The national narrative regarding blasphemy in Pakistan is that the offense is unpardonable: Once you utter words that disrespect the Prophet Muhammad, his companions or the Quran, only death or life imprisonment awaits you.
But earlier this month, Junaid Jamshed, an influential Islamic preacher, sought an alternative outcome. Accused of blasphemy by members of a different Islamic sect for remarks he made in a video posted on Facebook, Jamshed released a subsequent apology video, in which he pleaded ignorance and asked for forgiveness.
Jamshed’s case has attracted international attention and opened debate about whether blasphemy is pardonable. The week after the events, Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, published a blog post outlining how Advocate Ismaeel Qureshi, the creator of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, has acknowledged the possibility that the regulation rests on an error in theological interpretation. Religious clerics and talk-show hosts on television devoted much airtime to discuss the blasphemy law and Jamshed’s apology video.
But one aspect of this episode ignored in the debate is the misogyny Jamshed displays in the alleged blasphemy video.
In the clip, Jamshed, speaking in front of a small group of men, tells them a story about how Ayesha, one of the wives of Muhammad, would often feign being ill to receive attention from him. The moral of the story, according to Jamshed, is that if Muhammad could not reform women’s crooked ways, then ordinary men do not stand a chance.
The message is simple: Even under the holiest of influences, women, by the simple virtue of being women, cannot be “fixed.”
Whether Jamshed committed blasphemy under Pakistani laws — and whether there is room for a pardon — is for the Pakistani courts to decide. But in this particular instance, Jamshed must be held accountable for more than the alleged blasphemy. And it is the moral responsibility of Pakistan’s media and civil society to call him out for imparting misogynist views to an unsuspecting audience.
Far from condemning Jamshed’s sexist views, many national figures perpetuated them in their reactions. The televangelist Aamir Liaqat responded to the alleged blasphemy by hurling abuses at Jamshed’s mother on national television. Within a cultural framework that allows women to be traded to settle land disputes and blood feuds, it is hardly surprising that a female relative would be abused to demean a man’s character.
The alleged blasphemy video is not even the first time Jamshed has championed the social and religious repression of women. Early last year, in conversation with a female television host, he said that the biggest favor a man can do for himself is to ensure that his wife does not learn how to drive. Imparting this unsolicited advice to “any man who was watching,” he explained that once a woman gets used to leaving the house, the habit can never be controlled.
Not a single media or religious institution suggested that Jamshed apologize for his regressive views about women.
Unsurprisingly, Jamshed’s remarks against women have hardly affected his following. He’s not the only one to speak in such antiquated terms. Shortly after Jamshed suggested that women not drive, Shahid Afridi, Pakistan’s internationally acclaimed cricketer, was asked his opinion about the national women’s cricket team. He answered, “Our women have magic in their hands. They are good cooks.” And that ended the conversation about the sportswomen who defended their gold medal in cricket at the 2014 Asian Games.
Those who shared Afridi’s chauvinist ideals lauded his comment, as it reaffirmed their misogynist mindsets. Even those who disagreed defended him, stating that his views about women’s equality are unrelated to his exceptional sportsmanship. Hardly anyone spoke against him.
But if Pakistan’s media outlets and so-called heroes perpetuate the repression of women, where can its women turn?
One option could have been to seek support from the state. But consider: It took the country 63 years to outlaw acid attacks — disfiguring a woman’s face by burning it with acid, a crime that affects approximately 150 women every year. And for the 10,703 reported rape cases in Pakistan from 2009 to October 2013, only 428 cases ended in convictions. (Islamabad, the capital, has had no rape convictions in the past five years.) The evidence implies that the state is either unwilling or unable to help.
Who needs protection?
To be sure, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws urgently need reform. Of the 1,438 Pakistanis accused of blasphemy since 1987, more than 50 percent were classified as non-Muslim, even though non-Muslims constitute only about 4 percent of the population. Of the 60 extrajudicial blasphemy-related murders that have occurred since 1990, 32 victims were non-Muslim. Hence, although blasphemy laws endanger all Pakistanis, the scales are tilted in favor of Muslims such as Jamshed, whose social class and politico-religious affiliations do not match the characteristics of Pakistan’s more common blasphemers, who are statistically impoverished and non-Muslim.
But it is just as concerning that Jamshed’s alleged blasphemy entirely overshadowed the glaring misogyny of his words. When it suited them, religious clerics and television hosts were able to create room for a public discourse about Jamshed’s apology for blasphemy. But not a single media or religious institution suggested that Jamshed apologize for his regressive views about women. That Jamshed has not uttered a word of repentance regarding his sexism implies that it might be time for Pakistani institutions to realize that not Islam but the women of Pakistan need protection from such personalities.