Women’s Voices Must Not Be Silenced

Deeyah Khan, 15th of February 2015


The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. - Alice Walker

When I organised World Woman I was keen to emphasise the need for freedom of expression for activists and artists, to identify that those who are most likely to be silenced by the religious right most often share the culture of those who wish to silence them: that this is not a conflict of the enlightened West versus the obscurantist East, but against extremist ideologies that threaten all our shared liberties. I wanted to celebrate the courage and creativity of women like Nawal el Saadawi and Natalia Koliada, imprisoned for their activism, like Shirin Ebadi, exiled from her native Iran, her Nobel prize seized by the authorities of her home country, and like Fawzia Koofi, Afghan parliamentarian in a country where politicians, and women in particular, run incredible risks in the face of the Taliban. We saw activists who have prevailed against pressures from inside and outside their families and their countries, like Hina Jilani, who has faced arrest, death threats, propaganda, intimidation and attempted attacks on herself and her family, and artists like Sheema Kermani whose desire to dance was ranged against the fiercest repressions. The sense of solidarity between women, so many of them facing similar barriers, having experienced similar challenges, was intense and exhilarating, and part of the success of the event.

The courage of such formidable women is contagious, but there is something very wrong with a world in which being an artist, activist, a feminist, a politician, a lawyer or a trade unionist can be considered a dangerous activity. We need more courageous individuals who will defy the structures of power, whether political, economic or intimate; but we also need it to be safe for people to feel their power and to be able to express their ideas and imagine without fear. Self-expression should not be a challenge that demands extraordinary talent but should be a right accessible to all.

But violence against human rights defenders is increasing. Across the world, voices for human rights are ranged against repressive states, fundamentalist movements and corporate power, and defenders of women's human rights may be the most vulnerable of all since they are also subjected to rape, sexual abuse and harassment, domestic violence and threats against their children, accused of crimes against 'morality' and 'honour', and that these acts can be committed by husbands, partners, relatives, male colleagues and community leaders as well as state actors.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to defend those who defend human rights with strong support from the Norwegian Mission underlining the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly as foundational to democracy and all other human rights. The new Special Rapporteur dealing with Human Rights Defenders in 2014 called out a culture of impunity and worsening attacks on those brave people who sacrifice their safety for the hope of a better future for us all.

Making people fear the expression of their own power is a very effective way of disempowering them. It is not just those who feel the frustration of being silenced: it also encompasses every person who has no idea of their own power to realise their visions because they have not seen this in action in their communities. We need to be able to guarantee the safety of all artists and activists for human rights, so that it no longer takes extraordinary courage to call for a better world - so that every person with the ability to imagine peace, equality, progress and justice can express their dreams and hopes without fear.

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