Pakistan women's rights activist stands up against blasphemy allegations: 'I will not be silenced'

A women’s right activist in Pakistan is pushing back against a man who accused her of blasphemy, a charge that carries a potential death sentence.

Gulalai Ismail, the founder of the Aware Girls, a women’s empowerment group in Pakistan, filed charges against Hamza Khan, the zealous head of a local youth parliament.

The move is seen as bold – and unprecedented – in a patriarchal society where women’s rights are seen as lagging.

Khan accused Ismail, 31, of insulting Islam, defaming Pashtun culture and threatening the state of Pakistan. Khan posted a photo of Ismail on social media accusing her of pushing a “western agenda” because of her advocacy for women’s rights. On the social media clip, he also urged a mob to attack her, denouncing her as an infidel.

While the social media post put her life in danger, the blasphemy allegations are even more severe. It is one of the most serious crimes in the Pakistani penal code and carries an almost certain death sentence. Several politicians have been assassinated for trying to amend the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

A woman holds a placard during a rally by dozens protesting the killing of the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in Lahore, January 8, 2011. Taseer was shot dead by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law, in Islamabad on January 4. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza (PAKISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - GM1E7181IUK01

Blasphemy is one of the most serious crimes in the Pakistani penal code and carries an almost certain death sentence. Several politicians have been assassinated for trying to amend the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.  (REUTERS)

Ismail has strongly fought back against the blasphemy allegations, calling on the state to decide her case.  

She told Fox News she took the extraordinary step of filing charges to stand up for those who have been wrongly accused.

“I stand not only for myself – this legal move will give voice to other people in Pakistan who are falsely charged with blasphemy,” a defiant and emotional Ismail told Fox News. “It will be a precedent and the state now should legislate the growing issue of false blasphemy allegations of in the name of religion.”

Khan, who was arrested after Ismail filed a complaint against him, brushed off the charges and vowed to prove his innocence.

Men hold a candlelight vigil in commemoration of the deceased governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in Peshawar January 7, 2011. Taseer was shot dead by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law, in Islamabad on January 4.  REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz  (PAKISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E71800KM01

There have been at least 67 murders over unproven allegations of blasphemy since 1990, though the actual figure is thought to be much higher. Among them was Salman Taseer (above), the governor of Punjab province, who was gunned down by his bodyguard in 2011 after calling for a reform of the blasphemy laws.  (REUTERS)

“Ms. Gulalai is using this tactic to seek refugee or asylum in some western country," he told Fox News. 

Activists have argued for years that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are ripe for abuse, with allegations made simply to smear rivals or settle scores. Politicians are wary of demanding change, however, fearing it would rile religious conservatives.

There have been at least 67 murders over unproven allegations of blasphemy since 1990, though the actual figure is thought to be much higher. Among them was Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who was gunned down by his bodyguard in 2011 after calling for a reform of the blasphemy laws. His killer was executed in 2016, but tens of thousands attended the murderer’s funeral, hailing him as a martyr.  

Supporters from various religious political parties hold up posters of convicted killer Mumtaz Qadri during a demonstration against his sentence in Karachi October 1, 2011. A Pakistani court sentenced to death on Saturday the killer of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's largest province after he had called for reform of a law against blasphemy, a defence lawyer and state-run media said.  The posters read in Urdu: "Mumtaz Qadri, we salute your courage". REUTERS/Athar Hussain (PAKISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - GM1E7A11TDU01

Salman Taseer's killer was executed in 2016, but tens of thousands attended the murderer’s funeral, hailing him as a martyr.  (REUTERS)

“The trend of using blasphemy as a tool to silence people is something the state must look at. People who defame others should not get away so easily. It has very serious consequences on people’s lives,” said Nighat Dad, an Internet activist Pakistan.  

As a woman and activist in Pakistan, Ismail has become an easy target, particularly online, where blasphemy allegations can be made anonymously to whip up a storm of hatred.

Though her life is under constant threat, Ismail continues fighting for women’s rights.

“It is important to speak up. By keeping silent we give space to these people and they will accuse someone else,” she said. “When a girl speaks about her rights she has so much power that people think she is a threat to Islam, culture and state all at once. I will not be silenced. I am not afraid from these cowards. I will fight against them and prove them wrong.”

Haroon Janjua is an award-winning Pakistan-based journalist who has reported on a wide range of political, military and economic developments.