Monday, December 30, 2019

Apostasy Is Not A Crime: The 12 Countries Where Freedom of Thought Carries a Death Sentence

Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

What do all twelve of these countries have in common?

The state declared religion is Islam and leaving that religion carries a state-sanctioned death sentence.

Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait,  Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Syria and Tunisia.

A further fifteen countries, where Islam is the major and state recognised religion, include various blasphemy and conversion laws, which carry punishments varying from heavy fines, imprisonment and the death penalty.

Living in the Western world and growing up in a society where the law grants you the freedom to practice whatever religion you like, however, you like, issues such as apostasy and blasphemy never even entered my mind. 

These laws only came onto my radar when I left my religion of birth.


All because I lacked a belief in God and found out that Islamically, and legally in the country of my ethnic heritage I could be tried and put on death row for leaving and criticising Islam, under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. That's if vigilante anti-apostasy groups hadn't already got to me first.

I could never go to any of the above countries and feel safe.

It was then I could only imagine what life must be like for closeted Ex-Muslims, Atheists, Muslim minority sects and other religious minorities living in those countries. 

Through talking about leaving Islam, openly criticising apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic countries and the religion publicly through my Twitter account and podcast, I have spoken to and worked with some of the bravest individuals I could have ever had the pleasure of conversing with.

Two of them, who I will talk about, became my very good friends, both who have had their safety put at risk because they no longer believed in the religion they were raised with.

Fighting apostasy and blasphemy laws is the biggest global freedom of speech issue of our time.


Because those trying to fight these laws in their own countries are restricted by these laws so they cannot even try to fight them without putting their lives on the line.

This is why the apostates, the humanists, the free speech advocates, women's right activists and so on must stand up and speak for those who cannot and voice to those trying to talk about these issues.

Now, I had written the above few paragraphs a few days before what is about to follow and the news I am about to share with you puts all of this into perspective. 

I write this with such a heavy heart upon hearing the news about Junaid Hafeez's sentencing. 

For those of you who do not know, Junaid Hafeez is a Pakistani born Fulbright scholar, who went back to Pakistan after being educated in the U.S. to give back to the youth in his country, through lecturing at one of Pakistan's universities, Bahauddin Zakariya University. 

Junaid has been given the death penalty for false blasphemy claims made against him by jealous work colleagues. Hafeez was champion of liberal ideas and created a Facebook group called the 'So Called Liberals of Pakistan', which contained posts which would be viewed as 'provocative' and not necessarily explicitly blasphemous, but that was enough to create a 'your word against mine,' situation and Hafeez's liberal values were already against him.

Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, in all of their ambiguity have allowed this to happen to this man and the corruption does not stop there. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was killed for simply representing him. Above is an image of the prosecution team handing out sweets in celebration of the verdict. In celebration of handing a man a death sentence over a 'thought crime.'

It pains me writing this, it angers me seeing it all over my Twitter feed and then seeing my Pakistani friends and followers turning their accounts private, posting pro-government tweets to avert suspicion and one girl tweeted, that she had remove a prior post talking about it and people were telling her she was brave, to which she responded she was not brave, but scared. 

The grim reality of these laws is that it prevents those in the country, whether they be Muslim, secularists, non-Muslim and atheist from speaking against these laws. 

They cannot demonstrate, they cannot organise and protest because they do not know who they can trust. 

They cannot trust the law, they cannot trust their fellow citizen in case they are part of the majority who support these laws.

I have seen the first hand effects of these laws. My good friend that founded the podcast I host, The Sinning Skeptics, had to leave the show, delete his socials and all videos he appeared in because he got discovered by his family. A family member, then told him that these videos have made it through anti-apostasy groups in Pakistan and his life, and his families were at risk. 

Another friend of mine had been close to getting caught by her parents and was under strict monitoring. I haven't heard from her since she left me a message on Twitter saying why she had to delete all of her socials. I still think and worry about her everyday because she had told me what her father would do if he found out about her apostasy, and that involves being shipped off to another country and even fears for her life. I hope everyday that she is still alive and well. This girl lives in the Western world.

Since Junaid's sentencing, many of my Pakistani mutuals (those I follow and that follow me back on Twitter) have privatised their accounts due to fears of Pakistan's strict monitoring of social media, which has been flagging up critical tweets against Islam and anti-government tweets and accounts. One girl had contemplated tweeting about the blasphemy laws, then sent out a tweet and took it down. She said so many people said she was brave, but in fact she felt scared. 

That is how young Pakistanis are feeling in their own country, Muslim and non-Muslim alike feel like they cannot speak against their governments blasphemy laws.

It is not only the law that is the problem, it is the religion and the culture of blasphemy laws that permeate into the Islamic societies of these countries. These laws embolden religious fanatics to carry out vigilante attacks.

Farkhunda Malikzada.

I have written about her previously, she was a devout Muslim woman attacked and brutally murdered by a mob of men in Afghanistan after she criticised a man selling religious charms, which she believed to be un-Islamic.

Asia Bibi.

Another case I wrote about, another world famous case, another case from Pakistan.

Bibi was acquitted last year on false blasphemy charges because the Muslim women she worked with refused to share water that she offered because she was a Christian. In Pakistan, the Muslim word holds more gravity, that is if you belong to right sect. Salman Taseer, a politician that stood with Bibi was killed for supporting her. Despite being on death row and being acquitted, Bibi could not return to her life in Pakistan, her children had to leave the country during the case and now Bibi resides in Canada after facing threats on her life from right-winged groups in Pakistan.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Where does this come from?

Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as outlined by the United Nations.

Do you know how many of the countries that I mentioned previously sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council?


Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Tunisia,  Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.

These ten countries sit on a council that is supposed to uphold the above statement. Those ten countries criminalise apostasy and blasphemy. They criminalise the freedom to think differently, the freedom to speak differently, the freedom of religious belief, the freedom to change their religion.

Secular countries have a duty to fight these countries and the others on their lack of freedom of religion, especially those sitting on this council.

This is why when I am asked why do you criticise religion? Why do criticise Islam? Why are you public with your apostasy, why could you not just leave Islam and be quiet? Why do you talk about apostasy and blasphemy laws?

The simple answer is, I have the privilege to do so and I care about human rights, and that includes fighting for the rights of apostates, critics, heretics and blasphemers.


Freedom of Thought Report 2019 -

Junaid Hafeez -
Farkhunda Malikzada blog post -
Asia Bibi - 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Junaid Hafeez's Sentencing Highlights the Most Pressing Freedom of Speech Issue of the 21st Century

Junaid Hafeez has been given the death penalty for false blasphemy claims made against him by jealous work colleagues. Hafeez is a Pakistani born Fulbright scholar, who went back to Pakistan after being educated in the U.S. to give back to his country, through lecturing at Bahauddin Zakariya University,

Hafeez was champion of liberal ideas and created a Facebook group called the 'So Called Liberals of Pakistan', which contained posts which would be viewed as 'provocative' and not necessarily explicitly blasphemous. But that was enough to create a 'your word against mine,' situation and Hafeez's liberal values were already against him.
Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, in all of their ambiguity have allowed this sentencing to happen and the corruption does not stop there. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was killed for simply representing him.

Pakistan is not alone in these laws.

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait,  Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The above are a further 26 countries, where Islam is the major and state recognised religion, include various apostasy, blasphemy and conversion laws, which carry heavy fines, imprisonment and the death penalty. The secular and liberal world must stand with the secularist and liberals in these countries because they cannot demonstrate, organise and protest they cannot trust the law or their fellow citizens in case they are part of the majority who support these laws.


Freedom of Thought Report 2019 -

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Western Feminists Need to Pay Attention to Masih Alinejad and the Iranian Women's Rights Movement

Imagine living in a country where women who do not cover their hair in public are breaking the law.

A place where women are subject to 'morality' police to examine if they are wearing the head covering 'correctly.' 

A place where refusing to cover your hair could lead to acid attacks by pro-government vigilantes.

A place where the government arrests your family members in efforts to silence you from protesting these laws. 

This is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran has compulsory veil laws per the Islamically derived teachings that a woman must cover her hair. These laws came into place after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power.

Girls as young as seven are forced to cover their hair with the headscarf, the hijab. The women who refuse to are criminalised by the state. 

What happens if you are seen in public without the hijab?

Arrest, fines, lengthy prison sentences or flogging.

Women face this every day in Iran for simply exercising their right to choose what to wear.

Iran's female population amounts to 40 million. That's 40 million women and girls who are under constant surveillance by the government on how they choose to wear their hair. The state agents drive around the cities and have the authority to stop women and examine their dress. They have the power to stop a woman and assess how many strands of hair they are showing, the length of their trousers and coats, and the amount of make-up they are wearing. 

Even when women obey these laws, they can still be seen as not covering properly. Showing a few strands of hair or clothing that is too colourful or too fitted all come under this ruling. Women have faced physical violence for not adhering to the barbaric law. There are numerous stories of the 'morality' police slapping women across the face and beating them with batons. 

This policing of women's bodies is not limited to the state. The countries discriminatory laws have emboldened vigilantes who believe it is their right to enforce the Islamic Republic's laws and values by verbally and physically abusing women in public. 

Marzieh Ebrahimi had acid thrown on her face for refusing to wear the hijab. Type her name into google and numerous images of in a loose head covering and scarred face comes up.

Alongside Ebrahimi, numerous women have stood up against the compulsory hijab law. Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested in March this year. She was sentenced to 38 years and 6 months in prison and 148 lashes after being convicted in two trials. 

She must serve 17 years of this sentence.

The charges brought up against her include "inciting corruption and prostitution," which come from her work representing women arrested for protesting against forced veiling laws, her own opposition to these laws and removing the hijab in prison. 

We cannot talk about Iran and the compulsory hijab law without talking about Masih Alinejad.

For those of you don't know, Masih Alinejad is a U.S. based Iranian journalist and women's rights activist. Alinejad founded numerous online campaigns against the forced hijab. These include white Wednesdays, My Stealthy Freedom and My Camera Is My Weapon. 

As I am writing this I scroll through my Twitter feed and Alinejad's account (@AlinejadMasih) has shared several videos of women being harassed for participating in these campaigns, one video was of an elderly woman, covered head to toe, walking her dog in the park and being abused verbally abused just for walking her dog.

White Wednesdays is Alinejad's campaign, where women wear white hijabs on Wednesdays to protest the enforced law. On August 29th, Masih tweeted out a video about the campaign citing the case of Saba Kordafshari, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for walking unveiled. 

My Stealthy Freedom is a Facebook page where women in Iran are encouraged to post photos of themselves without the hijab.

My Camera Is My Weapon urges women to record the harassment they face in Iran for protesting the enforced hijab laws and the abuse women face for exercising their right to freedom of expression. A right women do not have in these countries. 

Alinejad's family have been targeted by the Iranian in government in the last few months. Reporters Without Borders have said that her brother Alireza and her ex-husband's brother and sister Hadi and Leila Lofti had been arrested by plainclothes Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents on the 26th of September in Tehran.

This is not the first time they have targeted Alinejad's family. In March, the authorities interrogated her elderly mother, Zarrin Badpa. She was questioned for two hours about her daughter's activities while being filmed. 

Hadi was released after being interrogated about Alinejad's activities and told that any contact with her or her team would be considered a criminal offence.

Masih shared a video of her brother that he recorded before his arrest. Alinejads says that "they have taken them hostage in order to silence" her. Her brother claimed the Iranian regime was putting pressure on him and his family to condemn Alinejad's actions. 

In late October, a man posted a video on the internet that her face with acid and told her to stop corrupting Iranian women.

The Septemeber arrests came soon after the death of 'Blue Girl' football fan. Sahar Khodayari died in hospital on Septemeber 9th 2019 after setting herself on fire outside a court in Tehran. She had been charged with appearing in public without a hijab after trying to enter Azadi Stadium dressed as man, bravely standing against the nation's ban on women in sports stadiums. 

Her death shed light on the Open Stadiums movement, which was founded in 2005 where a small group of female football fans protested outside the Azadi Stadium during an Iran v Bahrain match. 

Fifa took notice of the movement in 2013, when former Fifa president Sepp Blatter mentioned the campaign in a meeting with Iranian officials. His views were not heard by the Iranian government, and little progress has been made since then. The death of Blue Girl was shared across social media and pushed the movement back into the spotlight. 

The movement has now become one in where women begin to re-assert their human rights and take a stand against the oppressive Iranian regime. 

Social media has been a powerful tool for these women's rights campaigns in Iran. Twitter being the most notable platform for being able to share videos. The media must share the stories of these women. It is the duty of the Western world, the duty of women's and human rights activists to support these women. In a society where we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression, we must share the stories and support these women. We must speak out alongside them so that we can foster positive change in their homelands. 

Iran is just one of many examples, where the way women dress is policed by the state and other discriminatory laws on how a woman should act are enforced against their will. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the list goes on.

Western feminism and women's rights movements need to pay attention to the women in Iran, to women like Masih Alinejad, Marzieh Ebrahimi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Saba Kordafshari and Sahar Khodayari and the many more brave women standing up for their freedom. 

There is a need to be more critical towards Islamic doctrine which has been used by the above countries to enforce these abhorrent laws against women. But, for western feminists, there is a conflict when Muslim women in the west are attacked by anti-Muslim bigots verbally and physically for wearing the same head covering. 

The conflict is when criticism of Islam is conflated with criticism of Muslims, which is termed as 'Islamophobia.' Anti-Muslim bigotry is a more appropriate term because it protects Muslims but also allows for criticism of Islam, which helps progressive and secular Muslims in Islamic countries, non-religious individuals and other religious minorities in Islamic countries. 

It helps these women criticising and protesting the enforced Islamic dress codes

The feminist movement in the West needs to be more global because Western feminists have the privilege of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. 

A luxury women in these religiously controlled states do not have. 


My twitter witter (
Masih Alinejad's twitter (
White Wednesday video (
Woman harassed for walking her dog (

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Podcasts, Publicity and Perspective: How My Life Changed in A Year

If you had told me a year ago that I would be a public agnostic atheist and Ex-Muslim activist, and co-founder of a global podcast, I would have laughed in your face.

If you had told August 2018 Saff, that her mental health would be at its most sound, that she would be happy, confident and accepting of herself, I would have cried at the idea of that.

If you told her that she would be working part-time, studying for her masters, writing for publications and living independently in a new city, she would have told you to eff' off.

I think you get the point I am making here.


Mine has changed drastically on my mental health, my religious beliefs and that on my life ambitions and career goals.

This is going to sound like a broken record for those of you who follow me on Twitter, but for those that don't here is a quick recap. A little over a year ago I left Islam. I was born and raised in a liberal Muslim household and my experience with Islam had overall been positive, both in my family teachings and that from my madrasah (Islamic classes) teaching, But my ultimate fault with religion is that I lacked a belief in God. For me, a belief in God is a feeling, something that is deep within you, a connection with the divine. This was something I did not possess and something I had not had from the ages of 17/18. It was not until I tried to convince myself of a belief in God and Islam as the one true to religion, that upon reexamining the Quran and hadiths that I could not be convinced of a doctrine worth following and a God worthy of my worship. It did not ignite a deep connection with the divine, instead, it left me in a state of loss and confusion.

It took a while for me to find the ex-Muslim community, the first faces I saw were Imtiaz Shams and Mimzy Vidz. Without their YouTube channels in my early leaving phase, I would have been incredibly lost. It is through them that I found the Ex-Muslim community, which I am proud to be a part of and to work with. It was not until I came across women like Zara Kay, Maryam Namazie and Fay Rahman that I felt safe and empowered to speak out on Ex-Muslim issues concerning women and Ex-Muslims in the UK and those in Islamic countries. The turning point for me was the Opening a Conversation on Women's Dissent event that really launched me into the public space. I watched the event and wrote my last post on that day. It really highlighted the importance of speaking out as an ex-Muslim and being public about my apostasy.

This importance is the abolition of apostasy and blasphemy laws and supporting the fight for secularism in Islamic countries. I come from a position of privilege living in a Western country that I can criticise Islam, I can criticise Islamic countries and live freely as an apostate. That is the reason why I speak, why I write and why I tweet about these issues. The day homosexuality is decriminalised, apostasy and blasphemy laws are abolished globally, and women are equal before the law to men, that is the day I will be quiet. That is the day I will be at peace.

My mental health in the last year has changed dramatically. I deal with anxiety on a daily basis, but there have been times in the last year that it has got incredibly difficult. There have been weeks where I could not go a single day without having multiple panic attacks. They had become so severe to the extent that I could feel such pain in my bones. I had woken up with a panic attack after an anxiety-filled dream. I still have not quite got a handle on how to deal with it fully, and I am in the process of getting help with managing anxiety. But, in the meantime, I thought I would share some self-care tips that I have learnt and put in to practice.

One - Get a notebook, decorate it how you wish, whether you draw on it or simply put pretty stickers all over it (I did this because I lack artistic ability). Make that you 'therapy diary.' You don't have to write it every day, you can just write in when you feel sad or anxious, but also write in it when you have a very good day. I use it to write out my day, things that caused me anxiety and how I dealt with them at the time and how I will try to deal with problems in the future. If there are too many things worrying you, focus on three. Write how they make you feel and then how you will try to overcome them. Seeing the words on the page makes them a little less frightening.

Second - Do little things that you know make you happy. read your favourite book, watch your favourite film, listen to your favourite songs and dance around to them. Eat your favourite food. Put on a face mask, take a long bath or shower. Have a nap if you are too run down. Switch off social media for a few hours, or even a day if you can manage that. Spend some time with friends or family that make you happy. Go for a walk if the weather is nice. Anything small that you know makes you happy.

Third - Slow down. Take a minute to breathe. Just sit and relax. Even if it is for five minutes, just take that time out for yourself.

Finally, if you have access to help, don't be afraid to take it. Open up to a friend or family member you trust and feel safe around. You will be surprised at how many people will be there for you.

After graduating this summer, embracing my position in the activist community and beginning my masters, it led to a reevaluation of my career goals and ambitions. I graduated with a degree in American Studies and History, and I am now currently studying a Masters in International Journalism. The goal is to work in the journalism profession, but right now I am not quite sure when and where. I have always known that I would love to create documentaries focusing on apostates, from Ex-Muslim backgrounds and beyond, secularists and reformers. But, currently, my heart is with the activism work, podcasting and working with apostasy and humanist charities, which I am in the process of doing so and more information will be revealed soon.

The last two P's to be addressed, Podcasting and Publicity.  I cannot talk about either of these without talking about the amazing team I work with. At the end of August,  I joined an Ex-Muslim group chat on Twitter and  connected with lots of young Ex-Muslims from across the world. The UK, USA, Pakistan, Somalia, UAE and Canada. Most of them being closeted, and a large amount of them residing in Islamic countries, which would call for their death if their identities were made public. In a matter of two weeks, we had art and posters created by team members Luna (@AthenaNights) and Ayan (@90sbabyicon) and launched our first episode. Now, we have two episodes and after shows on YouTube, we are booked for the next couple of weeks and are working on expanding our team.

In that same timeline was the #AwesomeWithoutAllah campaign launched by Ex-Muslims of North America. Through this, they released billboards across the United States with statistics on Ex-Muslims in the U.S. Alongside this, Ex-Muslims from across the world were invited to record video clips and share why they were #AwesomeWithoutAllah. I participated in this campaign, releasing a video about me and my group, the Sinning Skeptics. It gained a lot of traction and has now reached 10.7k views on Twitter. Honestly, I did not anticipate that the level of publicity it had reached.

Overwhelmingly, I received a lot of support both from the internet world and friends and family. I even had people debating religion in my mentions because of my video. I had messages from people I know telling me about their doubts with Islam and that they felt comforted seeing someone they knew out there.

There were a few targeted hate messages, largely from people with no profile image so I tended to ignore them. But my favourite one was a DM from an individual saying "you'll need good AC where you're headed," and it took me a while to get the joke. Joking aside, it has been relatively positive. The reaction has opened up questions and debates with friends, family and the internet. It has also led me to reevaluate my position on a lot of topics and I have learnt a lot in this process.

I am aware there is a certain level of danger that comes with the nature of activism I am pursuing and the fact that my face is very much out there. I have taken personal security measures to make sure I am as safe as I can be. But, ultimately, this work, this campaign against blasphemy laws, against apostasy laws and fight for equal rights for women and LGBT individuals is too important not to speak out on it from my position of privilege. It is cause worthy of my time and speech. Amplifying the voices of the young and the marginalised. It is one I will fight for until the very end.

In terms of the future, I will continue working with the Sinning Skeptics podcasts and expanding into a much larger organisation. I have a new project that I am working with Luna on a more fun and chilled project which I am looking forward to giving more details about later this week. I am working on maintaining and improving my mental health. Finally, I will try and post as often as I can on The Amber Journals, whilst studying, podcasting and working. If anyone has any questions for me, feel free to comment or contact me via Twitter @saffdotcom, and I will try and do a Q+A post.



Saff (


Sinning Skeptics Twitter (
Latest Episode -

Awesome Without Allah video -

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Event Coverage: #Celebrating Dissent - A Conversation on Women's Dissent

"Heretics, infidels, renegades - Welcome to Amsterdam!" - Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema.

Starting at bright and early at 10am, I covered day two of the Freedom Festival held in Amsterdam at the De Balie centre, from the comforts of my home via the Livestream link made accessible via the De Balie website. The event would not have been possible without the organisation of Maryam Namazie, President of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Her bravery to speak out and criticise the ideology that is Islam and stand against communities and states which seek to silence, ostracise and kill us via vigilante attacks, in the name of so-called honour and state sanction violence in the twelve states that will have us murdered. Through the partnership with De Balie, the Freedom Festival is born, with the particular day, I spent covering focusing on women's dissent because throughout history women have been systematically oppressed into silence. But this very day, Saturday 31st August 2019, showcased a range of incredibly powerful, intelligent and artistic women from the secular world who refuse to be quiet.

The day opened at 10am ending with the last panel at 8pm, it was a long day of discussion, art and music, but one that did not feel long at all. The day began with music from Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal, whose human rights activism is demonstrated through music. The event features musicians, dancers, filmmakers and comedians, showing the world that like religion, which has its own arts, secularism does too. It shows the talent these activists have and really showcases the multifaceted nature of activism and that secularism is not just limited to the political, but there is a place for them in the arts.

Opening speeches from Taslima Nasreen, Inna Schevchenko and Maryam Namazie, herself. This was the first time I had been introduced to the work and stories of Taslima and Inna, for which I will give a brief description into their work, as each woman is worthy of her own post. Taslima is a writer, physician and secular humanist and human rights activist. She is known for her writings on women's oppression via the medium of poetry. Her work has led to her exile and fundamentalists issuing fatwa's calling for her death. Inna Schevchenko is an activist and feminist campaigner and leader of the international women's movement FEMEN, which are known for topless protests and campaigns against patriarchy, dictatorship and religion.

Maryam's speech discusses the victim-blaming, shunning and ostracisation of free thinkers from minority backgrounds, which happens too often highlighting the importance of celebrating dissenters. Taslima tells us her story and recites a poem for us all, and finally, Inna discusses how religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality.

"Obedient women rarely make history. It is us disobedient women, the ex-Muslims, blasphemers, apostates and heretics that aim to make history." - Maryam Namazie.

"I believe that no country can be civilised without scrutinising its dogmatic practices." - Taslima Nasreen.

"As a matter of fact, I believe that religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality. And we need to go beyond it." - Inna Schevchenko.

The first panel of the day entitled Touching the Holy Subject focusing on secularism, apostasy and blasphemy in relation to the law. Moderator Bahram Sadeghi introduces the topic and goes through the definition of blasphemy and the complexities of apostasy death sentences listing the twelve countries in which leaving the state religion of Islam carries the death penalty.

Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Bahram makes the important point that religion and blasphemy, in particular, is not dinner table conversation. He uses the analogy of the birthday party, he says you don't talk about topics such as income and then brings in religion and blasphemy. They are topics that are not seen as palatable to the public sphere. "Kafir in the house!" Bahram exclaims, which gains laughter from both myself and the crowd. He asks the crowd to raise their hands as to who is irreligious, but also asks if there are any religious people in attendance, and there is!

Next, Bahram invites Pakistani lawyer Saif Ul Malook, the defence lawyer of Asia Bibi, to the stage to speak. When I heard he was speaking at the event I was beyond excited to hear what he had to say because the story of Asia Bibi was one of my motivations and inspirations into pursuing a career in journalism, and was in fact, the first story I wrote about on my blog. Saif describes how entrenched blasphemy law is in the Pakistani legal system. Blasphemy is codified into the penal code of Pakistan, it states that anyone who says anything disrespectful about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad shall be treated as blasphemous, and carries the highest punishment of all, death. The second part of the law states that anyone who defiled the holy book, the Quran, tear it etc will face life imprisonment.

Saif tells us the story of Asia Bibi, a woman who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy against the Islamic prophet. He describes how the personal religious beliefs of the police, the investigators, the lawyers and the judges infiltrated the matters of the state. Saif advocates for a strict separation between the two. Saif outlines the risks of speaking out and taking on cases like this. The public threatened judges and lawyers that if they overturned the verdict they will kill them.

When asked why do you put your life at risk?

Saif answers "Somebody has to come forward to help those nobody is helping . . . why not die doing something good?"

After Saif's speech, panellists Nadia El Fani, Sarah Haider and Rishvin Ismath are invited up to the stage. Nadia is a Tunisian filmmaker who made a film about the Ramadan protests and the Tunisian revolution, entitled Neither Allah nor Master. There is no law which says people must fast during Ramadan, but social pressures from the Muslim community means that society does not accept those that refuse to fast. The film featured both young and old defying the religious pressures in the fight for the separation of religion and state. Soon after the film's screening, she had a campaign against her from Islamists calling for her death.

Rishvin is the first Ex-Muslim to go public in Sri Lanka and has recently faced a near-death experience when ISIS attempted to kill him months before the Easter Sunday suicide attack.

Sarah is an American Ex-Muslim who left Islam at sixteen years old and set-up the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA). In terms of reactions to her apostasy, she considers herself to be privileged, she did not have the threat of abuse or disowning, but that does not mean that familial relationships were not difficult. She outlines the obvious fears her parents have and many Muslim parents do have about their children leaving Islam - the fear of eternal damnation. But, there were also fears for how her community would view her, her prospects of marriage and now, fears for her life because of her activism. As of current her mother still believes, but her father has left Islam and Sarah has hope for the effect people can have on their familial relations. Her activism through her organisation includes documentary series, campus tours and research into Ex-Muslims and the nature of apostasy. This is something I really am hopeful of seeing, to see academic research into Ex-Muslims and apostasy, to actually see how many of us there are.

Before the Q+A session, we receive a performance from Waleed Wain, but most of you will know him as Veedu Vidz. He performs his parody song 'Music is Haraam,' featuring the persona of Dawah Man and the impression of Zakir Naik. I was already well-acquainted with the song from Veedu's channel (video will be linked at the end), and could not help but find myself laughing along with the Zakir Naik and bopping along to the catchy chorus. These interludes of music, comedy and art really give the event something more. It creates a platform for dissenters which is more than just the politics and religion and showcases we are more than that, we are artists and creators!

"Music is haram everybody knows, it penetrates your body from your head to your toes." - Veedu Vidz.

Finally, questions are asked to the panel and they discuss their opinions on joking and satirising religion. Sarah raises the really interesting point that humour is natural, the response to laugh is natural, you cannot control it. With good humour you really feel it, and satire brings out the uncomfortable truth. Nadia emphasises the irony behind the title of her film and says that humour can pass a lot of things, but now people do not understand humour and everything is serious. This made me think of the age of political correctness we are living in. Finally, Rishvin makes the point the Muhammad was afraid of poetry and the arts, and thus why it is said the Quran is a poem in Arabic. Most arts are prohibited in Islam, perhaps Muhmmad was aware of the power the arts have in liberation and free-thinking, who knows?

The next panel, Comedy, The Sacred and Islamophobia is led by comedian Shabana Rehman, Ex-Muslims Armin Navabi and Ali Rizvi. Armin is the founder of the Atheist Republic and author of Why There is No God. Ali is the author of The Atheist Muslim and co-hosts the podcast Secular Jihadists with Armin. Moderator Sherin Seyda introduces Shabana by playing a short film about her and the Shabana takes to the stage.

Shabana is a Norwegian comedian and activist, who stirred up controversy through three stunts which become central to this panels discussion. The Mullah lifting, flashing her bottom on stage and her 'burning' of the Quran. She talks about how she got into the comedy scene, for her there was no one that looked like her on the scene, so she took influence from the comedians available to her. She saw them making people laugh, so she did the same. But the reaction she received was not the same.

"not my action, it's your reaction." - Shabana Rehman.

She had been verbally attacked by Pakistani males because she spoke her truth and did comedy. A Pakistani politician retold her the story of the prostitute and the cat, for many Muslims and former Muslims, this is a story we have heard often. The politician said that because Shabana's heart belonged to animals she was forgiven. When asked why did she moon? She explains that she did not just because you can do that in Norway, but for something else. Shabana talks about the first time Norwegian and Pakistani cinema became one in a story about Norwegian boy falling love with a Pakistani girl in which he had to convert, circumcise and sign a contract that if he divorced her that her father had permission to kill him. And you know what happened, he did and their wedding was the happy ending. Aw cultural barriers are fixed now! And that was meant to be a comedy. She did not want to speak on it because of the pressure, but she said why is it so controversial that Pakistani women are marrying Norweigan boys and then she mooned on stage. She did not think it would be dangerous because it is very common in Scandanavian films, she did not think it would lead to bullet holes. Here she refers to the attack on her sister's restaurant.

Shabana's next stunt, she shows us the video before discussing. In this clip, she is at a literature festival about dangerous books and no one would speak about the Quran apart from the extreme right-wing, which said the Quran should be burnt. How did Shabana handle this, how would a comedian handle this?

How to say what you want without getting your head cut off? - By burning the book it gets more power, so she lit the matches held the Quran and blew the matches out. She says we need not fear it being burnt. She did not give the right what they wanted, but she still touched the subject and yet still, the fanatics went crazy.

The panel takes questions, the three I will focus on are does ridicule bring society further and why? The role of comedy in criticising Islam and their thoughts on criticising Islam in the current climate of the far/alt-right inciting violence and how do we approach that now?

Does ridicule bring society further? In short, yes. Armin notes that when we insult religion we are not trying to make friends, we are trying to break barriers.

What is the role of comedy in criticising Islam? Ali says it is a very, very important aspect, but it more so is the way in which you speak. Storytelling is a powerful tool because that is what human beings relate to. There is strong emotion in art, religion is one big story if you really think about it. He notes the art in religion, that the call to prayer, the athaan is music essentially. Islam has calligraphy and breathtaking architecture.

How do you fill the gap as an atheist?

Ali notes having to unlearn homophobia and this was achieved in the process beyond the mind. The power was seen in watching the film Philidelphia (1993) and watching Ellen DeGeneres come out. Armin adds that we do not necessarily need to fill in the gap and that you can consume religious art without being religious. That I really do agree with, even as a Muslim and now as an atheist, I visit cathedrals and churches in Spanish cities and I admire and take in the architecture without having any religious connections. His Harry Potter analogy made me laugh and many others in the audience (thus, I could not understand when Armin said he did not think he was funny). Finally, Shabana ends the question with how she became an activist. For her, she did not start as one, religion had a problem with her and she had to push back for her survival. I think that's how many Ex-Muslims feel, to be public with your apostasy, but just simply stating "I am no longer Muslim," leads to backlash, criticism and threats.

"Islam is fun if you don't believe in it." - Armin Navabi.

Criticising Islam in the current climate of the far/alt-right inciting violence and how do we approach that now?  Ali refers to Shabana's Quran 'burning' stunt, in that she did not want to give the far-right what they wanted. But, points out that Islam is a far-right ideology. Lots of Ex-Muslims and atheists are not given platforms, but the far-right does. That's why we need to create our own, I feel so strongly about that. As an agnostic atheist and Ex-Muslim, there is not very many platforms for me to speak out on, events like this are the way forward. But, large scale mainstream platforms are yet to be seen. Ali leaned politically to left and aims to re-educate and reach left-liberals. Finally, Armin says it is better to be offended than discriminated against he tells Muslims. In fact, Ex-Muslims should be their favourite anti-Islam people because we will stand on your side when people challenge your rights.

The event takes a pause for a remembrance organised by Maryam Namazie to remember those free thinkers who have been persecuted and killed in their line of work. A group of speakers from the event will demonstrate by holding red balloons paying tribute to them. The balloons carried the names of 160 people (a small cross-section of those victims of religiously motivated violence). One of those to be remembered is Asad Shah, a shopkeeper from Glasgow and follower of Ahmadi Islam. He was fatally stabbed outside of his shop in 2016 by the Sunni Muslim, Tanveer Ahmed, who stated that Shah had offended Islam by claiming to be the prophet in a YouTube video. I had tweeted out the events program and this tweet telling Asad's story was met by a response from one user saying why are non-believers remembering him, and that it should be left as an issue for theists to deal with. First of all, it was a violent attack amongst someone with a differing opinion on Islam, the threat that Ahmadi followers of Islam are not too dissimilar to Ex-Muslims. Moreover, other sects of Islam, like Sunni Muslims, tend not to speak out in defence and remember people like Asad because to them Asad is not a 'real' Muslim and will view his beliefs as heretical. Finally, I will speak up for injustices I am aware of and when I can.

The penultimate panel, Separation of Religion and State is focused on why secularism is an important precondition for the minimum rights of women, LGBT+, Ex-Muslims and minorities. The panel is moderated by Bercan Gunel and includes Afsana Lachaux, lawyer Homa Arjomand, CEMB spokesperson Sadia Hameed, activist Elzbieta Podlesna and Annie Laurie Gaylor the co-founder of Freedom from Religion Foundation Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Bercan introduces the topic of the panel and then invites Afsana Lachaux up to speak and share her story. Afsana has been fighting to regain custody of her son and the complexities around her cases are astonishing. She has been in a multijurisdictional legal battler with the Dubai courts who initially took her son away from her and UK and French courts. Afsana was accused of kidnapping her own child, at this point her son was already removed from her custody. Her charge was that she was an unfit mother. It was due to a public campaign that stopped her from serving any jail time.

Afsana tells the panel to listen carefully to the details. Her son was born in Dubai to a French Catholic man, as their marriage began to break down she wished to return to the UK. Her French Catholic husband took her to an Islamic court in the UAE and divorced her. He manipulated the law and state machinery to his advantage and Afsana was thrown in a UAE prison cell and assaulted by police officers in a country that was not her own. The court said she was an apostate and caused her sons eczema and thus, making her an unfit mother. With help from her family via a western media campaign emphasising that she was British publicly meant she was returned home. That is when her fight began.

Afsana started a campaign for justice with help from the feminist movement and women of colour, she began to fight her case in France and the UK. She went to the UK courts to argue her case that because she was a British citizen and her marriage took place in London the Sharia ruling should be overturned on the basis of human rights. The UK judge she was met with said Afsana was demonising UAE law and the British judge said that UAE Sharia law was the same as UK law. A legal system that does not treat men and women as equals. The SAME case was tried in the French Supreme Court, and they overturned the UAE ruling stating that they would not endorse Islamic Sharia law because in France men and women are equals before the law. Sadly, British courts ignored the French ruling and Afsana will be entering the ninth year of her fight in 2020.

Next, Homa Arjomand and Sadia Hameed are invited up to speak. Homa founded the campaign against the Sharia court in Canada. In 1981, the law decided to have faith-based arbitration meaning that anyone from any faith can go to their own faith court (divorce, custody etc.), but do not have to go to a Canadian court. Canadians were not aware of this, one of Homa's clients came from Pakistan and her husband took her to Sharia court in Canada. Through the international women's rights movement, she only needed 100 spokespersons, but she had 1000s speaking up against faith-based arbitration and ran international rallies in front of the Candian embassy. In Iran, 150 incredibly brave women when in front of the Canadian embassy in Iran and say no to Sharia law in Canada.

Sadia begins talking about how she has never seen true secularism in practice and tells us how her view of secularism has been viewed as extreme. She wishes not to see any religion in the state, neither does she like religious symbols in the public place. As she puts it very well, secularism levels the playing field because when you choose a religion you don't just choose a religion, you have to choose a sect, and through that, you can make other sect's feel inferior. Sadia then goes on to say religion does not give women's rights, to which I found myself saying preach Sadia! She argues that the law needs to be universal and protect us all in the same way. Their introductions end with Homa stating that we all have to be the watchdog and stop these bills, like the Islamophobia bill that has been proposed to Manchester City Council, to make noise and examine and criticises these bills before they become law and become much harder to change.

For the final introductions, Elzbieta Podlesna and Annie Laurie Gaylor are invited to tell us about their work. Elzbieta is a Polish activist fighting for the separation between church and state in her country, which has moved from communism to Christianity. She faces two years imprisonment in Poland for standing up for LGBT rights for a protest which involved painting rainbows over the Virgin Mary and laid them out in the streets in solidarity with members of the LGBT community.

Annie Laurie Gaylor co-founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her mother in the United States. Annie warns us that Poland is a cautionary tale for the US in terms of abortion rights highlight the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the threat he poses to Roe v Wade. I wrote a post about this a while ago, which I will link at the bottom for you so you can learn more about the situation in the US.

In the question and answer session, all of the women highlight the importance of secularism in the fight for equal rights. They raise concerns around secular education as well as secular law. Afsana raises the issue of soft power in the media industries and that we need to be more forensic when consuming our news, who owns the football teams we are supporting and critically approach governing bodies like the United Nations, who have places like Saudi Arabia on a human rights agenda. Sadia emphasises we do not want special rights, we want equal rights across the board, Elzbieta warns us that it is a collective danger that we are all facing and finally, Homa ends by saying that religion should be a private matter of the individual and not in a position of power in the state.

In the final panel of the day Women Against Gods? Speakers discuss the theoretical framework of oppression and the history of women's bodies. This panel analyses the power dynamics between men and women in religious texts, dialogues and history. The speakers included clinical psychologist Ibtissame Betty Lachga, Ex-Muslim activist Rana Ahmad, journalist Gita Saghal, professor and lesbian-feminist activist Maaike Meijer and writer Mineke Schipper.

Ibtissame is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the violence against women and sexual violence and she initiated the first LGBT movement in Morocco. She highlights the problems women have as activists, and her fight to break down taboos around reproduction and sexual education in Morocco.

Rana Ahmad is an Ex-Muslim activist and women's rights campaigner from Saudi Arabia. After leaving Islam she was forced to go to Mecca in 2014, Rana bravely took a photo as an atheist in one of the most dangerous places to be one. She had to make the decision to leave in fear for her life so that she could live as a free woman without having to lie about who she was and live her truth. She talks about the freedoms she has felt leaving Saudi Arabia, the one which had the biggest impact was being able to walk in the street without wearing the imposed hijab and feel the sun on her skin. She turned her experience into a positive by setting up an organisation which helps atheist refugees. It had been four years since her escape and she has written a book in that time, in which she notes that if it were to be translated into Arabic it would be dangerous. Rana says the world needs to stop caring about Saudi money and care about human rights.

My final thoughts on this event are that it was one extensive learning experience in which I could hear my voice through these incredibly intelligent and fearless women. I heard people I have been following for a longtime speak on such important issues and I have been introduced to so many more, who have really opened my eyes on the global scale in the fight for secularism and human rights. The memorable event organised by Maryam Namazie and the De Balie team has given so many Ex-Muslims a platform to speak, discuss and perform in ways never seen before. She is an inspiration for young secularists and Ex-Muslims like myself. The speakers at this event have inspired myself and other young Ex-Muslims and secularists from a variety of backgrounds to come together in creating a space for a new generation of activists, something which I cannot wait to share with you soon.

Thank you for reading!

Link to De Balie website with all the videos from the Freedom Festival -
Link to Veedu Vidz 'Music is Haraam' -

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Absher: The Saudi 'Wife-Tracking' App

As many of you know from the countless news outlets and my previous post that earlier this month Saudi Arabia relaxed its male guardianship law. Thus, allowing anyone over the age of twenty-one to travel abroad without prior consent and apply for a passport without the permission of a male guardian. This had been hailed as a revolutionary move by Crown Prince Salman, however, as my previous post focused on the women who campaigned for these revolutionary changes have been detained and subject to countless instances of abhorrent torture. Yet, this change is not all it seems, via Twitter hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات# (passports), women have reported that their guardians still get notifications of when women apply for passports and thus putting vulnerable women at risk of honour-based violence. This led me to discover the inner workings of the application that provides this service, named Absher (good tidings in Arabic) which allows men to track their female dependents. This article will discuss how the app works, untangle the wave of tweets around the Saudi passport situation and provide an update into the case of Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has reached some backhanded progress into her release.

It was not until I had been sent some tweets via a discord server I am part of that I came across the hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات#, which after putting it through google translate comes out as meaning passports.

The account @ican_33 tweeted - "my dad received a text message that I requested my passport and when I inquired as to why this occurred as I have my own account with my own number the employee told me that the guardian has the right to know and they will continue sending these texts."

@yak33_ tweeted - "what is the right to send a letter to the father when the passport is issued to me ??????? I cancelled the date that I took."

Another account @Aa2_1435 tweeted - "I was surprised that a message was sent extracting to the mobile phone of my father, although I have a special account Babshar guardian mobile phone for my account and possible after the letter was sent to divorce since the son did not become a follower of the system under my name" followed by a text screenshot from a mobile phone. A user responds to her tweet explaining that that male guardian registered with Absher, that any messages his women dependents receive are sent to his device without seeking prior permission of the female account holders.

Most of the tweets under the hashtag seem to say similar things, both sharing screenshots of the text notifications. The general consensus is an air of confusion around the situation, with women being unsure of what this means when they actually wish to travel and apply for visas. Trying to scour the internet for any other information is proving unfruitful, little to no reporting from any news outlet, mainstream or fringe. I hope that in the upcoming weeks there is more information that breaks out, and will keep an eye out for anything more on the passport situation. But, what this has revealed to me is the app that allows this tracking of women in the country.

Bill Bostock for Insider broke the news story on Absher, the Saudi tracking app. The article tells the chilling story of a Saudi girl by the name of Shadad al-Mohaimeed and her upcoming escape from her family. She took her family's credit cards, keys, passports and their phones with the aim to slow them down when they eventually try to track her down. A year in the making the seventeen-year-old finally embarked on her escape, leaving the hotel her family was staying at in Turkey, walking down the street for the first time since she was ten without wearing the full-body covering expected to be worn by Saudi women and girls. She details the robotic routine of her life and the abuse she encountered. Her father used to bind her wrists and ankles with ropes when she was seen in the company of men who were not family members and lived under the fear of constant death threats.

She notes not even being allowed to buy products for her period and it was her brother with his $1,600 monthly allowance given by their father, who bought her supplies for the natural once a month occurrence. She was not the only woman in her family to be controlled by the guardianship laws. Her mother was not allowed access to the money she earns from her job, she did not have her own bank account, all her money went to her husband because she was his property in his eyes.

Shahad not only had to face physical barriers of leaving her family and country, but also technological restrictions. This is where Absher comes into play. A government system, which exists in its most simplest form, through a smartphone app. Absher has various meanings in Arabic from, 'your request is granted,' to 'good tidings' or 'at your service.' It is the male guardianship laws in action. The app contains a log on Saudi Arabian citizens with the intentions to prevent women to travel and catch them out when they try to leave without the permission of their male guardians.

The app allows you to do the simple everyday government processes such as register births, pay parking fines or renew your license. Like a simple HMRC app, but with the added bonus for Saudi men, track your woman and revoke travel permission with a simple tap of a few buttons. They can set off-limit destinations and even enable an SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in. This is why for Shahad and many others like Rahaf Mohammed escaping whilst on holiday where Absher is not reachable. Insider has attempted to contact Saudi authorities on the system directly and via their embassies in the US and UK, but the Saudi government is yet to respond.

This story from Insider came out before the relaxation of the laws and there is yet to be any new reporting on whether Absher itself has been altered to fit with the new freedoms given to women. According to the Twitter hashtag mentioned above, the fathers of women seeking passports of their own are still being notified. It seems that as a woman of twenty-one years old can seek a passport and travel alone, as long as your father approves, thus making the new reforms disappointing. Men angered by these reforms can still include in their marriage contracts that his wife cannot travel without his permission, still treating women like property and making the new laws completely irrelevant. It is important to note that these laws really only benefit women who were already allowed to travel by their male guardians, making it easier for them. It does not benefit all Saudi women, especially the silent majority who face immense restrictions on their lives. In the cases of many, it puts their lives at risk over the simple document that is a passport.

The confusion around the specifics of the new reforms which been masked by media celebration is emphasised by Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, she says that the Saudi government is "trying to take as much credit as possible without having already done. They have got all the headlines." Begum even refers to Absher which still needs to be dismantled for these reforms to have any real meaning.

Finally, there has been an update into the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist who has been detained and tortured for over a year. Those of you who have read my previous post will be well acquainted with her, but those who are new Loujain is a remarkable woman defying Saudi standards in the campaign for equality. She was detained last year for her work in the campaign for women to drive and has been to subject to countless amounts of torture for the past year. Two weeks ago, news came out that Loujain would be freed, under the circumstances that she would sign documents and appear on camera denying that she had been tortured and subject to sexual harassment whilst imprisoned. This news comes from her brother, who tweeted that - "our initial agreement was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that's why we remained silent in the past few weeks," he also stated that "asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn't sound like a realistic demand." Her sister, Lina,  even felt at risk tweeting that her sister had been tortured and sexually harassed. But, her other sister, Alia desperate to see her sister tweeted that her sister should accept the offer and tweeted - "Deny what happened even if you have to record it on camera, what is important is that you are with us, I miss you."

But, Loujain herself has rejected the offer, her brother Walid said - "When the state security asked her to sign the document for the video release, she immediately ripped the document. She told them by asking me to sign this document you are involved in the cover-up and you're simply trying (to) defend Saud Al-Qahtani who was overseeing the torture. This is the latest news to be found on her case, further showing the immense bravery and strength of this woman, Loujain is one I will admire for my entire lifetime. A woman who is so strong-willed and dedicated to her cause and will not be silenced. It is then the duty of myself and those who hear about Loujain to share her story and amplify her voice while, for the current moment, she cannot.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Saudi Grants Women the Right to Travel Alone, Yet Imprisons and Tortures the Women Who Fight For These Rights

As I am sure many of you have heard of, and if you have not, this week Saudia Arabia has relaxed its male guardianship law, which now allows women to travel outside of the country freely. Now, this is an event to be celebrated for the millions of women living in the country, but it is one to be celebrated with a huge pinch of salt. Why? Because the reforms are not as rosy coloured as they are seen to be and the country continues to imprison and torture the women who were brave enough to stand up to the repressive laws against women, which treat them as second class citizens. So, before you celebrate and applaud the Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government on their progressive actions, I would like to introduce you to the incredible women who have fought for this freedom but are yet to be credited for their tireless efforts and experience the freedom for themselves.

Announced Friday, August 2nd all women over the age of 21 are able to apply for a passport without authorisation. They have also been granted the right to register births, marriage or divorce, as a result of this ruling. Moreover, it has rolling implications on women's right to work without facing discrimination based on gender, disability or age. This is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plan to transform the Saudi economy by 2030 with the aim of increasing the participation of women in the workforce. This historic move comes a little over a year after Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.

In the old system, the male guardianship law gives husbands, fathers and other male relatives authority over the women in their family in making critical life decisions. However, some of these life decisions still remain in the hands of their male relatives, such as that of the right to marry, to live on their own. Women do not pass on citizenship to their children and neither are they allowed to provide consent for their children to marry.

Even writing this the terminology I have read about and that I am using unnerves me, women should never have to be granted permission to do this, it should just be. Again, this is easy for me to say living in a Western country where these rights have existed for me and women before me for a lot longer than women in Saudi Arabia. It goes without saying we cannot discuss the male guardianship and where it comes from without referencing the theocratic state of the country, with its laws grounded in the religion of Islam. Saudi Arabia's legal system is one rooted in Sharia Law -- Islamic law, which is derived from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. There is no codification of rules or system of judicial precedent, there are several schools of Islamic law which offer opinions on specific issues of the law. Saudi Arabia traditionally follows the Hanbali school of thought, but this has become watered down with time, yet some courts still apply Hanbali law.

Understanding the Islamic context of the laws of Saudi makes it easier to understand where the male guardianship system of laws comes from. There is rooting in the Quran itself, predominantly in the chapter of the Quran which is hailed by many Muslims for its dedication to women, the chapter in question - Surah Nisa.  "Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintainence] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard." (4:34). Within the context of this verse and how the Saudi government and legal system works, it becomes very self-explanatory as to where the male guardianship system has been derived from. Alas, this post is not about religion, although it is important to understand its use in the Saudi state and whole other post could be written on it, this post is to raise awareness and celebrate the remarkable efforts of the women being silenced by the Saudi regime.

Now to introduce the incredibly brave women who have fought for the above freedoms, yet have been silenced over the last year in a crackdown on Saudi feminists. Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most well-known from the Saudi women's rights movement. Her story is one that is deeply saddening and incredibly chilling. Loujain was pulled over whilst driving in the UAE in April 2018 and was deported back to Saudi Arabia, where she was detained for three days and freed. She was taken from her family home in Riyadh, where she was blindfolded and tossed into the boot of car to be taken to a detention centre she has called the "palace of terror." Hathloul has been tortured and threatened with rape and death. This has been going on for over a year, as of right now she is still being held by the Saudi government. Saud al-Qahtani, former advisor to the Crown Prince had overseen her torture, according to Loujain's brother, Walid. Walid has said that his sister said that al-Qahtani "sat in one of the sessions. He told her: 'I'll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you into the sewer system. But before that, I'll rape you." Despite, the horrific treatment she has been going through her brother emphasised her concerns for the fate of women in Saudi.

Loujain is not the only one, she was arrested along with ten other women in the government's attempts to silence the outspoken women who had initially campaigned for the right to drive. The arrests consisted of campaigners Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan. Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor of computer science, mother to five children and grandmother of eight. She is a leading women's rights activist in Saudi and has worked with other activists like Hathloul to establish a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. Eman al-Nafjan is known for her online work in her blog entitled, Saudiwoman's Weblog, which focuses on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues.

Alongside other activists, both women were imprisoned weeks before the driving ban was lifted in 2018. Al-Yousef and al-Nafjan reported incidents of physical and sexual abuses they were subject to during their imprisonment and were released on bail this year. Amnesty International explains some of the treatment women like Azizia, Eman and Loujain experienced. This includes an interrogator falsely telling a detainee that her family members had died and was made to believe this for an entire month. Another account stated that two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched and another reported waterboarding, another reported electric shock torture which is consistent with Al-Hathloul's injuries reported by her parents.

Eleven women were put on trial for a coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom due to accusations that they had been in contact with foreign diplomats and journalists. Women fighting for the right to drive, for the right to travel, for the right to have autonomy over themselves and the decisions they make are seen as a threat to the running of the Saudi state. That sounds like a very fragile state to me, if it can be dismantled by women demanding their right to control over their own bodies and lives. Seven of the women have been bailed out in early 2019, but Hathloul's family are not hopeful of Loujain's release. Observers have said the particularly horrific treatment of Loujain was due to her role as a lead feminist campaigner, as her trial continues to drag on there seems to be no end in sight.

And this is why we need to be cautious of the Saudi state and not applaud Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and instead make a much louder noise as to why his state is capturing and torturing the women who have been fighting for the reforms he is being praised for. It is also worth noting the highly publicised case of Rahaf Mohammed and more recently, the case of the Al-Showaiki sisters (Dua and Dalal) who have taken the risk of escaping the country and as a result their cases permeated into the Western media and both parties have been given help by legal counsel and journalists in the West and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau granting Rahaf a special fast-tracked refugee status. Finally, if you really want to be seen as a progressive Muslim state, one that is championing women's rights reforms, Prince Salman, free the women who have been fighting for this change or is your state so fragile that the freedom of a few strong, intelligent and outspoken women can cause Saudi Arabia to crumble?

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Netflix Effect: The Impact of Streaming Sites in Diversifying Hollywood

Online streaming services have revolutionised the way we consume film and television by offering a wide catalogue of film and television available in full at the click of a button in exchange for a monthly fee. The online giant Netflix has claimed dominance in this arena through its wide range of content and has made headlines as champions of diversity and racial representation (Edmond Jr., 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to explore why they have made the ‘risky’ move to greenlight numerous minority-led and minority centred stories and what allows them to do this. Through this exploration, there are issues raised to the extent of how diverse Netflix and whether their business reflects their message because their workforce does not seem to replicate the diversity in their catalogue (Edmond Jr., 2018). Finally, this chapter will look at the fight Netflix has been battling with the awarding bodies, since the success of foreign language film Roma at the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony there has been backlash from the industry insiders, who believe that Netflix productions are not worthy of Academy acclaim because they do not conform to traditional cinematic releases.

Before looking at why Netflix has decided to make a commitment to diverse programming, it is important to understand how the company works and how their system supports the risk-taking associated with piloting projects with stories focused on minorities and led by minority casts. The risk under discussion is, as Nielsen’s Vice President of Multicultural Growth and Strategy outlines, the “assumption that content with diverse casts or themes is niche, and therefore comes with inherent perceived risk because of limited audience appeal,” (Berg, 2017). Mike Royce, the co-executive producer of Cuban-American remake of One Day at a Time, summarises Netflix’s operating system very well by comparing the service to a supermarket, “you can go in and get whatever you want whenever you want as opposed to just one thing on at one time, so [Netflix is] happy to try things out,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, like a supermarket trying out a new product, Netflix can put these new projects on display but if they are not successful with their buyers, they can remove them from the shelves, just as a supermarket would. Streaming sites like Netflix do not play by traditional televisions rules, as they provide on-demand content and television series in full rather than televisions one episode a week release in exchange for a monthly subscription fee (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Additionally, the service does not rely upon the funding of advertising neither do they have to fight for the primetime episode slots (Paulsen, 2018). Thus, their model focuses on content distribution, which allows them to give the creators free reign.

Cindy Holland, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Content describes her production philosophy as “creator driven,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The attractiveness of Netflix is supported by content creators, such as Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Brancato said that when he spoke to Holland, "I said [Spanish subtitles] could be up to 30 percent of the show, and she looked at me and said, 'Or 40 percent?' And I remember feeling like my head was about to explode, because you very rarely if ever get back that kind of suggestion at a regular network,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). This move shows that Netflix is committed to the diversification of programming and are willing to take the risks that network television would not do so easily.

There have been questions around whether Netflix is really committed to diverse programming with Kashann Kilson comparing the move to 90s-era Fox (Kilson, 2016). In the 90s, Fox was in a similar situation as Netflix was in 2016 in the fight for legitimacy (Netflix with network television), as Fox was trying to become the fourth broadcast network, but with a limited budget Fox executives focused on creating urban comedies and dramas that the other networks would not (Kilson, 2016). The formula was successful because it took on shows that would not be touched by other networks, casting minority actors, which gave them a week’s worth of programming for pennies on the dollar (Kilson, 2016). Essentially, they were high risk but at a low cost and they became successes because there was nothing like them on television. The production of shows like In Living Color gave Fox the legitimacy they were fighting for with successes of the shows and when this was achieved Fox moved onto, as Kilson calls it “whiter pastures,” with the network being found to be the whitest network in the 2000 Screen Actors Guild report (Kilson, 2016). The worry is that Netflix may take the approach Fox has done and that after the immediate success of a few programs they will lose focus on diversity.

However, Pilot Viruet ushers in positivity with Netflix’s commissioning of Dear White People, a series based on the Justin Simien’s 2014 film, which not only features people of colour but is about people of colour and explores issues of race and culture of African-American students in an mostly-white Ivy League university (Viruet, 2017). The show is an excellent example of why producing diverse content is still considered a risk. After the release of the trailer, Tim Treadstone, a former Buzzfeed writer and member of the alt-right tweeted the show was anti-white and promoted “white genocide,” alongside a screenshot of his deleted Netflix account (Viruet, 2017). This resistance was a risk that paid off for Netflix with the show releasing its second season in 2018 scoring 100% critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and has been commissioned for a third series (Rotten Tomatoes, 2018; Nguyen, 2019). Furthermore, a recent Nielsen study echoes the notion that programs with a “predominantly black cast, or a main storyline focusing on a black character, are drawing a substantial non-black viewership, too,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, demonstrating that programs like Dear White People, which are focused on black characters and their stories are not limited to the black audience and that Treadstone’s criticisms and deletion of his membership have had little effect on the success of Netflix’s move to diverse programming.

Netflix’s success can also be measured in the stars it has created. Their original series Orange Is The New Black (2013-) has launched the careers of black actresses Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, who is also transgender (Kilson, 2016; IMDb, 2019). By taking the risk in casting these minority Cox and Aduba, Netflix has created Emmy nominated actress and producer Laverne Cox and Emmy winning Uzo Aduba (IMDb, 2019; IMDb, 2019). Furthermore, the support for streaming in championing diversity is evident in a University of Southern California study (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The report found that in streaming content 29.4% of speaking roles were given to black and other minority characters compared to  26.7% in film (Smith, et al., 2016). The Huffington Post carried their own study by applying the “DuVernay Test,” to original scripted dramas and comedies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the Big Three U.S. networks ABC, CBS and NBC (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The test named after director Ava DuVernay and created by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis assess diverse programs as those which include black and other minority characters with “fully realized lives” rather than token characters (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Out of the 61 streaming shows they examined 36% passed the DuVernay test and 33% of 58 network shows passed the test (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). From this, the conclusion that can be drawn is that television and streaming are not that different in their representation of minorities. Nevertheless, this initial push from streaming services has ushered in change within traditional film and television production with their award wins cementing streaming’s legitimacy in the film and television industry, it seems like executives are taking note from the numerous studies that diversity does sell. This is demonstrated in HBO’s Insecure debuted in 2016, which follows “the awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American woman,” and draws in 61.5% non-black audience (Berg, 2017; IMDb, 2019). The figures show that this risk associated with producing non-white led shows and stories will not draw in the viewership is not the case anymore and with the help of streaming showing this it had has let to network television to follow suit.

Netflix is not perfect in its move towards diversity with its release of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six (Viruet, 2017). The project was so offensive that Native American cast and crew walked off set in protest to insulting scenes about Native elders and women (Schilling, 2015). These included Native women’s names such as “No Bra” and misrepresentations in the dress of the Apache tribe (Schilling, 2015). Furthermore, despite their commitment to diverse programming the company has come under fire for not reflecting this commitment with their workforce. Alfred Edmond Jr. draws attention to this in his 2018 article, which shows that Netflix’s board, senior management and executives are all white, and only 4% of their workforce is black (Edmond Jr., 2018). This is echoed in a 2017 study conducted by the Directors Guild of America, which ranked Netflix studios last out of 10 studios for the diversity of its film and TV directors with 29% of the episodes on the service were directed by women or people of colour (Shaw, 2018; Directors Guild of America, 2017). The previous examples raise similar issues discussed in the previous chapter surrounding minorities in executive positions. With Sandler’s offensive depictions of Native Americans in The Ridiculous Six, it is worth considering that if there was more minority representation higher up in the workforce that a production like that would not have been screened. Moreover, the company has been the centre of racial controversy with the firing of Jonathan Friedland in June 2018 after the use of a racial slur among human resource executives (Shaw, 2018).

With the light shone on the diversity problems within the company, Netflix has worked their way towards change in the workplace. Following the firing of Friedland, Netflix hired an executive to lead their diversity and inclusion campaign, with CEO Reed Hastings wrote in a memo that they have “started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster,” (Shaw, 2018). This commitment to not only diversifying content but also the workforce has been sustained and can be seen in the new employment figures for the company. From 2019, 42% of the company is from a racial minority background, with 31% in leadership roles, 41% in creative and corporate roles and 44% in tech roles (Netflix, 2019).

Finally, with Netflix produced Roma garnering numerous Academy Award wins at the 91st ceremony, it did not come without debate, which demonstrates the sheer influence that the streaming giant has had on the industry and how we consume film and television. Members of Hollywood criticised the Academy and Netflix for its push on Roma during awards season arguing that the streamed project is not worthy of academy accolade because it does not reflect the cinematic experience (Scharf, 2019). The controversy stems from Roma’s nomination for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards because of its limited theatrical release. Netflix showed the film in a token number of theatres saying it fit within the same width of release that a foreign language film would receive from a traditional distributor (Zeitchik, 2019). Netflix further broke with tradition by showing Roma for only three weeks before debuting it on their streaming platform, which angered defenders of the cinematic experience, such as Academy member Steven Spielberg who began championing rival production Green Book as a vote for cinema (Scharf, 2019). The backlash to Netflix and the way it has chosen to stream Roma so soon after the cinematic release shows the way streaming is challenging how we consume film. Netflix’s actions are showing that the cinematic experience has changed and is not confined to the big screen. Additionally, Roma’s success at the Oscars further legitimises Netflix as a distributor and challenges the perception of what makes an ‘Oscar-worthy’ film.

Without working with Netflix Roma would not have been made, at least not in the vision of the director, with one studio reported to pass the project on because of its unknown actors (Scharf, 2018). Director Alfonso Cuarón expresses his concerns in an interview, in which he stated he was worried about the theatrical release because the film is a ”Spanish-language drama shot in black and white” featuring “a cast of unknown actors,” (Scharf, 2018). He elaborates on this in an interview with Variety after the Oscars (Scharf, 2019; Lang, 2019). Cuarón outlines how difficult it is to see foreign language films in the cinema because most theatres play “big Hollywood films,” and states that Netflix “were willing to change their model to accommodate what we were looking for,” which he did not get from traditional studios when they were approached (Lang, 2019). Cuarón’s concerns further emphasise the struggle that filmmakers go through in producing authentically diverse productions by highlighting the resistance that the traditional studio shows. Thus, leading to creators moving towards streaming services, like Netflix, who give the creators control over their productions.
In the end, Netflix has changed the way film and television is consumed by giving the consumer full control over what they watch and when they watch it, as well as giving their creators a level of control over their projects which has not been seen in traditional film and television production. 

Through critical acclaim, Emmy and Oscar recognition they have legitimised the streaming platform as a valued competitor among network television and Hollywood film. It is through this legitimacy, that they have influenced network television into taking the risks of producing stories about minority characters led by minority casts because they have shown to pay off for the streaming giant. Yet, Netflix is not perfect in its representation with their workforce needing improvement in its racial representation, but they have taken the risk Hollywood was too scared to do first. 

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