The acquittal of Asia Bibi, who, several years ago, was accused of having committed blasphemy, portends well for civil society in Pakistan and paves the way for human rights. This judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan could, potentially, diminish the potency of militarized interventions.
I emphasize that I have always considered Islam an emancipatory religion, which advocates social equality, economic and political democratization, and empowerment of minorities. The religion that I was raised in opposed to the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state. Equality before law, and in economy, politics, and society is in perfect consonance with the Islamic thought that I revere.
False allegations do not hold water, and religion can neither be distorted nor can it be employed to settle scores in feuds and vendettas. There is no place for slander and libel in Islam.
The religion that I was raised in doesn’t bay for the blood of the innocent, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. Nor can the religion that I was raised in be reduced to fire and brimstone sermons by myopic preachers.
As I emphasize in my book Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan, I was raised in a secular Muslim home where we were encouraged to speak of the “liberation of women” and of a culturally syncretic society. I was taught that Islam provides women with social, political and economic rights, however invisible those rights are in our society. It was instilled in me that Islam gives women: property rights – the right of Mrs Ghulam Kabra, a Kashmiri state subject, to inherit the property to which she was the legal heir was challenged as early as 1939 because she had married a non-state subject, but the High Court legislated that she could inherit the property bequeathed to her by her parents. Muslim women have the right to interrogate totalizing social and cultural institutions. Muslim women enjoy the right to hold political office – Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Najma Heptullah and Mohsina Kidwai in India, my maternal grandmother Begum Akbar Jehan in Kashmir (who represented the Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of J & K in the Indian parliament from 1977–79 and 1984–89, respectively, and was the first president of the J & K Red Cross Society, from 1947 to 1951; see Lok Sabha 2000). Muslim women have the right to assert their agency in matters of social and political import. They also have the right to lead a dignified existence in which they can voice their opinions and desires so as to “act upon the boundaries that constrain and enable social action by, for example, changing their shape or direction” (Hayward 1998: 271).
Progressive interpretations of Islam guarantee women substantial rights. This needs to be underscored by responsible scholarship, judicial processes, and social work.
It is imperative that governments in South Asia recognize the worth of the peace-building work that humanitarian and women’s organizations can contribute at the local and regional levels.
Asia Bibi’s acquittal is also an effective way to make a humanitarian and gender perspective viable in South Asia. South Asian societies are recognizing the terror caused by predatory discourses that swoop down on the vulnerable and devour them in the process.
Those who claim to be the sole interpreters and guardians of Islam cannot be allowed to distort its message of redemption, growth, and deliverance.
Sanctioned extremist religious and political ideologies in either Pakistan or India will not enable my State, Jammu and Kashmir, to move forward. It would be utterly foolish to smirk at the religious, provincial, and sectarian violence or growing obscurantism in either Pakistan or India, because that simply doesn’t bode well for a peaceful resolution and developmental politics in my neck of the woods.