Niqab, blasphemy and the life of an 8th grader

Pakistanis have no right to point fingers at the French given the atrocities we commit against minorities.

Shayan Naveed September 26, 2011
A shocking example of the severity of ignorance within our society is the blasphemy case against an eighth grade Christian girl, based on something as trivial as a spelling error.

Faryal Bhatti, a student at the Sir Syed Girls High School in Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) colony in Havelian, accidently misspelt ‘naat’ as ‘laanat’ in an Urdu exam while answering a question on a poem written in praise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

While the blasphemy law and its affect on minority rights – who ironically it was meant to protect – has been part a controversy whirlwind this past year, the fact is that evidence in this law is apparently ‘not necessary’. It seems those accused of blasphemy cannot be proven innocent and are therefore inherently guilty. So while there is written ‘proof’ in Faryal’s case, what makes it worse is that many people including supposedly educated teachers are still willing to accuse a minor of a criminal charge that carries the death penalty in Pakistan.

Recently, a report citing Pakistan among  10 countries “failing to sufficiently protect religious rights”, garnered very polarised opinions, with some commenting on the government’s failure, yet again, to protect minorities in the country and others calling the report a concoction of the ‘US-backed media’.

But what stood out, more because of its absurdity than legitimacy, was something along the lines of: if Pakistan is among the 10, France must be on the top – referring to the country’s recent, controversial ban on wearing a niqab in public.

Islam calls for dressing modestly and does not require covering the face. So comments like these, far from being modest, reek of hypocrisy and arrogance. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first of such comments and certainly not the last.

Interestingly, Turkey and Tunisia are Muslim countries that have banned headscarves in public places. Until the recent uprising, there was a ban on the niqab in universities in Syria. Are these countries  failing to protect the rights of their Muslim majority population too?

The truth is that the niqab ban in these countries is, more so, a question of culture rather than faith. While at the most, the ban could be termed xenophobic, it begs the question: who are we to talk? Would Pakistanis be okay with women wearing anything on the streets? Probably not.

In the past few years, Pakistan has witnessed horrific incidents of violence and discrimination against its minorities — Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus — and even Muslims. These have ranged from attacks on places of worships, arson against a community and assassination of the minorities minister, to discrimination in the workplace and not being allowed to marry or even name one’s children without restraint under the ‘law’. And these are just a few cases in the sea of increasing persecution against minorities in Pakistan — almost all of which, unfortunately, have failed to receive any kind of justice.

For argument’s sake, even if France’s niqab ban is a compromise on religious freedom, one cannot compare a fine over a piece of cloth to blood on one’s hands.

And if we continue to disregard that, Pakistan, not France, will reach the top of the list.
Shayan Naveed A subeditor for the national pages of The Express Tribune
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.