Gulalai Ismail: Blasphemy Laws Literally Govern Pakistan

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Free expression is at the core of what CFI is all about. An ideal so simple, and yet in some parts of the world, it’s an alien concept at best, and a ticket to persecution and violence at the worst. The Women in Secularism conference got a first-hand account of the struggle for equality and free expression in Pakistan from Gulalai Ismail, Founder and Chairperson of Aware Girls…which she established at the age of 16!

She particularly highlighted Pakistan’s hostility to women, which she sees as a direct product of its rejection of free expression and secularism in favor of the Islamisation of society. Dr. Ismail discussed the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises and guides official parliamentary legislation based on fundamentalist religious beliefs. It recently pushed for the rejection of a law written protect women from domestic abuse, something that seems like an obvious good.

Not to them. Instead they offered a new version, allowing a husband to “lightly” beat his wife if she refuses to dress as he wishes, refuses his sexual advances, interacts with strangers, and the like. This is a case in point, said Ismail, that “in nonsecular countries, laws inspired by religion are against women.”

“‘Free woman’ is the [worst] curse word in this society,” she told us. “This is an abuse. If you want to abuse a woman, you call her a ‘free woman.'”

It is Pakistan’s blasphemy law, said Ismail, that serves as a kind of keystone to the entire anti-woman, pro-fundamentalist apparatus now operating in Pakistan. “Pakistan is literally governed by blasphemy laws.” This is a sobering assertion.

But it bears out. From the Islamisation of education, to the assassinations of politicians who oppose the blasphemy law, to the persecution of religious minorities and nonbelievers. “Blasphemy is being used as an easy-to-get-away-with excuse to hamper freedom of thought and expression,” she said.

And women bear the brunt. “A woman is respected only when she is a mother, or obedient wife, or obedient daughter,” she said. “Secular women are seen as a threat, and their lives are always at risk.”

But take some heart. Ismail wants us to know that as we struggle against this kind of oppression, telling us, “We have amazing secularist women who beat the shit out of patriarchy.” Clearly, she’s one of them.