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Raif Badawi and Charlie Hebdo: Bullets and the Cane Can't Destroy Freedom of Speech

23/01/2015 12:16 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Whether or not you agree with the publishing of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed found offensive by some Muslims, the deaths of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris over a week ago haven't been in vain. Without JeSuisCharlie, there'd probably be no JeSuisRaif.

I've spent the last few days arguing passionately both online and in real life with people over the right to free speech. I've tried to avoid getting bogged down in legal arguments with people who say "there's no such thing as free speech". Of course there is no such thing as absolute free speech. Laws in respective countries dictate what is allowed and what is a punishable offence. Anyone breaking those laws should consider the risk that they might end up behind bars. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo operated within the laws of France whether or not anyone deemed what they wrote and drew offensive, immoral, distasteful or just plain old disgusting. It's been that black and white for me. I even went as far as suggesting that anyone offended enough move to a country where the laws protected their particular sensibilities.

But what about Saudi liberal Raif Badawi and his sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website to promote free speech? He knew what kind of trouble this could land him in in Saudi Arabia.

Even though the Charlie Hebdo victims broke no law and Raif Badawi did (according to Saudi courts, his crimes include insulting Islam), I can't in this case make such a clear-cut argument. There's no way any law should permit this kind of brutal punishment for the "crime" of providing a forum allowing people to share views and have their voices heard - especially in a country as stifling and oppressive as Saudi Arabia.

Here's where my personal experiences really cloud my black and white argument. My father worked as doctor in Saudi Arabia for close to 10 years. I spent a significant part of my childhood (including most of my teens) going to Saudi Arabia for six weeks every summer to stay with my dad. I was chased and told off by the Mutawa (religious police) at a market in Jeddah for not wearing a headscarf at the age of 11 even though I was (in my head at least) still a child and my whole of body was cloaked in black courtesy of the abaya all women are forced to wear whether they are Muslim or not.

Despite spending most of my Saudi time in what was ostensibly a closed-off military city, I didn't have the freedom my brothers enjoyed of just being able to jump on their bikes and ride wherever they pleased. I needed to be escorted by a male to leave the city. I watched all the female nurses who lived in female only compounds have to be bussed out in organised trips with men in charge. When my dad decided he'd teach me how to drive, we had to get up at the crack of dawn and go to deserted spots so no one would see me. Saudi television is highly censored and wasn't the most exciting thing to watch back in the 1990s, so my brothers and I used to bring videotapes of films from the UK. Every time, we'd have to leave the tapes at the airport first and come back for them a day later so they could be watched by the authorities first. Thankfully, none of us cared enough to try and bring a Bible or it would have been confiscated. Not only was I in a country with strict religious laws, I am a female (a sex treated as second class citizens in my opinion), I am also black - an ethnic minority in every country I've lived in.

Throughout all of this, I accepted it as the way it was. You go to Saudi, you operate by their rules. If I or anyone else in my family didn't like it, tough - we'd just have to find somewhere else to live, work, visit and make money. Anyone that makes these same choices when it comes to France must accept that in that country, ridiculing any religion is permitted by law. For multiculturalism to work, no one group can ask for special treatment whilst also claiming to be equal.

But I can't support this view when it comes to Raif Badawi. Perhaps it's because I believe that free speech and violence never belong in the same arena - even if you are fighting for that freedom. The Charlie Hebdo victims didn't deserve to be punished and laws in France underlined this. It's been wonderful to see the solidarity and support from people who took part in Marches across Europe or simply just posted JeSuisCharlie. Raif Badawi doesn't deserve his punishment either and I'm equally heartened to see the peaceful protests outside various Saudi embassies. Now is the time to pressure and shame Saudi Arabia into changing their laws so others like him don't have to fear being forced to kneel in a public square once a week, receiving painful lashes in front of a jeering crowd.