A Blasphemous Memoir

I read two books recently from Chicago Review Press that deal with international issues of human rights. Both were inspiring, powerful reads about women who are made the victims of their culture. The first is a memoir of Asia Bibi from Pakistan; the woman “sentenced to death over a cup of water.”


You may have heard of Asia Bibi a few years ago when her plight became national news. She is a Christian woman in the predominantly Muslim country of Pakistan. When working in the fields with other Pakistani women, she dared to drink from a shared well, making the water unclean for Muslims to drink. She attempted to defend her faith from the other women as they harassed her about it, but the women accused her of blasphemy. The next time she went to work in the fields, a group of Muslims detained her, beat her, dragged her to the village imam and had her arrested.


She was tried and sentenced to death by hanging, the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan this century. Many spoke out for her, including the governor of Punjab province, a Muslim, and the Minister for Minorities in Pakistan, a Christian; both men were killed by extremists. Those who defend her speak out against the archaic blasphemy law in Pakistan that affects both Muslims and non-Muslims alike; to be accused is to be guilty, and most are killed in prison or once released from prison regardless of the circumstances. There is a price on Asia’s head and her family has gone into hiding.


Blasphemy is the memoir written in Asia’s own voice, an account of the events leading up to her arrest and everything that has happened since. She told her tale from the prison she still resides in today. Since she, like many rural Pakistanis, is illiterate, her memoir was written as a result of Anne Isabelle Tollet, a journalist covering Pakistani news, relating questions to Asia’s lawyer, who reported Asia’s answers back to Tollet, who shaped her answers into a cohesive text that received Asia’s stamp of approval.


The most powerful aspect of this memoir is not the injustice of the Pakistani legal system but Asia Bibi herself. She describes her situation with such openness and vulnerability that I would not be shocked if she spent the entire time moaning about her fate. Instead she manages to find joy in small things like a familiar black fly and a busy spider. Most impressive is her respect of Islam and Muhammad in spite of the charges against her. Of course, we also get a vivid glimpse into the life of prisoner:  we feel her despair and boredom, feel her deteriorating health, but we also feel her hope and perseverence.