Attacks on free speech

ensafFive years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.

The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”

You can read the full interview over at The Pool.

As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)

I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.

For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.

Saudi suffragettes

saudiIn Saudi Arabia, women will soon be able to vote for the first time in the country’s history. They can take part in the forthcoming municipal elections both as voters and candidates. The council has limited powers but it’s still a big step for those who have been fighting for women’s rights in the repressive Gulf state for years. I wrote a piece for the online women’s magazine, The Pool, about the monumental challenges still faced by Saudi women.

Some Saudi feminists say the driving ban is the least of their problems. The repression of women in all areas of life is enshrined in the deeply discriminatory system of male guardianship. Imagine this. Your male guardian is your husband, father, brother or son. Without his permission, you cannot obtain a passport, get married, travel, or go to university. Perhaps you apply for a job. No matter how old you are, some employers might ask your husband, father, brother, or son for his permission before hiring you. You’re sick. Some hospitals might not carry out a medical procedure that you need without his approval. You get married. Your husband can unilaterally divorce you, but if you want to leave the marriage, you must have his permission. He will usually get custody of the child. You cannot leave the country with your children unless the father gives his consent.

Other recent work includes this report for Deutsche Welle on the Conservative Party conference, and this opinion piece for the International Business Times about institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police.