The Sheer Violation of Human Rights in Kashmir

Devastated Kashmiri girls crying while holding on to fence
Kashmiri girls crying for justice. Source: Kashmir Global, Creative Commons

This Sunday September 29, a protest and awareness gathering was conducted at Linn Park by the Birmingham Islamic Society to advocate for the rights of Kashmiris. The attendees dressed in red to show their support for the victims who vocalized their concerns and shared their stories. Some local Birmingham families have not been able to get in touch with their family members back home for almost two months now. All forms of telecommunication have been blocked in the region, cutting them off from the rest of the world.

The Kashmir region in South Asia, once known as the “Heaven on Earth” due to its naturally beautiful valleys and landscapes, has been a disputed territory since the partition of India and Pakistan under the British rule in 1947. The countries have been at war three times on the conflict of claiming the region and rule it in parts. The UN’s Security Council Resolution of January 20, 1948 proposed a commission of three UN representatives to be selected by India, Pakistan, and Kashmir to mediate the situation, but the delay in the formation and implementation of the commission caused situations to change, and it ultimately failed to reach a conclusion or to devise a practical solution to the crisis. Control of the region has been disputed since then.

On August 5th earlier this year, the Indian government revoked the special status of the Indian-occupied region of Kashmir under Article 370 of its constitution. The only Muslim majority region of the country had the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make internal decisions under the article due to its special status, and annulling it has stripped them of these rights. Additionally, nearly 10,000 armed troops were sent to the area to impose a curfew in the region, evacuate tourists, shut off internet and other communication, and imprison their leaders.

As of October 1st, it has been 58 days since the lockdown of the territory. About eight million residents have been held hostages in their homes at gunpoint. The general public is not allowed to leave their homes and carry out their businesses, the schools and workplaces are closed, people are confined in their homes and neighborhoods, and the region is completely blacked out from the rest of the world. People with families and friends in the region are worried about their safety and are unable to contact them. The area has been flooded with armed troops and there is an overall sense of terror in the environment. This is a sheer violation of human rights being carried out for about two months now, but the world is silent.

The press has been trying to get into the disputed region to directly hear the views of victims. In video-recorded interviews, victims allege the Indian Army of subjecting them to extreme physical torture and mental persecution. Abid Khan, a 26-year-old Kashmiri, claims to have been grabbed by soldiers from his home in Hirpora and taken to a military camp where he was assaulted. His detailed account of the incident includes extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of four soldiers. Others reported being hung upside down, beaten with bamboo sticks, being electrocuted, and forced to drink large amounts of noxious liquid.

The Human Rights Watch has expressed its concern through issuing articles like “India: Basic Freedoms at Risk in Kashmir”, “India Needs to Step Back in Kashmir”, and “India Wants to Avoid International Intervention, But Needs to Address Human Rights in Kashmir” following the lockdown. Malala Yousufzai, the youngest Nobel peace prize winner, expressed her concern against the Kashmir curfew and communication blackout with the following tweets:

In the last week, I’ve spent time speaking with people living and working in #Kashmir – journalists, human rights lawyers and students. I wanted to hear directly from girls living in Kashmir right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of people to get their stories because of the communications blackout. Kashmiris are cut off from the world and unable to make their voices heard. Here is what three girls told me, in their own words: “The best way to describe the situation in Kashmir right now is absolute silence. We have no way of finding out what’s happening to us. All we could hear is the steps of troops outside our windows. It was really scary.” “I feel purposeless and depressed because I can’t go to school. I missed my exams on August 12 and I feel my future is insecure now. I want to be a writer and grow to be an independent, successful Kashmiri woman. But it seems to be getting more difficult as this continues.” “People speaking out for us adds to our hope. I am longing for the day when Kashmir will be free of the misery we’ve been going through for decades.” I am deeply concerned about reports of 4,000 people, including children, arbitrarily arrested & jailed, about students who haven’t been able to attend school for more than 40 days, about girls who are afraid to leave their homes. I am asking leaders, at #UNGA and beyond, to work towards peace in Kashmir, listen to Kashmiri voices and help children go safely back to school.

Nothing practical has been done to date by international organizations for peace and human rights. The victims are uncertain of their future, their lives are at the discretion of others, and their basic rights to freedom and mobility have been restricted through the use of force. They are unable to counteract because resistance is met with direct violence. The New York Times reported that when the Kashmiris attempted a peaceful protest in the streets of Srinagar after a few days of the lockdown, the Indian forces opened fire on them to scatter the crowd and cease them from further resistance, injuring at least seven people.

Kashmir has been a disputed and terror-imposed region for decades, but recent advancements by the Indian government have escalated the situation by making it “a living hell of anger and fear”. The world needs to understand that both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries and the continued escalation of tension and confrontations may lead to a deadly nuclear war. The innocent residents of the region have sacrificed countless lives in the battle between the two countries. For decades, they have been suffering the consequences of British colonialism and their inefficiency during the Indo-Pak partition. When will their fight for freedom come to an end? When will the bloodshed and sacrifices of their loved ones bear fruit? When will they be able to enjoy normal lives and basic human rights? How many more lives will it take to make Kashmir a piece of heaven again? The answers are yet to be found.

The solution to the situation is complicated yet straightforward. It is their land and their lives. The only ones to decide their fate should be them, without any force or threat. This right was given to them by the UN, but unfortunately has not been implemented yet. A fair referendum by UN intervention can make it clear whether Kashmir wants to be a part of Pakistan, India, or a free state. But first, the abuse of human rights should be ceased by the world to normalize the lives of its residents.

We need to bring the attention of world leaders and organizations to the human rights crisis in Kashmir so they can intervene in the increasingly critical situation before it’s too late. To play our part in the fight against human rights abuse and bring attention to the Kashmir issue, we can show our support by raising our voice on different forums, especially social media using hashtags like #freekashmir, #standwithkashmir, and #endkashmirviolence.

Religious Freedom Is Freedom for Everyone

by Pam Zuber

Synagogue. Source: aKatus, Creative Commons

“My holy place has been defiled…. My words are not intended as political fodder, I address all equally. Stop the words of hate,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers. While it may sound as if Rabbi Myers spoke these words in Germany in the 1930s, he actually said them in the United States in 2018. That year, a gunman stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed eleven people who were worshipping there. Rabbi Myers leads one of the congregations who gathered at the synagogue. Just months later, in April 2019, another gunman entered a synagogue in Poway, California and killed one person and wounded three others on the final day of Passover. Authorities issued 109 hate crime charges against the shooter, including allegations that he also set fire to a nearby mosque. Other mosques are under attack even before they’re built. There have been protests surrounding plans to build mosques in various parts of the United States. In 2018, a Muslim group sued the city of Troy, Michigan, saying that the city has thwarted numerous attempts to open a mosque in the area.

Crimes and protests against religion aren’t confined to the United States, of course. In March 2019, yet another person shot and killed fifty-one people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman posted an Islamophobic and white supremacist manifesto online before streaming the attacks on social media. The next month, on Easter Sunday, a series of bombings at churches and hotels in different cities in Sri Lanka killed more than 290 people and wounded more than 500 other people. Referring to the bombings in Sri Lanka, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted, “This atrocity is an attack on Christianity & religious freedom everywhere. No one should ever be in fear in a house of worship.” This attack occurred on Easter Sunday and the Poway shooting occurred during Passover, two holy times for their respective religions. Sri Lanka canceled all Catholic masses the following week except for one: a mass by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, and its prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, attended the mass, which was also broadcast on television.

In the United States, the attacks on the synagogues violated the First Amendment of the country’s Constitution, which grants people the right to peaceably assemble and practice their religions. While the events in Sri Lanka, Pittsburgh, Poway, and Christchurch are indeed attacks on religion and religious freedom, they’re also attacks on so much more. Since they were attacks on religion, they were attacks on what people believed. They were attacks on what people thought.

What are some other types of attacks?

Sadly, these attacks on religion and thoughts seem to occur every day in various ways. While sometimes the attacks take the form of shootings and bombings, they also occur in quieter but still harmful ways. Protests about mosques in several areas of the United States are evidence of such attacks. The Muslim groups who have sued the city of Troy, Michigan, state that the city interfered with plans to open mosques in the city. Their lawsuit alleges that the city violated the U.S. federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. According to the FindLaw website, this act “protects the ability of religious institutions to exercise their purpose without restriction and to let their members apply their religious beliefs through the construction and use of property for religious purposes.”

Anti-mosque protests aren’t confined to Michigan, although the state has experienced a number of them. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a map of the United States on its website that illustrates anti-mosque incidents reported in the country. Only a handful of states – Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah – did not experience any recorded incidents against mosques. The ACLU says, “While mosque opponents frequently claim their objections are based on practical considerations such as traffic, parking, and noise levels, those asserted concerns are often pretexts masking anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Id Kah Mosque. Source: Lukas Bergstrom, Creative Commons

Denying people the physical space to practice their religion creates physical and ideological barriers to practicing religion. It marginalizes people by saying that they aren’t worthy to use the land to worship they way they want to worship, even though they are legal, tax-paying members of society, people who work, attend school, parent children, and buy groceries alongside other members of society. They are people who should have Constitutional protection to practice their religions but whose religious rights are sometimes considered less valid. Marginalizing people makes them feel less welcome as if they’re lesser people. It may even impact their health, as the stress of discrimination and feelings of being outsiders may make them anxious or depressed.

How do we stop such attacks?

We don’t have to believe what other people believe. We don’t have to agree with them. However, we do have to empathize with them. Education may help us develop this empathy. Schools already have classes in subjects such as geography, history, sociology, and world cultures. Some schools, especially parochial schools, have courses about religion. How about using such classes to teach students about different religions and how they impact cultures? Introducing religion to young people may make religions and the people who practice them more familiar to people while they’re still forming opinions on the world around them.

Outside of school, maybe we can try asking our family members, friends, coworkers, and classmates about their religions. Maybe we could use these conversations to learn how people practice their religion on a daily basis. Or, we could try going to the local library to check out some books or DVDs about different religions and cultures. More and more movie theaters are also showing films from other countries, which give us glimpses into the products of other cultures as well as the cultures themselves.

Of course, the web also provides a wealth of information about religion and so much else. Do you want to find general information about religion? Updates about how people treat members of different religions around the world? Suggestions on how to dress when you visit religious houses of worship? You can find all of that and more on the web. You may even join online discussion groups to talk about religion, ask people questions, and receive real, firsthand accounts about religious topics from real people.

If we know something, it’s harder to hate it. Talking with real people about their real religious beliefs puts a human face on religion. Yes, religion is a collection of beliefs about ethereal, intangible concepts. But religions are also collections of actual people who gather together for common purposes. They are collections of people who deserve rights and respect. We can grant and protect them by meeting and learning about people. If we don’t learn, are we just promoting ignorance and hate?

 

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

Australia: Dreaming of Reconciliation

Introduction

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples’ indigenous communities boast the oldest documented forms of culture in the world.  For over 60,000 years (and some claim these communities have been in the Australian ‘neighborhood’ for 80,000 years), these societies were comprised of at least 500 distinct ethnic groups, sharing overarching worldviews and belief systems, but with widely diverse symbols and rituals, methods of exploring and explaining the world around them, and material expressions of their cultural heritage.  Over the course of tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples developed the oldest intellectual, religious, and artistic traditions in human history.  As do all cultures, these traditions morphed and took shape over time, as the values of the Aboriginal peoples developed, as their surrounding ecological environment changed, and finally as colonizing forces destroyed much of the Aboriginal peoples and heritages.  This post provides a brief overview of the colonization of Aboriginal communities and how, hundreds of years later, descendants of both Aboriginal communities and New Australians are working together to reconcile their shared traumatic history through the creation of shared cultural histories.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a contact ship from colonizing forces
“Sailing ship contact art” by Jon Connell, Creative Commons

Colonial Past, Post-Colonial Future?

Broadly defined, colonization is the long-standing political practice of settling a population onto a new territory by subjugating and / or eradicating the current occupants. Colonization is rooted in domination – an assertion of power (e.g., political, economic, militaristic) for the benefit of the colonizing state.  In essence, colonizers seek land or other natural resources, and they justify forcible expansion through various arguments from the religious (e.g., manifest destiny, divine rule) to the ethical (e.g., a ‘civilizing mission’) to the practical (e.g., terra nullius).  Colonization is different from imperialism in the sense that imperialists seek absolute control over a territory, whereas colonizers seek to permanently settle a new population onto a territory.  Colonization has ancient roots extending to the Romans, Moors, and Ottomans and likely beyond.  Edward Said’s (1978) seminal text Orientalism helped usher in ‘postcolonial studies’, an intellectual framework intending to deconstruct the horrific consequences colonialism have had on global human development.  At the most basic level, postcolonialism aims to explore and explain the world through the eyes of the ‘colonized people’, namely the indigenous groups that were and are repressed by colonizing forces and how this repression plays out in the modern day. In the case of Australia, this means Aboriginal communities.

For 200 years, contact between Aboriginal groups and outside world produced largely positive results, including trade relations and the sharing of technologies.  Then in 1770, English Captain James Cook and his cadre begin settling in Australia, bringing with them disease, dispossession, and direct conflict.  Within 10 years, the Aboriginal population was decimated; direct (e.g. violence) and indirect (e.g. alcoholism) effects of colonization murdered 90% of these communities.  Even today, the violent legacy of colonization cascades into the lived experience of Aboriginal Australians.  This collective trauma still impacts these individuals at the biological level (e.g., pathologically high rates of embodied stress), psychological level (e.g., higher rates of suicide), and the societal level (e.g., placing trauma as a central component of cultural production; Krieg, 2009).  In the span of about 200 years, the historical and cultural legacies of the oldest societies on the planet were either intentionally destroyed or forcibly assimilated.  In 1991, however, the Australian government moved to finally reconcile this violent past with surviving members of Aboriginal communities, drawing on the wisdom of these communities themselves.

The archaeological dig site of the Canning Stock Route
“MX MM YIWARRA KUJU” by Secretaría de Cultura Ciudad de México, Creative Commons

Reconciliation: Measuring Success & The Canning Stock Route Project

In 1991, the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody set the stage for reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians.  The following decade saw the government-sponsored Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and its successor, the NGO Reconciliation Australia, standardize and elevate reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians.  Reconciliation Australia posits five dimensions must be addressed in successful reconciliation attempts: (1) race relations; (2) equality and equity; (3) institutional integrity; (4) historical acceptance; (5) unity.  McIntosh (2014) further clarifies best practices of Australian reconciliation efforts by measuring these attempts through the Reconciliation Process Analysis (RPA). The RPA grounds its prescription in two critical factors: visioning (imagining the ‘end state’ of reconciliation, i.e. unity between Aboriginal and new Australians, as decreed by Reconciliation Australia) and backcasting (workings backwards from this vision and labelling tangible steps that have the potential to lead to this reconciliatory vision; McIntosh, 2014).  He lists three stages in the RPA:

  • Stage 1: “Search[ing] for all available information on the convergence of interests that created the agenda for reconciliation”; this emphasizes the “spaces of encounter or contact zone”.
  • Stage 2: Understanding how these spaces of encounter can lead to ‘tipping points’, whereby reconciliation processes are unstoppable both in public and private discourse; in effect, how to move from theory to practice.
  • Stage 3: Creating a reconciliation ‘report card’ by comparing the current state of affairs to visioning and backcasting efforts undertaken by reconciliation workers from both sides of the conflict.

Utilizing the RPA clarifies the success rate of reconciliation for the practitioner and, more importantly, offers concrete steps and directives for the actors involved in reconciliation processes.  By utilizing this framework, Aboriginal and Western Australians now have a blueprint and a tool for functional analysis.

One documented reconciliatory success is the that of the Nguarra Kuju Walyja (translating to “One Country, One People” in a local Aboriginal dialect) Canning Stock Route Project (CSRP).  The CSRP uses cartographic rendering from both Western and Aboriginal Australian sources to create a new transcultural map of portions of Western Australia that were colonized by the English (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  This project involved combining colonial-era mapping (originally belonging to Surveyor Alfred Canning) with religious artistic techniques belonging to the indigenous communities forcibly displaced and murdered by Canning and his crew (Scott, 2011). The CSRP features a hybrid of Western and Indigenous art media (cartography, sand illustration, paint, etc.) for the purpose of intercultural apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

To learn more of the artists involved in the project, click here, and to see the artwork used in the CSRP, click here.

Processes such as these benefit not only the public who consumes the art, but also the researchers, artists, and practitioners who work together on the project (Milroy & Revell, 2013, Smithers Graeme & Mandawe, 2017).  An autoethnographic and reflexive examination of the reconciliation processes enjoyed by the producers of the CSRP would likely reveal changes in outlook between these producers; the act of physically participating in the creation of a reconciliation project may have more tangible effects on the artists than the public.  This and other initiatives similar to the Canning Stock Route Project should be analyzed using McIntosh’s RPA to assess tangible reconciliation outcomes and their impacts in the broader communities these projects serve.  This form of reconciliation research would connect the general benefits of reconciliation, such as the integration of histories, with empirical support.  Reconciliation is, after all, both an art and a science.

An Aboriginal Australian standing on a mountain in the Australian outback
“Injalak DSC01824 NT” by Ian Cochrane, Creative Commons

The Dreaming & The Land

A central aim of the CSRP was an intentional integration of European history (vis-à-vis ‘Western Geography’) and Aboriginal history (vis-à-vis the land-based worldview of The Dreaming). This history is co-written, it is co-owned, and it draws on cultural heritages and strengths of both parties. We are all familiar with the notion of Western Geography – but what is the Aboriginal Dreaming?

The Dreaming, loosely translated, means several things: the time of creation (when animistic spirits sang the world into existence), the spiritual / ethical code of an Aboriginal individual, and the cultural laws governing Aboriginal tribes (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  The Dreaming is both a worldview and a system of behavior – there is no differentiation within many Aboriginal societies.

The Dreaming informs Aboriginal tribes of their cultural history and collective memory through story, art (with particular emphasis on performative aspects, such as dance), pilgrimage, and other rites / rituals (Petchovsky, San Roque & Beskow, 2003). The Dreaming is the spiritual and cultural tradition of Aboriginals, and the Dreaming is central to every facet of their lives. The Dreaming, Aboriginal Australia’s religious and cultural system, is literally rooted in the Australian landscape (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  Landmarks are holy sites to the Aboriginals; some locations’ sacredness is shared by all tribes, some tribes, or one tribe.  The unifying factor, amidst hundreds of Aboriginal traditions, is the relationship between person, spirit, and land in Australia.  The spiritual lives of Aboriginal Australians are nourished by this relationship; by the same token, land theft and forced displacement robs the Aboriginal not only of his or her Country but also their spiritual home and fortitude.  The CSRP, at its most fundamental, approached reconciliation through the land.  Land theft cleaved the relationship between colonizers and Aboriginal communities, therefore land sharing may mend this relationship.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a communal celebration
“Injalak DSC01797 NT” by Ian Cochrane, Creative Commons

A Dream of Reconciliation

Initiatives such as the Canning Stock Route Project aim to engender sustainable peace and reconciliation between descendants of indigenous populations and their colonizers – this is at the heart of healing from cultural violence.  Other similar reconciliation movements, such as those between European Americans and Native Americans, must take heed from the successes of the CSRP.  Government policies, such as reparations, are not enough to successfully reconcile cultures dominated by violence and repression.  Successful reconciliation also hinges on heritage – such as Aboriginal societies’ profound love of and respect for their land. nHeritage lives through art, through wisdom texts, and through stories passed down over the course of many millennia (in the case of Aboriginal communities, 60,000 years and more). nIf the modern world truly seeks to heal from its colonial past, the glorious histories, beliefs, and heritages of indigenous communities must drive future reconciliation.

Below are images of Aboriginal rock art and of the Australian landscape that may have once inspired the Aboriginal Dreaming. 

For more information about rock art, visit here, here, and here

For information on the powerful connection between Aboriginal communities and land, visit here.  

For a greater in-depth explanation of the Aboriginal Dreaming, visit here.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a kangaroo
“Burrup rock art” by Jussarian, Creative Commons.

 

Aboriginal rock art depicting a man
“Painting” by Francesco, Creative Commons

 

a rock formation on a mountain in the Australian outback
“The Three Sisters, Katoomba, NSW” by Jan Smith, Creative Commons

 

References

Borer, T. A. (2006). Telling the Truths. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Krieg, A. (2009). The experience of collective trauma in Australian Indigenous communities. Australian Psychiatry, 17(special supplement), 28-32.

McIntosh, I. S. (2014). Reconciliation, you’ve got to be Dreaming: Exploring methodologies for monitoring and achieving Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia by 2030. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 32(1).

Milroy, J. & Revell, G. (2013). Aboriginal story systems: Re-mapping the West, knowing country, sharing space. Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 3, 1-24.

Petchovsky, L., San Roque, C. & Beskow, M. (2003). Jung and the Dreaming Analytical psychology’s encounters with Aboriginal culture. Transcultural Psychology, 40(2), 208-238.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Scott, S. (2011). Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route. Australia Historical Studies, 42, 289-294.

Smithers Graeme, C. & Mandawe, E. (2017). Indigenous geographies: Research as reconciliation. The Interdisciplinary Indigenous Policy Journal, 8(2), 1-19.

Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.

Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia

In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.

Women2Drive. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Their Stories

Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada; she was seeking a place where she can be free. Even though she left her family behind, now she can make her own decisions. She said, “I don’t have any contact with my family, but I think that’s good for me and for them. I feel like this is my home now. It’s better here.” Two girls, Reem and Rawan, escaped from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong. Reem claims, “Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison.” However, they cannot stay in Hong Kong for long because they are at risk of being possibly removed or prosecuted. If they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the outcome could result in imprisonment or death. Cases similar to Reem and Rawn’s tend to often be covered up.

Why Women Run  

One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

 Technology and its Effect on Women’s Rights

 With every technological advances comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits can include a platform where people are given a voice to share their thoughts and an accessible platform from anywhere in the world. However, the drawbacks comprise of undesired scrutiny which can make one an easy target. As a result, one of the biggest questions now is “whether it is the responsibility of technology companies to make sure their platforms are not used by governments to repress their citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.

 

Free. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons.

The Future

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.

A Humanitarian Crisis in Xinjiang

by Dianna Bai

Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China.
Child’s play – Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China. Source: Sherpas 428, Creative Commons

Among the corpses frozen in exodus over the icy mountain pass, will you recognize me? Our brothers 

we begged for shelter took our clothes. Pass by there even now and you will see our naked 

corpses. When they force me to accept the massacre as love 

Do you know that I am with you. Perhat Tursun, translated by Joshua L. Freeman

In the arid and ashen deserts of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China, as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government for mandatory “re-education.” Scores of the compounds can be seen vividly from satellite images. Enclosed by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard stations, they have the imposing sterility of prisons. Inside, the detainees, Uyghurs, and members of a few other ethnic groups who practice the Muslim faith, are forced to participate in a program of indoctrination, listening to lectures, singing songs that praise the Communist Party of China, and writing essays of “self-criticism.” They are also coerced into abandoning traditional practices tied to Islam: praying, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, and abstaining from pork and alcohol.

The stated aim of the campaign is to eliminate extremism in a region that has been marked by unrest and separatist violence, to produce “transformation by education.” One revealing official document reviewed by Agence-France Press states that to produce this change, the centers must “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It’s clear that in Xinjiang, China has gone far beyond fighting separatism and works actively to erase a great cultural tradition for the purposes of political stability. The mass detention underway is a reflection of the Xi Jinping government, a nationalistic, hardline regime that often glorifies the practices of the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, millions of youth from Chinese cities were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” The recent spate of mass detentions should come as no surprise.

Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is a province in China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. China is dominated by the Han majority, which comprises over 90 percent of the population, but is also home to 55 ethnic minorities. About 10 million Muslim Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) live in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs, who feel a stronger kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese, speak a distinct Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice a form of Sunni Islam. They have left a distinct mark on the history of Inner Asia, having ruled their own kingdom that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea in the eighth and ninth centuries but is now concentrated in Xinjiang. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Xinjiang has been ruled by China as an “autonomous” region that is not truly autonomous. Freedoms and liberties for the Uyghurs have been curtailed heavily – the recent mass detentions are only a piece of the larger picture of repression that Uyghurs face.

Uyghurs are divided in opinion over their political autonomy. Some support remaining a distinct culture within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region or integrating into the Chinese system, while others call for becoming a separate state called “East Turkestan.”  For China, Xinjiang is an important province, the biggest domestic producer of oil and gas that is also a critical logistics hub for the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trillion dollar infrastructure plan meant to strengthen China’s global influence. China is also concerned that unrest in Xinjiang will spark unrest in other provinces such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.

The brutal measures toward the Muslims in Xinjiang are only one aspect of the broader repression levied against religious groups in China under Xi Jinping. The U.S. State Department has long designated China as a “particular country of concern” with regards to religious freedom. An authoritarian state that fears the rise of civil society, China has placed restrictions on all religious groups—from the Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners. Throughout the history of the PRC, the state has been monitoring the activities of major religious organizations and even banning groups such as the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong, which had gained approximately 70 million followers in China before it was declared illegal. On the Tibetan plateau, where there are six million adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, we see some of the most extreme measures. Paramilitary police patrol the streets to monitor the movements ethnic Tibetans, reinforced by a fleet of video cameras recording all events for review. The “grid management” system that Xinjiang now employs was tried and tested first in Tibet, where an army of community workers oversee sections of the city divided into “grids” to provide security officials with real-time data that could uncover the first signs of potential unrest.

Since Xi Jinping has consolidated power, the crackdown on religion has intensified. The uptick in repression has been especially visible for Protestant churches and quasi-Christian groups since 2016. Reports from Christians in China tell of an alarming increase in Bibles burned, churches demolished, and pastors detained. As Heritage Foundation fellow Olivia Enos explains, “I think that the Chinese government, like so many authoritarian governments around the world, recognizes that religion gives an alternative authority to the government and it requires the allegiance of the people to an authority that is, frankly, far higher than the government.”

a Uyghur man
Uyghur man. Source: Todenhoff, Creative Commons

A Police State Emerges in Xinjiang

Maintaining political stability in Xinjiang has been paramount for China, especially as discontent has flared up in recent years. As Xinjiang has developed economically since 1949, the government has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese into the region. Tensions have arisen as many Uyghurs resent discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese. Uyghurs have watched the higher paying jobs go to the ethnically Han Chinese while the Uyghur “minorities” have been given the labor-intensive jobs for lesser pay.  Long-simmering tensions exploded in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets to riot in Xinjiang over the unfair treatment by the government and the Han Chinese.

Blaming the 2008 and 2009 riots on Uyghur separatists, China has since implemented increasingly repressive policies to control the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.  Several Uyghur-led rebellions against the Chinese government have punctuated the history of Xinjiang, dating back to the early 1900s. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial government’s attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into China created antagonism between Uyghurs and the Chinese government that became a foundation of the newly formed Uyghur identity. Today, there also exist extreme separatist groups in Xinjiang with ties to global jihad, including the Turkestan Islamic Party, which took credit for a series of attacks in 2008. In one sense, it is easy to see why the current government of China would be vigilant about violence and ensuring that the Uyghurs never rise up again as they have in history. They fear that China will splinter if regional separatist movements gain traction and inspire each other. Yet China has gone far beyond fighting the perceived threat, now detaining innocent people and infringing on so many aspects of their daily lives.

The brutal repression of the Uyghurs expanded dramatically in 2016 with the installation of a new Party chief, Chen Quanguo, who has brought his experience quelling unrest as the former Party chief of Tibet. In 2017, Xinjiang’s security spending increased by more than 90 percent to $8.52 billion. Xinjiang is now a police state where the government intrudes into many aspects of people’s lives. According to one detailed report that summarizes the findings of numerous accounts in the media:

  • “Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima.”
  • Chinese flags and Communist slogans have been installed in mosques.
  • “Convenience police stations” have been set up every 500 meters in the capital city of Urumqi
  • Local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study” with local families.
  • Volunteers are assigned households to monitor. They are charged with finding out what organizations people belong and “the sort of lives they lead” including their political opinions.
  • 40,000 face-recognition cameras have been installed to track Uyghurs
  • All drivers in Xinjiang have been required to install GPS trackers in their cars that will monitor their movements
  • Police have taken voice samples, DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.
  • Uyghurs are regularly required to have their ID cards checked doing typical activities in a day such as traveling and filling up gas.

Perhaps the most drastic measures have been the mass detentions. Uyghurs who have committed no crime other than practicing their religion – activities such as reading an Islamic verse at a funeral or making a pilgrimage to Mecca – have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. As former detainees tell their stories, the world has gotten a sense of what takes place inside of the camps. It’s not the sunny “vocational education” that Chinese officials and state television have propagated. Part of the detention involves education: former detainees have described being taught daily lessons in Pinyin, the Romanized system of Chinese. Other lessons are less innocuous—songs praising Xi Jinping, curriculum about the hero Lei Feng to inspire devotion to communism. Detainees have reported being forced to recite “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,” one former detainee remembers.

The use of force is not uncommon in the camps. Official documents obtained about the camps include a procurement order for 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. Another detainee has told the BBC that they were forced to wake before sunrise every morning for mandatory runs. Those who didn’t run fast enough were beaten and kicked by guards. More beatings were in store for detainees who couldn’t recite correctly the laws they were forced to memorize. In one case, an ethnically Kazakh man who had been detained revealed to NPR that he had been tortured for resisting the orders of a guard to make his bed and throwing the mattress at the guard—though he was the only one at his camp to actually be tortured rather than just threatened. He’d been forced to wear a suit made of metal weighing over 50 lbs that stretched out his limbs and caused him immense pain in his back. “They made people wear this thing to break their spirits,” he told NPR. “After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful.”

The humanitarian crisis against Muslims in Xinjiang can hold lessons for the United States as well, especially with regards to the recent travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. In the name of national security, China has swept a broad swath of society into one vilified category and carried out massive human rights violations against their own citizens on the basis of faith. China doesn’t honor religious freedom or the rights of minorities. To the Chinese government, there is no sense that these rights should be protected when larger objectives are at stake. These protections, however, are a defining characteristic of the United States as a democracy. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Honoring the fundamental rights of one group means honoring the rights of all. It ensures that there will be no “tyranny of the majority.” While the travel ban does not compare to the vast violation of civil liberties in China, it undermines the spirit of democracy and contributes to the widespread prejudice and discrimination against people of religious faith in America.

 

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.