.- A French journalist who has chronicled the story of imprisoned Pakistani woman Asia Bibi, revealed a typical day for the Catholic mother of five as she awaits the appeal of her death sentence over alleged blasphemy charges.
Anne-Isabelle Tollet, who co-authored the recent memoir, “Get Me Out of Here!” told CNA that Bibi spends an average day in her cramped cell praying for her children and looking forward to the one day a week she gets to briefly see her husband.
“She prays all day long. She has never wavered in her faith fortunately, because that has enabled her to keep going,” Tollet said.
Bibi’s case gained worldwide attention in 2010 when she was condemned to death for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which state that anyone who offends Islam will be hanged. Critics say the country's blasphemy laws are often unjust and have become a tool for abusing religious minorities as well as vengeance between Muslims.
Bibi is still awaiting a ruling on the appeal of her death sentence and has been moved to an isolated cell without any windows, sink or toilet because of Muslim threats against her life.
Tollet, who serves as a correspondent in Islamabad for French television, recently traveled to Spain for the book’s release by the publisher LibrosLibres.
Below is her interview with CNA:
CNA: What is a day in life of Asia Bibi like?
Tollet: She wakes up each morning, but not by sunlight, because she never sees it, but when they bring her water at six in the morning. There is no ventilation, so she suffers greatly from the heat and from mosquitoes. She spends the day praying in her bed. And she waits every week for Tuesday to arrive, when her husband goes to the prison to see her. Otherwise she kills time reminiscing, thinking about her children and praying.
CNA: How are her husband and children handling this separation?
Tollet: With great difficulty. To endure the absence of their mother is very complicated for the children. And it is very complicated for her husband, Ashiq, who is forced to manage the home, raise and feed their children alone. This is very uncommon and non-traditional for a man in Pakistan.
He has had to learn and this has not been easy for him. In addition, when he visits his wife, if the children are sad or sick, he has to tell her that everything is fine at home so she does not get upset in prison. He carries everything on his shoulders without being able vent with anyone, and at the same time he has to maintain an appearance of stability and tranquility.
CNA: In “Get Me out of Here,” Asia Bibi tenderly and gently recounts her love story with Ashiq. But at the same time, she is a woman of strong personality, isn’t she?
Tollet: When I asked Ashiq to describe his wife, he did in fact say that she had a very strong personality and that when something gets into her mind, she won’t let go and she is very stubborn. They are very much in love. It was not a forced or an arranged marriage. They met, they fell in love, they married and they treat each other with great sweetness and tenderness. It is not easy to find a couple in Pakistan as in love and committed to each other as they are.
CNA: They have five children, but the nine year-old who is the youngest stands out because of how mature she looks.
Tollet: She is adorable. This has had a great impact on her, it is harder for her. She cries several times a day because she misses her mom…But at the same time she shows great strength and maturity in the face of everything she has been forced to shoulder overnight. She is capable of analyzing the situation of her mother, of Pakistan, of the blasphemy laws, etc. It’s amazing because she is so young.
CNA: You will donate all the proceeds from the book to the family, since Ashiq lost his job. How are you personally experiencing this tragedy?
Tollet: For me it’s easy. Asia Bibi and her family have penetrated my heart and they are part of my family…but I don’t live in Pakistan. I am not threatened every day. I’m not afraid I’m going to die any second. So the least I can do is talk about her and do whatever possible to get her released. They are a needy and very poor family with no economic assistance, except for what they receive from the international community…This is a commitment I have made to both of them and I won’t abandon them until I am successful.
CNA: What are the next steps?
Tollet: This week in Geneva I will speak before the UN Human Rights Council, where I will ask the representatives of Pakistan to explain how they can maintain an anti-democratic law, when they have signed on to a pact at the United Nations requiring the country to respect human rights, freedom of though and freedom of religion. We’ll see what kind of response they give. In the Fall I will go to New York when Asia Bibi’s book comes out in English. The entire campaign will take place in Washington, as that is where the power to make decisions lies. And a meeting with Hillary Clinton is scheduled, although it has not yet been confirmed.
CNA: You have repeatedly said the blasphemy law is not in itself discriminatory, that many Muslims are also penalized by it…
Tollet: Yes, especially Muslims. First, because the Islamists want to radicalize Pakistani society and they cannot stand what they consider to be a “bad Muslim.” Second, because they are the majority and they are more affected than Christians, who number about 3 million. Fundamentalists don’t care if Christians are condemned, they care more about what happens with the majority of the population, the 160 million Muslims. They are determined to make them embrace radical Islam.
CNA: Did Asia Bibi know you were coming to Spain?
Tollet: Yes, and she was very excited about the idea. She doesn’t know much about Spain, just that is a country next to France. She is waiting to hear about my visit and about whether Spaniards have embraced her book. That helps her to firmly keep her hope alive.
CNA: Asia is very committed to her religious beliefs, is she not?
Tollet: She prays all day long. She has never wavered in her faith fortunately, because that has enabled her to keep going.