Behzti at the Birmingham Rep: English PEN’s Response


During the weekend of 18th/19th December 2004, there were violent protests by Sikhs and vandalism at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre where the play Behzti, (‘Dishonour’), by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, was about to begin a run.  The production was cancelled because the management feared for the safety of staff and audiences.

This is the first time in living memory that a play in Britain has been cancelled because oof violent confrontation. The play’s author has received death threats and been forced to go into hiding. The Sikh community’s objection to the play had to do withits depicting rape and murder within a gudwara or temple, considered to be holy ground. Previous consultation with the community leaders led to no resolution. Instead violent protest became a form of censorship. Speaking to the press, the theatre’s executive director Stuart Rogers said:

“Sadly community leaders have been unable to guarantee us that there will be no repeat of the illegal and violent activities we witnessed on Saturday. It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play purely on safety grounds”. 


English PEN, along with many in the theatrical community and the media, is greatly concerned that freedom of expression has been supressed here by violent means. Artist’s freedom to scrutinize religion, certainly not always and ever an immaculate force for good, is under attack. Memories of the Rusdie Affair – in which certain parts of the Muslim Community rushed to protest against a work of literature by burning it – spring to mind.

Neal Foster – actor-manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, who is prepared to stage the play at a multi-cultural centre in Birmingham – has told the press:

“The story cannot end here. I think freedom of expression is more important than health or safety.”


Press reports on the 21st of December suggest that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, herself a Sikh, has gone into hiding. Friends told journalists that she had been threatened with abduction and murder. Bhatti is a former actor, refuge worker and journalist who has written a prior successful play, Besharam (‘Shameless’, published by Oberon), as well as episodes of Eastenders. she has just finished a film for BBC1 entitled The Cleaner.

English PEN’s response and launch of the OFFENCE campaign


The proposed insertion into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill of the clause ‘and religious’ after ‘racial’ hatred would make it criminal to incite racial or religious hatred.  There is a serious possibility that such writing could be banned if the new bill became law, although opinions differ among lawyers as to whether the proposed new law would have been invoked in the Bhatti case. There is also alarm that the law, rather than deterring acts of violence, may provide an excuse to the more extreme religious elements to attack those with whom they differ. English PEN is running the Offence Campaign to address the issues raised by the proposed bill.

English PEN has set up a  ‘rapid response unit’ which will provide a response to news stories in the UK which cover PEN’s remit to fight for writers’ freedoms.  This consists of:

  • Lisa Appignanesi (writer, Chair of Offence campaign, member of  English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and the Centre’s Deputy President),

  • Gillian Slovo (English PEN Executive Committee member and co-author of Guantanamo, recently transferred from London to New York)

  • Julian Evans (writer, broadcaster, translator and Deputy Chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee)

  • Howard Jacobson 

**Read more about the Offence campaign**


English PEN has also sent letters to the Guardian and the Independent about Behzti.  See Press coverage for more details.

What do PEN members think?  Please email Simon Burt with your thoughts, indicating whether you would like them to be posted on our Comments & Discussions page 

‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’

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