United Kingdom: Woman’s right to read violated

18 August 2016

British woman Faizah Shaheen, who was returning home with her husband after their honeymoon in Turkey, was detained by South Yorkshire police at Doncaster Airport on 25 July 2016 after Thomson Airways cabin crew members had reported her of “suspicious behaviour” for reading a book on Syrian culture, reported The Independent on 3 August 2016.

Shaheen, who is Muslim, was reading ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’, a 2014 award-winning anthology featuring essays, short stories, poems, songs, cartoons and photographs from Syrian artists.

“I was completely innocent – I was made to feel like a culprit,” she told the newspaper. “I couldn’t understand how reading a book could cause people to suspect me like this. I told the police that I didn’t think it was right or acceptable.”

Shaheen’s right to read, and thus her right to access art and culture was violated, which is an integral part of the universal human right of artistic freedom, which not only protects artists and their work, but those who wish to experience and consume it.

This fundamental right was explored in an editorial written by English PEN director Jo Glanville for The Independent on 7 August 2016:

The incident is chilling on many fronts. The freedom to read should be without bounds. Our thirst for knowledge, entertainment, information, education and diversion should allow us to explore any kind of literature, no matter how trivial, offensive or shocking. That’s our private business, and it’s a freedom that’s fundamental to our liberty. What you’re reading should be no concern of the police.

Ironically, Shaheen works for the National Health Service as a psychotherapist and said: “Part of my job role is working on anti-radicalisation and assessing vulnerable young people with mental health problems who are at risk of being radicalised”.

Sales of the book have increased over the incident and English PEN has called for people to protest by purchasing the book and reading it in public.

In an editorial Shaheen penned for The Guardian on 15 August 2016, she said she was detained and questioned for 30 minutes, while police officials said they only held her for 15 minutes.

She added that she was also stopped upon her arrival in Turkey and was the only passenger on the flight to be stopped for a “random check”, as she later discovered the crew members had reported her on the flight to Turkey.

Photo: Part of cover of ‘Syria Speaks’


» The Guardian – 15 August 2016:
I was held after reading a book on a plane – we need to rethink our terror laws

» The Independent – 7 August 2016:
What you’re reading should be no business of the police – but our freedom of expression is at risk

» The Guardian – 4 August 2016:
British woman held after being seen reading book about Syria on plane

» The Independent – 3 August 2016:
British Muslim woman detained under terror laws after cabin crew report her reading Syrian art book on plane

More from Freemuse

» 20 November 2015: United Kingdom: Guides to legal framework of artistic expression

» 6 August 2015: United Kingdom: Theatre play addressing radicalisation cancelled

» 24 January 2015: United Kingdom: Syrian artist denied UK visa will miss his own exhibition

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