By Anna Louie Sussman
Friday, April 16, 2010
Amnesty International parted ways with Gita Sahgal, its leading gender researcher, on April 9. In February, Saghal began pushing Amnesty to explain its embrace of a former Guantanamo detainee she calls a Taliban supporter.
Sahgal says Amnesty's relationship with Begg appears to illustrate an institutional blind spot about how different human rights issues link and overlap.
"We can't just take prisoner's rights and women's rights as two parallel tracks and say 'Oh we fight on this side, and that side,'" she said. "There's nothing neutral about taking up the issues separately."
In the weeks since Sahgal began to push Amnesty International for a public accounting of its decision to partner with Begg, her conflict with the rights group, and the wider issue of the universality of human rights, have been debated and discussed in newspapers, on radio shows and TV programs around the world.
Writers and public intellectuals, such as University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum; Yakin Erturk, the former U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women; Amitav Ghosh; Salman Rushdie; and Christopher Hitchens signed a petition urging Amnesty to reinstate her, to no avail.
Sahgal, in the statement announcing her departure, described the organization's continued support for Begg in damning terms.
"Their stance has laid waste every achievement on women's equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights," it reads.
Sahgal grew up in Mumbai and New Delhi and moved to England in 1972 to attend London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where she joined the vibrant anti-racism and anti-fascism movements that were spreading across England at that time.
In 1983 she joined the Southall Black Sisters, a women's rights group based in London that had been campaigning on domestic violence and issues affecting minority women in England.
In 1989, she co-founded Women Against Fundamentalism, a pro-secularism feminist group that came about, she says, partially in response to the Salman Rushdie affair, and that continues to raise awareness on the dangers of fundamentalism in all major religions.
Since her suspension, the group has issued a public statement in her support: "When governments and individuals advocate 'engagement' with the Taliban--perhaps necessary to achieve peace--why are they not challenged on the authoritarian social and political agenda of the Taliban? We know from experience around the world, including post-war Iraq, that women's rights are the first to be traded in these political settlements."
After working in various advocacy arenas, such women's rights and affordable housing in England, Sahgal took up journalism. She began as a presenter for the Bandung Files, a BBC Channel 4 program where she went on to work as a researcher and producer.
"I sort of strayed into it," she said of her journalistic career.
For now, she plans to continue campaigning on the issue of terrorism as a serious human rights violation. After eight years at Amnesty, she's going back, she says, to her "old freelance life."
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer based in Beirut and New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune and other print and online outlets.
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