Blasphemy Laws and Honor Killings with Jacqueline Thibault, Philippe Robinet, Anne-Isabelle Tollet

A panel including, Director General of Calmann-Lévy Books and founder and President of Kero Books, Philippe Robinet; founder of Fondation Surgir, a human rights organization which supports feminist groups in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Switzerland, Jacqueline Thibault; and French journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, address the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full remarks

Philippe Robinet:

Thank you. Thank you for your testimony. It was extremely poignant. It shows that we, all of us here, must continue to fight to save lives. As they said, this couple has a new life here; they’ve been reborn here. And we must continue such work. So we’re going to move on to the third part of this session, that of questions. And I’d like to ask you, if you have any questions on honor killings and blasphemy, could you please give your questions to the persons walking around that you see? And I have a first question for Anne-Isabelle Tollet: […] People are talking about the “Blasphemy Law” once again. Someone in the audience wanted to know if this law was only applied in Pakistan, or if it were to be found in other countries and if, unfortunately, what we were seeing is spreading with the rise of radical Islam?

Anne-Isabelle Tollet:

While there are five countries that sentence people to death for blasphemy, in Ireland, for example, but of course it’s never actually put into practice. So there’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan. And in the case of Asia Biby, it’s important for us to support this cause to show other Muslim countries who might want to have a more radical society and impose stricter Sharia that the international community will not support the blasphemy law. I’m thinking of Egypt. Their first idea could be to include this in the Constitution and to sentence to death two people who are accused of blasphemy, then Asia Bibi should serve a purpose beyond its borders and it has become a symbol. It’s not just a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy; the cause is to fight against this barbaric law that does not respect human rights. Thank you. 

Philippe Robinet:

We have another question that comes to us through Facebook and I would like to welcome the admirable work carried out by UN Watch and its Secretary General, Hillel Neuer, and Arielle Herzog. We are all linked up here from this hall to all the social networks and I would like to thank them publicly for all their fine work. Thank you, we commend your fine work. 

So this question that comes to us from Facebook is: “Today, you’ve been talking about shelters, that are temporary shelters for victims of honor crimes. How long do they stay in these shelters and what happens next?” 

Jacqueline Thibault:

Well, it’s clear that one cannot stay in these shelters for a very long time. We have to have training centers, so people can learn a trade; we need to have psychologists, social workers, to help the young women in the shelters. And if the woman is still endangered when she leaves the shelter, and we haven’t been able to mediate with the family, well, at that point, we have to see if she can be sent to another country, which also has shelters. 

Now, another point that’s very important is that it’s important for us in Europe to be in contact with local organizations in the home country of the women because these local association[s] work actively on honor crimes. So we can exchange information and see if we can find a solution for the woman. 

Philippe Robinet:

Thank you. Another question for Anne-Isabelle Tollet, is a question that challenges about our own practices and our own commitment and presence here. We understood that it has been possible to condemn it within Pakistan, but condemning it from here, from outside the country, well, won’t that make things even more radical within the country? 

Anne-Isabelle Tollet:

It’s a very relevant question. All countries who had to face this problem, and who attacked the country for it, were attacked in return for interference. Now, I’m going to be speaking in the UN. The UN is neutral, as we know, and its work is based on a treaty, which Pakistan ratified. Now, under these conditions, Pakistan, and its authorities, will not be able to say, “why are you interfering?” All we have to do is to remind them that they have made certain commitments and either they honor them, or they should leave the UN. So I’m in the best place I could be to make them face up to this.

Philippe Robinet:

If you allow me, I’d like to [say], after some Sami and Sara’s testimony that this has been a hard afternoon for Pakistan. We’ve heard some very harsh things. Now, I know you’ll be leaving us for the UN, I’d like to thank you for being here this afternoon. 

We will now continue with a question for Jacqueline Thibault. You spoke about the twenty years you spent in the Middle East. Could you tell us a bit more, what countries did you work in? What groups did you work with? What did you do? And what did you learn in these regions, in terms of honor killings?

Jacqueline Thibault:

Twenty years is a long time. I worked with a Swiss organization called “Terre des Hommes.” I took care of children above all and we set up programs in Israel and Palestine. When you live in Israel, they intermingle and you work in the hotel and hospitals, you see, they live side by side. 

Now, I’d heard of honor killings, but it wasn’t really in my mission and I didn’t really come up against many young women. But one day, somebody came up to me and said, “This young woman has been burned and she’s in a hospital right now. Perhaps we can do something to help her.” So I went to see this girl in the hospital. I saw two women who had been burned in a huge room and they were just the two girls all alone; I didn’t see any nurses coming in. Then I went to see the doctor in charge and I said, “Who are they? What can we do for them?” 

I spoke about one above all, who seemed to me to – well, they were both dying, but one seemed slightly better than the other and I wondered if we could do anything. And he said, “this is a family matter, don’t butt in.” I said, “okay, but I want to come back and see them.” I was a humanitarian worker and I felt I was there for that. So I asked if I could do anything, if she could be given any care. She was very infected. She was pregnant and she had given birth to her child and she hadn’t even felt the delivery because she was in such pain. And the child was put in an orphanage and she wasn’t allowed to keep the child because she was an unwed mother. 

So the fact that I went there, a young doctor saw me, and it was very difficult to see her. She couldn’t be touched when she was put in a bath for example. It was very hard to see this, it was very painful to see it. I was able to get her changed – get the hospital changed. And I asked for a visa for her to enter Switzerland. But the problem was what I said before: the parents! She was only 17. I had to meet with the parents, go and see them, talk to them. And they had to sign for [the] traveling document. And that’s where you need to know the mentality and the mindset of the people of a country, how to express yourself and how to approach them. They ended up accepting the fact that I wanted to take their daughter and two months later, she wasn’t seeing her family anymore, she was in another hospital. But her mother had showed up with a glass of poison, because she had heard that the daughter hadn’t been killed from her wounds. So the doctor saw her and prevented her being given the poison and stopped the family from coming to see her. 

So she was given a laissez-passer. We found her baby, also, and she was able to leave with her baby and come to Switzerland, where she had 28 operations. She’s living in Europe, she’s married, she has three children. I think she’s well known. We wrote a book together and the book is called “Brûlée Vive” in french, “Burned Alive” in English. The book talks about the period that she was set alight, but it explains the life she had from childhood; her life and her family, what she was entitled to, what kind of treatment she received, the treatment of her brothers and her sisters. And some of them just disappear; we don’t always know why. How the young girl has to work in the fields with the father. So it’s her story. 

Philippe Robinet:

I just have a little short question, because we don’t have much time. Is the “Fondation Surgir” in Switzerland, are there shelters, do you work alone in dealing with people with these problems? Do you work with other countries? 

Jacqueline Thibault:

No. We said there are other countries, many countries, that have the problem of honor killings. So we’ve organized ourselves to set up shelters and monitor and try and mediate with the families. We also said before, that it’s extremely important to train the police and social workers and health care workers, judges also. So [that] everybody be aware of the problem and treat this differently. There’s a difference between ordinary crime and honor killings and we have to take preventive work. And that way, we hope we can avoid having honor killings. 

I’d like to thank you. Thank all of you.

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