders and lynchings. The laws are famously exploited to persecute minorities and other outgroups. Activist Shazia Khan reports that she has been pressured to reduce her activism by fearful loved ones. Khan told DW: “Hatemongers and misogynistic media personalities have been spewing venom against us, jeopardizing the lives of women in a country where people are killed merely due to false accusations of blasphemy.”  

Creating a climate where activists’ lives are threatened is likely to stifle their attempts to defend women’s rights in a country that desperately needs it. According to the Journal Of Pakistan Medical Association, approximately 70-90% of Pakistani women report experiencing some form of abuse. The Aurat Azadi March spreads messages such as “my body, my choice” to protest sexual abuse. 

Given that the anti-blasphemy laws are often used to legitimize intolerance toward minorities, some critics have advocated for changing the law to protect vulnerable groups. Writer Mohammed Hanif argued that “the country’s blasphemy law is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas” after an illiterate 14-year old Christian, Rimsha Masih, was accused of blasphemy. Hanif notes the reluctance of politicians to change the law despite its clear connection to violence towards out-groups. In the past week, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was outlawed under anti-terrorist laws after violently protesting against allegedly blasphemous caricatures by a French illustrator. Altering the laws would help Pakistan honour its commitments in international human rights law to provide a “safe environment where women and girls can live a life free from violence in private and public spaces, and survivors are able to access quality essential services.” Changing the laws would also help protect other minority groups, such as Christians, from persecution. 

Cassie Ransom