The Kafkaesque reality of Pakistan's blasphemy laws

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation for alleged blasphemy after making the case on television for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed.

In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. For the duration of the story, neither Josef nor the reader knows what he is supposed to have done, even when he is eventually killed for his crime.

The situation surrounding Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws is not dissimilar. The law means that anyone found guilty of defaming the Prophet Muhammed can be sentenced to death. Many facing such accusations have been forced into hiding or killed by mobs before they even stand trial.

Blasphemy laws in and of themselves are not unusual: many countries across the world have legislation which restricts what one can say about religion. The problem in Pakistan comes from the exceptionally harsh penalties, and the light burden of proof. The law sets out no guidance on what constitutes blasphemy, no standards for evidence, no requirement to prove intent, and no safeguards to punish those who make false allegations. This means that, essentially, the standard for blasphemy is whatever offends the accuser. As such, it is frequently used to persecute minorities or settle personal vendettas.

Witnesses can refuse to repeat the alleged blasphemy in court, in case they themselves become culpable. There have been stories of judges refusing to hear evidence defending the accused for fear of offending religious zealots. Blasphemy is a non-compoundable crime, meaning that cases cannot be settled out of court. Once a charge is filed, it is difficult for the case to be quashed, and the accuser cannot simply drop charges. It is not unthinkable that someone could be accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death without ever being told exactly what they are meant to have said and thus being unable to disprove it. Suddenly, Kafka’s Josef F doesn’t seem quite so surreal.

That blasphemy laws are a serious impediment to freedom of speech goes without saying. But the extent to which this is true has been highlighted yet again in recent days, with the news on 21 February that Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation over allegations of blasphemy.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. In late 2010, before Rehman had been posted to the US, she lodged a private members' bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy after Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death. Two other politicians who were campaigning for a change to the law were murdered soon afterwards. Salman Taseer was shot in January 2011, and Shahbaz Batti in March 2011. Blasphemy reform was shelved soon afterwards.

On 30 November 2010, before Rehman’s private members' bill had been thrown out, she appeared on Dunya TV’s news programme, Dunya Meray Aagay. She repeated her calls for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed. Remarks she made on the show prompted Muhammad Faheem Akhtar Gill, a marble dealer in Multan, to lobby police to register a case against her for blasphemy. After nearly three years of persuasion, his efforts have been successful, and the police have started an investigation under the orders of the Supreme Court. Given the aforementioned problems with the blasphemy legislation, the media cannot report what Rehman is supposed to have said, in case newspapers fall foul of the law. People are clearly curious: a Google search for “Sherry Rehman - what did she say” yields 21,800 results.

That a lawmaker should face a criminal investigation for discussing a parliamentary matter is, once again, Kafkaesque. The law of parliamentary privilege applies in Pakistan. It gives members of parliament legal immunity for actions done or statements made in the course of their legislative duties. The idea underpinning this law is that parliamentary business shouldn’t be impeded by restrictions on free speech. In the United Kingdom, where libel laws are the biggest drag on free speech, MPs cannot be censured for defamatory statements made while they are in the Houses of Parliament. Given that blasphemy laws are arguably the most significant restriction on free speech in Pakistan, it would not be unreasonable to expect a similar immunity.

Of course, parliamentary privilege covers lawmakers while they are actually in parliament – and when Rehman was speaking to Dunya TV, she clearly was not in the parliament building. But the fundamental fact remains: the blasphemy reform bill was passing through the legislature and a lawmaker is now facing charges for discussing it. A crucial part of a functioning democracy is the ability to openly and publicly debate significant legislative changes before they are passed into the statute book. If proposed legal changes cannot be openly discussed without politicians facing prosecution, it has serious ramifications for the very functioning of the Pakistani state. It is the public that will suffer if laws and policies can’t be debated and scrutinised.

The blasphemy law has created and facilitated a culture of vigilantism. As soon as someone has been accused of blasphemy, they live under the threat of death. When the young Christian girl Rimsha Masih was falsely accused of blasphemy last year, her family was forced into hiding. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Security Studies, at least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been killed since 1990. Many die at the hands of angry mobs before they are convicted. Given this high threat of violence, it is perhaps unsurprising that politicians are afraid to touch blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, as in my countries across the world, those who shout the loudest end up wielding the most power. Unfortunately, extremist or conservative elements are more than capable of invoking religion to stir up mass outrage and violence. There is no doubt that this has had a chilling effect on free speech across the board; campaigners working in areas from women’s rights to internet censorship can find themselves dismissed as blasphemers or immoral people, and facing the associated backlash.

Politicians should not be above the law (a particularly sore point given recent corruption allegations), but nor should they be penalised for doing their jobs. A situation where the reform of a particular law cannot be discussed in case the discussion itself breaks that law is worthy of a Kafka story, but not of a healthy and functioning state.


Sherry Rehman, who was appointed Pakistan's ambassador to the US on 23 November 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.