A UN monitor for cultural rights has hailed writer Nayantara Sahgal returning her Sahitya Akademi award two years ago as an example of women artistes “calling out fundamentalism and extremism”. “Women artists often play a significant role in calling out fundamentalism and extremism,” Karima Bennoune, the special rapporteur for cultural rights, told a General Assembly committee dealing with social, humanitarian and cultural affairs on Wednesday. “For example, in response to what they perceived as ‘rising intolerance and growing assault on free speech’, coupled with violence against intellectuals, approximately 40 leading Indian writers, including women writers, returned their literary awards in protest,” she said.
“This effort came to prominence after well-known writer Nayantara Sahgal returned a prize” with the explanation that “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault,” Bennoune said. In 2015, Sahgal, who is the daughter of Vijayalakshmi Pandit and niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, returned the Sahitya Akademi Award for English that she received in 1986 for her novel “Rich Like Us”. Bennoune, who is a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis School of Law, focused her speech on women’s rights and struggles.
“Fundamentalist and extremist ideologies and the movements, and governments that espouse them seek to roll back advances achieved in securing women’s equality, aim to block further advances, and try to penalize and stigmatise women human rights defenders promoting such critical efforts,” she said. “At the heart of fundamentalist and extremist paradigms are rejections of equality and universality of human rights, both of which are critical to ensuring women’s cultural rights, making unwavering defence of those principles the touchstone of a gender inclusive human rights response,” she added. Bennoune is the author of “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here”, which chronicles the struggles against Muslim fundamentalism.
David Kaye, the special rapporteur for protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, warned that “the crisis for freedom of expression has deepened worldwide”. “Journalists have been murdered, their killers rarely if ever brought to justice,” he said. “Individuals have been arrested merely for posting online criticism of government policy or officials.” He sketched a dismal picture of the digital world, where he said online security “has been undermined by governments and government-sponsored and private trolls”. “The public’s trust in information has been, and continues to be, attacked by political demagogues and their surrogates,” he added.
Kaye, who teaches international human rights and humanitarian law at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, said that “corporate actors in digital space” were facing threats from authorities, while they were gaining so much power that they seem “unaccountable and opaque” to many governments and observers. Civil society activists have come under digital attack, surveillance, baseless investigations and accusations and xenophobia, he added.