International Women’s Day, 2024 - In a Fearless Gesture, Woman Police Officer Averts Mob Lynching

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi, saved a woman falsely accused of blasphemy.
Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi, saved a woman falsely accused of blasphemy. Credit: ASP Shehrbano Naqvi
  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi)
  • Inter Press Service

The 31-year-old’s courageous overture and foresight in the face of a potentially explosive situation have given Pakistan a reason to stand among the countries on this year’s Women’s Day with pride.

Naqvi rescued a woman, wearing a dress with Arabic calligraphy, from a frenzied mob from Lahore’s Ichhra Bazaar late last month (Sunday, February 25), who mistook it for verses from the Holy Quran and accused her of having committed blasphemy.

“There must be approximately 150–200 people by the time I reached the spot where this incident took place, around 1.45 pm,” said the police officer, talking to IPS over the phone from Lahore. She spoke to the mob with authority: “You should trust us ,” she was heard shouting to the crowd on a video clip gone viral. Prior to her arrival, police from nearby police stations had also arrived to manage the situation.

“We had to act swiftly and get her out, as an angry mob in a close space can mean the situation getting out of control quickly,” she told IPS.

A black abayaa (a loose-fitted, long-sleeved robe worn by Muslim women) was arranged for the woman to cover her dress, which had ignited the sentiments in the first place, and her face completely covered to protect her identity when she was led out and whisked away in the police vehicle.

Naqvi knew exactly how to handle the situation, having dealt with similar situations in the past. But she admitted that the “five-minute walk to the police van was not without danger, despite the police forming a circle around us.”

Before the police arrived, videos posted on social media show a visibly terrified woman standing in the far corner of a restaurant with her hands covering half of her face.

The restaurant owner put his shutter down and locked it from inside to protect the woman, while others tried to calm the angry mob, who threatened to set the place on fire if the woman was not handed to them.

“Pakistanis spend so much of their time reading the Quran and reciting from it; then how can the simplest Arabic writing be mistaken for a holy verse?” asked Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, an Islamabad-based physicist and author, referring to rote learning of the holy book by majority Pakistanis. “This episode reveals that the ability to read a foreign language without understanding it achieves nothing.”

“Fighting pressure, numbers, and situations, you upheld both humanity and law; I thank you, and we are very proud of you,” said a press statement issued from the newly-elected chief minister of Punjab province, Maryam Nawaz’s office, commending officer Naqvi.

“Shehrbano Naqvi has set a new standard for the police force,” said young Pakistani activist Ammar Ali Jan, secretary general of the left-wing socialist party, Haqooq-e-Khalq Party.

“This is the way to stand up to a mob; it’s never happened before and it will set an example for others to take similar action,” he said, especially if she’s rewarded.

The Punjab police chief has recommended Naqvi for the Quaid-i-Azam Police Medal for her gallantry.

Jan said the incident should be looked at through a gender lens. “It has highlighted the need for more educated and qualified women to be inducted into the state apparatus.”

However, for many, what happened after the rescue has left a bad aftertaste.

Conceding the policewoman put up a brave act and prevented it from getting ugly, Farah Zia, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan asked: “Why was the rescued woman, under the same police watch, forced to seek forgiveness and declare herself to belong to the majority Sunni Muslim sect and thus can never think of doing anything to harm the sentiments of her fellow Muslims? Does it mean those belonging to minority faiths or sects can be expected to?”

Zia said it sent a signal that the government and the state are helpless and weak in the face of violent mobs.

The apology video, showing the woman sitting in between two bearded men who also put words in her mouth during the recording, was shot at the police station, but Naqvi insisted it had nothing to do with the police.

“It was decided between those nominated by the mob and the woman’s family that she would apologize,” clarified Naqvi and that the job of the police was just to “ensure law and order is maintained; there is no loss of life and no material damage.”

However, she added: “It is pertinent to remember that this incident either could have become a trauma in the life of the woman or we could have helped by placating the issue in a manner that puts an end to any further conversation that would ensue in the future. We decided to do the latter, despite criticism from various quarters. Given certain realities of our society, she now has a better chance of living a normal, healthy, and happy life,” pointed out Naqvi.

“The progressives among us may not like the tactical approach employed,” said Jan, referring to the apology coerced from the accused woman, but he explained: “The threat is real and potent, especially for someone who is marked.” He further added that the balance of forces in society is tipped in favour of extremists.

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy said the incident was reflective of an education system that “feeds religious fanaticism,” because of which Pakistani society and even its educated class have turned extremist.

“No longer can illiteracy alone be held responsible. The hyper-religiosity promoted through state institutions and the toxic education in our schools are not getting us admiration anywhere. Instead, it is producing a wild, uncontrollable population. Even our friends now fear us,” he lamented.

“Who in his right mind—apart from dedicated mountaineers—would want to vacation in a country where the population is ready to burst into flames at the slightest provocation?” he warned.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan but as has often happened in the past, even before the case goes to trial, the accused is lynched.

According to the data collected by the Centre of Social Justice Pakistan, at least 329 people were allegedly accused of blasphemy in the year 2023.

“This is merely a list of cases reported in the press; the number can be higher than that,” Peter Jacob, executive director of CSJP, told IPS. Seven people were killed extrajudicially in 2023, he said.

At least 2,449 people have been accused of committing blasphemy between 1987 and 2023 and 95 people were killed extrajudicially between 1994 and 2023. No one has ever been punished except Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011.

Islamabad-based physicist and author Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy asked, "Who, in his right mind, apart from dedicated mountaineers, would want to vacation in a country where the population is ready to burst into flames at the slightest provocation?”

Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), applauded the policewoman for showing immense courage in the face of such incidents; he said many others had buckled under similar circumstances in the past.

“She put her life in danger to save this woman and she should be commended for that,” he told IPS.

With “every political party and every political leader agreeing the law is misused and the accusations are false and have led to deadly consequences,” Jan said they need to come up with a grand national strategy.

“Begin by punishing those who falsely accuse others of blasphemy.”

Ashrafi wholeheartedly endorsed this. “Make it the test case,” demanded the PUC head, so that such incidents do not happen again.” He said all those who instigated this incident should be tried under the state’s anti-terrorist law.

Since the filing of this story, the Lahore police have lodged a First Information Report (FIR) against dozens of alleged miscreants so that the process of investigation can begin.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service