With the deaths of her ruling-party peers, Rehman, 50, is the country’s only vocal advocate for amending the blasphemy laws — a cause she now backs mostly from home, and more quietly. Armed guards and police stand watch outside. Inside, the former journalist receives friends and colleagues, fending off pleas that she flee the country.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said in a recent interview. “I want to be able to stay here as long as possible, and if it means I’m not going to go to the shops or go to the Sunday bazaar, okay.”
At large rallies, clerics have named Rehman an apostate. In Multan, a city in Punjab province, a local politician filed a blasphemy complaint against her after she said on television, citing the Koran, that radical mullahs were wrong to defend the blasphemy laws. She and her attorneys spent weeks on the case before police decided not to bring charges.
But if extremists have sent Rehman a message to keep quiet, her secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has appeared to do the same. After a court sentenced a Christian woman to death on blasphemy charges in November, President Asif Ali Zardari formed a committee to review the laws and indicated he might pardon the woman. Rehman, a longtime sponsor of bills to strengthen the rights of women and minorities, authored legislation to amend the blasphemy statutes.
But as an outcry from religious groups swelled, the ruling party backed down. Its fragile coalition government was teetering, and PPP members said privately that it was not the time to stoke religious passions. In February, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said Rehman had withdrawn her bill.
That was news to her.
“These are wars you have to fight all the time,” Rehman said, shaking her head. Yet, although she does not disavow her position on the blasphemy laws, she is now cautious when discussing the topic and declines to criticize the PPP.
Most like-minded Pakistanis are doing the same. Human rights activists and English-language media condemned Bhatti’s death, but they sounded more weary than they did after Taseer’s killing. The prominent lawyers who spearheaded Pakistan’s democracy movement three years ago have stayed silent, and there has been no popular groundswell against radicalism.