Stepping out of one’s soil

  • Can our land not promise tolerance?

In a recorded message, Aasia Bibi’s daughter on behalf of her family bids farewell to her nation, inevitably forever. With a heart heavy with emotion and love for her country, she asserts the family holds “no misgivings”. But her suffering is visible– having lived nearly a decade without her mother’s love and now, a struggle to carve a new identity, away from the place of her birth.

Thus, she and Aasia Bibi have left the country. The country itself is mostly relieved and happy that they may be able to at last, breathe in free air. But is this the only path left for Aasia and many others like her; to abandon her roots over a false accusation?

Aasia remained in protective custody, rather hiding, for months before she departed to foreign soil. Despite her being cleared of all charges, she remains unsafe at her home and so does her family, which has been living out of Pakistan for years. A daughter grew up without her mother, and a mother remained confined for a period which seemed endless. If only she had not touched a Muslim glass!

With new demons to fight, Aasia, nevertheless, is free to breathe. We, however, remain imprisoned within our thoughts and actions

It happened nearly 10 years ago, that working in the fields of her village, Aasia picked a common glass to quench her thirst. This infuriated her Muslim fellow workers, who expressed their disapproval since Aasia belongs to the Christian faith. A natural act of drinking water led to a heated debate. After much time passing by, the fellow workers ‘reported’ the incident to their local Muslim cleric, who took it upon himself to investigate the matter. Days after the incident, an FIR was lodged with the local police station that Aasia Bibi had uttered blasphemous words against the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Suddenly, a baffled Aasia was behind bars for a crime alleged against her.

The investigations were hurried and most witnesses were against her. Equally rushed were court judgements at that time, as huge mobs would scream bloody vengeance. Those who demanded rightful investigation and learnt that no blasphemy had occurred, received fatal wounds to atone for their ‘sin’.

So it wasn’t a surprise, when after a decade of Aasia’s confinement, anguish and misery, as the final judgement ruled that there was no credible evidence to prove a blasphemous act, our volatile nation erupted in protest. It did not matter that there were discrepancies in the accusers’ statements, or that there was a significant time gap until the case was actually reported. It did not even matter when the Chief Justice, in his judgement, stressed that Islam condemns false allegations and those made in the name of the Prophet ( PBUH) are probably as sinful as an actual blasphemy itself. The illiterate, intolerant and biased men and women of Aasia’s village as well as the rest of the country were correct, and all those supporting her were infidels.

Today, Aasia is free – but not in her native village. For that matter, she is neither free nor safe in her country. She has to go to a distant land, learn new customs and language, only to be able to stay alive. What remains constant, is her faith.

In Pakistan, she would have remained free, had she accepted the invisible confines religious belief has created.  She would have been accepted, had she not crossed the ‘boundaries’ imposed by society. She probably would have prompted a change of hearts, if she had changed her faith, and asked for forgiveness. That in this case, it would have been a mere lip service, would not have mattered.

But Aasia chose to speak the truth. She chose to defend her innocence. She refused to abandon her faith. She rejected death as the only option. She opted to give up her motherland. For many, her departure from the country means nothing. But for the country itself, it is a big question mark as to who would ultimately make the persona of the nation and what is the future of the multicultural, multinational and amalgam of faiths it was at its creation.

In a land, far away, Aasia may be warming herself with a hot drink to acclimate with the coldness of foreign soil. Would she reminisce of the cool water she reached for, on a blistering hot day, years ago? As she receives a welcome from her new friends, would she remember how she used to greet her old acquaintances on festivals? Uttering new words, would she think of the quips, the curses, the songs she shared with others in her mother tongue? Would she talk of her birthplace with warmth, tearful memories or contempt?

With new demons to fight, Aasia, nevertheless, is free to breathe. We, however, remain imprisoned within our thoughts and actions, that belong to a faith which until today, was unknown to her as well as us. Do we also need to step out of our soil to learn tolerance, justice and harmony? It sure is getting difficult to breathe here.