Asia Bibi with Anne-Isabelle Tollet
Virago, €15.70; Kindle, £5.49
Review: Karen Funnell
“I’m just one woman among all the very many women of this world, but I humbly believe that my suffering is like that of others. I long for my persecutors’ eyes to be opened, for the situation in my country to change.”
A US film mocking the Prophet Mohammad have cost many lives since it went viral recently.
France, with its sizeable Muslim population, wasn’t immune to the controversy, particularly when a satirical magazine published a caricature of Mohammad.
So it may be appropriate that it’s a French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet who has penned the true story of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman languishing in a Pakistani jail since 2009, the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.
The accusation stems from an ostensibly trivial row over a cup of water. In June 2009 the mother-of-five, seeking to make extra money for her family, had been working as a fruit picker in 45-degree heat when she took a drink from the nearest well, refilled her cup to drink more and offered it to another woman. A fellow worker exclaimed that the water belonged to the Muslim women and that Asia had contaminated it. A row ensued, someone cried ‘blasphemy’ and Asia’s life went into freefall.
She was attacked by a mob, thrown in prison, put on trial and sentenced to be hanged. Her only chance of salvation was to become a Muslim and, as a devout Christian, she refused to consider this.
The only two public figures that came to her defence — the Muslim governor of the Punjab and Pakistan’s minister for minorities — paid for their bravery with their lives, murdered by fundamentalists who have vowed to do the same to Asia should she ever be released.
Tollet was not permitted to meet Asia while researching this book but she recounts the harrowing tale through the incarcerated woman’s husband Ashiq, the only person, apart from her lawyer, allowed visit her.
In the author’s words, she developed a special understanding that goes beyond ordinary friendship “with Asia being the voice, and Tollet the pen”.
Asia’s story has not attracted the same publicity as the outrage over the film but half a million people around the world have signed a petition for her release.
Pope Benedict has mentioned her in his prayers, and she has been symbolically placed under the protection of the city of Paris.
But although she exists in fear, loneliness and squalor — cameras were installed in her cell such is the threat on her life — Asia is determined to have her story told.
Her emotions range from anger — she has spent her life being a ‘good’ Christian while respecting her Muslim neighbours and accepting her ‘lower’ position in Pakistan’s society — to deep despair.
She has considered — and discounted — taking her own life and now sits in wait of her fate.
Asia Bibi continues to live — or exist — on borrowed time.
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