Do you remember Raif Badawi?

Raif Badawi. A name which I picked up when I started engaging myself with the questions of Human rights, censorship and free speech. It was a catchy title which made me click on the link which carried Raif’s case. “Saudi Blogger to get 1000 lashes”. Coincidentally it was during the same time I started blogging. Given the rise in the number of satire websites and blogs, I first felt this too fell in the same criteria only to be proved true when I googled the keywords. “Blogger, lashes, 1000, Saudi Arabia”. Living in a country where lashes, lynching and honor killings happen almost everyday, the news didn’t come as a shocker; except the part where the crime was blogging and expressing dissent. I started reading more about Raif, his works and the condition of Human rights in Saudi Arabia. In the midst of this, a news headline appears where Raif received his ‘first installment of lashes‘.

The news was disheartening. I went on to follow the campaign aggressively on social media. It opened up the world of human rights for me, where the world’s advanced democracies maintain diplomatic relations with such an oppressive regime where writing is a crime! Many human rights organisations took up the issue with Ensaf Haider, the spouse of Raif Badawi lead the campaigns from the front. She co-founded the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom which has been campaigning internationally for the Raif’s release. This is one of the story of numerous political prisoners languishing in Saudi Arabia’s jails. Cases of juvenile prisoners like Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr have been imprisoned for participating in pro-democracy protests.

Meanwhile Raif went on to continue his struggle from the jail compound. Multiple dates were announced on to flog him again but were scrapped at the end. Raif went on to win many international awards and recognition in the following years. Notable ones among them being Netizen Prize of Reporters without Borders 2014 and Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, 2015 (awarded by the European Parliament). Raif’s case even brought a diplomatic showdown between Sweden and Saudi Arabia, when the foreign minister of Sweden openly condemned his flogging. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still remains adamant on it’s position of not heeding to such external political pressure from both state and non-state actors.

Raif’s struggle is not his own or his family’s. It’s the fight of the freethinkers around the world who make a stand against bigotry and fundamentalism pushed upon by religious institutions, non-state actors or even the state. Raif’s only crime was sparking a discussion on liberalism and secularism online through the portal Free Saudi Liberals. Worse, Raif’s lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair was sentenced for 15 years for being associated with Monitor for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA) which allegedly ‘antagonizing international organisations against the kingdom’, relating to his engagement with international human rights mechanisms including the UN system and ‘incitement of public opinion against authorities’. Samar Badawi, a prominent human rights activist and incidentally the sister of Raif, too was arrested and questioned on multiple instances for raising the issue of Human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Ensaf Haider recalled what Raif once said on freedom of speech. “My husband once wrote that freedom of expression is the ‘air that any thinker breathes and the fuel that ignites the fire of his or her ideas’, and he was right. “This is why he is wasting away in jail today, and precisely why the world’s free writers should use their freedom of expression as a weapon in the war on oppression.” Nothing can be more precise than this to urge the freethinking community to support not just Raif’s cause but thousands of prisoners languishing in jails of different countries, whose only crime was expressing dissent against a religious or political establishment. After the release of Atena Farghadani, an Iranian cartoonist who was arrested and jailed for expressing dissent through cartoons and her activism; I now have hope of watching Raif and all those freethinkers and political prisoners locked behind bars to walk free. The day won’t be far if we citizens of various countries separated by invisible borders stand in solidarity against censorship and oppression. By holding our governments and religious institutions responsible of their actions which are oppressive, inhuman and anti-reason. That would be a fitting tribute to all those people who have stood with reason and sacrificed their lives throught the ages.

Raif’s opinions on life in an autocratic-Islamic state under the Sharia and his perception of freedom of expression, human and civil rights, tolerance and the necessary separation of state and religion  are published in this book (according to description on Amazon) 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think I’m yet to read the book but going by the reviews it must be a book worth giving a read.

Visit Raif Badawi Foundation website  and CiLuna’s blog for more details about ongoing campaigns and write-ups on Raif’s case.

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An Example Of Getting It Right

A friend of mine told me about this new American TV Series ‘Ironside’ that has just started. I haven’t seen it yet so this isn’t a commentary post on the show. If in case you have, do share your views.

The plot looks interesting. An investigator who is a wheelchair user. And its nice to see a black man lead. Knowing about this show reminded me of a recently watched but not-so-recent film named ‘The Bone Collector’. It stars a black quadriplegic homicide detective, Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) and a white female patrol cop, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie). Here are a couple of things about the film that stood out and made it really worthwhile..

1. Black men as protagonists itself are not that usual, but a disabled black man? Only once I’ve seen that.

2. It was ‘HIS’ story. I’m not saying that simply having a disabled character means it should be all about them. But since he’s the lead here. And what’s impressive is that it was done properly. He wasn’t this inspiration porn trope where he ‘overcomes’ his disability by doing ‘amazing’ things or is simply there as some sort of a lesson for non-disabled characters (and non-disabled viewers indirectly). He was lively, happy, sad, angry, funny, etc and doing what he had to do. Neither were the disability-related hurdles he would naturally experience brushed aside. So as a character, he was complete.

3. Now usually what happens if there is a male disabled character is that the female gets portrayed as somehow double inferior than regular. I don’t know if I’m right, but I’ve felt this at times. It’s like their saying, ”See this guy is ‘disabled’. What woman would fall for him? Obviously a really “stupid” type!” That’s like hitting both of them (the man for his disability, and the woman for simply being female). I saw this movie in Malayalam just few days before seeing The Bone Collector (which could also be one of the reasons I immediately liked it). Same, main character is quad. But mainly there to ‘inspire’ others with his cheerfulness and happy-go-lucky attitude. Also it seemed like the writer made him disabled to get away with objectifying women. (”Because c’mon, poor disabled fellow, who cares if he’s sexist. He’s anyway not going to have a woman like him.”) Ugh! So this Rhyme-Amelia relationship was done well in that respect. It showed both their sides and their affection grew in the course of the film.

4. Bonus Point! Prominent and complex black character #2 – Thelma (Queen Latifah). Black and fat actually. And no, she wasn’t just sitting around eating or acting foolish. She was his nurse, a woman who was clever and resourceful.

5. The ending of the film was particularly good. When Richard Thompson, the killer, arrives at Rhyme’s house with the intention of killing him, Rhyme puts up a very practical fight and causes serious injury to his opponent. He wasn’t simply killed with no sign of resistence. Instead, he fought on until Amelia suddenly arrived at the apartment and shot Thompson down.

One minor complaint I had with the film was that initially Amelia had to be given directions for the even the most basic stuff like picking up some evidence on the crime scene (which one would think is lesson #1 in training academy for cops?) Guess they just wanted to show Rhyme’s character as ‘dynamic’ and ‘big bossy’ (as a man). That was unnecessary, but thankfully Amelia’s character evolved later on.

Being happy and having a positive attitude towards life is essential for anyone’s mental peace. No denying that. Likewise, demeaning and insulting words being thrown at disabled people is also no less of a reality. But what differentiates the portrayal of these from reinforcing negative attitudes is how they are responded to in the very same films. If the character, who is obviously living in an ableist environment, appears to be constantly happy and not showing any resentment towards the oppression they face, then it means the oppression is normalized, it’s no big deal. If hurtful and insulting dialogues are met with silent acceptance (or worse, laughter), then it’s just a big screen reminder (or celebration) of the actual prejudices that actually exist. So I think its important to show *some* of the marginalizations at least. Otherwise it becomes unrealistic. And unrelatable for the ‘real’ people with those disabilities. Which means, in reality, their stories are still waiting to be told.

Have You Brought Your Disability? Here’s Your Double Standard.

I want you to picture this hypothetical scenario. Upon arriving at the destination, a woman is about to get out of the car. One of the lesser known persons waiting outside lends his hand offering to help which she politely refuses. A moment later as she’s almost done, he suddenly grabs her inappropriately under the shoulder and pulls her out, ignoring that she had declined and making her uncomfortable. What would you call this act? Disrespect? Harassment? Some may say groping, depending upon the nature of contact and gender dimensions involved. Most people, however, would surely agree it is unacceptable behaviour to touch another person like that without their consent. They would probably express their disagreement by openly questioning his action.

Now imagine the situation happening for real. Only this time, she was getting out of the car and transferring onto her wheelchair. The same incident took place but nobody in the scene showed any objection. Why would they when they don’t see it as problematic? When all of it was seen as natural or even ‘good’ conduct? No one confronted the man’s behaviour. Neither did I. All I could do later on was wishing the anger and frustration had hit me before the pain and humiliation. Yes, I’m that disabled woman.

And why pain? Because this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced lack of consideration for personal boundaries from others, nor mine an isolated or rare incident for a disabled person. Meeting someone with a visible disability it seems is a free golden ticket for many to break away from those darned social norms they otherwise have to follow as civil beings. Unwarranted pats, strangers inquiring about my impairment before even asking my name, women I meet for the first time wanting to examine my hands or legs.. all that had become so routine that until the age of 19 I didn’t recognize the oppression of it and used to feel guilty when at times I refused participation. Like somehow I owed it to them. Had the above mentioned incident happened to a non-disabled woman, the conversation would have immediately (and rightfully) been on indecency, violation of consent, unsafe environments, and every other argument that points in the direction of disrespecting autonomy and infringement of bodily integrity. But add disability to the equation and the very same reasoning gets replaced with muddled excuses or efforts to frame it as an overreaction to a not-so-serious issue. I can almost hear it.

“But he was just trying to help you.”
“I think it was made clear I didn’t need it. Besides if you really want to help someone, isn’t following their reaction the right way to do it?”

“I’m sure his intentions weren’t bad.”
“Maybe not. But intentions aren’t always necessary for something to be inappropriate. I could attempt to insult a man by calling him a pussy and it would still be sexist even if engaging in sexism wasn’t the plan on my mind.”

“Ok so you’re disabled and now you’re saying you shouldn’t be assisted? Isn’t that being arrogant?”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t ever want any help. I’m just saying I didn’t require it in this particular case. What he did was the opposite, it was hurt. Please understand the difference.”

“Fine, I get that it must have been bad for you. Now just let it go. Why are we even talking about this?”
I don’t know, maybe because for a brief moment I had the delusion I was equally human…


Let’s have a look at this in the larger social context. Study after study show that women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence than non-disabled women, are likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of the violence. Similar but more often than non-disabled women, their abuser is someone close to them. It could be their guardian, spouce, relative or caregiver. [Quoting one of the links] “Frequently they do not report the violence. Institutions of the justice system are often physically inaccessible and do not provide reasonable accommodation, they often lack access to legal protection and representation, law enforcement officials and the legal community are ill-equipped to address the violence, their testimony is often not viewed as credible by the justice system and they are not privy to the same information available to non-disabled women.”

Yet response to this obvious reality remains quite minimal. The mainstream media and larger public while becoming increasingly conscious and giving more visibility to awareness generation regarding gender issues, are yet to turn proper attention towards those affecting disabled women. What are the reasons they face such discrimination? According to the same study, “women and girls with disabilities are at high risk of gender-based and other forms of violence based on social stereotypes and biases that attempt to dehumanize or infantilize them, exclude or isolate them, target them for sexual and other forms of violence, and put them at greater risk of institutionalized violence.”

And how do we know that? From countless experiences like the one above.



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