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Gita Sahgal

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Gita Sahgal

Gita Sahgal
Born 1956/1957 (age 57–58)
Bombay, India
Residence England
Nationality British Indian
Alma mater School of Oriental and African Studies[1]
Occupation Writer, journalist, film director, human rights activist.
Known for Suspended by Amnesty International as head of its Gender Unit, after criticising AI for its links with Moazzam Begg
Religion None[2]
Parents Nayantara Sahgal (mother)
Relatives Vijayalakshmi Pandit (grandmother);
Jawaharlal Nehru (great uncle)

Gita Sahgal (Kashmiri: गीता सहगल (Devanagari), گیتا سہگل (Nastaleeq)), born 1956/1957 (age 57–58) in Bombay, India,[3][4] is a writer and journalist on issues of feminism, fundamentalism, and racism, a director of prize-winning documentary films, and a women's rights and human rights activist.[2][5]

She has been a co-founder and active member of women's organisations.[1][6] She has also been head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit, and has opposed the oppression of women in particular by religious fundamentalists.[6][7][8]

In February 2010 she was suspended by Amnesty as head of its Gender Unit after she was quoted by The Sunday Times criticising Amnesty for its high-profile associations with Moazzam Begg. She referred to him as "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban".[9] He is the director of a campaign group called Cageprisoners, representing men detained at Guantánomo under extrajudicial conditions. Amnesty responded that she was suspended "for not raising these issues internally." Speaking in her support were the writer Salman Rushdie, the journalist Christopher Hitchens and others, who also criticised Amnesty for this affiliation. Begg disputed her claims of his jihadi connections and said that he did not consider anyone a terrorist who had not been convicted of terrorism. On 1 March 2014, Begg was charged with providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas, regarding Syria, and appeared at Westminster Magistrates court. Begg entered a plea of not guilty and was remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey on 14 March 2014.[10] On 1 October 2014, the charges against Begg were dropped and he was released from custody.[11]

In April 2010, Amnesty said that due to irreconcilable differences of view, Sahgal would leave Amnesty on 9 April.[12]

Early life and education

Sahgal's great-uncle, former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru

Gita Sahgal was born in India, the daughter of the novelist Nayantara Sahgal. She was raised as a Hindu. She is a great-niece of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the granddaughter of his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit.[13][14] Schooled first in India, she moved to England in 1972, where she attended and graduated from London's School of Oriental and African Studies.[1]

When Sahgal returned to India in 1977, she joined the civil rights movement.[2] She moved back to England in 1983. Born and raised in a Hindu background, she currently describes herself as an atheist.[2]



Women's organisations

In 1979 she co-founded domestic violence, racism (including by white feminists), sexism (including that of some Black and Asian anti-racist campaigners), and bigotry.[1][2][6][15]

In 1989 she co-founded and has participated with Women against Fundamentalism.[2] It was formed to challenge the rise of fundamentalism in all religions.[1][6][16] It hs criticised Great Britain for protecting only Christianity and its by blasphemy laws. She believes this exclusion of protection for immigrant religions contributes to the growth of sectarianism and immigrants' turning towards religious fundamentalism.[2]


In her early years in Delhi, India, Sahgal was part of a feminist network that fought against rape and dowry laws.[3][6] Rape and sexual violence against women in India continue to be major problems.

Commenting on the use of rape in wars, Sahgal said in 2004 that such assaults are not primarily about "spoils of war," or sexual gratification. She said rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate social control and redraw ethnic boundaries. "Women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community," she said.[17]

Prostitution and peacekeeping efforts

Sahgal spoke out in 2004 regarding the increase of prostitution and sex abuse in association with humanitarian intervention forces. She observed: "The issue with the UN is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do. Even the guardians have to be guarded."[18]

Invasion of Iraq; Views on Guantanamo Bay

Sahgal, who was against the United States and allies' invasion of Iraq, also condemned the extrajudicial detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay.[2][19] She told Moazzam Begg, a British citizen and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, that she was "horrified and appalled" by the treatment he and other detainees received.[19]

Writing and film producer

Among her various writings, in 1992, she contributed to and co-edited Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain with Nira Yuval-Davis.

In 2002 she produced Tying the Knot. The film was commissioned by the U.K.'s [21]

Saghal also made Unprovoked, a film about the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, for Despatches, one of British TV’s main investigative documentary programs. She is a Punjabi woman brought to the UK by arranged marriage who was repeatedly abused by her husband. To survive, she killed him, setting him of fire while he was drunk and asleep. She was acquitted of murder charges on the grounds of self defence.[22]

In addition, she has made a film about atrocities committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.[2]

Amnesty International controversy

Saghal's public criticism

Sahgal joined the staff of Amnesty International in 2002, and the following year became head of its gender unit.[2][3] She came to wide public attention in February 2010, after she was quoted by Moazzam Begg, the director of Cageprisoners, representing men in extrajudicial detention.[23][24]

She said:
To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban Begg, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.[23][25]
Sahgal argued that by associating with Begg and Cageprisoners, Amnesty was risking its reputation on human rights.[23][26][27][28] "As a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner,” Sahgal said.[23] She said she had repeatedly tried to raise the issue internally at Amnesty for two years, to no avail.[2] A few hours after the article was published, Saghal was suspended from her position.[9] Amnesty's Senior Director of Law and Policy, Widney Brown, later said Sahgal raised concerns about Begg and Cageprisoners to her personally for the first time a few days before sharing them with the Sunday Times.[2]

Sahgal issued a statement saying she felt that Amnesty was risking its reputation by associating with and thereby politically legitimising Begg, because Cageprisoners "actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals".[9] She said the issue was not about Begg's "freedom of opinion, nor about his right to propound his views: he already exercises these rights fully as he should. The issue is ... the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights."[9] The controversy prompted responses by politicians, the writer Salman Rushdie, and journalist Christopher Hitchens, among others who criticised Amnesty's association with Begg.

After her suspension and the controversy, Saghal was interviewed by numerous media and attracted international supporters. On 27 February, she said in an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) that Amnesty had provided Begg with a platform and legitimised him as a human rights defender, while Cageprisoners promotes people who in turn promote "a violent and discriminatory agenda".[29] She said that Cageprisoners' Asim Qureshi spoke supporting global jihad at a Hizb ut-Tahrir rally.[29] And she noted that Begg had run a bookshop, a best-seller of which was a book by jihad-promotor Abdullah Azzam—a mentor of Osama bin Laden, and a founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has attacked civilians and been implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[2][29]

In a separate interview for the Indian Daily News & Analysis, Saghal claimed that Begg attended jihadi training camps (which he has denied), and sold books and videos promoting global jihad. She said that, as Quereshi affirmed Begg's support for global jihad on a BBC World Service programme, "these things could have been stated in his [Begg's] introduction" with Amnesty.[30] She said that Begg's bookshop had published The Army of Madinah, which she characterised as a jihad manual by Dhiren Barot "perhaps Britain's most important connection to the al-Qaeda leadership, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder and is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole."[31]

Amnesty responses

Amnesty responded on its website with a statement by its interim Secretary General, Claudio Cordone:

[Sahgal] was suspended ... for not raising these issues internally... [Begg] speaks about his own views ..., not Amnesty International's... Sometimes the people whose rights we defend may not share each others views–but they all have human rights, and all human rights are worth defending.[32]

Cordone said on a Canadian radio program that he thought Begg's politics are benign. He did not believe there was evidence to suggest that Amnesty should cut its ties with him.[2][33] Responding to a petition supporting Sahgal from Sunila Abeysekera (a veteran Sri Lankan human rights campaigner), Amrita Chhachhi (a senior lecturer in women's and gender studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague), and Sara Hossain (a Bangladesh Supreme Court advocate), Cordone wrote:

"Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly stated, for example on ... the role of jihad in self-defense. Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them."[34][35][36]
Abeysekera, Chhachhi, and Hossain called Cordone's assertion "shocking".[35]

Widney Brown of Amnesty also spoke on the NPR program with Saghal.[29] She said the books sold at his bookstore did not mean that he was not "a legitimate voice on Guantánamo Bay abuses".[29] Responding to the interviewer's observation that Amnesty had sponsored Begg's lecture tours in Europe, she said that because Begg was one of the first detainees released, he was considered important for dispelling Guantanamo Bay's secrecy.[29] Brown said that, as a British citizen, Begg has "an incredibly effective voice in talking to governments in Europe about the importance of" their accepting Guantánamo detainees.[29] She praised Saghal's work, saying:

There's no question about it. Gita is incredibly intelligent, very strong analysis .... She's done great work for us. And I think the real tragedy of this particular circumstance is by going public in this particular way knowing that we were addressing her issue means that she's maybe undermining her own work in fact.[29]

Responding to criticism from Salman Rushdie, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK, said it took criticism “seriously” but would continue to seek “universal respect” for human rights.[37] Amnesty's international secretariat Policy Director, Anne Fitzgerald, when asked if she thought Begg was a human rights advocate, said: “It’s something you’d have to speak to him about. I don’t have the information to answer that.”[2][23]

In April 2010, Amnesty circulated a statement internally, saying:

Due to irreconcilable differences of view over policy between Gita Sahgal and Amnesty International regarding Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, it has been agreed that Gita will leave Amnesty International on 9 April 2010.

Begg response

Begg said that Sahgal's claims of his jihadi connections and support for terrorism were "ridiculous."[23][38] He defended his support for the Taliban, saying: “We need to be engaging with those people who we find most unpalatable. I don’t consider anybody a terrorist until they have been charged and convicted of terrorism.”[23]

Begg noted that he worked with groups to empower Muslim women; such as HHUGS (Helping Households Under Great Stress), which supports the families of detainees, and an Iraqi women's refugee group.[2][3] Sahgal, he says, "has no monopoly on women's rights".[2]


Salman Rushdie, who was championed by Amnesty after Iran placed a fatwā on him for writing The Satanic Verses, said:
Amnesty ... has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty's leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns. Gita Sahgal is a woman of immense integrity and distinction.... It is people like Gita Sahgal who are the true voices of the human rights movement; Amnesty and Begg have revealed, by their statements and actions, that they deserve our contempt.[39][40]


Writing in The The Wall Street Journal wrote: "it's a pity that a group that was born to give voice to the victims of oppression should now devote itself to sanitizing the oppressors".[53][54]

Her mother,
novelist Nayantara Sahgal

Sahgal's mother, Nehru's niece novelist Nayantara Sahgal, said she was proud of Gita:

for her very correct and courageous stand. Gita had been taking up the matter for a couple of years now, but after not having received a response she decided to go public—which was a very brave thing to do.... Amnesty has been supporting Begg, legitimising him, making him a partner and sponsoring his tour of Europe. They should at least have checked his credentials. It simply gives them a bad reputation.[55]

An organisation called Human rights for All formed in her defence.[56] They have been joined by many notable supporters.[57]

The Observer wrote in April 2010 that Amnesty had faced few sticker periods since it was founded in 1961, and Oliver Kamm wrote in The Times that "Disastrously for itself and those who depend on its support, Amnesty is no longer the friend of liberty".[3]


Leaked extracts from an internal 10 February 2010, memo by Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, which echoed some of the concerns raised by Sahgal, were published by The Sunday Times.[58] In the memo he said Amnesty should publicly admit its mistake in not establishing sufficiently publicly that it does not support all or even many of Begg's views. Zarifi said Amnesty "did not always sufficiently distinguish between the rights of detainees to be free from torture, and the validity of their views", adding that the organisation "did not always clarify that while we champion the rights of all—including terrorism suspects, and more important, victims of terrorism—we do not champion their views”.[59] In a subsequent letter to The Sunday Times, while Zarifi did not retract any of the above, he said he fully agreed with the measures Amnesty took in response to Sahgal sharing her views publicly.[60]

In response to Zarifi's objections, Amnesty decided not to use Begg in its South Asia work.[2] Widney Brown said: "Sam's view was that, no, he was not the right person for [our South Asia campaigns]. He raised the concern, and he was heard."[2]


British journalist for Press TV, the Iranian-based English language news channel, and Cageprisoners patron, Yvonne Ridley, said Begg was being "demonised", and that he was "a great supporter of women and a promoter of their rights".[25][61][62]

Former writer for The Guardian, and co-author of Enemy Combatant, Victoria Brittain wrote, "Ms Sahgal has contributed to the current climate of intolerance and islamophobia in Britain."[63]

Andy Worthington, critic of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and friend of Moazzam Begg, also cited Islamophobia, and then defended Begg. He said, "I know from personal experience that Moazzam Begg is no extremist. We have met on numerous occasions, have had several long discussions, and have shared platforms together at many events."[64]

Select writings


  • Refusing holy orders: women and fundamentalism in Britain, co-editor with Nira Yuval-Davis, and contributor, Virago Press (1992), WLUML (2002), ISBN 1-85381-219-6


  • Looking at class: film, television and the working class in Britain, Sheila Rowbotham, Huw Beynon, "Chapter: Struggle Not Submission", Rivers Oram Press, 2001, ISBN 1-85489-121-9
  • Feminist postcolonial theory: a reader, Reina Lewis, Sara Mills, Chapter: "The Uses of Fundamentalism", with Nira Yuval-Davis, Taylor & Francis, 2003, ISBN 0-415-94275-6
  • The situated politics of belonging, Nira Yuval-Davis, Kalpana Kannabirān, Ulrike Vieten, "Chapter: Legislating Utopia? Violence Against Women: Identities and Interventions," SAGE, 2006, ISBN Ch1412921015


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External links

  • "Gita Sahgal: A Statement", 7 February 2010
  • Human Rights for All website
  • "Dangerous liaisons", Gita Sahgal, DNA India, 18 April 2010
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