Freedom Of Expression
Exercising freedom of expression is an integral part of all movements of resistance against oppressive practices. By speaking out, whether in political or cultural contexts, women have paved the way to improvements in their status in many societies.
In most countries, women have been granted the right to vote and have acquired access to political leadership, employment, education and other roles and opportunities in public life primarily because women spoke out and organised against discrimination. By Carolina Rodriguez Bello, WHRnet, September 2003
Exercising freedom of expression is an integral part of all movements of resistance against oppressive practices. By speaking out, whether in political or cultural contexts, women have paved the way to improvements in their status in many societies. In most countries, women have been granted the right to vote and have acquired access to political leadership, employment, education and other roles and opportunities in public life primarily because women spoke out and organised against discrimination. More recently, women have raised their voices in diverse forums against gender-based violence. Long viewed as a private issue, violence against women is now recognised as a global public concern warranting sanction under international human rights law. Further, while promoting genuine claims to cultural integrity and personal freedom, women's movements in all regions are increasingly united in their condemnation of cultural and social practices harmful to women -- female genital mutilation, female feticide, female infanticide, sati (bride burning), dowry-related deaths, abuse of women in custody, sexual trafficking in women, forced prostitution, child marriage, and other practices.
In spite of numerous achievements in women's rights, the reality remains that substantive equality is yet to be secured. Dominant thinking in most societies continues to reinforce women's dependent position in the private sphere while men continue to have relatively greater access to the economic resources, political power and social privileges of the public sphere. Women's continuing marginalization is evident in a range of areas including the persistent gender pay gap worldwide, low levels of land ownership and access among women, and poor representation in decision-making bodies in most countries. Perhaps the most graphic demonstration of the link between the oppression of women and the denial of women's freedom of expression is found in all societies' responses to male violence against women. In addition to the absence of adequate action by state and police, many survivors of sexual assault are not able to speak out against their violators for fear of retaliation, or fear of being ostracized by their own community. Further, justice is often not delivered to survivors because of a reluctance to testify in judicial processes that are hostile, arduous and expensive, or because there are no laws or mechanisms that address such violations. In some cases, women who muster the courage to speak out can face further persecution from institutions that should protect them. Under the certain Shar'ia Laws, for instance, women survivors of rape have been charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. There are still more women whose freedom of speech is stifled by poverty, threats of violent retaliation, and violent conflicts around them.
Suppressing women's sexual expression
Freedom of expression ranges from the articulation of words and images to actions and lifestyle choices, including choices around one's sexuality. Despite significant progress in other areas, women's sexuality continues to be an area where freedom of expression is tightly controlled by the state, family, religious bodies and other institutions throughout society. To express one's sexuality - especially if it does not conform to heterosexual norms - often carries a heavy risk of discrimination, violence, stigmatization or coercion at the hands of private or state actors. Likewise, many of the world's women are subject to highly restrictive laws in relation to reproductive health. Under such circumstances the act of advocating for reproductive and sexual rights, or expressing support for greater access to contraception or abortion for example, often exposes women to social condemnation and the threat or reality of violence.
Many women are also silenced within the social movements that purport to include and represent them -- including in the world of feminist activism and analysis and the technologies it uses. There are many factors that weaken feminist and human rights movements' sincere efforts to include the excluded. This includes, for example, the global dominance of the written word and of English and other colonial languages, limited access to new communication technologies (such as the Internet), the centralization of the United Nations in the North, and the disproportionate influence of better-resourced civil society organisation in urban centers, especially in the global North. There is a clear onus on such institutions and on social movements to be cognisant of such structural forms of exclusion to strive to overcome them.
State interference in women's public expressions
State suppression of women's expression takes many forms. The following are some examples:
A Turkish woman by the name of Merve Kavakci, after winning a seat in parliament in 1999 was not allowed to assume office because she attempted to take her oath while wearing her headscarf. The following year, students who refused to take off their headscarf were barred from school. In addition, more than 300 teachers had been terminated for doing the same thing. However, men who pursue their religious expressions in public have not been targets of the Turkish government's secularist policies.
The U.S. government's "global gag rule," is a clear violation of women's right to expression. It stifles women's right to seek and impart information on reproductive and health needs. The gag rule prohibits any organization that receives U.S. funding in informing women clients on any topic or issue related to abortion, even if the organization is not using U.S. money in doing so.
Last year in Saudi Arabia, a fire broke out in a girl's school building. Fifteen schoolgirls died and 52 were injured when those not wearing headscarves and 'abayas' were forced back into the burning building by Saudi Arabia's 'muttawwai' or morality police.
Writers and artists
Women writers and artists who challenge the status quo have frequently been the object of repression and persecution by their governments. While all women who have challenged public morals and/or state policies have vulnerable to persecution by their own communities and families and/or by governments, more severe persecution and retaliation is faced by women from marginalized minorities who seek to exercise their freedom of expression to resist oppression.
Women's World, an international free speech network of feminist writers, narrates some cases of state persecution of women writers from around the world:
- Bangladeshi writer and poet Tasliman Nasrin (now in asylum in Sweden) had been subjected to threats by Islamic fundamentalists for her writings on women and religion and expositions on the government's persecution of the Hindu minority.
- In the United States, Christian fundamentalists have been the prime suspects in the death of pro-abortionists. They are believed to be the force behind censorship of children's books and literature that depict gay, anti-authoritarian and 'pagan' themes.
- Some states have tried to forcibly divorce women activists from their partners, such as in the cases of Jordanian Toujan al-Faisal, Egyptian Nawal el Saadawi.
- In Canada, Sunera Thobani, a women's studies professor at the University of British Columbia, was a recent target of media and public hatred and subjected to questioning in parliament for delivering a speech condemning U.S. President George Bush's "war on Terrorism".
International PEN notes the cases of these women:
- Russian Larissa Yudina, political activist and editor-in-chief of newspaper daily Sovietskaya Kalmykia, kidnapped and murdered in 1998; Iranian poet and activist Parvaneh Forouhar and her husband, murdered in 1998; and, nine Algerian female journalists, murdered in the 1990s in the midst of the civil war.
Human Rights Mechanisms
Within the United Nations human rights system, women's rights are specifically protected and promoted through the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or the Women's Committee. However, the entire range of UN mechanisms, including those aimed at promoting the right to Freedom of Expression can be utilized in defending women's rights in this area.
Declarations, Treaties and Resolutions
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees women's right to expression. It goes:
"Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) elaborates the right expressed in the UDHR. Article 19 of the ICCPR states:
(1) Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference
(2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice
(3) The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.
Based on these provisions, the right to expression can suspended in times of national emergencies and threats to national securities. However, in an attempt to invoke the prudence of governments in its application of paragraph 3, the Human Rights Committee of the ICCPR issued General Comment 10 in 1983. The Comment states that:
Paragraph 3 expressly stresses that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities and for this reason certain restrictions on the rights are permitted which may relate either to the interests of other persons or those of the community as a whole. However when a State party imposes certain restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression these may not in put jeopardy the right itself.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression further refined the understanding on the power of state to restrict freedom of expression. In the 1995 report, the Special Rapporteur explained that the right to seek and receive information "is not simply a converse of the right to impart information but is a freedom in its own right. The right to seek or have access to information is one of the most essential elements of freedom of speech and expression… Access to information is basic to the democratic way of life. The tendency to withhold information from the public at large is therefore to be strongly checked."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has prepared several resolutions that further guide governments in respecting, protecting and promoting the freedom of expression of their citizens. In Resolution 2003/42, the UNHCHR addressed attacks against the freedom of opinion and expression of media institutions and information professionals. The resolution stated the "need to ensure that unjustified invocation of national security, including counter-terrorism, to restrict the right to freedom of expression and information does not take place." It emphasized the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building" and referred to factors that constrain women in the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, particularly the continuing high illiteracy rates among women in various parts of the world and the atmosphere of fear that prevents women from communicating freely and effectively. Other UNHCHR resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression are Resolutions 2002/48, 2001/47, and 1997/27.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is an instrument that calls on states to ensure protection of women from gender-based violence in situations of armed conflict. It calls on states to increase women's role in peace-building and conflict resolution through increased women's participation in all decision-making levels and mainstreaming of gender concerns in the UN peace mechanisms and efforts.
The discussion on the right to freedom of expression illustrates the indispensable interdependence of civil-political and socio-economic-cultural rights. The full enjoyment and exercise of the right to freedom of expression requires enabling conditions such as education and work, and the creation and establishment of mechanisms and strengthening of favorable cultural environments. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights sets forth rights that enable persons to exercise the freedom of expression. The exercise of the civil-political right to expression, in turn, serves the goal of full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.
Article 15 paragraph 1 of the ICESCR guarantees the right of everyone to:
(a) To take part in cultural life;
(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;
(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Paragraph three obliges state parties to "respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity."
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) weaves together civil-political and economic-social-cultural rights that enable women to fully exercise their freedom of expression. While it does not address freedom of expression per se, it strives for the removal of economic, cultural, social and cultural impediments and aims for the creation and strengthening of environments favorable to women's expression. The CEDAW General Recommendation No. 23 on women's political and public life and General Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women are important documents that further guidelines to governments, policymakers, judges, and advocates in interpreting and implementing some provisions of the CEDAW.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) prohibits racial segregation, apartheid and all other forms and levels of racial discrimination. CERD implicitly prohibits communications that reeks of racial superiority or hatred. Article 4 "condemn[s] propaganda and all organizations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in any form…".
The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action section on women and media provides the roadmap for women's advancement through women's access and participation to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication. It also guides governments in promoting a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
These instruments also guarantee right to freedom of expression:
Facts and Figures
- In Afghanistan, even after the 'liberation' from the Taliban, school buildings for girls continue to be burned down. The singing of women in public, including radio and television, has been banned. Women can sing within their own schools but to attempt to sing outside the walls is to risk one's life in the hands of gunmen (BBC News, 04 July 2003).
- Post September 11, the all female trio in the United States, the Dixie Chicks, was harshly criticized and boycotted by at least two radio stations after the lead singer, Natalie Maines, stated in one of their concerts that she is "ashamed" of President Bush, who is also from Texas, for his actions against Iraq. Natalie had to publicly apologize and rephrase her previous statement to calm down critics.
- The American Library Association's selection of most frequently challenged books reveal that writings about women's bodies, sex and sexuality appeared frequently in the list. The books have condemned as "lurid" and for "encouraging homosexuality". The list includes The Color Purple by Alice Walker, What's Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters by Lynda Madaras, and Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole. Even the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary was once challenged in a school in Nevada when a sixth grade school teacher charged that the dictionary was "obscene" because it includes obscene words.
- In China, banned books include the Ancient Crime: Report on the Sale of Women, which came out in 1989 and talked about trafficking in women. It was branded as "pornographic" by Chinese authorities. Another book known to have been banned was Bloodshed at Black River, written by a male but talked about four women who participated in the 1976 anti-government protests.
Bauer, Jan. "Only silence will protect you. Women, Freedom of Expression and the Language of Human Rights," International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development; Montreal, 1996.
Engle, Kathy. After the Collapse of the Public/Private Distinction: Strategizing Women's Rights, 1993.
Romany, Celina. "State Responsibility Goes Private," Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, Rebecca J. Cook, editor, 1994.
Toubia, Nahid. "Women's Reproductive and Sexual Rights," in Gender Violence and Women's Human Rights in Africa; Center for Women's Global Leadership, 1994.
Afghan women: Fighting for the right to sing, BBC News, July 4, 2003
Dixie Chick Apologizes for Bush Slam, Associated Press, March 17, 2003
The Right to Free Expression and the Global Women's Movement, Women's World
Operating in Circumscribed Space: Women and Controls on Freedom of Expression and Association, China Rights Forum, Fall 1995; Human Rights in China.
The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 2000, American Library Association
Impunity and Freedom of Expression, Women's Day 2003, International PEN
Headscarf Row in Turkey Parliament, BBC News, May 3, 1999
Combating Restrictions on the Headscarf, Human Rights Watch Report, 2000
Bush Administration Undermining Reproductive Rights at UN, Reproductive Freedom News, Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, May 2002
They Died for A Lack of a Headscarf, Washington Post, March 19, 2002
Me and My Hijab: Reflections on the Veil, by Samira Ali Gutoc, Young Moro Professional Network (YMPN), Philippines (September 2003)
Women Writing Africa: Women Negotiating Spaces and Lives, Women Telling the Story, An interview with Abena P. A. Busia, poet and short story writer, Project Co-Director of 'Women Writing Africa', and Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States (September 2003)
Feminists for Free Expression
Feminists for Free Expression (FFE) is a group of diverse feminists working to preserve the individual's right to see, hear and produce materials of her choice without the intervention of the state "for her own good." FFE believes freedom of expression is especially important for women's rights. While messages reflecting sexism pervade our culture in many forms, sexual and nonsexual, suppression of such material will neither reduce harm to women nor further women's goals.
Article 19 combats censorship worldwide by promoting freedom of expression and access to official information. With partners in over 30 countries, it works to strengthen local capacity to monitor and protest institutional and informal censorship. It develops standards to advance media freedom, assists individuals to speak out and campaigns for the free flow of information.
International PEN was conceived in 1921 with the following aims: To promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers; To create a world community of writers that would emphasize the central role of literature in the development of world culture; and, To defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses. PEN has endured as the only worldwide organization of literary writers. It has grown to include Centers on six continents--with a total membership of more than 10,000--which sponsor International PEN Congresses held at least once a year.
DAWN is one of the leading voices in southern women's analysis of global development and feminist issues. It is an international network of feminists from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. DAWN pursues the role of a catalyst and an advocate of an alternative and people-centered development process in the Third World, especially women and their children.
International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights and Democracy)
Rights and Democracy is a Canadian institution with an international mandate, the Centre is an independent and non-partisan organization which initiates, encourages and supports the promotion, development and strengthening of democratic and human rights institutions and programmes through advocacy and capacity building. Since 1992, the Centre has been working for the full and equal recognition of the fundamental rights of women. In particular, work on the issue of violence against women has led the Centre to demand State accountability and stressed the importance for the State to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women.
Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development (Women's WORLD)
The Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development (Women's WORLD) is an international free speech network of feminist writers. With programs throughout the world, Women's WORLD aims to research and educate the public about the scope and prevalence of gender-based censorship, defend writers who are attacked because of their views on gender, mount international press campaigns about particular cases of abuse, and encourage the development of women's presses and journals and help to link them internationally. Among the features offered by the site are creative and analytical work by feminist writers and a moderated forum on gender and censorship issues.
World Report 2002: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (Human Rights Watch)
Although the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people throughout the world continued to rise in 2001, their increased visibility was accompanied by attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Human rights activists who sought to use the human rights framework to call to account states that participated in these rights abuses or condoned them also came under attack. In virtually every country in the world people suffered from de jure and de facto discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation. In some countries, sexual minorities lived with the very real threat of being deprived of their right to life and security of person.
Committee to Protect Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists promotes press freedom worldwide by defending the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. It helps protect journalists by publicly revealing abuses against the press and by acting on behalf of imprisoned and threatened journalists. CPJ effectively warns journalists and news organizations where attacks on press freedom are occurring. It organizes vigorous protest at all levels-ranging from local governments to the United Nations-and, when necessary, works behind the scenes through other diplomatic channels to effect change. CPJ also publishes articles and news releases, special reports, a biannual magazine, and the most comprehensive survey of attacks against the press worldwide.
Does Communication Revolution Benefit Women?
C. Martin talks about the book Asian Women in Information Age published by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) of Singapore. The book says women don't automatically benefit from the communications revolution and new communications technologies are not as neutral as they first appear to be.
Guerilla Girls Greatest Hits
The Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. For 18 years, they have produced over 100 posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. They use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. This page provides images of their campaign posters.
Reporters Without Borders' Insurance Scheme for Free Lancers
Reporters Without Borders is calling on the whole profession to think about journalists' safety and is proposing an insurance scheme for freelancers. Their campaign "Freelance journalists: for three euros, we've got you covered !" is also an appeal to editorial offices, press clubs, syndicates, journalism associations and schools, specialized Internet sites, news sites, etc., to help spread this information to freelance journalists by passing on the promotional campaign materials to their freelance contacts and members.
Freedom to Read Act
The USA PATRIOT Act gave federal government total access to personal information, including readers' personal information in library and bookstore records. The Fund for Women Artists issues a call on everyone in the United States to join the campaign for the restoration of protections for the privacy of bookstore and library records through the passage of the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003 (H.R. 1157).
PEN Year long campaign to challenge impunity
International PEN has embarked on a campaign to challenge impunity for violations of the essential right to freedom of expression. The campaign was officially launched on November 25, 2002 and will culminate with the release of a PEN report on the problem of impunity and a series of public programs during International PEN's 69th World Congress of Writers in November 2003 in Mexico City.
Female Sexual Dysfunction: A new medical myth (FSD-Alert.org)
FSD-Alert introduces an educational campaign that challenges the myths promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and calls for research on the many causes of women's sexual problems. The pharmaceutical industry wants women to think that sexual problems are simple and offers drugs as magic fixes. But positive sexual experiences require accurate, unbiased information. The FSD-Alert campaign is committed to the role of activism and education for women's sexual empowerment.