UPDATED: Norwegians promoting freedom of expression, diversity and integration were among those mourning the death this week of the self-proclaimed “Born Free Artist” and activist Shabana Rehman. The prize-winning Rehman was a pioneer, especially in confronting issues linked to immigration and integration, and the government is honouring her with a state funeral.
Rehman’s death, from advanced pancreatic cancer, was being called “an enormous loss” by mourners who ranged from childhood friends to top politicians. Some had started calling for a state funeral on Friday and the government responded on New Year’s Eve, confirming that Rehman’s family had accepted an offer that the funeral be held at state expense, an honour accorded to only around 100 people since 1881.
One of her friends from elementary school in 1985, Zahid Ali, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that her death from the cancer diagnosed just last winter “came as a shock, even though I saw it coming. It feels like part of me is gone.” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre also said her death leaves a void in Norwegian society. Her partner Petter Simonsen wrote on social media that “through the worst pain grows the brightest love,” adding she had died “peacefully” in hospital surrounded by her closest family.
“Shabana Rehman was a strong and fearless voice for many years,” Støre wrote on social media, just after Rehman died Thursday at the age of 46. “By breaking taboos she paved the way for a new generation of women with immigrant background.” The prime minister noted how Rehman “stood up for freedom of expression and contributed to Norwegian diversity.” That won her awards, from both Pen Norway (the local chapter of the international organization that defends freedom of expression) and Oslo-based Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation that does the same and champions public debate.
“‘Born free, died free’ could stand on her gravestone,” stated Fritt Ord director Knut Olav Åmås, who also referred to Rehman as one of Norway’s most influential social commentators for the past quarter-century. Åmås quoted Rehman herself on Friit Ord’s website from when she spoke last summer at the large Olavsfest in Trondheim. She was, at the time, midway through her battle with the pancreatic cancer that had only been diagnosed in January. She’d defined “hope,” Åmås noted, as “optimism and realism dancing together” and she’d refuse to give up on it.
She’d refused years earlier to put up with the restrictions and oppression placed on many young women, especially those from immigrant families in Norway and around the world, and chose to address it through humour. She’s perhaps best known for debating and joking with the controversial Islamic cleric Mullah Krekar on a stage in Oslo and then, a large and physically strong person herself, literally lifting him up off his feet in 2004.
Krekar, who battled terrorism charges for years before ultimately being extradited to Italy, had been “trying to change his image,” recalled Pen leader Kjersti Løken Stavrum in an interview with newspaper Dagsavisen. “That ended when she lifted him. When we saw how angry he was, we understood how controversial it was.” Krekar filed charges against Rehman that were later dropped.
Stavrum noted how Rehman also poked fun at Norwegian conservatism and Christianity as well, demonstratively kissing the former head of the Christian Democrats Party and government minister Valgerd Svarstad Haugland. That wasn’t uncontroversial either, nor was a photo of a nude Rehman painted with the Norwegian flag in 2000. She also made fun of how Norwegians hail feats like skiing over Greenland, by strapping on skis and posing both at Holmenkollen and on the asphalt of the Oslo neighbourhood of Grønland, ironically now best known for its immigrant and largely Pakistani community.
Rehman was born in Pakistan on July 14, 1976 and came to Norway the year after with her own immigrant family. She grew up in Oslo’s Holmlia district, which also has a large immigrant community, and debuted as a stand-up comedian in 1999. She was also a writer, TV program leader, active on debate panels and performed on stage. She wrote as a columnist for newspaper VG, then Dagbladet and Aftenposten and most recently Nettavisen. She founded the Født fri (Born Free) foundation in 2017, to battle negative social control and promote gender equality. It later ran into trouble over its use of state funding, which was revoked and led to its bankruptcy in 2021. Rehman consistently claimed there had been mistakes in its audit.
In 2020 she was named as a member of Norway’s commission on freedom of expression and she also took part in the popular TV series Farmen just last year, before suddenly falling ill last winter.
“I also feel that all of Norway has lost an important voice,” said Vebjørn Selbakk, a conservative Christian and editor of Dagen known for running into trouble himself over his own sometimes controversial forms of expression. “Shabana Rehman was a unique person, no one else was like her,” Selbakk told Dagsavisen. “The way she combined humour and a twinkle in her eye with sharp social satire, while also standing up for the values in which she believed and for freedom of expression, is how she’ll be remembered.”
Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen said the government wanted to honour her “for everything she did and contributed to the battle for equality.” Rehman is specifically being honoured, in Saturday’s government announcement, for her “unique, visible and meaningful contribution to bringing up important issues like how negative social control has been and is being used to limit the personal freedom of individuals, especially girls and women, within various minority groups in Norway.”
Prime Minister Støre noted that “she left us much too early.” So did NRK’s culture commentator Inger Merete Hobbelstad: “She was only 46 years old, but she managed to make a big impression on Norwegian society and inspire many with her uncompromising fight for freedom.”