Police officer in Pakistan is praised for saving woman accused of blasphemy by angry mob

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A police officer in Pakistan is being hailed as a hero after she protected a woman from a furious mob accusing her of blasphemy over what she was wearing.

Sheher Bano, an assistant superintendent of police in the city of Lahore, “put her life in danger” to rescue the woman after colorful Arabic calligraphy on her outfit was mistaken for verses from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, said Usman Anwar, police inspector general of Punjab province.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where it is punishable by death. Accusations have led to violent assaults, detentions and mob lynchings.

In a ceremony in Rawalpindi on Wednesday, Bano received Pakistan’s highest honor in law enforcement from the country’s military, which called her “fearless.”

Police first received a call last Sunday afternoon that a crowd of dozens had gathered outside a restaurant in a busy shopping area of Lahore. The crowd accused the unnamed woman of committing blasphemy with her kurta, a long loose garment that resembles a collarless shirt, and demanded that she remove it.

“My first and immediate responsibility was to instantly shift the woman from there,” Bano told NBC News in a phone interview on Friday. She said she tried shielding the woman, who sat panicking in a corner as the angry mob grew outside.

“This woman has disrespected the Quran,” a man is heard telling a police officer in a widely circulated video on social media.

In a video posted Monday on Facebook by Punjab Police, Bano can be seen pleading with the crowd.

“Since a year I’ve been serving this area as the ASP,” she said, referring to her title as assistant superintendent of police. “You should be able to trust us.”

Bano then went back inside the restaurant, covering the woman in a head-to-toe black robe and golden headscarf before pulling her out. She pushed through the crowd surrounded by police officers, trying to get the woman to safety.

The woman was moved to a police station, Bano said, as mobs began forming around different police stations in the area. Officials then brought in local scholars and clerics, including some who had been in the angry crowd.

They looked at the calligraphy on the dress and concluded it did not contain any Quranic verses, apologizing for their misunderstanding.

A police officer who saved a woman accused of blasphemy from a mob of 200 men in eastern Pakistan has described how she had to negotiate with the crowd to lead her to safety.
Sheher Bano, an assistant superintendent with Punjab Police, at her office in Lahore on Tuesday.Murtaza Syed / AFP – Getty Images

Bano said the dress was instead printed with the Arabic word “helwa,” which means beautiful.

The woman wearing the kurta apologized in a video later posted on Facebook by Lahore Police.

“It was not intentional and happened by mistake,” she said. “I just bought this kurta thinking it was a design.”

“I still apologize,” she said, adding that she is a devout Muslim and would never commit blasphemy.

Blasphemy was codified in law under British colonial rule and later expanded by the Pakistani government. Officials are under pressure to change the laws, which rights groups say are often used to intimidate the country’s religious minorities.

Last year, a man suspected of blasphemy was pulled from his cell at a police station in Punjab province and lynched outside by an angry mob.

At least 56 people remained in police custody over blasphemy allegations as of December 2023, according to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.

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