The Plight of China’s Migrant Workers

by Dianna Bai

a photo of a Chinese shoemaker
The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot. Having an issue with one of your shoes? No problem, the old cobbler on the sidewalk corner can help you. There are less and less street workers like that now in China, but is some places of cities, we can easily found plenty of them. They are mainly old people, who I guess has always been doing this, in this place, from winter to summer, even when it is raining. The price is still attractive for clients who prefer deal in the street rather than in shops… but for how long. This is China. Source: Gauthier DELECROIX, Creative Commons

China’s newfound economic prowess since the reform and opening has been shouldered by its massive population of migrant laborers. A significant surplus of unskilled workers and a lax regulatory environment has given Chinese factories, like those in many developing countries, a competitive edge over their counterparts in the Global North. In this troubling “race to the bottom,” a great number of Chinese factories overwork and underpay their rank-and-file employees, at times subjecting them to sordid and dangerous conditions. Although brands such as Nike, Walmart and Apple have been pressured by the international media and human rights organizations to take responsibility for labor rights within their supply chains, it is difficult to separate the profits of these corporations from their habitual exploitation of the weak human rights standards and ineffective enforcement of regulations in countries like China.

For most of China’s 131 million migrant workers, leaving the village and traveling to the city to find gainful employment is the greatest opportunity as well as the most harrowing journey of their lives. The freedom and ability to leave their rural hometown are points of pride for migrant workers, yet the enormous surplus of labor in the urban areas has led to fierce competition in the market, forcing them to accept low wages, no benefits, poor working conditions, strict work regimes, and little job security. In the documentary China Blue, we see employees of the blue jean factory worked for pennies an hour, less than the minimum wage, and are often forced to work overtime – even overnight – to meet shipping deadlines. Some are so exhausted by continuous hours of labor that they fall asleep at their workstations, risking reprimand by their supervisors. Factory workers often do not get paid on time and new workers lose their first month’s paycheck as a “deposit,” a sum of money they never receive if they choose to quit. Furthermore, migrant workers have no access to healthcare or education in the city as a result of the discriminatory hukou system that binds them legally to their rural hometowns. China has a comprehensive set of labor laws including minimum wage, but local and provincial officials rarely enforce them in order to attract foreign businesses and boost their regions’ economic growth. As a result, migrant workers are exploited on dual levels, by the factories that employ them and the state that fails to protect them.

Most migrant workers do not understand their legal rights; they have no organized way to defend them. Workers have some inkling of their rights when it is most obvious. However, they lack knowledge of the comprehensive but unenforced regulations protecting them. In China Blue, the workers at the blue jean factory held a haphazard strike after their pay had been delayed for three months. There have also been some success stories of migrant workers taking legal actions against their employers. Lawyers like Zhou Litai have made triumphant careers from helping injured workers litigate with their employers for rightful compensation. Yet a string of individual cases won by workers has not changed the basic conditions of factories. Because of an authoritarian government that fears the rise of civil society, the Chinese government has not allowed independent labor unions to form in China. In developed countries, these types of organizations undergirded the labor rights movement during the industrialization process. They educated workers, negotiated with factory owners on their behalf, and organized strikes when necessary. If Chinese workers are not empowered to speak up for themselves, then who has the luxury to speak for them?

One might argue that Western consumers have the luxury to speak up for these exploited workers by demanding corporations to “clean up” their supply chains. The anti-sweatshop movement has gained great momentum in the past two decades. Due to negative media attention and pressure from NGOs, many multinational corporations that source overseas have devoted significant resources and efforts to audit the factories in their supply chains, even establishing social compliance divisions solely dedicated to this goal. Brands such as Nike at first defended the conditions in its Indonesian factories, contending that their corporation has created thousands of jobs for people who lack better opportunities. Philip Knight, the founder of Nike, pointed out: “People argued that we were taking advantage of the poor Japanese workers 20 years ago. Now Japan makes no Nikes and imports $100 million of them.” Nevertheless, Nike soon followed cues from other corporations and drafted a code of conduct for its factories.

a portrait of a Chinese farmer
Happy Farmer. Farmer after working in the morning – getting ready to deliver vegetables to town for lunch. Jiashan, China Source: DaiLuo, Creative Commons.

The global movement for labor rights has brought international attention to the plight of workers in developing countries and put the issue on the table for multinational corporations. However, there is a serious inherent problem in letting corporations police themselves: a misalignment of incentives. The primary aims of private corporations are to make profits, satisfy customers, and reward shareholders. They accomplish these goals by constantly trying to improve cost efficiency, which is what attracts them to developing world factories. Apple, for example, produces its products in China because of the huge economies of scales that can be achieved there as opposed to the United States. The speed and flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing sector has drawn in companies like Apple, but it comes at the price of poorer labor conditions. Cost efficiency puts the corporations’ incentives in misalignment with social compliance divisions. Because social compliance divisions do not usually cooperate with buying departments, multinational corporations are essentially asking factories to improve the conditions for their workers while still demanding the same low prices. This disjunction has led to massive falsification of records by factory owners, undermining the integrity of the audit process. The audit profession itself is also plagued with human capital problems and instances of bribery. Corporations, in turn, have little incentive to investigate fraud so long as they can present a picture of compliance to concerned consumers. They can essentially pay lip service to the human rights movement by going along with the records presented to them. In the case of mass falsification, concerned consumers cannot even be certain that a brand which claims to buy from only factories with good labor conditions is, in fact, doing so.

Instead of simply paying attention to better audits of factories from corporations, consumers who are concerned about the labor conditions in China should also demand “responsible prices” at the manufacturing level. Currently, the prices that brands pay to factory owners in China are so low that they face the dilemma of improving labor conditions and losing business or falsifying records to comply with labor standards. Timberland, for example, will pay only $20 per shoe that it buys from a manufacturer, while selling it to the retailer for $50, which then sells it to consumers for $100. In the $80 of revenue gained after the product has been purchased from the manufacturer, there must be some room to offer the manufacturer a better price without passing on the cost to consumers. Consumer groups should scrutinize the profit structure of brands and retailers and buy goods that pay manufacturers better, so that manufacturers can pass on the generosity to their workers. This requires the buying department and the social compliance division to work together to establish an agreeable price for products that takes into account favorable labor conditions. This doesn’t necessarily have to come with a loss of profits for the brands and retailers. Favorable corporations will gain the loyalty and goodwill of a growing number of consumers who are concerned about emerging market labor conditions.

However, a consumer can only do so much on the demand side. Much of the work to be done on labor rights must come from the workers themselves. NGOs working in this field must continue educating workers on labor rights, encouraging them to organize, and advocating for the establishment of true, independent labor unions. China’s official labor union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), functions more as a peacekeeping organ between workers and management rather than a labor union truly representing the interests of workers. Although the ACFTU has considerable political clout at the national level and lobbies for labor protection laws, its chapters at various factories rarely make demands on behalf of workers. ACFTU union leaders are generally chosen by the factory management and remain beholden to the management. Chinese workers need unions with democratically elected leaders who will truly represent their interests rather than serving as a “bridge” between workers and the management. Without autonomous labor unions representing them, workers cannot bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Their rights enshrined by Chinese law will go unheeded.

From one perspective, multinational corporations that choose to manufacture their products in China are giving thousands of Chinese workers opportunities they would never have had in the countryside. Although migrant workers often face laborious conditions in factories, they are earning far more than their rural counterparts and gaining more consumption power. As China becomes wealthier as a result of the economic growth driven by the export-oriented manufacturing sector, workers will naturally begin to demand more rights and better living standards. This process has taken place during the industrialization process in many former developing countries. In the meantime, however, multinational corporations are keen to exploit – for as long as they can – an inherently broken legal system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that has relegated millions of Chinese migrant workers to second-class citizenry. When China introduced in law in 2006 to give labor unions more concrete power, multinational corporations were the first to protest by implying they would move their factories elsewhere. Rather than relying on a social compliance scheme that often tolerates the falsification of records during audits, consumers should also urge corporations to offer responsible prices for manufacturers so that they can give workers better treatment without losing business. Most importantly, the Chinese and international human rights movement must continue their efforts to educate workers on labor rights and promote a political environment that will allow the formation of independent labor unions.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

India’s Relationship with the Third Gender

Simran, 30, walks through Bandra in Mumbai to ask tourists for money so she can pay her Guru. Photo by Sara Hilton for The New York Times

What is the Third Gender?

In April of 2014, the Supreme Court of India formally recognized the existence of a third gender. There is no formal definition of the third gender in India. People who identify as neither man nor woman are commonly referred to as Hijra or transgender. The Hijra have been subject to discrimination, harassment, and persecution for their genderqueer self-identification. Along with the queer community, Hijras have been targeted by law enforcement and government officials under Section 377. This law was used to criminalize any queer sexual acts and has been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community since its enactment in British colonial era India.

What Is the History of the Third Gender In India?

Although the Hijra have been subject to much hate and discrimination in recent times, this has not always been the case. Hijras were well-respected and revered in ancient India. In fact, Hijras play important roles in many Hindu religious texts. One such text talks about the life of Lord Rama, one of the most virtuous Hindu heroes. At some point, Lord Rama was banished from his kingdom. After being banished, he told his followers that the men and women should wipe their tears and leave him. All of the men and women left. However, a group of people known as the Hijra remained standing before him. They were neither men nor women and refused to leave until Lord Rama returned fourteen years later. This community was praised for showing such loyalty.

Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions and administrative roles in Mughal era India. Believed to have the ability to bless, many would seek out Hijras for blessings during important religious ceremonies.  In ancient India, the Hijras were a community that was respected for being extremely loyal and were well trusted enough to be given important religious and governmental roles. This begs the question. If Hijras played an important role in ancient Indian society, then why are Hijras ostracized and persecuted in modern India?

Why Is the Third Gender Ostracized Today?

The answer is due in large part to the British colonization of India. When the British took over direct rule of India and absolved the British East India Company, government officials sought to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. Lawmakers accomplished this goal by enacting moral laws that banned anything that western society viewed as unclean and dirty. This included the creation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed “against the order of nature.” From when Section 377 was implemented in 1858 to when it was recently deemed unconstitutional on 6 September 2018, Section 377 was used as justification to mistreat and punish Hijras, queers, and the LGBTQ+ community.

The western concept of hating and marginalizing anybody who was not straight and cisgender took hold in Indian society. The Hijra community was forced from a well-respected role as pillars of religious and governmental society to being social outcasts. This social exile is responsible for the socioeconomic and medical difficulties that Hijras face. Hijras are prone to being economically challenged because of the stigmas that they face. They are denied educational opportunities, jobs, and discriminated against in every area of their lives.

What are the Social, Economic, and Medical Problems Caused By Lasting Social Stigmas?

Despite gaining their independence from Britain in 1947, India has only recently begun to make progress on removing legislation that has been used to attack the Hijra and LGBTQ+ population. The many decades of subjugation stretching back generations have left a mark. Many of the hateful western views towards LGBTQ+ people have become deeply ingrained in India’s culture. Even with many public relations campaigns along with a growing group of supporters, the vast majority of Indians still are against Hijras. Many Indians don’t respect Hijras worth. Hijras are often called to come to auspicious events such as marriages and child-births for blessings. Many Indians view the Hijras as bringing good luck and warding off evil spirits. Yet because of widespread discrimination, the majority of Hijras are forced to beg for money since they are barred from most employment opportunities. Due to this, some of the common means of living for Hijras are begging, dancing, and prostitution.

Open employment discrimination has run rampant because of the lack of workplace protections and discrimination laws that are not comprehensive or well-enforced. Continued police harassment has also burdened the Hijra community. Many police officers have jailed and imprisoned the Hijra community over offenses such as begging, prostitution, and having queer sex. This community has had to resort to such practices because of the refusal to integrate Hijras into the economy. Yet despite not being able to find work, Hijras are attacked even more for trying desperately to survive in a society that has practiced institutionalized, pursued, and encouraged harmful policies towards this community since colonial times.

In addition to facing issues with getting employed, Hijras also have difficulties receiving access to basic medical care. There have been many unfortunate instances of medical malpractice against Hijra people. The Civilian Welfare Foundation is an NGO that conducted studies on the medical problems faced by the transgender community. The study found that the majority of doctors are not educated on gender identity issues and that a transphobic stigma is ingrained amongst medical professionals which is responsible for the lack of proper medical care for Hijras.

The study highlighted the stories of Saikat and Anushri. Saikat was a transgender patient who died from lack of treatment following a train accident. The reason is that doctors could not decide whether to admit her to the male or the female ward. Anushi was gang-raped by several men and sought medical treatment. However, doctors refused to treat her because she was transgender and even denied her access to anti-HIV medication. These two stories highlight the dangerous impact that social stigmas have on our society. In addition to facing persecution and discrimination daily, Hijra people are at risk for bodily harm and even death from bigoted doctors and nurses who are not trained to deal with gender identity issues.

Fear of the social stigmas for being associated with the transgender community is a major reason why many doctors try to avoid seeing Hijra patients and why some outright refuse treatment altogether. Adding on to social fears, healthcare professionals have been hesitant to treat Hijra people because of the risk of criminal prosecution under Section 377. Up until the recent 2018 Supreme Court decision, it was illegal to commit queer sexual acts as well as to aid and abet these acts. There have been cases of individuals being arrested simply for selling condoms to Hijra and queer people. The lack of proper medical care and access to safe sex talks and practices has led to an HIV rate amongst Hijras that is 100 times the national average. Doctors fear Hijra patients because they are misinformed and believe in multigenerational social stigmas. Hijra patients fear doctors because of the risks of being mistreated and harmed by substandard or complete refusal of medical care. This toxic mutual distrust can only continue to harm the Hijra community.

Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. Photo by Sara Hylton for the New York Times.

What Are the Recent Successes For the Hijra Community?

There are some recent successes that have helped the Hijra people. The Right for Transgender Persons Bill drafted in 2014 and passed in 2016 has been a major milestone in protecting the Hijra community. The law declared many forms of discrimination against Hijras to be illegal and banned the forcing of Hijras to beg or to leave their homes. Other benefits include the creation of a committee that focuses on helping Hijra pursue education by giving access to scholarships and textbooks among other needs. The bill has also allowed for Hijras to be recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged which qualifies Hijras for benefits from India’s Affirmative Action program. However, there are downsides to the bill as well. Hijra people have to go through a district screening process to receive their third gender certification and ID cards. This approach can lead to refusal of benefits to Hijras based upon the decision of a committee without oversight and comprised of people not trained in gender identity issues.

Also occurring in 2014 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that officially recognized the existence of the third gender. This has allowed for Hijras to opt for third gender classification on official legal documents such as driver’s licenses and passports. The decision has also signified acceptance of the Hijra community’s existence by a government that has continuously sought to marginalize those who aren’t cisgender. However, this decision has also come up short in addressing the many problems Hijras face. Third gender IDs, while motivated by good intentions, do not address many basic rights. When getting married, transferring property, or adopting children there are only cisgender ordinances in place. This means that Hijras cannot get married, cannot leave behind property for their kids, and cannot adopt kids that desperately need good homes while being recognized and identifying legally as the third gender.

Another recent Supreme Court decision that has increased the rights of Hijras happened in 2017. The court declared that the Right to Privacy was a fundamental right to all individuals and enacted protections for the privacy of Hijras’ sexual orientations. This will go a long way toward helping prevent socioeconomic and medical discrimination.

In addition to legal successes, there have also been gains in societal acceptance and integration of the Hijra community. In 2017 India accomplished many firsts. Joyita Mondal became India’s first third gender judge, Tamil Nadu became India’s first Hijra police officer, Natasha Biswas became India’s first third gender beauty pageant winner, and Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. became India’s first government-owned company to provide bulk employment to Hijras. There are plenty more Hijra success stories out there which are a sign of widespread societal change. There is hope that the social stigmas that have plagued the Hijra community will soon be fully erased.

It is clear that Hijras face many challenges in modern times. Widespread social stigmas and discrimination against this community were promoted for generations. It is also clear that such large problems take a long time to fix. However, if legal efforts and public relations campaigns are continued then India can one day become a society that fully embraces and supports all people regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

 

 

 

Forgotten Countries and their Real Story: Middle East

The Middle East is a transcontinental region. When people think of the term “Middle East”, a host of thoughts come to mind such as deserts, burkas and Saudi Arabia. However, whether they are accurate is a completely different story. Most countries in the Middle East are often forgotten about, ignored, or misconstrued.

Location

One of the most interesting questions to ask people is: Where is the Middle East located? Most people don’t even know what countries consist of the Middle East. One of the reasons why is, in the United States, geography is a dying subject. In fact, about three-fourths of the eighth graders in the United States test below average in geography. Furthermore, in most schools, geography is not required in middle school or high school. Out of the fifty states, only seventeen actually require geography in middle school and only ten in high school. The Middle East consists of fourteen countries shown in the picture below. What surprised me was how I found numerous websites that differed on what countries they thought were actually in the Middle East.

 

Middle East Map. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Arab vs Muslim

What does it mean to be an Arab? An Arab is defined as someone who identifies as being an Arab and whose native language is Arabic. On the other hand, someone who is Muslim practices the religion of Islam. Being an Arab and being a Muslim are not synonymous. For example, you could be an Arab who is not Muslim or you could be a Muslim but not an Arab. Furthermore, about 60% of people living in the Middle East are considered Arab. There are other ethnicities such as Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Jews.

What most people don’t realize is that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, the second largest religion in the world, and the majority are not in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Also, the majority of Muslims live in Asia. While the majority of the Middle East does practice Islam, there are other religions practiced such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, there are different sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shiite.

Another misconception is that all the countries in the Middle East are considered Arab countries. However, that is not the case. For example, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Arab. This misconception may stem from the fact that much of the Islamic faith is written in Arabic. So regardless of which country you reside in, you would have some knowledge of Arabic.

Diverse Societies

There’s a certain stereotype in regards to the Middle East called orientalism that generalizes the region as deserts with roaming camels with olive-skinned people wearing robes, turbans, and garments that completely cover women from head to toe. The fact of the matter is that the style and environment depends on the area of the Middle East. We must also consider other factors such as education, socioeconomic status, and individual preference.  The veil is looked at as a form of modesty. The concept of modesty is meant to be applied to both genders and not just on women, and how each person interprets its meaning is different. Some countries such as Iran and Yemen do require veiling to go out in public; however, most people who wear a veil add their own twist to it. When considering the environment, the Middle East is geographically diverse. The Middle East seems to be defined by its deserts but there are also mountains ranges and rivers. One section of the world should not be defined as one thing. Many people see the Middle East as a backward “country” when it is, indeed, the contrary. Some of their cities rival those in the United States such as Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Demographic trends show that the Middle East has the “youngest population and it has the second highest urbanization rate in the world”.

Source: Creative Commons

“Disregarding the complexity, diversity, vibrancy, and humanity of people in the region leads to this ‘othering’ of the Middle East that is really damaging.”

One dimensional portrayal of women

A common misconception is that Middle Eastern women are oppressed and denied their basic rights because of their religion. Also, it is assumed, they must cover themselves with a veil because they are weak and passive. However, the concept of the veil actually came from Christian Byzantium, not Islam. Surprisingly, Islam gave women more rights than Western women, until the 19th century. In England, women were considered the property of their husband until 1882. However, Muslim women have always been able to keep their own assets. A more current example is when Muslim women are married they tend to keep their last name, while most Western women do not. Notably, in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, it “states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.” As you can see, Islam is not the determining factor behind women being oppressed. While religion can affect women’s rights, culture is the main factor driving the question of gender roles. As a result, you cannot assume all of the Middle East is the same and deem it as such. Depending on the region, women have different statuses and rights. While it is true that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, that is not true in other Middle Eastern countries. Women do have political and social rights in the Middle East, they just vary depending on the country. In fact, women have served as ministers in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan and as Vice President in Iran. That is not to say that the Middle Eastern women do not have problems, just that it is not as extreme as Western countries seem to think.

The Middle East deserves to be seen as diverse. By discussing location, religion, society, and gender people can gain a more open outlook on the Middle East. It is easy to let fear, ignorance, or the media dictate one’s perception; however, to change the cycle conversations must be created.

 

Coming to Terms with the Past: Germany and the United States

On Thursday, October 18th, an event titled How Germany Has Come to Terms With Its Past was held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The evening began with a lecture by former German diplomat Stefan Schlüeter who discussed how Germany has addressed its notorious role in World War II. Following, Schlüeter participated in a panel discussion with Laura Anderson (Alabama Humanities Foundation), Kiara Boone (Equal Justice Initiative) and Gregory Wilson (History Instructor at Lawson State Community College), putting this topic in the context of United States history.

Stefan opened by claiming there was silence in Germany after World War II, likely due to embarrassment and shame of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Schlüeter insisted we must keep the memory alive and never forget the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust.  Although there is an obvious presence of the country’s past, since the 1960s, German students have learned about the Third Reich in which he explained the teaching style and age of the student can mold how one processes this information; therefore, it is pivotal how one is taught. Such attempts to highlight and critique bigotry are a work in progress as we’ve clearly witnessed a resurgence of populism throughout Europe and North America.

The subsequent panel discussion centered on three main questions: How do we talk about the past? Who owns the past? How do we come to terms with the past? As a result of Birmingham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, the discussion largely addressed the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States.

Kiara Boone Addressing a Panel Question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The discussion began by addressing how Americans are forgetting about controversial moments in history such as the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement. This generated discussion about the possibility of mandating education of these histories, to ensure such events are never forgotten or to occur again. Wilson explained how he takes his students to museums, so they can view archives and artifact preservation behind the scenes, giving history a tangible presence.  The panel then suggested there are holes in history and how bridging them with more information can cultivate nuanced discussion.

As for memorials, such as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, it was suggested they be accompanied by information about the events as well as add individual narratives to the numbers of those who experienced oppression. The use of storytelling puts a face to a story, such as Harriet Tubman, and is better suited to resonate with audiences. Although, we can’t just change laws that mandate education, we need to change heart and minds of those who might carry attitudes that reflect the past.

When discussion centered on who owns the past, the panel demonstrated mixed feelings. It was argued that because we are all linked to history, we all own it. However, it was also demonstrated how depictions of history are predicated on power, leading to critiques of about Civil Rights education such as the lack of teaching around activist tactics and methods of the opposition. Such critiques beg us to further investigate these events and amplify the voices of people missing from these histories.

Following the panel discussion, audience members contributed to the discussion with their own questions such as: To what extent should Civil Rights education be focused on shock value? How do we integrate the legacy of colonialism into these teachings? What does it mean to be a good ally? Ultimately, dignifying these questions not only give us a more informed, honest account of history but also ensures those who need their voices heard the most are afforded their agency and liberation.

Section 377 is overturned, but now what?

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

For the past 150 years in India, homosexual acts were not only banned but were criminally punishable by up to ten years in prison. Introduced in 1861, while India was still under British colonial rule, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed as sexual activities “against the order of nature.” For many years this gave policemen, government officials, and local village leaders free reign to harass and discriminate against the LGBTQ+ population of India. Recently on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India, after years of court decisions and decades of public protest, ruled that the application of Section 377 to queer and trans sex was unconstitutional. The justices denounced this law’s infringement upon the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people as it “criminalized consensual sexual acts of adults in private”. This determination has ceased much of the governmental abuse of the Indian LGBTQ+ population. It is worthwhile to note that despite the public opinion that Section 377 was repealed, the law is still active and applicable to other offenses such as rape, bestiality, and sexual acts with minors. The supreme court decision simply made it illegal to apply Section 377 to queer sexual acts.

Now that Section 377 can no longer target sexual minorities, India’s vast LGBTQ+ population is beginning to emerge from the shadows and realize their true selves in public without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. This is not to say that there is not a reason to still be afraid. Many people and institutions are still very hostile towards the queer and trans community because of the social stigmas, stereotypes, ignorance, and intolerance that are still very much ingrained in Indian culture. There is still much work to be done to educate the general population for LGBTQ+ issues to be destigmatized. There is hope that a culture friendly and accepting of all people, regardless of sexual or gender orientation, will soon become a reality in India.

It has long been held that “Section 377 in itself does not mean that you can be arrested for simply being or saying [that] you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Hijra or Kothi. Your freedom of expression is not under threat”. This fact, however, has not prevented the widespread discrimination inflicted by police officers, hospital staff, and highly hostile work environments. India’s lack of a complete anti-discrimination law that protects all groups who may face prejudice has allowed such toxicity and hatred to fester and grow. Although a few anti-discrimination laws exist, they are not well enforced and only apply to public institutions. This means that all private Indian companies are free to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees with no legal repercussions and allows government institutions to violate existing law without any harsh penalties. The criminalization of queer sex and the lack of adequate discrimination protections has ignited many lasting problems for the LGBTQ+ community. These people lack quality public healthcare, face cultural and religious persecution, and fear a prejudice entertainment industry that is encouraging the current generation of adolescents to be homophobic.

It seems odd that Section 377’s past criminalization of queer sex could damage the healthcare available to the LGBTQ+ population. However, it is important to realize that not only was having queer sex a criminal act, but anyone that was found to have helped hide or abet LGBTQ+ sexual acts would have also been prosecuted as an accessory to the crime. This was the case with Arif Jafar, an Indian health counselor. Arif made it his mission to attempt to help the queer population have safe sex and avoid being infected with HIV by handing out condoms each week. After nearly three decades of aiding the LGBTQ+ community, Arif was arrested for abetting and promoting the criminal offense of queer sexual acts. He was beaten, spent 47 days in jail, and has had to appear in court each month for over a decade. This is but one of the many atrocities committed against the LGBTQ+ people because of Section 377. Simply selling condoms and other objects used for safe sex to queer/trans men and women was unlawful. This created dangers for both the LGBTQ+ community and any doctors willing to serve them. For these reasons, many LGBTQ+ in India have avoided healthy sex conversations out of fear that their doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals involved with their care would report their “criminal” sexual acts to the authorities.

Section 377 instilled so much fear in the LGBTQ+ community that many refused to see a doctor for treatment for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, the UN collected data detailed in the 2017 UNAIDS Data report that showed that the national HIV infection rate for queer men is 4.3% while the national average is .31%. This means that queer men are nearly fourteen times more likely to be infected with HIV than straight men. It is impossible to determine exactly how large of an impact the lack of access to condoms and other safe sex essentials has had on the LGBTQ+ HIV epidemic. However, it is clear that these policies could only have increased the health risks for this community.

In addition to preventing many from seeking or receiving proper medical care, doctors were not well educated on the common spectrum of LGBTQ+ health issues, and as such were not adequately equipped to serve these patients. Even after the recent Supreme Court decision absolved these risks, the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ population are still hesitant to going to the doctor for sexual related issues. Doctors play a key role in providing sex education to their patients. It is well established that these safe sex talks help to decrease patients risk for sexually transmitted diseases. However, when patients fear talking to their physicians for fear of getting reported to the authorities then these safe sex talks do not occur. One can only hope that the sacred bond and trust between patient and physician can heal over time for this community.

Many Indians cite cultural and religious reasons as grounds for their anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. However, this stance doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Hindu culture has a long history of acceptance for LGBTQ+ people and religious figures. H. H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes this point clear by saying that “Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. … It is not a crime in any Smriti. Everyone has male & female elements … [and] Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd”. Institutions such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Gay & Lesbian Vaishnava Association corroborate this pro-LGBTQ+ attitude. This begs one to question why public opinion differs from historical evidence and major religious organizations.

The answer lies 150 years ago when Britain took direct control of India from the British East India Company. After Britain began governing India in 1858, they implemented Section 377 and other social policies that attacked the prevalent LGBTQ+ population India had at the time. This was an enforcement of British values on Indian society. When India decriminalized queer sexual acts this past year it wasn’t, “India becoming ‘westernized.’ It’s India decolonizing.” says Twitter user @shamiruk. Being colonized and subjugated for many generations has caused a multitude of prejudice western practices to become entrenched in Indian society. The goal moving forward is for India to evolve past the harmful effects of colonization and be fully reunited with the LGBTQ+ accepting culture of pre-colonial India.

 

LGBT activist during the 16th Kolkata Rainbow pride walk 2017 in South Kolkata on Sunday, December 10, 2017. Express photo by Partha Paul.

Although great strides are being made to help the LGBTQ+ community gain legal protections and societal acceptance in India, the current entertainment industry’s portrayal of the queer community in a negative light, often at the butt of insults and jokes, is endangering an entire current generation of young people to be homophobic. The progress for widespread social change has been incredibly slow. There are many stereotypes in mainstream Indian cinema that only fuel derogatory comments and demeaning behavior towards the LGBTQ+ population. In fact, after the news spread about the Supreme Court decision on Section 377 many young people were tagging each other on Instagram and Twitter saying things like “you’re free now!” in teasing and mocking tones. The term “gay” itself has become a common insult for kids to tease and mock their peers. This highly toxic culture is the direct result of a society that makes light of making fun of the LGBTQ+ community as ‘just joking’ by media outlets, and even the parents and role models of these young children. Scared of the prejudice and abuse that being openly queer will bring, many LGBTQ+ people still aren’t comfortable with coming out and being comfortable in their own skin.

The 6 September 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize queer sexual activities by Section 377 was a major step forward in LGBTQ+ rights and protections. This is a milestone that will forever be remembered as a landmark case in the LGBTQ+ social movement for acceptance in Indian society. Going forward there are many issues left to tackle. The most crucial factor in combatting these issues is educating the public on the LGBTQ+ community. This is vital to removing the deeply ingrained homophobic stigmas. A more educated and open-minded public will also be more likely to elect governmental officials who will enact laws to protect LGBTQ+ people. If the public can learn how to be accepting and respectful of LGBTQ+ individuals, then both institutional and societal change can happen.

The government needs to take a key role in helping to enact these changes by, “disseminating new guidelines to public institutions, especially to law enforcement,” says Dr. Sambuddha Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri is a public health expert based in Mumbai, who has done research on HIV and sexual minorities. Steps need to be taken to educate the public through media outlets and by instituting LGBTQ+ education in primary and secondary school curriculums. Meanwhile, the government should focus on passing laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.  This top-bottom two-pronged strategy will help to quickly facilitate the necessary legislative changes and increased pace of social acceptance required to make a pro-LGBTQ+ India that people deserve.

 

Gerrymandering’s Effects on Democracy

by Pam Zuber

The Gerry-Mander political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale
The Gerry-Mander: political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale. Source: Wikicommons.

The Gerry-Mander is a name for a creature that appeared in editorial cartoons in 1812 and 1813. Given how gerrymandering has shaped and can shape politics in the United States, calling a Gerry-Mander a monster is no mere exaggeration. Gerrymandering takes its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, legislators in Massachusetts’s Democratic-Republican Party redrew the map of a senatorial district to concentrate voters of its party in certain geographic areas. The same map dispersed voters of the rival political party, the Federalists, to separate districts.

Governor Gerry signed this map into law in 1812. This map drew the wrath of the opposing Federalists and spawned the cartoon that criticized the redistricting. The practice and the cartoon gave us a term for politically based redistricting that political bodies still use. We continue to use the term because the practice continues to this day. Politicians still reshape voting districts to suit their political purposes, much as they did in Gerry’s day.

Why Does Gerrymandering Violate Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution?

Creating electoral districts that skew political party representation contradicts democratic principles and human rights. Gerrymandering provides the illusion of democracy but actually denies it. The process still perpetuates voting districts. People in these districts have the ability to vote and usually have their choice of candidates. But, which candidates can they support? People in one district who traditionally vote for one party might not be able to fully support the candidates they would have seen if their districts were more traditionally configured. The voters might have choices, but false choices.

These false choices can undermine their lives. For example, voters might want to vote for candidates who support government-sponsored health insurance, but find that gerrymandering is affecting their choices. Their choices and their voices might be muffled because their votes do not count as much as they could have counted when combined with additional votes for the same candidates and causes. Their votes might not count since they are dispersed among other districts and not concentrated like the votes of other parties in gerrymandered districts.

Redistricting appears to be unconstitutional. It denies basic rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Shifting geographic precincts to highlight or downplay specific candidates appears to abridge the right to vote, a direct violation of the Constitution.

Do People Gerrymander Today?

Yes. Politicians of both parties continue to create electoral districts that blatantly benefit their political parties. A federal court declared in August 2018 that the state of North Carolina’s map of Congressional districts favored Republicans. The court declared that the map “constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, and Article I of the Constitution.” The next month, the same federal judges ruled that although this map did feature gerrymandering, there would not be enough time to change the map in time for the elections planned for November 2018. North Carolina would not be able to not use this map after these elections, so North Carolina will need to use a new Congressional map for elections in 2020.

Gerrymandering has occurred in other regions of the country. In 2016, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin Legislature drew electoral maps that favored Republican Party candidates in the state in 2012 and 2014. The case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in June, 2018, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, stating that the bodies bringing the case lacked the legal standing to do so. It sent the case back to lower federal courts. This meant that Wisconsin would use the same maps in November 2018 elections.

A number of political insiders expect that voters throughout the United States will use their votes in the November 2018 elections as a way to protest U.S. president Donald Trump and his fellow members of the Republican Party. But, if gerrymandered maps remain in place, they could skew results from the state. They could prevent candidates from certain parties from receiving the majority of votes in their districts and winning their elections.

Gerrymandering harms political parties as well. Both parties engage in such blatant practices for obvious purposes. Such practices tarnish the reputations of the parties as well as the democratic process. The electorate might view such tactics as political dirty tricks, which could discourage voters from supporting political parties, candidates, elections, and causes.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the topic of gerrymandering in Maryland in 2018 by not hearing cases about redistricting in that U.S. state. Maryland legislators redrew this map in 2010. Just two years later, a Democratic Party candidate beat a longtime Republican incumbent in a race for a U.S. Congressional seat in Maryland, leading to charges that the state’s Democratic Party redrew Congressional maps to give itself advantages that led to such electoral victories.

a voting district map from 2011
Carroll County Voting District 2011. Source: J. Albert Bowden II, Creative Commons.

How Can Gerrymandering Affect Politics?

It is clear, then, that parties do redraw maps and create new electoral districts. It appears that they do this to try to produce political advantages. But, does this redistricting really create such results? In the case of Maryland, it appears that redistricting has made a significant difference. In 2012, Democratic Party candidate John Mulaney beat Republican Congressional representative Roscoe G. Bartlett. At the time of his defeat, Bartlett had served eleven terms (twenty-two years) in the U.S. Congress. Bartlett blamed redistricting on his loss. “We had the most gerrymandered district in the country.” This is significant in a number of ways. Mulaney was a new challenger while his opponent was an entrenched, longtime incumbent. It is often difficult for challengers to beat politicians who have been in office a long time. Incumbent politicians have

  • Name recognition
  • War chests of money to help fund their campaigns
  • Fellow established politicians who are colleagues who can campaign and vouch for them
  • Reputations and accomplishments from their administrations that they can cite in campaigns

Election campaigns are expensive and time-consuming. They require money, connections, and clout. Working in established offices can help people accomplish all three. How hard is it to unseat an established candidate? According to economics reporter John W. Schoen, in 2012, the year of Maryland’s Bartlett/Mulaney race, 90 percent of the people serving in the U.S. Congress kept their seats. This means that Mulaney was one of the minority of 10 percent of challengers who unseated a Congressional representative. His redrawn district could have helped him overcome such long odds.

Are People Fighting Gerrymandering?

Ending gerrymandering restores people’s votes, which helps restore their voices. Groups and individuals hope they can help people restore their voices. Since gerrymandering is about voting rights, it is only fitting that some groups are using electoral means to fight the practice. A Michigan-based group called Voters Not Politicians wants to end gerrymandering in the state. It appears that opposing groups want gerrymandering to continue.

In 2017, Voters Not Politicians collected thousands of signatures on petitions that supported ballot initiatives against gerrymandering in Michigan. The organization needed to collect 315,654 signatures from August to December 2017. In a possible sign of widespread support for anti-gerrymandering efforts, almost 450,000 people signed the petitions. A number of experts say this proposal is sorely needed in the state. For example, a June 24, 2018 headline in the Detroit Free Press noted that “Michigan is an extreme example of gerrymandering.”

Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers approved the ballot proposal. But, organizations such as Save Michigan’s Constitution opposed this ballot proposal as overly broad and took their opposition to the Michigan Supreme Court. The court rejected this opposition, paving the way for the proposal to be on the ballot for state elections in November 2018. The Michigan proposal calls for shifting responsibility for drawing electoral maps from the Michigan Legislature to an independent commission that includes independent private citizens who are not affiliated with political parties.

This proposal aims to take redistricting responsibilities from political parties and giving them to (ideally) nonpartisan private citizens. To implement such goals on a practical level, the proposal suggests:

  • Creating a thirteen-member restricting board. The board would consist of five members who are not affiliated with a political party or are independent, four Republicans, and four Democrats.
  • Choosing the redistricting board members randomly among people who apply for the positions.

The balanced composition of this group would provide equal representation from major parties. It would allow significant input from people who do not affiliate with any party. It would help ensure that one party’s politics does not take precedence over another’s. It would promote inclusiveness and democratic fairness. But, will party politics shape the outcome of this election and the future of the anti-gerrymandering proposal? After all, voters in districts that are already gerrymandered will encounter this ballot proposal. The gerrymandered districts in Michigan largely favor Republicans after the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature redrew electoral maps in 2011 and Republican governor Rick Snyder approved them.

Republicans who want things to remain the way they are would likely vote against the ballot proposal. Gerrymandering, thus, would perpetuate political divisions by working to defeat proposals that fight gerrymandering and political partisanship. It may sound like clichés, but that’s why voting is important and why every vote counts. People might not vote because they assume that certain proposals may pass or that certain candidates may win with or without their votes. But, if they and others don’t vote, they don’t contribute ANY votes to the election. The status quo continues because nothing changes.

But, if enough people vote, their candidates and proposals may win. Even if they don’t win, the large number of votes will illustrate the popularity of these candidates and proposals. The large number of votes can encourage others to take notice, to support such people and causes, and maybe even to run for political offices themselves. Citizens can also use the courts to fight gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear recent cases on gerrymandering. It didn’t issue definitive rulings on it. While it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will hear further cases on gerrymandering in the near future, it has not issued a final word on the topic. This means that it might hear other gerrymandering cases in the future, especially after the U.S. Census of 2020 might contribute to further political redistricting.

According to Erick Trickey in Politico, it is more likely that individual U.S. states will tackle gerrymandering: “[I]f gerrymandering’s opponents want better, fairer maps, they’ll have to demand them, state by state.” This is happening across the country. In addition to the Michigan Voters Not Politicians initiative, Better Boundaries (Utah) and Clean Missouri are groups demanding an end to gerrymandering. Colorado voters will vote on an anti-gerrymandering proposal in November 2018, while Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved their state legislature’s anti-gerrymandering proposals earlier in 2018.

In a strange way, then, gerrymandering unintentionally encourages the sort of political engagement it’s trying to squelch. Who knew that the Gerrymander could be both a monster and an ally?

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including politics, addiction, and gender.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Get to the Polls – the Battle Against Barriers

In light of our midterm elections coming up here in the United States, I have decided to do a series of blog posts relating to voting and its importance in our society. This is the first in the series.

Photo of the White House from a low perspective.
White House by Angela N., Creative Commons

The Facade of a Democracy

When becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, you are asked, “What is the most important right granted to an American citizen?” According to the American Government, the correct answer to that question is, “the right to vote.” However, the Constitution upon which our nation was founded does not explicitly grant the right to vote. It provides penalties and punishments against states that do not explicitly allow minorities to vote, but the Constitution does not fulfill the promise of democracy we associate it with. As a result, voter disenfranchisement is possible. It is possible so long as there are “opportunities” to vote, no matter how difficult it is for citizens to actually do it.

Voter disenfranchisement assumes many different forms, ranging from intimidation to falsifying information to suppression, and so on. Disenfranchisement goes back to the founding of our nation. Initially, white, male landowners were the only demographic allowed to participate in this civic privilege. Notice I defined it as a civic privilege, not a civic duty. It is our privilege to manifest our desires in the form of a ballot. We are not required by our government to vote, but we should be required to do so by our morals. The brutality of the Civil War technically gave racial minorities the right to vote, though they continue to be turned away at the polls without consequence. Later came the Jim Crow laws disbanding all voting rights African Americans barely had to begin with. To this day, voter suppression continues to be an issue rooted deep in American soil.

The hardest aspects of this phenomena to grasp are these: 1) the main avenue used to suppress minorities are institutionally mandated and 2) they are ignored by a majority of Americans.

Registering to Vote

The most common form of disenfranchisement involves creating barriers to register to vote, making it harder for many Americans to participate in our democracy. In 2011, thirteen states introduced bills that ended Election Day and same-day voter registration, limited voter registration drives, and reduced opportunities for voters to register. These states were Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Maine, Ohio, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

Let’s unpack this. By ending same-day voter registration, people who have to work long hours during the week to support their families have to plan out and likely take off work to register to vote before the deadline. With limited voter registration drives, less and less people are able to easily register to vote – African American and Hispanic people are twice as likely to register to vote at a drive than their white counterparts. Finally, without ample opportunities to register to vote, you can imagine how it impacts voter registration numbers (hint: they did not go up. At all).

Since 2011, the number of states with voter suppression laws has increased to twenty-five – half of the entire country. In addition, there is presently talk of creating federal mandates that would enact voter suppression laws nationwide.

Photo graphic of a ballot box
vote obey by Erin Williamson, Creative Commons

Early Voting

Early voting, sometimes referred to as in-person absentee voting, allows people to vote prior to Election Day. These people typically participate in early voting because they are unable to get to their polling place on Election Day for several possible reasons: they need to work during the week but can vote early on the weekend, they do not have reliable transportation and may only be able to go to their polling place on a specific day, and/or many other plausible reasons. As of this year, 34 states and the District of Columbia allow no-excuse early voting – meaning they do not have to provide an excuse to vote early, it is just possible for everyone. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have enacted all-mail voting, which eliminates the need for early voting.

So, why are we not all enacting early voting? The main argument against it is the level of political knowledge early voters have as compared to those who vote later. There are developments that come out closer to Election Day (think of the Kennedy-Nixon debates which happened until October). If people vote 46 days in advance (like they now can in Minnesota), their information is skewed compared to those who waited to hear candidates speak at town halls, debates, etc. While this is a valid point, only 36% of voting Americans utilized early voting in the 2016 Presidential Election. Yes, that is a lot of people, but a majority of Americans are still using the traditional form of voting.

Low-Income Voters Lose

Those who suffer the most at the hands of voter disenfranchisement are poor people. Right before the 2016 Presidential election, 31 DMVs were closed in Alabama as ordered by then-Governor Robert Bentley. The counties affected were Camden, Eutaw, Greensboro, and other counties in the state that is characterized as majority poor and African American people. Alabama also passed a law burdening citizens by requiring them to have photo identification to exercise their right to vote. The most typical form of voter identification is the driver’s license, and where do people get a driver’s license from? The local DMV. But what do you do when your local DMV is closed down and you do not have the proper transportation to get to the nearest, open DMV?

Because of the excessive DMV closures, people within those counties now have difficulties getting proper voter identification, getting registered to vote, and, ultimately, voting on Election Day. Democracy means participation from the people; without the participation of the people, we are not in a functioning democracy. Instead of creating barriers to voting, we should be dismantling barriers to voting.

Voting as a Human Right

Though it may not be an explicit Constitutional right, it certainly can be argued that voting is a human right, given the potential outcomes from high voter participation. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), “The right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, including the right to vote and to stand for election, is at the core of democratic governments based on the will of the people. Genuine elections are thus a necessary and fundamental component of an environment that protects and promotes human rights.” We are lucky enough to have the “prerequisite human rights” that allow us to vote and participate in our democracy: the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of movement, so we must take advantage of these rights.

The will of the people takes corporeal form in a vote, giving the people power over those who govern them; however, that does not go to say power is a human right. It means voting grants the possibility to have our wants and needs met and that we have a greater chance in the pursuit of meeting our human rights.

If the will of the people is ignored, unmet, and/or barred, democracy is not functioning. If one cannot vote due to systematic and intentional barriers, this individual is denied her or his human rights by proxy of their government. In the United States, our solution is persistence. No matter how many DMVs are closed down and no matter how many barriers are placed by whoever or whatever, we must persist to shape our reality how we wish.

Anyone can be a public servant and make a difference in this world and you are never too young or too old to do so. Here are potential solutions to circumvent voter disenfranchisement:

  • First, make sure you are registered to vote. If you are not, visit TurboVote and do it as soon as possible to make sure you register on time to vote in your state.
  • Register others to vote. It is very simple! All you need is the national voter registration form, clipboards for convenience, pens, and rubber bands. Don’t forget to check if your family is registered!
  • If you are able to drive to a DMV or polling place, take others.
  • Simply talk to others about voting. Voter education is something we, as a society, lack. Encourage others to look at politicians’ campaign promises and what they are wanting to do to combat voter suppression.
  • Organize. Being with others who have the same goal as you will push you to do more and get more done.
Photo graphic reading "It's your future, how hard is that?"
vote by erheyward, Creative Commons

Voting in any democracy is a reminder to governments that they work for us, not the other way around. We must use our vote as our echoing voice. We owe it to our children, our underrepresented neighbor, and ourselves to exercise our privilege to vote. If you are reading from somewhere in the United States, remember to get to the polls and vote on November 6th.

“I heard Heaven”

On Tuesday, October 9th, “Me Too” movement founder and civil rights activist, Tarana Burke, offered a lecture at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, covering her activist roots, time as an organizer in Alabama and tomorrow’s aspirations for combating sexual violence.

Tarana Addresses the Crowd. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Born in the Bronx, at a young age, Tarana’s grandfather introduced her to black scholars, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, which complimented her mother’s collection of black feminist literature. This, she believes, gave her a cultural and historical grounding but didn’t know what to do with it. As a result, at the age of 14, Tarana became an organizer for the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, focusing on notorious issues such as the Central Park jogger case and the death of Yusef Hawkins.

Following her efforts as an organizer at Alabama State University and Auburn University, Tarana worked as a summer camp director, where she noticed, every year, a young woman shared her sexual violence story. Specifically, a 13-year-old survivor, who she calls Heaven, shared her story with Tarana in private but claims she rejected this disclosure because she wasn’t ready to combat sexual violence. Following, Tarana met a 7th grade girl who shared her survivor story which revolved around her 21-year old boyfriend. However, this time, she mustered the courage to confront the issue — the abuser happening to be a man she knew from the community. These experiences influenced Tarana and colleagues to create workshops that address sexual violence, giving young women the language to combat sexual violence because, in her words, “How can we heal something we cannot name?”. From this, “Me Too” came to fruition.

After creating a MySpace page for “Me Too” in 2006 and introducing healing circles for sexual violence survivors, people across the country reached out to Tarana and colleagues, thanking them for their efforts. Responding to this support, they began making informational folders on how to create your own healing circles, distributing them near and far with the little funding and resources they had available. Shortly after, she moved from Selma to Philadelphia, taking this message to local public schools which led to the local district sanctioning re-education on consent.

Fast forward to October 2017, Tarana exclaimed “Me Too” went viral, “…like a lightning bolt.” In the first 24 hours of the initial “Me Too” social media post, there were 12 million Facebook posts proclaiming this message. However, after a year of mainstream attention and support, many who conveyed those two words are still in need of resources and support. As a result, this movement is not about taking down powerful men — no one is going to build a movement by targeting people. It is not a women’s movement but a survivor’s movement. A movement committed to healing and action.

“Me Too” movement is a global community of survivors committed to amplifying the voices of those most vulnerable, such as Native Americans and the transgender community, who experience sexual violence at disproportionate rates. “Me Too” is about representation, meaning people need to see themselves in the movement. The most concrete ways to change these conditions are through laws, policies and culture, namely here at UAB where we celebrate a list of shared values, such as integrity, respect and diversity. Tarana asked if these sentiments truly challenge sexual violence at UAB, or do they just pay lip service to issues in our periphery?

Everyone deserves to feel safe, and we must work together to change our society’s outlook on consent. It is not enough to celebrate Tarana’s story and fame. We must try to end sexual violence by concluding that we are enough and act on this conviction.

Me, too.

Resources for addressing sexual violence at UAB:

UAB Title IX Office – Report An Incident

UAB Student Counseling

UAB Student Outreach and Support

UAB Police and Public Safety

Crazy Rich Asians: The Double-Edged Sword

Crazy Rich Asians, a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, was released on August 15, 2018. This movie has generated discussion in the representation for the Asian community through gender, class, and race. However, these efforts have been deemed controversial. The point of this film is to get people talking about the topic of representation and simply there is no way to make everyone happy. However, this film will lead the way to an industry that has been recently revived by the likes of movies such as Coco, the Big Sick, and Hidden Figures.

How Crazy Rich Asians is different

The film is based on the first book of the trilogy that covers Nick and Rachel’s journey. Interestingly enough, the film is a romantic comedy. When I think back to my childhood, that was all the rage. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, rom com’s have faded into oblivion. Thankfully, it seems over the past couple of months that a number of new rom coms, such as Set it Up, To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before, and Love, Simon are on the rise.

Heart hand. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons

In the film, the two main characters, Nick and Rachel, fall in love, so Nick decides to introduce Rachel to his family in Singapore. What Rachel does not know is that they are one of the richest families in the country. In the beginning, the movie seemed like any other rom com with your basic love story. However, what took me by surprise was the multidimensionality of the characters. While Nick’s mom, Eleanor, can be seen as the stereotypical “villain”, this story takes a different route and adds more elements to her character. Instead of simply being portrayed as evil, the movie shows other sides to her character such as her dedication and hard work for her family. This movie provides us with the reasons behind her “evil” traits, which makes it harder to dislike her. Humans are not one-dimensional beings; we have numerous traits that come together to make us who we are. A person is not just evil, but instead has multiple traits.

Another innovative idea is how this movie portrayed stereotypes. The movie begins with Nick’s family entering a fancy hotel in London during a storm, which made the floor muddy. The manager claims they do not have any room for her. In retaliation, Eleanor convinces her husband, Philip, to buy the hotel and in doing so makes the manager clean the floor. This scene causes the audience to feel sympathy toward the protagonist. What is genius about this scene is how they made a character who is normally not seen as relatable into someone we care about and sympathize with by showing their vulnerability. Another important concept was the fact that Rachel was given the majority of power, not Nick. Usually, the male decides between his mom or his girlfriend. However, in this movie, it is Rachel who makes the decision. This movie challenged gender stereotypes about who should have power and control.

Dark reality of Singapore

This film, for the majority of time, is set in Singapore, a small island nation in Southeast Asia. While the movie does not go in depth on the struggles of Singapore, such as their strict government and criminal justice system it provides a place for conversation to occur for those who wish to learn more about the country. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world will be talking about Singapore.

The author, Kevin Kwan, is wanted by the Singapore government for not participating in their mandatory military service which sheds some light on the harsher realities of what it is like to live in Singapore. It is a parliamentary representative democratic republic, meaning their President is the head of state, while their Prime Minister is the head of the government. Compared to the United States, there are numerous surprising, strict rules in Singapore such as it is illegal to smoke in public, feeding pigeons, or even connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi which has $10,000 fine. There are restrictions on who can say what and what information is published through blogs or articles.

On the other hand, Singapore has one of the most diverse populations, both ethnically and religiously. Most of the populations in Singapore are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian. While there are a variety of ethnicities with different languages, most Singaporeans speak English. Moreover, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country because their society encourages people to follow their own culture and traditions while respecting others. Singapore is also a fairly small country and there are surveillance cameras on every street corner. Thus, it is quite safe and has a low crime rate and zero-tolerance policy relating to drugs and other crimes.

Singapore Black & White. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Making a splash in the Western world

Currently, in Western movies, there is a disproportionate amount of white actors and actresses compared to non-white actors and actresses, especially as the main character. The main reason why Crazy Rich Asians is groundbreaking is because it contains a cast of Eastern Asian actors and actresses. It is dismal to think that having casts of different races and cultures is not the norm. The only other movie produced in Hollywood that has an all-Asian cast is The Joy Luck Club, a 1973 film about Chinese women who meet up and play Mahjong and discuss stories about their family. Hence, it took 45 years for another all-Asian cast film to make the headlines.

A lot of the controversy with hiring different races comes with assuming what people want to see. Many people presume that Americans want to watch an American movie with actors that look like them, which means mainly “white”, so they can relate. The irony is that it is predicted in 2045 that most Americans will not be considered white, so why do producers think that most movie actors should be predominantly white?  Many of the presumptions emerge with culture and what we are used to seeing. However, in the past years, there have been more films created to show the diversity of underrepresented communities such as Black Panther and Get Out. However, even with the rise of more diverse casts, 1.4 actors out of every 10 people are people of color. That is the startling reality.

The reason this story is refreshing is because of how the movie has a new take on a common story plot, although we see different people than we normally would. In fact, there are certain parts in the movie where they poke fun at Americans. In Western movies, occasionally, they throw in people of race to “diversify their movie”. However, you can usually tell they did it just to fill their quota; personally, it never quite feels real. In this movie, they rarely include white people and they do only to fill their requirement. For example, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when a man told his kids to eat his food because of all the starving kids in America. Also, when they include beauty queens in a bachelorette party, instead of looking at other countries and how different they are from the United States, we get a role reversal of how different it is from Singapore. Another unique aspect of this film is how it focuses on the second generation of immigrants. In the past, we have seen trite storylines on an immigrant coming to the United States and chasing the American Dream. This movie stands out because it is not afraid to poke fun at things we consider our “norm”, which leads to new possibilities of what the future will hold for the big screen.

No film is perfect

On the other hand, while this movie is groundbreaking, it is not without its weaknesses. One of the major shortcomings that people were quick to mention was the misrepresentation of the Singaporean population. Singapore is culturally diverse and includes people from other places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. People were looking for brown or non-Eastern Singaporeans among the cast; however, they were depicted as the working class. Based on a person’s skin color, they are treated and perceived differently. In fact, this movie plays into the stereotype that Asians are thought to have lighter complexions. The film had an all-Asian cast, but they were all East Asian. The film could have had more diversity. Especially, since one of this film’s biggest pillars is “the inversion of racial expectation”. It is paradoxical to say it is an innovative movie, when in fact it plays to some of the same stereotypes they are fighting against. To be fair, the focus of the movie is on an extremely wealthy Chinese-Singaporean family; thus, this movie is not trying to depict the entire Singaporean population. It is important to consider that regardless how great of a movie this is, there will always be some backlash. However, this may even be why it is such a great movie whereas it creates dialogue on topics that are often ignored or not noticeably addressed.