Sadia Hameed has a voice worth hearing

My friend Sadia Hameed is a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She campaigns for women and girls who are victims of sexual assaults, forced marriages, domestic violence, so-called ‘honour’ attacks, genital mutilation, and persecution for blasphemy and apostasy.

Sadia also campaigns for universal rights and against discrimination and racism. She has called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have lived in Britain for more than a decade. She helped Atheist Ireland in our successful appeal against a decision to send an Atheist Ireland member back to Pakistan.

Sadia is an atheist, a secularist, a feminist, and a socialist. She won the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation’s (IKWRO) Activist of the Year award and Lift Effect’s Star Award in 2017 for campaigning against ‘honour’-based violence and harmful traditional practices. 

Here is Sadia talking in Deeyah Khan’s 2016 documentary Islam’s Non-Believers. She is featured again, visiting her brother’s grave, during the last few minutes of the documentary.

Twitter account made inactive

Sadia has a voice worth hearing on issues affecting the rights of women and girls and apostates and minorities. Unfortunately, at the moment, you cannot read her opinions on Twitter. Her account has been made inactive, preventing her from tweeting.

Sadia was addressing the encroachment of some transgender advocacy on the rights of biological women. She believes both that transgender people should not be discriminated against, and that the existing legal rights and spaces of biological women should continue to be protected. Her account was rendered inactive after she responded to a critic who told her to ‘Get the F out of Britain’.

Sadia’s account has previously been made inactive after she criticised human rights abuses inflicted by Islamist theocracy. She knows, from her own life, and from her work with women, children, and apostates, that the most common victims of these abuses are themselves Muslims. In that case, she was told she was a stripper and that she should change her Muslim name.

This particular article is not about the specific arguments for or against Islamism or women’s rights or gender identity. I have shared my opinions on these issues previously, and I will do so again. But this particular article is about the need for good people to be able to discuss these issues, without being silenced, on dominant platforms of public discourse.

To be clear, it is fine to disagree with Sadia about her opinions, or about how robustly she expresses them. Also, it is clear from Sadia’s life and work and personality that she is arguing from a position of empathy, fairness, and a desire for justice. She criticises harmful ideas or movements or behaviours while protecting people.

Unfortunately, on Twitter and elsewhere, some people are silencing important and constructive opinions, by using unjust allegations of various ambiguous -isms and -phobias and -hatreds. People can use this authoritarian tactic regardless of whether they consider themselves left or right, or liberal or conservative.

United Nations Special Rapporteur

Here’s the balance that I advocate for. Twitter should encourage civil dialogue. It should protect vulnerable people by ensuring that its users do not advocate discrimination or violence, or engage in defamation. Also, Twitter should do this in a way that recognises the importance to democracy of freedom of expression.

This is consistent with a recent report to the United Nations, in which David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Freedom of Opinion and Expression, evaluated the human rights law that applies to the regulation of online ‘hate speech’.

The Special Rapporteur began by saying:

“Hate speech”, a shorthand phrase that conventional international law does not define, has a double ambiguity. Its vagueness and the lack of consensus around its meaning can be abused to enable infringements on a wide range of lawful expression. Many Governments use “hate speech”, similar to the way in which they use “fake news”, to attack political enemies, non-believers, dissenters and critics.

However, the phrase’s weakness (“it’s just speech”) also seems to inhibit Governments and companies from addressing genuine harms, such as the kind resulting from speech that incites violence or discrimination against the vulnerable or the silencing of the marginalized. The situation gives rise to frustration in a public that often perceives rampant online abuse.

He said that, since freedom of expression is fundamental to the enjoyment of all human rights, restrictions on it must be exceptional, and subject to narrow conditions and strict oversight. In order for your expression to be prohibited, your advocacy must constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

He addressed the regulation of online speech by ICT companies, including social media platforms. He argued that such companies should apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and establish human rights by design and by default. He said they should review their policies, or adopt new ones, with the legality test in mind. I will write about this in more detail in a later article.

Silencing tactic cannot hold

Ultimately, I believe that the silencing tactic of unjustly labelling people with ambiguous -isms and -phobias and -hatreds cannot hold. As Western liberals, we have been broadly successful in decades of campaigning against authoritarian censorship by conservatives and theocrats. We will also succeed in maintaining open debate against recent encroachments from other directions.

We must continue to promote internationally agreed human rights, applied on a universal basis to everybody. As well as the right to freedom of expression, these include the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to private and family life, and the right to an effective remedy to vindicate rights that are breached.

But in the interim, people like Sadia can be indefinitely suspended from using social media platforms, which are dominant enough to hold a quasi-monopoly position on an important part of public discourse. Her Twitter account has so far been rendered inactive for two months, since mid-September.

This already seems a disproportionate duration of sanction against a peaceful campaigner for human rights, even if Twitter does consider that she has broken its rules as they stand. I hope that Twitter reconsiders Sadia’s suspension so that she can again use its important platform to speak out against human rights abuses.

Read more about and from Sadia

Meanwhile, here are some articles about or by Sadia.

This is an interview with Sadia, about her work with the Council of Ex-Muslims, in the In-Sight Journal: An Interview with Sadia Hameed on Developments for Ex-Muslims in Britain

You can read about the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain here.

This is an article about Sadia in Gloucestershire Live: Meet the woman tackling domestic abuse among the women most likely to suffer it in Gloucestershire

Here are some samples of Sadia’s articles in Sister-hood magazine:

An unspeakable crime

Extract: “It is well known that one in five women have experienced some kind of sexual assault. It dawned on me all of sudden that although rape is a threat that families and communities use as a justification for the control and domination of women with South Asian communities, they are unable to use the word. Rape. Even though we know how common sexual violence is within society, we are still unable to say the word rape within our communities.”

“Honour”, violence – and leaving Islam

Extract: “When I began my work in the violence against women sector, I specialised in the experiences of women of colour through challenging harmful traditional practices such as ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, acid attacks, dowry crimes, breast ironing, accusations of witchcraft against women and human trafficking. It was the murder of Banaz Mahmod in January 2006 – and my own personal experiences – which led to me becoming involved in the women’s sector.”

Twelve years old, seeking asylum

Extract: “I work with a Pakistani family which has been waiting for asylum for many years. They were rejected on the grounds that the Home Office do not believe that they are atheists. Furthermore, the Home Office stated that they would not be persecuted in Pakistan, and that the Pakistani Authorities would safeguard them. We know this to be untrue; one only has to look at the shambles surrounding the Asia Bibi case.”

Finally, you can watch Sadia below speaking about Quran 4:34 at this year’s Rationalist International Conference in Cambridge.

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