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‘Vulgarity has consequences’: Pakistan’s prime minister blames rising number of rape cases on women’s dress choices

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/04/2021 - 1:57pm in

Activists and civil society groups are outraged at the prime minister’s victim blaming. 

In Pakistan, the first thing a woman thinks of when she steps outside her home is rape. In a country that routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous in the world for women, rape is everywhere. Women live in constant fear of predators, who routinely go unpunished not because the law protects them (it does not), but because attitudes in this deeply conservative culture manifest in a lack of will to enforce them. Recently Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, reinforced this entrenched misogyny when he claimed that vulgarity, temptation and willpower were among the causes of rape.

Before he became a politician, Imran Khan was an international cricket champion and a national hero. Oxford educated, handsome, fair skinned and an eloquent speaker, he embodies the quintessential colonial concept of the “white man” coming to save the damsel in distress Pakistan was made out to be. When he was elected prime minister, the media dubbed him the leader of “naya Pakistan” (new Pakistan).

But this, I knew, was a lie. Imran Khan has a well-documented history of misogyny.

In 2006, he rejected the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill, which amended the 1979 Hudood Ordinances that put the entire onus of proving a rape accusation on the woman. The 2006 Bill did pass a parliamentary vote, no thanks to Khan; but prior to this legislation, a rape victim could be prosecuted and imprisoned for adultery if she failed to produce an adult male witness to her assault.

Ayesha Gulalai, a human rights activist who in 2013 became the first female member of the National Assembly, accused Khan of sexual harassment; according to Gulalai, the prime minister sent lewd messages to her and other women in the progressive Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. For having made this accusation, Gulalai received death threats.

In 2018, Khan said that feminism was “degenerating” to motherhood and called it a “western concept.”

In 2020, he said that the Aurat (women’s) March was culturally divisive.

This year, Khan presented a Pride of Performance award to Ali Zafar, a prominent singer-songwriter who has been credibly accused of sexual harassment by several leading female artists. The prime minister did not even acknowledge an open letter from feminist activists who asked him to refrain from conferring the award, given that one of Zafar’s accusers, singer-actress Meesha Shafi (who plays the protagonist’s sister in the 2013 film The Reluctant Fundamentalist)  was pursuing legal action against him.

In a Q&A session with the public that was televised live in early April, a journalist asked Prime Minister Khan what steps he would take to tackle rape and child abuse. Instead of answering the question, he said: “In any society where vulgarity is prevalent, there are consequences.”

Vulgarity is a broad term. What’s vulgar for one person, might not be for the other. But in this case, Khan was using the word to blame the victims. Over the past three years, Pakistan has seen a spike in widely publicized, extremely violent rapes. One of the victims was 6 year-old Zainab Ansari, whose body was found in a rubbish dump in 2018; she had been raped and strangled. In another notorious case that made international headlines last April, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children after she stopped at the side of a highway just outside of Lahore because her car had run out of fuel.

During the same televised Q&A session, Khan held women responsible for the behavior of men, saying they should remove “temptation” because “not everyone has willpower.” He claimed the high rape statistics were a consequence of “increasing obscenity.” Bollywood films and an infatuation with Western lifestyle were to blame, said the prime minister.

With those words, Khan diminished every person who has stood up against rape, every victim who came out with their story; and every woman, trans and non-binary individual that marched against rape. By saying that women should take “purdah” (cover themselves from head to toe), he reiterated the notion that the onus is upon women to protect themselves. There will be no safety in Pakistan, no justice. There will simply be women constantly berated for taking up space.

In 2020, 11 rape cases were reported every single day in Pakistan. But only 77, or 0.3 percent, of the accused have been convicted. According to government statistics, fewer than half the women who report having been raped end up pressing charges; police estimate that the actual number of rapes could be closer to 60,000 annually. Women are instantly labeled liars when they press charges against their rapists. Sometimes the consequence is more fatal, as seen in cases of so-called “honor killings,” whereby the male relatives of an unmarried rape victim take her life because she is no longer a virgin. Women are sometimes forced to marry their rapist to save their family from scandal. In other cases, families choose revenge rape as a “solution.”

In a conference organized by the Women’s Action Forum on rape, Nazish Brohi, a social sector consultant said that, “There is the expense of the lawyer, going to court, the cost of living in a big city, and then there is the impact on the family, so, the cost of reporting rape is high. But the cost of not reporting rape is also high.”

The system usually works against survivors. In the case of the woman who was gang raped on the highway, Capital City Police Officer Umar Sheikh blamed the victim, asking reporters rhetorically why she was traveling with her children late at night.

Mehnaz Akber Aziz, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a children’s rights advocate said: “You are signalling to these people, the rapists, that ‘It’s OK, you can continue doing what you’re doing and there will be a way out, even if you’re arrested.” Pakistan’s police and judiciary generally fail to apply the law robustly in rape cases where there are no witnesses.

But there are organizations and activists working to force law enforcement officers and the judiciary into implementing the laws that are supposed to protect women.

Sahil provides free legal aid for children and women who have been victims of abuse. War Against Rape (WAR) provides rehabilitation for survivors of sexual assault and works with them to deal with their medical, legal and social issues. Earlier this year, The Lahore High Court declared the “two finger test”—used to determine whether a sexual assault survivor was a virgin—as illegal.

The Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act, 2020 was passed under the Children’s Protection Bill to criminalize abduction and kidnapping. Anti-Rape Ordinance 2020 was approved to ensure that sexual assault trials are completed within four months and that victims’ identities will be protected.

Each of these organizations is committed to tackling Pakistan’s rape problem. And yet, Prime Minister Khan did not mention any of them. Instead, he left Pakistan’s women in a more vulnerable and precarious state than ever before. The country does have laws that, if enforced, would help combat sexual violence. What it does not have, however, is a leader who sets an example by working with existing organizations to change the entrenched patriarchal attitudes that prevent women from feeling safe in public. Nor does it have a leader who is committed to public education.  If the prime minister of a country where the literacy rate has fallen below 60 percent says that men aren’t able to control their instincts and that women must be covered from head to toe if they want to remain safe, the masses will believe it.

Sheraz Ahmed, the program officer at WAR, noted that Khan’s remarks demonstrated “a clear pattern that reveals his regressive views of rape and sexual violence.” Asked why rape cases in Pakistan are so high, and what measures need to be taken to make women safer, Ahmed said, “Rapists know they will get off the hook and that’s why cases are rising.” The lack of medical and psychological care available for rape survivors places even more stress on the woman, which often factors into a decision to refrain from pressing charges.

Several organizations—including Women’s Action Forums of Pakistan, War Against Rape, Aurat March Lahore, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and The Women’s Lawyer Association—have demanded an apology from Imran Khan. In a statement of condemnation that has, as of this writing, been signed by 438 people, they describe the prime minister’s comments as “factually incorrect, insensitive and dangerous,” adding that they “actively fostered and promoted rape culture.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement that they were “appalled” by the prime minister’s remarks, describing them as “unacceptable behavior on the part of a public leader” and demanding that he apologize.

Jemima Khan, the prime minister’s former wife (and mother of his two children), tweeted: “The Imran I knew used to say, “Put a veil on the man’s eyes not on the woman.””

The response on Pakistani Twitter, meanwhile, has been scathing.

This time, the anger does not seem likely to abate; it will continue to fester until there is systemic change and a decisive shift in the conservative narrative regarding rape in Pakistan. Over the past two years Pakistan has seen a rising feminist movement; now, with the growing Aurat Marches and the opening up of the #MeinBhi (MeToo) movement, something has shifted. The women of Pakistan will no longer be dismissed when it comes to sharing their truths.

In many South Asian countries there is widespread scepticism about the #MeToo movement. Why, people ask, does it even exist? Why don’t women who are molested immediately speak out and share their stories? The answer, or part of it, can be found in Khan’s remarks. Whether he believes them or not is irrelevant; he has exacerbated the dangers women face by reinforcing the primitive idea that men are driven by animalistic instincts and are physically incapable of controlling themselves in the presence of a woman.

Imran Khan has a bit of a nefarious past, with his playboy reputation and his hypocrisy towards women. But it is his actions and words today that demonstrate yet again how men in power use their privilege to reinforce only one truth—their own.

The post ‘Vulgarity has consequences’: Pakistan’s prime minister blames rising number of rape cases on women’s dress choices appeared first on The Conversationalist.

The right to protest is under threat in Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/04/2021 - 4:31am in

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‘Incredibly vague’ wording of a parliamentary bill would ‘effectively put the U.K. on par with some of the more repressive countries in the world.’

In April 2019, activists chained themselves to a pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus, one of London’s most famous intersections. A lime green Extinction Rebellion flag flew from the top of the boat, and on one side was the slogan “Tell the truth.” Traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections came to a grinding halt, as protesters occupied the road.

All across the city, Extinction Rebellion caused disruption. They occupied Waterloo Bridge, obstructed trains, and glued themselves across the entrance of the London Stock Exchange. More actions followed throughout the year. The purpose was to push the government into taking serious action on the climate crisis. Approve of their methods or not, these bold actions forced the world to pay attention.

Now, the U.K. government is debating a new bill that would give police more powers at protests in England and Wales. In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, people breaching police rules at demonstrations will face increased penalties, and the police would have new powers to control static and single person protests. They could impose start and finish times, and enforce maximum noise levels if a protest could cause “significant impact” for people nearby or “serious disruption” to a business.

The bill stipulates that the rules would also apply to a protest of just one person. Theoretically, someone standing with a sign and being disruptive could be fined up to £2,500. The bill would also stop vehicular access to Parliament being blocked by demonstrations, and anyone refusing to move when asked by the police would be causing an offence.

In summer 2020, London came to a standstill for another reason. Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement marched through the city, forcing the country to pay attention to racial injustice.

The Home Office fact sheet refers to the Extinction Rebellion protests before outlining any measures. Following their actions, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that Extinction Rebellion was an emerging threat, and called the Black Lives Matter protests “dreadful”.

The bill, which covers a whole range of issues beyond just protests, passed its second reading in the House of Commons on March 15, just two days after police were criticized for their handling of the peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard,  the 33 year-old London woman who was murdered while walking home through a park on the evening of March 3. Police used physical force to break up the Clapham Common vigil, which became a call for changes that would keep women safer (a later report stated that the police “acted appropriately”, but the report has also been criticized). Since then, ‘Kill the Bill’ protests have erupted across the country. The date for the next step, committee stage, is yet to be announced.

The right to cause disruption

Organizations and prominent individuals from across England and Wales have signed a letter to the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice, sharing their concerns.

One of those organizations is Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring. In a phone interview, Netpol’s Campaigns Coordinator Kevin Blowe told The Conversationalist that the bill cracks down on protests which are non-violent, but disruptive.

“What we’ve always said is that all protests are disruptive to some degree. If that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t be a protest,” he said.

The sections of the bill aimed at stopping people causing serious disruption would place “subjective, wholly disproportionate power in the hands of the police,” he said. 

Beyond this, Home Secretary Priti Patel would have the power to define what exactly constitutes serious disruption. There would be no parliamentary debate.

“The police already have extensive powers. The idea that somehow things are swung too far in favour of the protesters is simply not true,” Blowe said.

With a strong Conservative majority, he believes this bill is likely to pass a parliamentary vote in some form.

The U.K., like many other countries, has a history of change-making through disruptive protest. In the early 1900s, when peaceful protest had done nothing to gain women the right to vote, Emmeline Pankhurst led the Suffragettes in a campaign of civil disobedience. They smashed windows, started riots, and snuck into parliament. Perhaps most famously, Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse. The campaign led to a parliamentary commission to study the issue of women’s suffrage; and in 1918, British women finally won the right to vote. 

With such a strong history of protest, will this bill, if it becomes law, stop people from being disruptive?

“It’s not going to stop people from going out in the streets and campaigning around climate change. It’s not going to stop people coming out, because they’re outraged about racial injustice, or indeed protesting around the expansion of police powers,” Blowe said. Protest, he added, “is the only way that people see as having any chance of getting the Government to listen.”

More likely, said Blowe, more people will end up being arrested, while certain social and political movements will be criminalized.

In an email statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “It is wrong to claim these measures will stop people from carrying out their civic right to protest. People will still be able to protest, but they cannot be permitted to trample on the rights of local businesses and communities.”

Members of Parliament who represent other parties have been vocal about the damage the bill could do.

The Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs, MP Alistair Carmichael tweeted: “This crackdown on protests is dangerous and draconian and must be opposed.”

Meanwhile Labour MP Zarah Sultana called the bill a “recipe for repression” on Twitter, and Jenny Jones, Green Party member of the House of Lords (who’s also an activist) tweeted: “We need to understand that our rights and freedoms are under threat from our Govt.”

Netpol, along with other organizations, said that the whole 307 page bill needs to be opposed. In fact, ahead of this bill, Netpol put forward their own Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights, asking for transparency of policing at protests.

A global issue

Article 19, an organization defending freedom of expression and information, also signed the joint letter speaking out against the bill. 

“The incredibly vague and broad language that’s in the U.K. policing bill will effectively put the United Kingdom on par with some of the more repressive countries in the world,” says Executive Director Quinn McCew in a Zoom interview.

She said that what’s happening in the U.K. is part of a broader global issue, with governments trying to control civil society and people’s ability to hold them to account. She pointed at Hong Kong, which saw sustained street demonstrations to protest the Chinese government’s repressive restrictions on freedom of expression, as one of the worst examples of government suppression: “Incredibly draconian laws put in place there have effectively cut off the legs of the protest movement.”

She also speaks about Kenya, where Covid-19 emergency powers have been used to silence protests against police brutality.

“The justification for clamping down on and using violence against those protesters was exactly the same as the justification that the U.K. Government and the police ultimately gave for the violence they used against the protesters at the vigil in Clapham Common,” McCew said.

Aside from the impact on freedom to protest in England and Wales, she believes the bill could send ripples around the world, with other nations following the U.K.’s lead.

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly, or the right to protest, is enshrined in laws across the world. It’s included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it’s not just the U.K. battling with new protest laws.

In November 2020, the French government put forward a law that would criminalize the act of sharing images or videos of police. This ban on filming police, activists warn, could allow police brutality to go unchecked. The tragic final moments of George Floyd’s life were caught on camera and have provided vital evidence in the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who has been charged with his murder, but this is not true for other police killings—like that of Adama Traoré, who died in the custody of French police in 2016.

While the law goes through various stages and rewrites, protesters are opposing it across the country. 

Even without this new law, demonstrators face rubber bullets, tear gas, and weapons used by police. There’s not just a risk of criminalization and fines, but of serious injury.

Defending protest with protest

In June 2020, Black Lives Matter demonstrators pulled down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol, as crowds cheered. Its next destination—Bristol Harbour. If the new bill goes through, anyone defacing a monument could face a 10 year prison sentence, and the events of summer 2020 are cited in the bill’s explanatory notes as the reason for this change in law.

Following the Clapham Common vigil and the bill’s second reading, protests continue across the country, with the issue of women’s safety high on the agenda. Both protesters and MPs have drawn comparisons between the protections proposed for monuments and statues, and the protections that women are so desperately demanding.

Interviewed by Sky News,  Labour MP David Lammy said: “It is the case here in the U.K., that the starting tariff in prison is five years for rape […] Why are we saying that pulling down a statue is more important than a woman’s body?”

It’s a point that McCew has made, too.

“Looking at what happened during the policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard, and looking at the language that’s in the policing bill, it’s quite clear that there’s a higher level of support for protecting a slaveholding monument than there is for women’s rights and women’s ability to speak,” she said.

If this bill goes through, McCew says the bill could lead to even greater civil unrest. The two biggest global issues—the climate crisis and the call for racial justice—are the very two issues that the police and government are trying to restrict. Rather than fewer disruptive protests, there could be more.

The post The right to protest is under threat in Britain appeared first on The Conversationalist.

Between Nazis and democracy activists: social media and the free speech dilemma

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/04/2021 - 12:55pm in

Once hailed as the great democratizers, social media platforms are now under fire for failing to moderate hate speech.

On June 6, 2020 I participated in Berlin’s Black Lives Matter demonstration. Thousands of people turned out, despite the pandemic, in solidarity with those who were demonstrating across the United States to protest the police killing of George Floyd—and to protest police killings of people of color in Germany. The mass gathering in the middle of the city’s historic Alexanderplatz was a powerful sight; standing there, wearing my mask and face shield, I felt for a moment as though things might change.

Exactly 10 years earlier and halfway around the world, another act of horrific police brutality occurred and changed the course of history. Khaled Saeed, a 28-year-old Egyptian man who lived in Alexandria, was sitting in a cybercafé when plainclothes police officers barged in and demanded to see everyone’s identification. Saeed refused. In response the officers, who almost never encountered defiance from the cowed citizens of the authoritarian state, began to beat him. They dragged him outside, continuing to batter him in full view of numerous witnesses. At one point, Saeed cried out, “I’m dying!” to which an officer responded: “I’m not leaving you until you are dead.” They drove off with Saeed’s lifeless body and returned 10 minutes later to dump it at the same place they had attacked him.

I was finishing my book, Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism on the day a teenage shop clerk in Minneapolis called 911 to report a customer he suspected of having passed him a counterfeit $20 bill. Derek Chauvin was one of the responding police officers who arrested George Floyd soon after. A bystander used her phone to record the shocking spectacle of Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes as he gasped for breath, begged for mercy, and ultimately died. The video of the incident sparked a global movement.

While writing my book I thought about the ties that bind us, across borders; our commonalities, our differences, and the ways in which powerful actors place limits on how we communicate, how we organize, and how we express ourselves.

The chapters covering the role that social media platforms had played in the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 and in the Movement for Black Lives were done by the time the protests of 2020 erupted and I was working on the book’s conclusion, in which I wrote:

“Police brutality and repression in Egypt and the United States are inextricably linked, through global networks of power and capitalism and more directly through military aid and training, but also through the similar ways in which the powerful seek to quash dissent—which includes platform censorship.”

In Egypt, Saeed’s death inspired activists to create a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Saeed,” which became a place where thousands of Egyptians participated in conversations and polls about the oppressive state, police violence and repression. Later, it was the place where activists called for the protests that led to the January 25 revolution—an uprising that inspired numerous movements throughout the region and the world and shaped the ensuing decade. But the Egyptian revolution might never have begun as it did if events had evolved differently.

During the decade prior to the 2011 uprising, Egypt saw a blogging boom, with people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds writing outspoken commentary about social and political issues, even though they ran the risk of arrest and imprisonment for criticizing the state. The internet provided space for discussions that had previously been restricted to private gatherings; it also enabled cross-national dialogue throughout the region, between bloggers who shared a common language. Public protests weren’t unheard of—in fact, as those I interviewed for the book argued, they had been building up slowly over time—but they were sporadic and lacked mass support.

While some bloggers and social media users chose to publish under their own names, others were justifiably concerned for their safety. And so, the creators of “We Are All Khaled Saeed” chose to manage the Facebook page using pseudonyms.

Facebook, however, has always had a policy that forbids the use of “fake names,” predicated on the misguided belief that people behave with more civility when using their “real” identity. Mark Zuckerberg famously claimed that having more than one identity represents a lack of integrity, thus demonstrating a profound lack of imagination and considerable ignorance. Not only had Zuckerberg never considered why a person of integrity who lived in an oppressive authoritarian state might fear revealing their identity, but he had clearly never explored the rich history of anonymous and pseudonymous publishing.

In November 2010, just before Egypt’s parliamentary elections and a planned anti-regime demonstration, Facebook, acting on a tip that its owners were using fake names, removed the “We are all Khaled Saeed” page.

At this point I had been writing and communicating for some time with Facebook staff about the problematic nature of the policy banning anonymous users. It was Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., where I lived at the time, but a group of activists scrambled to contact Facebook to see if there was anything they could do. To their credit, the company offered a creative solution: If the Egyptian activists could find an administrator who was willing to use their real name, the page would be restored.

They did so, and the page went on to call for what became the January 25 revolution.

A few months later, I joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation and began to work full-time in advocacy, which gave my criticisms more weight and enabled me to communicate more directly with policymakers at various tech companies.

Three years later, while driving across the United States with my mother and writing a piece about social media and the Egyptian revolution, I turned on the hotel television one night and saw on the news that police in Ferguson, Missouri had shot an 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, sparking protests that drew a disproportionate militarized response.

The parallels between Egypt and the United States struck me even then, but only in 2016 did I become fully aware. That summer, a police officer in Minnesota pulled over 32-year-old Philando Castile—a Black man—at a traffic stop and, as he reached for his license and registration, fatally shot him five times at close range.

Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, was in the passenger’s seat and had the presence of mind to whip out her phone in the immediate aftermath, streaming her exchange with the police officer on Facebook Live.

Almost immediately, Facebook removed the video. The company later restored it, citing a “technical glitch,” but the incident demonstrated the power that technology companies—accountable to no one but their shareholders and driven by profit motives—have over our expression.

The internet brought about a fundamental shift in the way we communicate and relate to one another, but its commercialization has laid bare the limits of existing systems of governance. In the years following these incidents, content moderation and the systems surrounding it became almost a singular obsession. I worked to document the experiences of social media users, collaborated with numerous individuals, and learned about the structural limitations to changing the system.

Over the years, my views on the relationship between free speech and tech have evolved. Once I believed that companies should play no role in governing our speech, but later I shifted to pragmatism, seeking ways to mitigate the harm of their decisions and enforce limits on their power.

But while the parameters of the problem and its potential solutions grew clearer, so did my thesis: Content moderation— specifically, the uneven enforcement of already-inconsistent policies—disproportionately impacts marginalized communities and exacerbates existing structural power balances. Offline repression is, as it turns out, replicated online.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency brought the issue of content moderation to the fore; suddenly, the terms of the debate shifted. Conservatives in the United States claimed they were unjustly singled out by Big Tech and the media amplified those claims—much to my chagrin, since they were not borne out by data. At the same time, the rise of right-wing extremism, disinformation, and harassment—such as the spread of the QAnon conspiracy and wildly inaccurate information about vaccines—on social media led me to doubt some of my earlier conclusions about the role Big Tech should play in governing speech.

That’s when I knew that it was time to write about content moderation’s less-debated harms and to document them in a book.

Setting out to write about a subject I know so intimately (and have even experienced firsthand), I thought I knew what I would say. But the process turned out to be a learning experience that caused me to rethink some of my own assumptions about the right way forward.

One of the final interviews I conducted for the book was with Dave Willner, one of the early policy architects at Facebook. Sitting at a café in San Francisco just a few months before the pandemic hit, he told me: “Social media empowers previously marginal people, and some of those previously marginal people are trans teenagers and some are neo-Nazis. The empowerment sense is the same, and some of it we think is good and some of it we think is not good. The coming together of people with rare problems or views is agnostic.”

That framing guided me in the final months of writing. My instinct, based on those early experiences with social media as a democratizing force, has always been to think about the unintended consequences of any policy for the world’s most vulnerable users, and it is that lens that guides my passion for protecting free expression. But I also see now that it is imperative never to forget a crucial fact—that the very same tools which have empowered historically marginalized communities can also enable their oppressors.

The post Between Nazis and democracy activists: social media and the free speech dilemma appeared first on The Conversationalist.

April Fools’ Day in the year of the plague

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/04/2021 - 4:57am in

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In which the writer reflects with guarded optimism on a deeply traumatic year. 

April Fools’ Day has always been an idiotic quasi-holiday, offering some people an opportunity to pull pranks and others the chance to observe them–mostly by scrolling through Twitter to see which corporations embarrassed themselves the most with misguided attempts at humor (see: Duolingo’s announcement about a new line of educational toilet paper or Budweiser’s anchovy-pizza seltzer.) But for me, the context and significance of April 1 turned in on itself this year, a house of mirrors. April Fools’ Day is now serious business, a day of joy and gratitude, hope and rebirth.

On April 1, 2020, I drove with my son to the hospital 20 minutes away to retrieve my husband. Josh had been admitted to the ICU two weeks earlier and hooked up to a ventilator before making a miraculous recovery. As AJ and I pulled up into the circular driveway, the entire staff was outside clapping and cheering for Josh, who was being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse because he could barely walk.

We know a lot about the coronavirus now, but back then, everybody was flying blind. Josh was the first Covid patient at this particular hospital. Misinformation, often coming from the highest levels of our government, was rampant. As Josh got sicker and sicker, the President of the United States was telling the American public to “Just stay calm. It will go away.” By the end of April, he was encouraging people to inject bleach. The pulmonologist thought there was a 70 percent chance Josh wouldn’t make it. Nobody had any idea if he would experience long-term effects following his hospitalization. So far, he hasn’t. 

If someone had told me last year that by this time in 2021 Josh and I would be fully vaccinated and starting to plan our reintegration into society, I would have sent you one of those Brady Bunch “Sure, Jan” GIFs. But look at us, two Pfizer vaccine doses in each of our arms, blessed with good health, a network of supportive friends and family and access to my parents’ house outside of New York City. We go on long nature walks and appreciate silence, the beauty of simplicity: a sunset, tall trees, birds chirping, the frenetic energy of our dog when she sees a squirrel. I try to receive every day as a gift, thinking, There but for the grace of God go I and all that (even though I’m an atheist.)  

Yet, the week leading up to this moment felt precarious, as if we were being haunted by ghosts, reliving last year’s trauma. Psychologists call this “the anniversary effect,” a phenomenon I first heard about, fittingly, while watching the horror series “Stranger Things” on Netflix. As the one-year anniversary of Josh’s recovery approached, he felt ready to revisit the notes he wrote to himself on his phone when he was in the hospital–before and after he was intubated–and showed them to me for the first time. “Rachel and AJ waving goodbye. Saying they loved me. There were a bunch of other people and vehicles on the street. Escorts?” he wrote on March 20, 2020. I vividly remembered the EMTs that day in their white hazmat gear, carrying Josh out to the ambulance as he gasped for air. The following day, Josh wrote in his notes that he was “doing what needed to be done” to give himself the best chance of seeing us again. When I read that, I felt that muscle memory of the panic, the fight-or-flight mode in which my body existed for that entire two-week period he was away from us, in his own version of the Upside Down. And we’re not out of the woods yet.  

I am one of the estimated 2.3 million women who have been pushed out of the workforce as a consequence of the pandemic—possibly permanently, but who the hell knows. That’s not to say I haven’t been working. I’ve just been doing the arduous but unpaid labor of being a housewife—cooking, cleaning, homeschooling—while my husband works full time from a makeshift home office. To be sure, some elements of our new arrangement have been delightful, like having dinner together every night, discovering the joy of cooking and embracing activities like watercolor painting, which I hadn’t done in 20 years. There are sparks of joy in the small quotidian details of our home life. At the same time, I’m acutely aware that the only reason I am able to revel in these precious moments is because I am not constantly worried that one illness will hurl me into bankruptcy. 

When Josh got out of the hospital, we received a bill for $208,000, the overwhelming majority of which was covered by his employer-backed healthcare plan. (Allegedly, the federal government would have paid for these expenses if we were uninsured, but I suspect we’d still be locked in an ongoing back-and-forth with the hospital’s billing department, like the woman who was billed $52,000 for an out-of-network emergency helicopter ride.) More alarming still is thinking about the counterfactual universe—the universe where Josh didn’t survive—in which I would have become not just a widow, but an unemployed and uninsured single mother, right at the moment I needed healthcare support the most. All because I do not have a job. Due to circumstances beyond my control. This is unacceptable, denying human dignity to people who can’t work, and of course it has always been unacceptable. The coronavirus, if nothing else, has laid bare the hypocrisy of a nation founded on the principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without considering that healthcare is a prerequisite for any of those things. 

There has been so much suffering this past year. 530,000 deaths. 20 million job losses. 8 million Americans sinking into poverty. On the same day Josh got out of the hospital last year, one of my oldest friends said goodbye to her father, who was intubated the day after Josh was. We texted each other back and forth through the horrors of those days. Her father was the first of many people I know who didn’t make it. This anniversary has been very hard for her family. 

When people check in to see how we’re doing, I don’t know what to say. I’m fine, mostly. Because of my good fortune, I sometimes don’t feel like I’m entitled to be unhappy. But I also know—thanks to my therapist who is covered by my healthcare plan—that delegitimizing suffering because others have had it worse is not a constructive way to experience the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction between privilege, which exists in relation to others, and suffering, which feels absolute, solitary, and all-consuming. The only way through it is to feel it. 

Credit: Rachel DodesRachel Dodes with her husband and son.

My seven-year-old son shook me awake early in the morning on April Fools’ Day; I was screaming in my sleep. In my dream, a swarm of live bats were flapping their wings in my face, alighting on my hands. One need not be named Sigmund Freud to decode this obvious Covid anxiety dream, reflecting a truth I’ve learned to appreciate over the course of this pandemic: how deeply interdependent we are, not just with other humans, but with the entire natural world. People, bats, pangolins–all tangled in a web of destiny. If we don’t redouble our efforts to be prepared when the next pandemic inevitably rears its head, “we are finished,” warned Jane Goodall last year, speaking at an online environmental conference. “We can’t go on very much longer like this.”

As the trees begin to bloom, and the birds fly home, I am feeling hints of optimism. We’re alive. We’re vaccinated. We should celebrate. Josh asked me if I wanted to mark our one-year milestone by dining at an actual restaurant for the first time since February 2020. Of course I did. This was a very exciting development. But the joke was on us: It was freezing cold on April 1, too cold to be outside, a symbolic reminder that things are still far from being “normal,” and in fact may never be again. 

But that’s OK. Because what we settled for before as “normal” wasn’t nearly good enough.

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‘Patria y Vida’: the Cuban song that has become a global rallying cry

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 02/04/2021 - 6:10am in

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The Cuban government is enraged at the song’s message and its popularity.

‘Patria o muerte’ — homeland or death. Those three words can be found all over Cuba: on graffiti, murals, government signs, state media, money. While alive, Fidel Castro repeated them often, turning them into a slogan emblazoned on the consciousness of the people; a definition of what it means to be a true Cuban after the 1959 revolution. But a song released by Cuban artists in late February took those words and inverted their meaning. “Patria y Vida,” the song is called, Homeland and Life.

The lyrics and the video have taken the island and its diaspora by storm. They have also enraged the Cuban government.

The song is a rebuke of the regime, accusing the government of playing its people like dominos. “Patria y Vida” has turned into a rallying cry and a powerful call for Cubans to abandon fear, speak truth to power and demand the island take care of their own as well as they take care of tourists and foreign interests. It’s a collaboration between Cuban musicians both off the island—including Grammy winner Descemer Bueno, rapper Yotuel, the reggaeton duo Gente de Zona—and dissident musicians on the island including Maykel Osorbo, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and El Funky, who are part of the grassroots San Isidro movement for of artists and intellectuals combating the prohibition of artistic freedom. The mere presence of these men in the video puts them at risk; they had to film it in secret.

The video, which has so far been viewed 4 million times, is relatively simple in execution. It opens with an image of José Martí, one of the island’s most celebrated national heroes, burning away to reveal the face of George Washington, in a criticism directed at the government for its interest in foreign currency over the well-being of its citizens. The video is a montage of footage made by artists in Cuba and afuera (outside), along with clips from San Isidro protests and subsequent arrests. “Se acabó, ya se venció tu tiempo, se rompió el silencio,” they sing again and again in the song. “It’s over, your time is up, and the silence has been broken.” In an act now being repeated across social media, Yotuel also has the words ‘Patria y Vida’ written in white across his chest.

Cindy Ermus, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Cuban-American, pointed to the many reasons the song has exploded both on the island and in the diaspora. She identifies the new expansion of internet access in Cuba as one consideration, adding that everyone she’s spoken with in Cuba seems to have heard it. “‘Patria y vida’ is quickly becoming a new rallying cry alongside ‘Cuba libre!’ and ‘libertad!’” she tells The Conversationalist. “One can find the phrase on shirts, stickers, and other items, as well as in the form of art installations and graffiti in Cuba, Miami, and across the diaspora.”

The video explodes with grief and pain—hand movements showing the pent up frustration and facial expressions spilling over with anguish. There is also sheer bravery in the act of this art. In an interview, the members of Gente de Zona, who now live in Miami, said they kept silent about their beliefs for years, worried about the repercussions that family members who still live on the island would face. But, they added, now is the time to leave behind their fear and speak out. “The price of this song is that I won’t be able to return to Cuba,” Descemer told journalist Jorge Ramos in the New York Times.

“The youth of Cuba want life, they want another Cuba, other air, liberty, rights, dreams,” Yotuel told Ramos. “We don’t want the option to be death.”

“Our hope is that the situation in Cuba improves,” Gente de Zona’s Alexandre Delgado told Billboard. “We deserve a change in 2021, and our country has no need to be suffering as it has for generations. It’s been 62 years with the same government that has hurt Cuba and its people, leaving youth with no hope. We’ve also been victims for the simple fact of thinking different, of not being Communist. We’ve been attacked and censored.”

Academics the world over have stressed the song’s importance. In a Twitter thread Ana Dopico, director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, wrote: “‘Patria y vida,’ in 3 little words, wakes us up from a dream, or a stupor. Forced choices are refused. Life is affirmed. Make the nation or die, the old saying demands. Either way there is victory. The artists, the song, the video refuse this, and the nation is joined to life.”

The Cuban government’s response to ‘Patria y Vida’ has been vitriolic. As Ramos wrote in the Times, the fact that they have publicly responded shows the power of the song and its popularity. “This song full of hate that tries to make fun of everything we are, everything we gave to be free,” declared the writer of an article in the Cuban government run paper Granma. “Its hate doesn’t represent me. Its horrible lyrics don’t represent me. Gente de Zona doesn’t represent me.”

‘Patria y Vida’ is the latest in a wave of statements by Cuban artists and musicians who are risking their safety to speak out against the communist government and Fidel Castro. In a December interview for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady interviewed Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement, who appears in the ‘Patria y Vida’ video; she asked him for his thoughts on Castro. “His answer stunned not because I disagreed but because challenging the godlike myth of the comandante, alive or dead, has always been taboo,” she wrote. “‘For me he was a bad person, and what he did is not justified by what he did in things like health care,’ the 33-year-old performance artist said. ‘If you repress someone because they wrote a poem you don’t like or you arrest young people continually, you are not a good person. This repression has destroyed the lives of intellectuals.’”

Demonstrating how much the song has rattled the Cuban government, President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez tweeted repeatedly on the matter. “Patria o muerte! Thousands of us shouted last night,” he wrote on February 19. “They wanted to erase our slogan and we made it go viral.”

“We must acknowledge the struggle of the Cuban people, and the fact that so many—and each day more—have become exasperated with the rhetoric and the repression that in part characterizes the Cuban government,” Ermus tells The Conversationalist. “With its calls for libertad, and with its artists’ plea for dignity and for respect—‘Somos la dignidad de un pueblo entero pisoteada,’ a reasonable appeal for the right to artistic expression and an end to violence—a song like this is bound to resonate with the Cuban people, and indeed, with all people.”

The power of the song continues to pick up momentum, with the resonance of the lyrics and the video reverberating across the Cuban community both on the island and abroad. “Publicizing a paradise,” the lyrics say of Cuba, “While mothers cry for their sons who’ve left.” The ones who left and the ones who stayed are joining their voices together, and it’s getting harder and harder for the government to keep them quiet.

 

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Pakistani women are claiming their right to be in public spaces—one cup of chai at a time

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 26/03/2021 - 3:20pm in

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The recent proliferation of high end chai dhabas inspired a national conversation about freedom of movement for women.

It’s a truth widely accepted in Pakistan that drinking chai is what makes you a true native. And not just any chai, but the sweet, milky, caramel-colored brew that is served at dhabas (outdoor tea stands) and slurped noisily while sitting on a small plastic chair, waiting for the dhabay wala to bring you another cup because one is never enough.

But while street dhabas play a major role in Pakistani society, they are traditionally a male-dominated space.

Granaz Baloch, a teaching fellow at the University of Turbat in Balochistan, is a feminist academic and writer whose research focuses on the gender challenges rural women face in finding potable water. She said that while dhabas in Turbat provide “information, opportunities and networking” for men in the city, women are not welcome. But this is not a Turbat-specific issue. Until recently, it was very unusual to see a woman enjoying the simple pleasure of a leisurely cup of chai at a roadside stand anywhere in Pakistan. Now attitudes are beginning to change, partly on the back of social media driven influencer culture. 

Granaz Baloch

Chai Wala is a hip Karachi café (tagline: “reinventing the chai experience”) that serves upscale versions of traditional dhaba snack foods and beverages. Established five years ago, it attracts young men and women who are drawn to its trendy decor and menu, which includes Nutella chai, “artisanal” teas, and “dips” like hummus. It also sells branded merchandise. Places like Chai Wala have taken the concept of the traditional working class outdoor tea stand and reinterpreted it to attract a bourgeois clientele. 

Credit: Chai Wala site (http://www.chaiwala.pk)The scene at Chai Wala.

Shaheera Anwar, a 29 year old journalist who moved from Saudi Arabia to Karachi in 2017, got engaged at a traditional outdoor dhaba. “I was dating my now-husband and we often hung out at dhabas after work—and I am someone who hates grand, public gestures, so I got proposed to at a dhaba,” she said. Shaheera is aware that dhaba culture has since become trendy, and she is not sure this is a good thing. She sees places like Chai Wala as gathering places for the rich that erase the egalitarian culture of the traditional dhabas.

Credit: Shaheera AnwarShaheera Anwar getting engaged at a traditional dhaba in Karachi.

Among middle class Pakistanis there is a widely-held perception that high end dhabas are safer for women because they attract a “better crowd.” This raises the question of the role class plays in Pakistani society, and how it affects the way women are treated in the public domain. 

The emergence of high end dhabas occurred right around the time that a feminist collective founded an organization called Girls at Dhabas,  which addresses the absence of women in public spaces and strives to reclaim them. The media gave significant coverage to the group when it first launched, but while press attention has since dwindled the movement has only grown stronger and more vocal in addressing the structural problems that prevent Pakistani women from moving about freely in the public square.

“It took living in other countries to learn that I had been conforming to a clever scam my whole life, thinking the city belonged only to men,” said movement founder Sadia Khatri. Sadia speaks in poetic language about the joy that comes with finally breaking free of the restraints placed on women’s freedom of movement. “The city’s breath rising to meet mine with each step, the pleasure of placing one foot before another, unthinking, meditative. The trust that so long as I kept going, Karachi would keep expanding, opening up before me.”

Many Pakistani women are making similar discoveries about the joy found in moving about in public. Maliha, who re-entered the corporate world after a career break, said that working in an office brought a kind of freedom she had all but forgotten. By extension, sitting at dhabas no longer seemed as daunting. “You gain enough confidence that when someone tries to harass or catcall you, you don’t shy away from hitting back,” she said.  Maliha found herself easing into the spaces she wanted to be. “The more you become accustomed to an environment, the more you learn about an environment, the more confident you become in dealing with that environment,” she said. 

Shoaib is the owner of a successful traditional dhaba in Lahore that specializes in Amritsari hareesa, which the women in his family make according to an old family recipe. He cheerfully  acknowledges that his clientele, once predominantly male and working class, has expanded to include families and women; and he has noticed the increased presence of women on the streets. But while Shoaib expressed no objection to other women claiming public spaces as their own, he said he would not want the women of his own family to be seen on the street or eating a meal at a restaurant. For Shoaib the women he saw eating at his dhaba represented a different lived reality—one that was simply not his. 

Shoaib’s perception of the class divide seems accurate. Upper-class women at posh dhabas are granted the right to be there because they come with the entitlement associated with their socioeconomic class. They are accustomed to being addressed as “ma’am,” and the staff treat them accordingly. Working class women, however, do not see these cafés as their place.

But Sanam, a supervisor at Shahi Bawarchi Khana, a fashionable restaurant in Old Lahore,  banished her insecurities and discomfort about being out in public. “I no longer feel uncomfortable in public spaces, because I know I can handle myself,” she said of working in a restaurant, adding that “girls need to keep moving forward and face the world.” Unlike the women who founded the feminist collective Girls at Dhabas, Sanam is not from the educated upper class. But with her unapologetic confidence she is exactly the kind that needs to be normalized within this debate about public spaces. 

Aqib, the manager at a trendy chai dhaba style restaurant in Old Lahore, articulated his perception of how class drives the lived reality for women in Pakistan. “Women come here more than men now, especially young TikTokers who like creating a big fuss,” he said of the changing demographics among his customers. Like Shoaib, the proprietor of the traditional dhaba that specializes in Amritsari hareesa, Aqib thought that the increased presence of women in the public domain should occur within cultural limitations. 

But what Pakistani men think about gender roles is slowly becoming irrelevant to the women who are paving a path forward. In Karachi’s impoverished Lyari district, notorious for its gun battles between criminal gangs, Shazia Jameel, the manager at Lyari Girls’ Café provides a space in this very male dominated area where women can gather. At the café they can take English language classes, learn boxing, study hair styling and makeup techniques, and chat in a relaxed atmosphere without fear of molestation. Shazia leads a group of women from the café who go cycling on Sundays, stopping on the way back from their ride for breakfast at a male dominated dhaba. At first the women were uncomfortable there, but that feeling has since disappeared. Now they are regulars.

The truth is, it’s not the piercing gazes or the opinions that have really changed, especially not among the working class. What has begun to change is women’s responses to traditional mindsets. The posh dhabas are not remotely inclusive places, nor would anyone argue otherwise. But the noise around them has led women to question why they accepted the limitations placed on their freedom of movement in their own country. They now regard strolling the streets and sitting in cafés as their right. Shazia Jameel puts the onus for protecting women’s safety on the authorities, calling upon them to instal CCTV cameras. She also advocates legislation to eradicate religious extremism, which she blames for the perpetration of restrictive attitudes toward women. 

Shazia is right. It’s well past time that the right of women to move about in public without fear of molestation be protected. Nor should they be held responsible for the way men behave toward them. Despite what the old guard may think, change is coming from every direction, one cup of chai at a time. 

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Despite big wins at the Grammys, women are vastly underrepresented in pop music

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/03/2021 - 1:54am in

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Over the past decade, women in the music industry have seen no notable improvement in visibility.

At Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, women won big. For the first time in Grammys’ history, the top four prizes went to four separate solo women: Megan Thee Stallion won Best New Artist, Taylor Swift took home Album of the Year, Billie Eilish snagged Record of the Year, and H.E.R. won for Song of the Year. Beyoncé in turn claimed four awards, which brought her lifetime total to 28—more than any other female artist, ever.

But the recognition of women at the Grammys, while welcome, is not an accurate reflection of their standing in the music industry. A study released earlier this month by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that women’s place in pop music is dismal—that they are vastly underrepresented. The study showed in no uncertain terms that since 2012 no progress has been made.

The study, called “Inclusion in the Recording Studio,” is one that researcher Stacy L. Smith has been leading annually for the last four years. Smith and her team had previously conducted similar work analyzing film and television, before expanding their focus to include the music industry as well. When her first report was released in 2018, it caused a stir. The study showed that with respect to the top 600 songs since 2012, only 16.8 percent were performed by female artists; analyzing the same pool of songs, only 12.3 percent of the songwriters credited were female and 2 percent of producers. When it came to Grammy nominees, between 2013 and 2018, 90.7 percent  of the nominees were male.

Neil Portnow, the then-president and CEO of the Recording Academy, which determines the Grammys, argued that if women wanted to be recognized they needed to “step up,” effectively blaming women—rather than the system—for their lack of visibility, opportunity, and recognition. The ensuing backlash included calls for Portnow’s resignation, and the rise of the popular #GrammysSoMale hashtag. A scathing open letter written by female executives from many sectors of the music world lambasted Portnow and demanded his resignation. “The statement you made this week about women in music needing to ‘step up’ was spectacularly wrong and insulting and, at its core, oblivious to the vast body of work created by and with women,” they wrote. “We do not have to sing louder, jump higher or be nicer to prove ourselves.” They added: “We step up every single day and have been doing so for a long time. The fact that you don’t realize this means it’s time for you to step down.” Portnow, it should be noted, did resign from his position in 2019 which many took as a way to gracefully remove himself from the controversy.

But the following year, even after all that noise, there was almost no change. The latest numbers released in early March, which analyze credit information from the Hot 100 songs on the Billboard year-end charts for each year from 2012-2020, actually show that women’s place in the industry is a little bit worse than it was before. Last year, women made up 20.2 percent of artists whereas the year before that the number was higher, at 22.5 percent. While women like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift take center stage, behind the scenes women are even more outnumbered. When it comes to producers, the ratio of men to women is 38 to 1, while songwriters women only make up 12.6 percent. Further on the subject of songwriters, from 2012-2020 Max Martin was the top male songwriter, with 44 credits on the songs analyzed; the top female songwriter was Nikki Minaj with only 19 credits.

The reports’ central takeaway is that over the past decade, women in the music industry have seen no notable improvement in visibility. This is true even as a number of initiatives have sprung up in recent years to try and address the industry’s systemic problems, like She Is the Music, co-founded by Alicia Keys to empower female creators.

“The advocacy around women in music has continued, but women represented less than one-third of artists, clocked in at 12.6 percent of songwriters, and were fewer than 3 percent of all producers on the popular charts between 2012 and 2020,” the authors of the Annenberg report wrote in the study’s conclusion. “The music industry must examine how its decision-making, practices, and beliefs perpetuate the underrepresentation of women artists, songwriters, and producers.”

“To fully examine this problem, we have to look at schools where females are more likely to be encouraged as vocalists than instrumentalists. While things are changing, there still exists a bias toward female ‘musicians.’ And this bias extends to any opportunities given to students to learn technology as well. Once out of school, women in the music industry aren’t taken as seriously as producers or front women of their own bands. Some genres in particular have excluded women from radio play,” explains Susan Cattaneo, a musician and associate professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music. “The fact that women aren’t considered ‘bankable’ means they’re not given the same radio air time as their male counterparts. For every seven male artists on a country playlist, there is only one woman played.”

Cattaneo adds, “Unfortunately, the music business is still a man’s world so there is this perspective that women can’t do the job that men can do. This applies to female producers, engineers, performing artists, and songwriters. It’s a pervasive problem in all genres of music.”

“It has been wonderful to see a number of musical superstars who have taken full control over

their careers including their branding, their image and their business,” Cattaneo said. “Unfortunately, we’ve also seen that no matter who the artist is (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears), they have had to pay for that control with various kinds of backlash from the industry and their fan base.”

The Annenberg study did show a positive trend for women in terms of Grammy nominations, calling 2021, “a high point for women in nearly every category considered.” Even so, there were 198 female nominees and 655 male nominees. That said, this was the first year the Recording Academy publicly reported those numbers which is a step in the right direction.

Another glimmer of hope on the horizon is that the Recording Academy earlier this month announced they’d be partnering with Berklee College of Music and Arizona State University to conduct a study on women’s representation in the music industry. “The data collected from the study will be utilized to develop and empower the next generation of women music creators by generating actionable items and solutions to help inform the Academy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives amongst its membership and the greater music industry,” the Recording Academy said in a statement.

Still it should be said that in 2019 the Recording Academy made promises to move equity forward through the establishment of an inclusion initiative called “Women in the Mix.” The goal was to increase women’s presence as producers and engineers by asking for all involved to commit to considering at least two female candidates when making hiring decisions. The announcement cited the 2018 USC Annenberg study which said only 2 percent of pop producers were women and 3 percent of sound engineers. Now in 2020 those numbers are relatively unchanged.

As Smith, who runs the Annenberg study wrote in this year’s report, “Solutions like the Women in the Mix pledge require pledge-takers who are intentional and accountable, and an industry that is committed to making change — something that clearly has not happened in this case.”

Perhaps, though, the sweep of wins for women at this year’s Grammys will be a harbinger for change. And for pop music to become equitable, change it must. “There has been no meaningful and sustained increase in the percentage of artists in nearly a decade,” Smith wrote in this year’s study. We have to do better than that.

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For asylum seekers, Canada’s immigration policies can seem capricious and even cruel

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/03/2021 - 1:05am in

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Thousands of U.S. residents who were undocumented or on non-permanent visas fled to Canada during the Trump years.

Rodney* (not his real name) works as a machine operator at Canada Bread’s assembly line. To get to work each day he travels an hour by public transportation from his home in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood to a production plant on the other side of town. He alternates day and night shifts, bagging bread products for the city’s major supermarkets; barring a three-week mandatory furlough, he’s worked through the pandemic without a break. Rodney is both an essential frontline worker and an asylum seeker.

The 36-year-old former police officer left his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica in February of 2015 when he learned that someone had put out a hit on him and his family due to his work in a special anti-corruption unit. Someone shot his younger sister, who lives with their elderly parents.

She survived, but Rodney knew he had to leave the country in order to protect his family. He fled to Florida, and then moved to New York City, where an aunt lived. But refugee claimants faced an uncertain future in the United States; he wanted something better and more permanent. So, in March of 2018, he crossed the border to Canada.

“My aunt lives in Queens, so I took a Greyhound bus to upstate New York and then a taxi to Roxham Road,” he told me.

Roxham Road: the trickle that became a tsunami

Before 2017, Roxham Road was just a quiet street in the small town of Plattsburgh, N.Y., which is right on the Canadian border. In February of that year the Trump administration began implementing its cruel immigration policies and people who had been in the U.S. for years, either as undocumented immigrants or on non-permanent visas, began to flee—many of them to Canada. It was then that the Roxham Road border crossing gained international attention.

This is the spot where many asylum seekers have crossed from the U.S. to Canada on foot, because a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed by both countries, exempts asylum claimants who cross at unofficial entry points from being turned back. People who enter Canada from the U.S. at an official port of entry are ineligible to make a refugee claim and will be returned to the U.S.; the bilateral agreement presupposes the U.S. is a safe country for asylum seekers. In 2017, the Canadian Council for Refugees joined in a legal challenge against the Canadian government, asserting that the U.S. was no longer a safe haven for asylum seekers. Canada’s Federal Court agreed, ruling that the agreement breaches constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and security.

Prior to February 2017, says the Refugee Board of Canada, the number of asylum seekers coming from the States was in the hundreds. By September 2020, it skyrocketed to 58,625. As of this writing, roughly 16,000 claims have been accepted, 13,000 rejected, and slightly more than 27,000 cases are still pending. Research conducted by the Migration Policy Institute suggests around 40 percent of people who crossed that border left the U.S. “for reasons directly tied to U.S. immigration policies.”

The Trump administration implemented policies that made thousands of desperate people feel they faced the kind of harm Amnesty International qualified as “catastrophic.” Illegal family separations; massive pushbacks of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border; cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees; and indefinite detention in deliberately cruel conditions, often bordering on torture, of people who were treated like criminals only because they sought a better life.

But while Canada’s immigration system looks better than its southern neighbor’s, it is still deeply flawed. For asylum seekers, the policies can seem capricious and even cruel. Rodney feels that the treatment he received at the hands of Canadian officials has been unjust.

“When I crossed, they arrested me, searched me, looked at my documentation, and put me in a room where I waited,” he said. Hours passed until a bus transported him to a holding area, where he waited until 1 a.m. to be interviewed.

The Canadian Border Services agent who interviewed him, he said, adopted a confrontational tone and made him feel that she was not assessing his request fairly.

Rodney told the agent about documentation that included sworn affidavits from his family and newspaper articles about his undercover work with the police, but the agent didn’t seem to believe him. “She kept inferring that my sister being shot was an accident and not a deliberate attempt on her life,” he said.

Non-recorded interviews pose a problem

That interview is now being used to undermine Rodney’s claim for asylum.

In the crucial Basis of Claim (BOC) document, upon which the Refugee Board decides whether or not to grant the applicant asylum, the agent wrote that Rodney had been instructed to destroy evidence during the course of his work as a police officer. Rodney denies having told the agent anything of the kind. But because the interview was not recorded, he is locked in a “he said/she said” situation.

He did not even learn what the agent had written on the form until his hearing in September of 2020. “When the judge started asking me why I hadn’t disclosed this so-called information, I explained that I couldn’t omit something that I had never said.” He added that the judge also asked why the newspaper articles didn’t report his name, “when it should have been obvious that it had been omitted to protect me and my family.”

Rodney does not understand why he was not allowed to see the original document at the time the agent took his statement. “It’s a statement that is essentially attributed to me, so why didn’t I get the opportunity to see what’s disclosed? I never saw it, I never signed it, and yet the contradiction between the Canada Border Services agent’s statement and my testimonial at the hearing is why my asylum request was basically denied, according to the judge.”

Jacqueline Callin, a spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), confirmed that it was not the agency’s practice to record refugee claimants’ statements at ports of entry. But she did maintain that, while she could not comment on Rodney’s case specifically, CBSA rules stipulated that refugee claimants and their representatives should, in general, receive copies of the statement in advance of the hearing.

But Rodney insists the CBSA never gave him a copy of his file. “I was only given certified copies of my birth certificate and my passport from the same CBSA officer who interviewed me at the port of entry,” he said. His original birth certificate and passport are still with the border agency.

Long-standing issues persist

Rodney’s lawyer, Perla Abou-Jaoude, said that the CBSA often ignores routine requests for access to applicants’ files. This “puts the applicant at a disadvantage,” she said “and could be rectified so easily”— if the government agency would simply make a routine practice of providing a copy of the applicant’s file simultaneously to their lawyer and the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Recording the interviews, she said, would also be an effective way of ensuring transparency and accountability.

Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), a national non-profit umbrella organization, said that the absence of recorded interviews was a “long-standing issue” and one that the council has been trying to rectify for a long time.

“You call a simple help line these days and you’re immediately informed that you’re being recorded,” she said. “Yet we’re not recording these important interviews when people’s lives are on the line, when [doing so] would allow the government to monitor the conduct of their agents? I don’t understand why they’re so resistant to it.”

Responding to complex questions under duress

Dench said the CCR’s position is that the task of asking these important questions and filling out the BOC should not be carried out by CBSA agents. “Asking such complex questions when people are tired, confused, and scared is questionable. We have repeatedly asked the IRB not to put too much weight on these initial testimonials, and for the most part, they don’t, but every case is different. Bottom line, the CBSA should not be conducting these assessments, and if they are, they should be recorded.”

Abou-Jaoude also questioned a practice that has refugee claimants filling out complicated forms when they’re exhausted, frightened, confused, and sometimes unaware of what they’re signing because of language barriers. Mistakes during the initial declaration can potentially affect their credibility and chances. Rodney and his lawyer have filed an appeal and he’s now waiting to hear back. The process could take up to a year.

Working as a frontline worker in a foreign country

In the meantime, Rodney works. He has no family in Canada, and he tells me that he leads a rather solitary life. When I tell him that it sounds lonely, there’s a long pause on the other end of the line. His older sister, who was severely handicapped, passed away this past October. Rodney was not able to attend her funeral or be with his family in mourning. He worries about his parents who have health problems, and he sends what money he can afford back home. “I don’t make much, but I make sacrifices so I can help them.”

When I ask him if he likes what he does, I can “hear” the shrug through the telephone. “I’m indifferent,” he said. “I work hard, and I always try to be professional. But I’m working to survive, so I can help my family.”

When the pandemic hit Rodney was working the night shift at Canada Bread. Workers have been equipped with surgical masks and face shields, so he feels safe at the plant. And his company has provided him with a letter explaining his presence outside during Quebec’s 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

“The very first night the curfew was implemented I was stopped,” he said. “I was waiting for the bus early in the morning and a police car going in the opposite direction immediately made a U-turn and came straight at me. I showed them the letter.”

I ask him what his first impression of Montreal was. “It’s a lot more French than I expected before coming here,” he said, laughing. “I’m slowly learning the language and I wish I could take classes and improve it, but work exhausts me. I often finish my shift at 1 a.m. and at that hour the bus doesn’t pass by too often, so I routinely wait an additional 45 minutes just to board it. Then, another hour to get home,” he trails off.

With the hearing coming up, Rodney wants to share what happened to him. He wants people to understand that the system needs improving.

Canadian border agents under investigation

He’s not the only one who thinks so. In 2019, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians launched a review into the actions of the CBSA, following multiple reports of flaws within the agency, as well as multiple harassment allegations. CBC News reported that the agency had investigated 1,200 allegations against its own staff over a two-and-a-half-year period.

“CBSA agents have a lot of discretionary power, but there’s no outside oversight of staff conduct, which can occasionally be problematic,” said Abou-Jaoude.  Dench confirmed that the CCR was very aware of the lack of accountability and transparency.

Considering the power and scope border policing agents have, combined with allegations of serious misconduct that include unnecessary force, conflict of interest, and sexual harassment, one would think the government would welcome recorded interview sessions, since they would protect both the applicants and the agency’s reputation.

“So much is at stake here— for me and my family,” Rodney says. “I have no recourse now. There’s a contradiction between [the CBSA agent’s] statement and my story and naturally the judge will take her word as being neutral and accurate. But what she wrote was inaccurate and there’s no way for me to prove it.”

 

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French gov’t diverts attention from its war on academic freedom with free period products

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/03/2021 - 2:41pm in

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The Minister of Higher Education branded academics “Islamo-leftists,” claiming they bear responsibility for terror attacks.

When France’s Minister of Higher Education and Research, Frederique Vidal, announced last month that free, environmentally friendly period products would be made available on French campuses, the news generated ample national and international media coverage. This measure must be recognized as a victory for French student unions, which have long campaigned against  period poverty. Yet, a good news story about the country’s campuses is also what the center-right ruling party, La République en Marche, needs right now to distract us from the reality of what the government is doing to French universities—which is far more sinister.

In recent years, Paris has engaged in frontal attacks on academic freedom. Austerity measures have eroded universities, with students and staff struggling with deteriorating working and learning conditions. A controversial new higher education law is set to damage academic autonomy and quality by consolidating short-term employment and funding, and the role of private companies.

Most recently, the French government has decided to turn public universities into a battleground on which to wage a culture war ahead of the April 2022 presidential elections—where they will likely try and appeal to the far right. Feeding into public antagonism toward Muslims, Vidal has attacked so-called “Islamo-leftists” in universities, claiming that academics engaged in race, postcolonial, and gender studies, bear responsibility for terrorist attacks against France. Last month, Vidal called for an investigation into academic research that feeds “Islamo-leftist’’ tendencies that “corrupt society.’’ This caused a general outcry in academia and it remains unclear whether this ludicrous exercise will happen.

But in a context of socio-economic distress and social anxiety due to the pandemic, the government’s inflationary use of the term  helps build an imagined “enemy of the interior,” a treacherous intellectual elite responsible of the country’s ills. The scholars under attack are actually doing critical work in helping us understand the complex mechanisms that perpetuate sexism, racism and class and how they intersect. The official call for a purge of French academia can only raise deep concerns among those who consider academic freedom and intellectual inquiry to be core pillars of a democratic society.

At the same time, the impoverishment of French public universities has continued, carrying with it a deleterious impact on academic autonomy and students’ life. The free period products campaign will cost €15 million ($18 million) a year—a cheap price to buy a progressive reputation and social peace on campus. By comparison, the Union des Etudiants de France (UNEF), one of France’s student unions, has been calling for a €1.5 billion emergency plan to address student poverty.

Compared to the astronomical cost of higher education in the United States, French universities are inexpensive; annual tuition ranges between between €170 to €600 ( $204-$720), depending on the degree. But the principle of free education has been enshrined in the French constitution since 1946, recognized by the state as a duty to its citizens and an integral aspect of the post-WWII social contract. Anyone who completes a Baccalaureate (high school matriculation) is entitled to attend university. While the most prestigious universities remain selective and elite, low tuition fees have had the effect of narrowing socio-economic gaps. This is why French society remains strongly attached to the “free university” principle and has resisted the government’s decades-long ambition to shift to a high tuition system like the one in the United States. And yet, even with low or free tuition, student poverty is today a stark reality in France: about 20 percent of students live below the poverty line, while 46 percent are seeing their academic work suffer because they have been forced to take jobs to compensate for the severe cuts to once-adequate state financial aid.

In face of the deterioration of their learning and living conditions, student anger is brewing. Last year, a student in Lyon set himself on fire in Lyon to protest academic poverty. Over the past two decades of budget austerity, academics’ working conditions have also steadily worsened. The recruitment of permanent academic staff has been minimal while student numbers have increased very fast. Rather than ramp up university support, though, some €6 billion of public funding are annually paid to private companies to support their R&D efforts through the Research Tax Credit, with very limited impact on France’s research achievements.

Vidal’s new Higher Education and Research Law, adopted in December despite the academic community’s quasi-unanimous rejection, will deepen the inequalities between a few well-resourced institutions and the majority of cash-strapped universities.

The law increases the number of early-career academic staff who are forced to work as adjuncts rather than staff with benefits; it also reinforces the funding of public research through short-term projects and commercial companies. This will have a damaging impact on academic autonomy and quality.

All of this, meanwhile, is playing out while France grapples with a series of sexual harassment and rape cases that have damaged the reputation of prestigious higher education institutions.,

Academics and students have been calling on the government and university leadership to challenge the power structures that allow for the systemic entrenchment of sexism within French universities. So far, their demands have been met with little response.

Anti-intellectualism, scapegoating of the academic community, and chipping away at university freedom are hardly new or unique to France. These are, indeed, a cornerstone of authoritarian governments, who deploy discursive and legal tactics in order to stifle dissent and free inquiry on campus. Now, as these wars increasingly reach democratic fronts, we must oppose them.

Of course, I am in favor of free period products in universities and schools, but why did France’s universities have to wait for 2021 to receive this benefit? French public universities are an essential public service dedicated to fostering human understanding through open-ended enquiry. They are an instrument of social mobility for many working class youth. They also add to France’s influence on the world stage. As the government dismantles these crucial institutions, we should not allow opportunist politicians to use free tampons as a fig leaf for their actions.

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Christian symbols at the Capitol insurrection ignited a debate among American evangelicals

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/03/2021 - 5:16am in

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‘God and country’ has become a toxic mix in the United States. Can they be uncoupled?

I  was a graduate student in California when I realized that some white American evangelicals decouple their authoritarian views from the type of jingoistic American Christianity that rose to prominence during the early Cold War. I no longer considered myself evangelical by then, but I didn’t tell most of my family, and I still attended church occasionally, particularly when I visited my parents in Indiana. During a conversation about the “God and country” fusion I grew up with (it is now widely called Christian nationalism), my dad said, “You know, you might be surprised, but Pastor Matt* is very critical of all that God and country stuff. For him, God should absolutely come first, and it’s idolatrous to put the nation on the same level.”

I’ve been thinking about what my dad said that day in light of the response from “respectable” evangelicals to the prominent role Christian nationalists played in the January 6 insurrection, in which evangelicals carrying “Jesus 2020” banners and Christian flags participated alongside overt white supremacists displaying Confederate and Nazi symbols. Instead of asking why the vast majority of white evangelicals have so readily made common cause with white nationalists throughout the Trump years, up to and including the events of January 6, respectable evangelical commentators have now chosen to focus on Christian nationalism, full stop, as the problem that needs addressing in evangelical communities. Conveniently, this allows them to avoid looking deeper at the authoritarian theology that upholds the systemic racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ animus underlying evangelicalism.

Not too long before that conversation with my dad, I walked out of one of Pastor Matt’s sermons when he sneeringly equated Islam with terrorism. I was thus surprised to hear that the pastor wasn’t all-in for God and country jingoism. This was, after all, post-9/11 America, when the Bush administration encouraged evangelicals “to deepen their faith’s embrace of nationalism and American exceptionalism,” according to Anthea Butler, who is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She describes the period between 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama in her new book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, as a time in which “the seeds of that racialization [of Islam] were planted.”

From my personal perspective, it certainly was odd to see a display of brazen Islamophobia, which was simultaneously a clear expression of xenophobia, from a pastor who reportedly scoffed at patriotic sentiment. Today, it seems to me that some evangelicals are focusing on the Christian nationalism of their coreligionists precisely as a means of obscuring the bigotry that underscores it, which has deep roots in evangelical subculture and history. In fact, popular author and speaker Beth Moore set the tone here in response to the “Jericho March” that took place in Washington on December 12, 2020, tweeting, “I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.” In a subsequent tweet, she called Christian Trump support “idolatry.” Moore recently announced she is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, although she apparently remains a conservative evangelical.

While we will have to wait and see how far Moore’s convictions may ultimately carry her, attempts to address the harm done by conservative Christianity are bound to fail if they only address expressions of nationalism. One can see the weakness of this approach in Bonnie Kristian’s February 25 column for Christianity Today titled, “Are Christian Schools Training Christians or Americans?”

The column responds to an article of mine for Religion Dispatches, in which I point that out that many of the Capitol invaders, including the notorious Proud Boys, were animated by ideology that was recognizably evangelical. My argument is that Christian schools, Christian homeschooling, and evangelical churches can and often do foster extremism and radicalization. Kristian admits there is some truth to the claim and argues that Christian schools should address the issue by eliminating the widespread practice of reciting three pledges every morning—to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Because public schools also instill nationalism with daily recitations of the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, however, she sees them as no better on this front than Christian schools.

In my view, eliminating the practice of pledging in schools—public or private, sectarian or secular—would be a good thing. I don’t think that children should become pawns in their parents’ disagreements about the meaning of patriotism, or that children who feel uncomfortable reciting pledges should be made to choose between participating in the ritual or feeling alienated from their peers. But the issues with evangelical and fundamentalist schools, which are usually called Christian schools or Christian academies, run so much deeper. For starters, the isolation of children in an ideologically homogeneous conservative Christian environment is harmful.

In Christian schools, students are taught that the schools’ prescribed understanding of Christianity is the absolute truth and that it is their duty to help their community gain the political power to “make the nation obedient to God” in accordance with “the biblical worldview.” In other words, they are taught to reject pluralism and to pursue social domination, imposing their sectarian standards of morality on others, primarily by banning abortion and depriving members of the LGBTQ community of rights. Likewise, Christian schools frequently make headlines for racist incidents, which do not arise in a vacuum. Strikingly, Kristian’s article does not once mention the terms “white,” “race,” or “racism.”

Public schools have their flaws, but they are better suited than their Christian counterparts in preparing children to embrace pluralism and diversity. A healthy democratic society is one composed of people who respect the dignity and human rights of those who are different from them. Exposure to diverse ideas and views helps children develop their own personalities and strengths and values. In Christian schools, children are forced to accept “alternative facts” about science and history, and to conform to ideologies that may negate their identities, which can result in trauma and long-term psychological damage (see also: queer people in evangelical environments). On this point I would direct readers to the work of journalist Rebecca Klein, who describes the Abeka and Bob Jones textbooks commonly used in Christian schools as having “overtones of nativism, militarism and racism.” Klein notes, for example, that the textbooks represent Nelson Mandela as a “Marxist agitator” and denounce the “radical affirmative action” of post-apartheid South Africa, in addition to downplaying the harm and long-term consequences of slavery in America.

Cindy Wang Brandt, an author, parenting expert, and ex-evangelical, was educated at a Christian missionary school in Taiwan. She sees a direct connection between conservative, mostly white evangelicalism and the colonialism and systemic racism that she experienced as a Taiwanese child in a Christian school. Brandt contends that it is impossible to separate the way Christianity is taught from the culture and unconscious biases of those who are teaching it. In practice, Christian teachings and interpretations of the Bible “are delivered by human beings enveloped and shaped by their cultural influences,” she says. Brandt believes it is possible for parents to teach children their religion without indoctrinating or coercing them; in fact, she considers indoctrination to be spiritual abuse. But Christian schools are sites of indoctrination, whereas formal education, according to Brandt, should “give a child tools to investigate the world and to find their place in it with their own agency.”

Reflecting on her experience in the missionary school, Brandt writes that she was taught “to become fearful of [her] own culture.”

I was taught to reject our dearly held values of respecting our elders, with Scriptures quoting Jesus saying we should reject our mother and our father. I was evangelized with the gospel of Jesus Christ by white Americans. When they taught us things of the Christian faith, it was always this is what it means to be Christian, without any acknowledgement that perhaps some of their values have been influenced by white American culture. The result is that I grew to understand that to be white is to be godly, and vice versa. My own culture was colonized out of me as a child taught to follow Jesus Christ.

If “respectable” evangelicals want to engage in good faith with people like me, who have left the fold and who write critically about the Christian education we received, they must grapple honestly with the deeper issues of supremacism, racism, misogyny and anti-LGBTQ animus that underlie the Christian nationalism we all saw at the January 6 insurrection. Even if a large number of evangelical pastors and educators were willing to confront superficial expressions of nationalism in their communities, the deeper biases and supremacist theology that animates these communities would remain. Addressing those issues is going to take more than hand-wringing about white Christian Trump support or giving up the practice of pledging allegiance to the American flag.

* Name changed.

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