In an unusual and courageous step, human rights campaigner Gulalai Ismail has responded to a ‘blasphemy’ accusation in Pakistan by taking legal action against the man who accused her.
Gulalai Ismail is co-founder of Aware Girls, which works to empower and educate women and girls on rights and leadership in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. She was elected to the Board of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in August 2017.
‘Blasphemy’ accusations in Pakistan are frequently devastating. The accused can become embroiled in years of trials while imprisoned, and face a possible death sentence. There is also a serious risk of extrajudicial killing at the hands of radical Islamists or enraged mobs. Last year humanist student Mashal Khan was murdered by several of his peers on a campus in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The accusation against Gulalai Ismail came from Hamza Khan, 23, also a student in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In a 12-minute video uploaded to his Facebook page on 20 November 2017, Hamza Khan, who claims to be president of Mardan Youth Parliament, reportedly called for a mob to attack Gulalai for her alleged “blasphemy” in defending others accused of blasphemy! He told his social media follows that Ismail was “insulting religion and Pashtun culture” through her work and organizations, including her campaigning for justice in the Mashal Khan case.
Gulalai was among many who reacted with horror at the killing of Mashal Khan last year, and Gulalai continued to follow the case, highlighting how – many months after the murder – his family were still struggling with the threat to their own lives in the aftermath.
Mashal Khan’s family wait for justice without protection, security and a lawyer. https://t.co/JAkA62KgPG
— Gulalai_Ismail (@Gulalai_Ismail) September 12, 2017
Following the video incitement, Gulalai Ismail lodged a first information report (FIR) against Hamza Khan. Khan was charged under sections of the penal code relating to “Punishment for Criminal Intimidation” and “Causing Annoyance” under the Telegraph Act. Hamza Khan has since been released on bail.
Gulalai’s counsel, Fazle Wahid, argued before the court that Bilal’s video constituted incitement to violence and that he made death threats against her. He related that even after the FIR was filed, the accused staged a protest outside the Peshawar Press Club on January 16 against Gulalai Ismail and again inciting hatred or violence, as if he was trying to spark another incident such as the murder of Mashal Khan.
Hamza Khan apparently denies posting the video message, though in court a police investigation officer produced a record of Khan’s Facebook account and the video message itself.
Gulalai Ismail, who has won various awards for her human rights work, including the 2014 International Humanist Award from the IHEU, has had to relocate since the incitement for her security.
Even in the midst of a media storm around the accusation and her counter action, Gulalai has continued to champion other human rights causes:
End to the regime of enforced disappearances in Pakhtunkhwa, Fata and rest of Pakistan, an end to the land mines, #JusticeForNaqeeb and rehabilitation of the destroyed infrastructure in Fata are the legitimate demands of #PashtunsIsbdDharna. #PashtunLongMarch https://t.co/4YfAd8Izhu
— Gulalai_Ismail (@Gulalai_Ismail) February 3, 2018
Gulalai comments: “I wanted to set a precedent so that other human rights activists and other young women can speak out and can use their right to freedom of expression without the fear of being silenced in the name of religion.” Academics and activists have welcomed Ismail’s counter-charge as a vital step in resisting malicious ‘blasphemy’ accusations and letting those who abuse and make death threats know that there may be consequences.
President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, tweeted support this morning:
“I will not be silenced. I am not afraid of these cowards. I will fight against them and prove them wrong”
— Andrew Copson (@andrewcopson) February 5, 2018
On behalf of the IHEU, he adds:
“For years observers have asked ‘Why don’t the malicious accusers face justice over these mindless accusations which put people in so much danger?’ Now, our Board member, Gulalai Ismail, is pioneering the way: taking the fight back to the accuser. In Pakistan, even to criticise a particular use of the ‘blasphemy’ laws is often branded an act of ‘blasphemy’ itself! So this is a courageous step.
“IHEU objects to the use of all ‘blasphemy’ laws as a matter of principle, because people must be free to talk about religion and to criticise ideas. Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy’ laws not only impinge on freedom of expression, they support a culture of violent outrage against those who are accused, even on the flimsiest of evidence or malicious rumours. The idea that it is holy or pious to scream ‘blasphemy’ at other human beings, and even to commit murder in the name of defending ‘blasphemy’, has profoundly damaged the social fabric of Pakistan and Gulalai’s actions will be applauded by all who value reason and freedom.”