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Violations of freedom of expression in the name of religion, are increasingly taking place online, and disproportionally impact women and sexual minorities. This was the focus of a statement launched by APC and Bytes for All, Pakistan to contribute to the last report of the UN Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief’s, released in light of the upcoming Human Rights Council session.

Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are internationally guaranteed fundamental human rights. They are interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing to be enjoyed by all individuals without any form of discrimination. Yet, increasingly states, in particular in Asia, are enacting legislation on hate speech, incitement, “blasphemy” and “defamation of religion”, in the name of “protecting religion or religious sensitivities”, which have curtailed legitimate expression protected under international law. This includes religious expression, and institutionalised discrimination against specific religions, faiths and believers.

The UN Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief’s report focuses on this critical issue – the intersection of freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The report calls on states to repeal blasphemy laws and to develop comprehensive policies, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief.

APC and Bytes for All, Pakistan highlight concerning trends which did not make it into his report, specifically regarding violations of freedom of expression in the name of religion and their impact on women and sexual minorities.

Religion is one of several tools in society to control women and their expression

Women and their bodies often become specific targets for religious groups to exercise control and reinforce power dynamics. Women often disproportionately bear the burdens of upholding the religious, cultural and moral values of a particular society. Religion, morality, culture, social propriety and decency are used interchangeably and in concurrence to justify restrictions of this nature on women. There are many forms in which religiously based intolerance manifests, including attacks on women for the way they dress, their life choices, expectations of piety and for voicing their opinions.

The use of religion as a justification to control women is more than a violation of their freedom of expression; it leads to other human rights violations, including the right to life and security, freedom of movement, privacy, non-discrimination, and the right to participate fully as a member of society, among others. It also constitutes a violation of their freedom of religion, to practice a religion as they wish to express it, or their choice to practice a different religion, or not at all.

Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex and groups working on sexual rights are often deemed to be deviants and are consistently attacked on the basis of religion. Under international human rights norms, sexual expression is protected under the right to freedom of expression, including the right to freely express one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as the freedom to seek, receive and impart information on issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Online spaces are becoming areas for violations of rights in the context of religion

Yet, anti-homosexual legislation in states such as India, Pakistan and Malaysia, is used in tandem against sexual minorities, and activists advocating for legal reforms receive death threats from religious extremist groups as well as supporters of such groups. Transgender women in Malaysia face harassment from police and religious authorities for contravening personal religious laws related to prohibition of cross-dressing. Although this was seen as a violation of their right to freedom of expression, as well as their right to mobility and safety in the Court of Appeal, the decision was unfortunately overturned in the Federal Court.

Another disturbing trend that warrants further attention is the increasing degree to which online spaces are becoming areas for violations of rights in the context of religion. Violations targeted against individuals and groups for exercising their rights of freedom of expression in the context of religion are becoming increasingly commonplace online. Online expression has come under attack particularly in the name of national security or to protect religion. Citizens across the region are increasingly being subjected to surveillance with little oversight or accountability. Similarly, any expression that touches upon religion which is not in line with the majority view is targeted as outraging religious feelings. As the HRC affirmed, the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.

State and non-state actors are increasingly using the digital sphere to police speech and enact violence, forcing bloggers, activists and internet users more broadly to withdraw from these spaces, leading to a chilling effect.

In India, a Muslim youth was killed in 2014 for his post on Facebook. Two women were arrested in 2014 for their post on the death of a religiously aligned political figure, using the unconstitutional provision Section 66A of the Information and Communication Technologies Act, which was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. Several bloggers have been targeted, branded as atheists and anti-nationals and killed over the last few years in Bangladesh. In 2015 four writer/bloggers (Faisal Arefin Dipon, Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, and Ananta Bijoy) were killed for their views on Islam and other religions. Many “kill lists” have appeared with the names of bloggers on them.

In Pakistan, attacks on activists and journalists have now spread to the internet, where people can face threats for their activities and expression online, causing them to feel insecure and indulge in self-censorship. The internet is also a medium through which hate content is spread. Often this content is misogynistic and targets minorities. The space for moderate expression has considerably shrunk and the dangers facing free expression are real and violent. On the other hand, YouTube was banned until recently and still remains highly filtered on account of religion in Pakistan.

We encourage member states to implement the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur as well as the Jakarta Recommendations, which call on states to ensure the protection of freedom of expression in the context of religion for all individuals and all communities at all times, by implementing laws, and accompanying policy measures relating to freedom of expression in the context of religion in a non-discriminatory manner, especially in relation to women and sexual minorities.

APC and Bytes forAll, Pakistan call on the Human Rights Council to:

  • Increase focus on, and resources allocated to, the human rights issues and violations at the intersection of the freedoms of expression and religion, particularly in relation to women and persons who face discrimination on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity, and in relation to online spaces.

  • Follow up and assess the implementation of Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Action Plan and include aspects about gendered violations in relation to religion and violations in online spaces.

  • Develop specific indicators for states with regard to their duty to protect freedom of expression in the context of religion, particularly in relation to women, sexual minorities and expression online.

Read our full statement here.