Blasphemy by Asia Bibi is the heartbreaking true story of a woman sentenced to death for drinking a cup of water.
When Asia gets thirsty after a long sweltering day working in the fields in Pakistan, she goes to the well and takes a drink of water, afterwards one of the other women shouts at her, telling her that she – as a Christian – has contaminated their water by drinking out of a cup meant for the Muslim women.
An argument breaks out among the women, and when the Muslim women confront Asia, asking her why she doesn’t give up her God and convert to Islam, Asia throws the question back at them “Why should I be the one to convert?” she asks, the women are deeply offended by her question and someone in the crowd accuses her of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad – a crime punishable by death.
Asia is accosted, beaten in the street and physically dragged to the police station where she is arrested and thrown into prison. When her case is heard before the courts – for the crime of blasphemy – she is sentenced to death by hanging.
The most amazing thing about this book isn’t the gripping and agonizing story of Asia Bibi, but the fact that the book exists at all. Asia doesn’t know how to read or write, so French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet writes the book, in Asia’s words. The remarkable thing about the collaboration is that the two women have never even met.
Tollet went to Pakistan after hearing about Asia’s plight, but was refused entry to the jail, so she had to ask her questions by sending them in secretly with Asia’s husband whenever he met with her.
Both Tollet and Aashiq – Asia’s husband – took great risks to bring this book to life, especially in light of the murders of Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, two high profile community members who were assassinated for having spoken out in support of Asia. We can only hope that their risk pays off and that Asia will one day be freed.
At the time of this review Asia Bibi remains in prison in Pakistan where she is awaiting her appeal. She has been imprisoned for three and-a-half years. She is kept in solitary confinement; in a room so small she can reach out with both hands and touch the walls on either side of her. She is allowed no visitors except her husband and her lawyer.
I hope that “Blasphemy” can be a catalyst for change in countries where unthinkable things, like what is happening to Asia, are commonplace, but I hope too that it can serve as an important reminder to us here in Australia, of just how lucky we are to live free from religious persecution, and with the freedom to express our choices and speak plainly. Things that are so commonplace to us that we often take them for granted.
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