International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression

Young girl covering her eyes
Source: Yahoo Images

While discussing various human rights violations and crises, it is important to also be mindful of the special groups such violations affect. On August 19th, 1982, the United Nations announced that June 4th of each year will be declared the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression. According to this article from OC Human Relations, the day’s purpose is to acknowledge the pain suffered specifically by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The day also affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. According to Children’s Advocacy Centers of Tennessee, nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the US alone. In addition, rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socio-economic status compared to children in families with higher socio-economic status. A child’s right to be free from aggression and abuse is violated globally across many spectrums with crises such as domestic abuse and gun violence.

Child Domestic Abuse and Covid-19

Child crying on the ground
Source: Yahoo Images

Domestic abuse is an international issue that can affect people of every age, race, gender, and background. Also referred to as ‘domestic violence,’ domestic abuse can directly or indirectly affect children due to bullying, harassment, and endangerment from those who reside in their homes with them. Some signs of domestic abuse in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship include the following from The Children’s Society:

  • Kicking, punching, hitting
  • Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
  • Controlling behavior
  • Controlling someone’s finances by withholding money or stopping someone going to work
  • making someone feel guilty, criticizing them or making them feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves

Unfortunately, the 2020 outbreak of the Covid-19 virus led to an increase in child victims of domestic abuse due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. These lockdowns decreased a child’s ability to find a safe place through school counselors or churches and seek guidance from trusted adults. Without being able to find an escape from unsafe home lives, many children suffered an increased risk of domestic violence. Although exact numbers cannot be known of how many additional cases were caused by the pandemic, one study analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers. When researchers analyzed the group of children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled compared to a similar period before the pandemic. “The most common injury identified was head injury, followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries,” said senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O’Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, went on to explain that daycares for younger children were deemed essential and remained open, while school-aged children were stuck at home.

Child Victims of Gun Violence

Children march from a school shooting
Source: Yahoo Images

Another instance where minors experience acts of aggression and unsafety is through gun violence. Children can become victims of gun violence in or outside of the home, both in private and public places such as churches and schools. In the last decade, the number of children killed in armed conflicts is estimated at 1.5 million and another 4 million have been disabled, crippled, blinded or have suffered brain injuries. Only from year-to-date of 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in America alone, killing or injuring 83 people total. This number also includes last week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. “When parents drop their kids off at school, they have every expectation to know that they’re going to be able to pick their child up when that school day ends. And there are families who are in mourning right now,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference. “The state of Texas is in mourning with them for the reality that these parents are not going to be able to pick up their children.” The Robb Elementary shooting is the deadliest school shooting in ten years, when a gunman shot and killed 26 people as young as 6 years old at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

How to Help

Today, and every year on June 4th, it is important to remember this human rights holiday in honoring Innocent Children Victims of Aggression across the world. Progress can be made by further educating yourself on the many acts of aggression that violate a child’s human rights and by spreading the word to others. Click here to learn more: International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.

The Hijab Row: The Latest on India’s Nationalist Actions

Societal destabilization is a normal part of any dystopian novel. The government cannot come to a consensus, politicians treat countries as puppets, and somehow, an awkward yet powerful adolescent is thrust into the spotlight to save the world. It is slowly dawning on the world that this outlandish twist of fate is now a reality.  

In January 2022, Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coastal border, banned hijabs in educational institutions. The epicenter of this issue is at the Government Pre-College University for Girls in the Udipi district of Karnataka, where Muslim students say that when they returned to school this past September, they were threatened to either remove the hijab or be marked absent. The girls were not allowed to attend classes or write their exams in their hijabs. This situation is not only a paramount issue and manifestation of India’s growing nationalist agenda, but also signals a threat to a fundamental right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution: religious freedom. 

Muslim woman wearing a head covering
Muslim woman wearing a head covering Source: Unsplash

Politics 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India, is infamous for its right-wing actions against minorities. The pride of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a devout Hindu and believes that a superior India will only be restored to glory by becoming homogenous, a passion increasingly echoed across India. In recent years, minority alienation in terms of religion, caste, and gender has accelerated. Hindu activist groups in Karnataka believe the hijab ban is essential for social equality and for providing an unbiased classroom for every student to learn. Hindu student activists view the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim girls and wish to remove them for the sake of religious equality in education. They also compare the hijab to a saffron shawl Hindus often wear in religious ceremonies. It was implied that if hijabs are allowed, then every Hindu should be allowed to wear the saffron shawl to class as well.  

History 

Despite the social equity of this ban, the defense of upholding it is rather weak. This ban forces Muslim girls to choose between their religion, their bodily autonomy, or their education. Who can learn properly when they don’t feel comfortable in their own body? When the hijab is a part of your identity, not wearing it can be a source of ceaseless discomfort and alienation from your body and your perception of yourself.  

17-year-old Aliya Assadi, a karate champion in the city of Udupi, summarized the necessity of the hijab in one statement. Much like other Muslim girls, Assadi derives confidence and is assured by wearing her hijab. Removing it is not an option for her because it is a lifestyle that she pays her respects to. Assadi does not feel oppressed in her hijab but being forced to remove it is embarrassing and humiliating.  

Rows of seats in a university lecture hall
Rows of seats in a university lecture hall Source: Unsplash

The National Congress Party, BJP’s competition, vehemently opposes the hijab ban and stated that it is a violation of religious freedom. The BJP’s response asserted that the hijab is not an essential manifestation or practice of Islam, and therefore, the ban is not a violation of the Constitution. The Quran, the primary religious text in Islam, states that “It is not that if the practice of wearing hijab is not adhered to, those not wearing hijab become the sinners, Islam loses its glory, and it ceases to be a religion.” Based on this one quote, the Karnataka High Court deemed the hijab not essential for religious practice, ruled that the ban was constitutional, and dismissed all petitions made by Muslim girls barred from attending class. However, the hijab has more meaning than a literal interpretation of the Koran. Each of the groups that practice Islam in India and across the world have different cultural values and exhibits diversity in their traditions. Similarly, the hijab has underlying traditional value for each person or group, and in some parts of the world, the hijab is a symbol of resistance.  

Religious freedom, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Banning hijabs imposes on equal access to education and women’s rights because, without comfort and peace of mind in oneself, students cannot learn to their optimal ability. Yet, this problem does not extend to male students. This is the reason for their apparent alienation from the education system, which should be teaching them how to be successful and advocate for their beliefs. The right to education without discrimination on religion or gender is a universal human right—a human right that is being violated.  

Future Implications 

As religious divides deepen between Muslims and Hindus in India, human rights defenders worry that other states will consider enacting a similar ban on hijabs now that the precedent has been set. This is a potential slippery slope that may alienate the Muslim population with additional restrictions and obligations narrowing their sense of self. Already, far-right Hindu groups have claimed that Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, is in the process of creating a hijab ban and Uttar Pradesh is next. The majority of both states’ politicians identify as members of the BJP, as well.  

The Muslim girls, however, are not close to surrendering in this fight. They plan to appeal to India’s Supreme Court for a final, unbiased verdict on the case. The young people of India, now the majority age group in the country, are attempting to take India’s future into their own hands. The ramifications of this case, if the Supreme Court were to hear it, will be momentous.  

For years, a Hindu nationalist agenda has decreased the rights and autonomy of minorities of all classes. Often, these moves were underhanded and created through loopholes or loose interpretations of the law—just as the hijab ban was. Once the ban’s constitutionality reaches the Supreme Court, the whole country, including the federal administration, will be put on trial for their actions in the past and the future by India’s minority and majority populations.  

Women in hijabs at a protest with signage "Hijab our Right"
Women in hijabs at a protest with signage “Hijab our Right” Source: Flickr

International Consequences 

Unfortunately, islamophobia and minority discrimination are ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, and it will be challenging to fight this growing movement. When we think of history makers and game changers, it is often about one person with enough strength and bravery to face the world. However, lasting progress is sustained by consistent change and accountability. Anyone can fight and advocate against Islamophobia, and, eventually, a little effort from millions can be amassed into a movement capable of changing society from within.  

Countless organizations, lawyers, and legislators are facing the brunt of standing their ground against harsher political movements, but the public perspective must change first. In India, is important to communicate the despicable nature of Islamophobia online. Residents can report to the police commissioner or the District Magistrate in-person, or they can tag national authorities on social media such as the Ministry of Home, international human rights groups, and UN agencies. Openly support your neighbors or community members and help them file FIRs against Islamophobia acts and follow directives from local anti-Islamophobic organizations. In America at least, people can support anti-Islamophobic legislation and communicate with their government representatives about their discontent and rage over the treatment of their Muslim counterparts. People can also support American Indivisible and Shoulder to Shoulder, organizations that work to dismantle structural islamophobia. Regardless of your location, demonstrating solidarity and opening honest conversations is an imperative initial step to combating Islamophobia. 

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Human Rights and Climate Change – An Event Recap

Earth
Source: Creative Commons

On Wednesday, September 15, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Courtney Andrews, Program Manager for the Institute for Human Rights and UAB Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, and Dr. Julie Price, UAB Assistant Professor of Public Health, to the Social Justice Café. Dr. Andrews and Dr. Price facilitated a discussion entitled “Human Rights and Climate Change.”

Dr. Andrews began by defining climate change and introducing the audience to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. The report offers the most conclusive evidence to date that humans have contributed significantly towards the current state of climate change. Climate change has increased occurrences of drought, heavy rain, tropical cyclones, and wildfires in nearly every region of the world. A sense of urgency was conveyed during the Social Justice Café when Dr. Andrews stated global warming will continue to worsen unless we [society] make collective efforts to prioritize ending climate change. According to the IPCC, the global production of greenhouse gas must reach a net zero by 2050 to effectively minimize climate change damages. Dr. Andrews then stated climate change will affect all regions but, we should not expect climate change to affect all regions equally. The most severe impact will be on those already most vulnerable due to poverty, governmental instability, and lack of educational opportunities. Dr. Andrews acknowledged that “those hit the hardest by climate change are the people that have contributed the least to climate change.” The challenges associated with climate change transcend generations by limiting our sustainability options.

Dr. Price, an expert in sustainability, shared with the Social Justice Café audience that the loss of biodiversity caused by climate change will have a lasting effect on society. Dr. Price offered sustainability suggestions to include reduction of human emissions and to start growing crops in untraditional geographical areas. According to Dr. Price, the foundation of sustainability is to “evaluate the whole picture and consider the social and environmental impact of our decisions.” Following Dr. Price’s introduction to sustainability, a Social Justice Café participant asked, “how does climate change violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?” Dr. Andrews answered the question by circle back to her earlier point that unstable societies are hit the hardest by climate change because of a lack in resource and access. The lack of resource and access afforded to these countries is a violation of their human rights. Dr. Price then pointed out that “paying for air conditioning is an energy burden. When you already have people struggling for necessities, tensions will rise and increase the potential for neglect in the event of natural disaster.” Also, Dr. Price notes that in the event of natural disaster, caused by climate change, “the ability to evacuate is not afforded to the most vulnerable of society.” It is vital to consider that there are countries that do not have social safety nets to provide care for their people amid tragedy and chaos. Dr. Andrews then added context by drawing a direct connection to the current events occurring in Louisiana, following Hurricane Ida. If people were able to leave their homes, to avoid the hurricane, “what will those people return to?” In conclusion, Dr. Andrews stated that we must “reshape public sentiment surrounding climate change.” In addition to legislative action, public outcry has the power to positively impact climate change.

Thank you, Dr. Andrews and Dr. Price and thank you everyone who participated in this eye-opening discussion. The Institute for Human Rights at UAB’s next event, “An Evening with Clint Smith,” will take place September 22, 2021, at 5:00 pm (CT). Please join us and bring a friend!  Our next Social Justice Café will be held on Wednesday, September 29, and we will be discussing gun control and human rights.

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

 

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.

Coronavirus and Religion

Source: M. Rehan, Creative Commons

As the Covid-19 pandemic is taking the whole world by a storm of chaos and confusion, it is directly affecting various aspects of people’s lives. People around the world are trying to get used to this new normal and cope up with the challenges and changes in daily life caused by this global crisis. Since we are facing an outbreak like none other, it has directly affected and changed how we live, work, communicate, and carry out our daily lives. Religion is a very important part of most people’s lives and affects their everyday routine as well as physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual beings. The freedom to have, follow, and practice a religion is a fundamental human right, and I will explore how the novel coronavirus crisis is impacting and interfering with the religious rights of people.

Since the pandemic has affected most places in the world, religious institutions and houses of worship are no exception. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have been closed for all kinds of gatherings due to the social distancing protocols set through by the CDC as a response to Covid-19. In these unprecedented times, billions of people are resorting to religion as a first resort for comfort and solace. When all else looks unsettling, people of faith are turning closer to religion and spiritual observance throughout the world. But the pandemic has also interfered with traditional ways of practicing religion through the closure of the places of worship and withdrawal of gatherings of this sort. As a Muslim myself, I would like to share my observation and experience of the influence of this pandemic on the religious experiences of Muslims around the world.

Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world with more than 1.9 billion followers, thus a significant population of the world is facing challenges in exercising their religious rights and rituals. During the initial phase of the outbreak, the first immediate effect on Muslims was the cancellation of the Friday communal prayer. People were ordered to pray in their homes in order to avoid close contact with each other. This congregational prayer is of great significance to Muslims as they come together in mosques to listen to the weekly sermon, pray together, and fulfill this obligatory ritual. Therefore, its dismissal was a big deal for the Muslim communities worldwide and also led to conflicts in some areas. For example, worshippers in Pakistan clashed with police personnel trying to enforce the lockdown at the time of the prayer. Similarly, some mosques in Bangladesh continued to operate despite government restrictions and a massive prayer gathering with tens of thousands of devotees was held without permission from the authorities. The pictures of the event were shared on social media, where it was greatly criticized and sparked an outcry from people in favor of the lockdown. People in Indonesia were divided over Friday prayers and coronavirus fears, resulting in some praying at home and others gathered in mosques. Religious leaders in the U.S. also faced a dilemma in making the best decision for their followers, facing disagreements on whether or not to cancel Friday prayers. In the second week of March, Muslim organizations including the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Islamic Society of North America gave a joint statement suspending Friday prayers and recommending necessary precautions to the Muslim community.

Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari’ah. This concept takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life represents the foundation of our existence. Therefore, at times, preservation of human life and human rights is far more significant than the continuity of even essential practices of devotion.

People are finding alternate ways to keep practicing religion while also practicing social distancing. Online platforms are being widely used to share information, resources, and ways to get closer to religion as well as interact with other people of faith for support. To lift up the spirits of the Muslim community amid this pandemic, the call to prayer, Adhan, was chanted from loudspeakers in the heart of Europe in early April. Nearly 100 mosques in Germany and the Netherlands rang out with the sound of Adhan as a gesture of support for Muslims. A lot of mosques in Muslims countries have added a line at the end of every call to prayer, asking people to pray at home.

Adhan recited from mosques to fight against COVID-19 in Germany. Source: Yeni Safak, Creative Commons

Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, known as the Kaaba, which is always packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims year-round, was emptied due to Covid-19 concerns earlier this March. Muslims around the world were shocked, shuddered, and deeply saddened to see the holy place deserted for the first time in millennia. The images of the empty Kaaba inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque were extensively spread over social media as Muslims showed their concern and disappointment on this unprecedented yet imperative move. Every year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina for a week-long ritual known as Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam and obligatory for every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stopped Umrah, a non-mandatory pilgrimage, in late February due to the pandemic. As the unfavorable situation still persists, the cancellation of Hajj, which starts in late July, is also being considered. This is one of the largest human gatherings in the world, and its potential cancellation will affect millions of people and businesses around the world.

The holy Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Before and after Covid-19. Source: Creative Commons

The Islamic month of Ramadan started a few days ago and it is one of the most important, sacred, and celebrated time of the year for Muslims. It is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, charitable giving to the less fortunate, spiritual renewal, praying and reading the Quran, abstaining from worldly pleasures to reconnect with the self and with God, and coming together as a community to celebrate. Muslims around the world are having a Ramadan like no other this year. The mosques are empty, the daily nightly prayer Tarawih is canceled, people are observing the holy month by praying in their homes and sharing meals with immediate families instead of large community feasts. People are trying to find alternate ways to have the Ramadan experience by holding virtual Iftar meetups, online sermons and halaqa sessions, and donating through online platforms amidst these social-distancing times. On one hand, lockdown in Ramadan has also allowed people to spiritually indulge themselves without worldly distractions like work and school and to modify their daily schedules accordingly. It has given some relief to those who are fasting to catch up on lost sleep from late night prayers and waking up in the middle of the night for the pre-fast meal suhoor. On the other hand, the cancellation of open Iftars organized by mosques and charitable organizations that allowed sharing a meal for everybody has taken a toll on the less fortunate who rely on these meals during Ramadan. Since the world is already facing an economic crisis and a lot of people are in an uncertain situation financially, this time of festive observance is becoming harder for those who are unable to provide for their families and take part in all the celebrations. Since the month of Ramadan teaches empathy and encourages acts of compassion and generosity, Muslims around the world are stepping up to help their brothers and sisters in this time of need. The act of fasting teaches patience, self-discipline, sacrifice, and empathy and these virtues are more important than ever for all of us to practice in these difficult times.

The end of Ramadan is commemorated with a celebration called Eid, which is also referred to as a gift for those who fasted the whole month. For us, the day of Eid is marked by wearing new clothes, going to the communal Eid prayer in the morning, celebrating with the community, and sharing meals and presents with family and friends afterwards. This year, it is expected to have a similar fate as Ramadan if the state of emergency continues, resulting in all the festivities being called off.

Muslims praying in a mosque. Source: Shaeekh Shuvro, Creative Commons

Coronavirus has also changed how funeral services and burials are carried out across the world. Islam has specific guidelines and rituals to perform for the deceased including washing/bathing the dead body, putting it into a coffin, and offering the collective prayer before a procession of friends and family takes the body for burial. According to the CDC guidelines, gatherings are not supposed to exceed 10 people and the body of the infected person should not be touched. Muslim scholars in the US have proposed alternative ways to carry out these procedures such as limiting the handling of the body to the specific staff of the graveyard or funeral home with the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). They have also suggested doing tayammum instead of bathing the dead body, which is characterized by wiping the face and hands of the deceased after touching a sandy surface. Additionally, family and friends are not allowed to be physically present during the burial or the prayer. Attendance at funerals is considered a collective obligation that must be carried out by a sufficient number of people, but changes are being made to ensure the safety of everyone. My mother’s uncle passed away from coronavirus last week in Boston, Massachusetts and his family was not allowed to see him at all. Instead, the funeral was live streamed and the prayer was held in the presence of only four people, one of them being the imam who led the prayer.

It is important to note that not only is this Covid-19 situation affecting religious experiences, but some of these rituals have also contributed to the spread of the virus. For example, a gathering of 16,000 worshippers at a Malaysian mosque became the largest known viral vector of the pandemic in Southeast Asia, spreading the coronavirus to half a dozen countries. Similarly, the pilgrimage of Shia sect Muslims to the holy cities of Iran led to the spread of the virus through Central and South Asia. The pilgrims reportedly caught the virus in the holy city of Qom, which was the epicenter of covid-19 in Iran and caused it to spread in their home countries upon return. Even though Pakistan shares its border with China, the novel coronavirus was introduced into the country through pilgrims returning from Iran. Similar cases have been seen around the world where coronavirus infections have been linked to religious gatherings, such as church services in South Korea and North Carolina, Jewish Purim celebrations, and Muslim prayer gatherings.

To conclude, religion is both a source of solace as well as a possibility of risk during a pandemic. People of faith around the world are struggling to keep a balance between religious practices and safety precautions. It is in the best interest of everyone to follow the social distancing guidelines whenever possible and find peace in their own beliefs, whatever they may be.

Art for Human Rights: The For Freedoms Congress

FFCon Header. Source: For Freedoms

As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.

What is For Freedoms?

For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”

About the Congress

The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.

Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.

The 50 State Photo. Source: Ural Garrett, FFCon

Culture, Art, and Advocacy

The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.

We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.

Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.

The Flower of Praxis. Source: Rosa Gonzales, Creative Commons

Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.

One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.

Me shaping a flashlight out of clay at the workshop. Source: thisisnotagun.com, Creative Commons

The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,

We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.

MAUNAKEA & THE FIGHT TO PROTECT SACRED LAND

Image of Mauna Kea protectors blocking the road
TMT blockade on Mauna Kea. Source: Occupy Hilo, Creative Commons/Flickr

A $1.4bn observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is slated to be built on Maunakea, a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, this year. This telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and would provide images more than 10x sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing astronomers to explore even deeper into space. Yet, while the construction of a new telescope on a tall mountain might seem like a neutral endeavor, it is rife with issues of justice.

The construction of TMT was initially stopped in 2015 when Native Hawaiians and allies blocked the road to construction crews for months until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction that December. Then in 2019, developers were given the go-ahead to once again begin construction. In response, protesters (or as they prefer to be called protectors) turned out to block the road, with the protest coming to a head in July, when 38 kūpuna (revered elders) were arrested and Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more control over the area and allowed them to bring in National Guard troops. However, the protectors did not back down and have been camped at the road ever since.

In December, protectors at the Mauna Kea Access Road removed barricades and shifted their camps to the side of the road for the first time, opening the access road to all traffic except construction equipment as part of a deal with Mayor Kim. In return, the Mayor promised, “that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months.” Protectors hope this time can be used to influence decisionmaking in other arenas. While this update does look promising, in January the trial for the first group of protectors arrested began and has so far highlighted the opposing viewpoints of this protest. According to Deputy Attorney General Darrell Wong “These defendants may have characterized their actions as kapu aloha and peaceful, but nonetheless it involved a plan, an organized plan, something that was calculated and basically something that was unjustified.” Yet the protectors and their attorney view their actions as a response to the government blocking the activists from practicing their religion and culture, which is protected under the law.

Sacred Land

Picture of Mauna Kea in Hawaii
Mauna Kea Hawaii. Source: Eric Tessmer, Creative Commons/Flickr

The protectors are not anti-science, as some TMT supporters have claimed. They are not opposed to the scientific advancements brought by such a telescope but they are opposed to its chosen location. Maunakea is a sacred mountain that is said to connect native Hawaiians to the cosmos. According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the mountain is the dwelling place of the goddess Poli’ahu, it is associated with the Hawaiian deities Lilinoe and Waiau, and the summit is considered the realm of the gods.

The construction of TMT would negatively impact the sacred land and the telescope would increase activities on the mountain, further degrading the environment. The mountain top is already home to 13 other telescopes and since multiple alternative sites were found by the board of directors behind TMT to be “excellent for carrying out the core science” of the observatory, it at first seems off that TMT supporters seem so committed to this location. However, if we take a step back to look at the issue it is easy to see the link between this current protest and the history of ill-treatment to native Hawaiians and the continued desecration of their native lands.

A Brief History of US Interference in Hawaii

The history of Hawaii was absent from all of my education. It had always been just the 50th state and an island vacation spot until I lived in American Samoa and decided to learn more about the history of US intervention in Polynesia. It was then that I learned about the fraught history of Hawaii, a history that I honestly should have known and could have at least guessed at if I had taken a moment to. Just as North America was colonized, so too was Hawaii and many continue to consider the island to be occupied by the US.

In 1887, King David Kalakaua was forced, at gunpoint, to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the monarch of the majority of his authority. The new constitution had been written by a group of white businessmen, many of whom were connected to the sugar and pineapple plantations on the island, who wanted the Kingdom to become part of the US. When the King died, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him and attempted to restore power to the monarchy. This action angered the same white businessmen and they formed a 13-member Committee of Safety which forced Queen Lili’uokalani to abdicate her throne. The Committee then proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

President Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the Provisional Government, but before it could be ratified, President Cleveland was elected and the treaty was withdrawn. President Cleveland also appointed a special investigator to investigate the events in Hawaii, who found that there had been a coup. He then ordered Queen Lili’uokalani to be restored to power, but the Provisional Government refused and declared Hawaii a republic in 1894. Soon after the US government officially recognized it as a republic. In 1895, Native Hawaiians staged mass protests and eventually took up arms to stop the annexation, but the protest was suppressed and the leaders, along with Queen Lili’uokalani, were jailed. In 1898, Congress passed the “Newlands Resolution” officially annexing Hawaii and, in 1959, it became the 50th state.

For decades, the use of the Hawaiian language was punished, Native culture was suppressed and a large military presence was maintained on the islands. Many Native Hawaiians remember these US policies explicitly designed to suppress traditional Native Hawaiian religious and cultural practices, and while no longer explicit, native culture is still being infringed upon.

Religious Protections?

Theoretically, sacred land disputes should not exist because of existing protections of religion in the US. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right for people to practice their own religion, with the first clause providing that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and the second prohibiting Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. Since sacred lands are part of the “religious” practices of many Native Americans they should be protected. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the courts. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a group of Native Americans from the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes objected to proposed road construction within the Six Rivers National Forest because it would destroy land that they held sacred. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts all agreed that the activity would indeed violate their religious needs, yet the Supreme Court ruled against them. The Court ruled that in this case, while the activity would adversely affect their religion and destroy the sacred location, the government was not prohibiting the practice of their religion and therefore construction could continue (Bowman, 1989).

The establishment clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government endorsement of religions, has also proven detrimental to the fight for the protection of sacred lands. According to the Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, government actions must be secular in nature, or at least neutral, and must avoid “excessive entanglement in religion”. In practice, this has resulted in the protection of sacred lands by the government being ruled unconstitutional. Based on this decision, courts found that the National Parks Service’s 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) for Devil’s Tower National Monument violated the establishment clause because it placed a mandatory ban on climbing during June out of respect for local tribal religious practices (Bonham, 2002). In response, the ban was changed to a voluntary one and the case was dismissed, however, some in the climbing community still oppose the ban in any form arguing that they have a right to climb the Tower. While this might appear at least as a partial win for the tribes, what it illustrates is that protecting native sacred land sites is considered a governmental endorsement of religion by the courts and would, therefore, violate the establishment clause.

In short, the courts have continuously failed to protect sacred lands and to adequately protect the practice of indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. A point to think about in light of this failure is that the US Constitution and legal system are not culturally neutral. It is rooted in European legal traditions and Christain morality and theology. Just as culture shapes how individuals see the world, it also shapes how the legal system sees the world and responds to disputes. The Anglo-American legal tradition is capable of recognizing the “sacred” when it takes the form of a church structure, a sermon or a piece of art; but a mountain, a lake, a river? These places are empty until people make their mark. Therefore these sacred land disputes are not merely conflicts between individual rights and government or corporate power but are conflicts between different cultures and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Final Thoughts

In the case of Mauna Kea, the mountain is holy and an integral element of native Hawaiian religion and culture, a culture that the US systematically tried to wipe out. The land in and of itself is sacred and deeply connected to the people and that should be respected. While the building of a telescope may seem neutral, it is not. It is the destruction and desecration of the mountain and cannot be separated from the history of colonization and occupation of the island. In the end, no telescope is worth dehumanizing others. Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It must critically examine who is benefitting from the information and at what cost.

As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders, put it, “For Native Hawaiians, there is a question of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Pisciotta. “It’s about us learning to live and be interdependent.”

Kenya and Beyond: Including Human Rights in Conservation

Nelson and Maggie Reiyia watched in despair as their community slowly fell into decline despite tourism profits from nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve. As indigenous Maasai themselves, the Reiyias were determined to reinvigorate their community despite the massive forces of ‘big’ conservation and outside development. Thus, they set out to create the first Maasai-run conservancy in the history of Kenya and reconnect their people, culture, and livestock to the land and its wild inhabitants.

A Maasai man in traditional red clothing overlooks the Sekenani River. Nearby vegetation reflects off the water's rippled surface.
A Maasai tribe member overlooks the Sekenani River. The Sekenani restoration project is one of many local initiatives conducted by the Nashulai Conservancy. (Photo credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/sekenani-river-restoration)

Historically, the Maasai and other Kenyan tribes occupied these lands until Western colonial powers began to forcibly move people to make room for themselves and their ever expanding game reserves. Sadly, there is a long history of colonial and post-colonial entities removing people from their lands in the name of conservation and game management. This tendency to ‘Other’ people unlike us – that is, to assume their inferiority as humans – continues to taint conservation and often results in counterproductive efforts to save endangered species.

Sadly, this model of conservation has been adopted the world over and partly stems from the assumption that Indigenous people lack the ability to govern themselves or the knowledge to sustainably manage their lands. Yet, in the case of the Maasai, they have occupied the landscape long enough for it to become an integral part of their culture and worldview. Of course this is hardy meant to reference to the outdated ‘noble savage’ cliché; rather, it is an attempt to force us to consider who was already managing these lands and critical resources before the colonizers arrived.

A herd of wildebeest and zebras meandering about the vast and empty Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A herd of wildebeests cross the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Every year the migration of these animals attracts tourists from around the globe. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

An additional assumption held by Western society and much of modern conservation is that people should be removed from their lands in order to establish pristine areas for wildlife. Enter the additional force of tourism – a massive economic influence that often turns sentiments against local populations thought to be spoiling the landscape, competing with wildlife, and over-hunting the animals we so desperately seek on our travels. Don’t get me wrong, tourism can be a positive source of income for a region. But when money takes precedence over people depending on ancestral lands, it is unethical at best.

Finally, we cannot forget the horrid calls to shoot poachers on-sight and emotional outcries against trophy hunting. In our Western need to anthropomorphize wildlife, especially the ‘cute’ or charismatic animals, we fail to see the socioeconomic complexities of people and place. We also have to remind ourselves these are not our animals to govern. These animals – if they can be thought of to belong to anyone – are clearly in the domain of the countries in which they reside and the people living among them. In other instances, certain animals represent a critical source of local income through legal trophy hunting. But as we saw with the ‘Cecil the Lion’ outrage, the Western world is appalled at the thought of killing a lion for any reason while giving little thought to the ribeye steak on our dinner plate.

Two zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where the grass and sky both seem endless. Few people are seen aside from tour guides and tourists.
Zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where few people are seen aside from tourists and their tour guides. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

Conservation is complicated so we have to look at the bigger picture. It is often as much about humans as it is about wildlife and ‘wild’ spaces. The combined result of ‘Othering’ indigenous populations and disregarding their traditional ecological knowledge, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing wildlife and claiming ownership over entire ecosystems, has led us to our current circumstances. While many conservation initiatives are beginning to take local and Indigenous voices into account, the unfortunate fact is that neocolonial conservation is alive and well.

Over the last decade I have watched as the push for social science integration with conservation biology has slowly gained momentum. Such calls for interdisciplinary approaches have arisen from the desperate need to better understand the multifaceted human dimension of conservation. ‘Fortress conservation’ and the forced removal of people from their lands, or lack of access to resources and profits from their lands, are outdated practices and clear human-rights violations. From conservation to tourism, local cultures have a right to be included. In fact, research from myself and others has demonstrated that when communities are intimately involved there is an increased likelihood of long-term conservation success.

The Nashulai model diagrams depicts their commitment to helping both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage.
The integrated Nashulai model emphasizes the need to help both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage. (Image credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/)

After hearing Nelson and Maggie Reiyia speak at UAB about their indigenous-run conservancy and the advances they have achieved for both their cultural and biological heritage, I believe there is hope that we can shift the narrative of conservation to one that is more inclusive and ethical. Simply put, supporting initiatives like the Nashulai Conservancy can help push back against ongoing injustices and bring human rights to the forefront of conservation.

Sherrie D. Alexander, MA
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Researcher and Instructor of Anthropology
IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section for Human-Primate Interactions, Member
Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, North American representative

Land acknowledgement: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is located on the traditional lands of the Muskogee Creek Indians.  

 

 

Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on Human Rights

Mathais Risse and Sushma Raman introducing themselves to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center.  During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.   

One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world.  Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks.  You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical?  As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences. 

Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology.  One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind.  Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system.  There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind.  This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.” 

After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions.  One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning.  In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask.  From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.  

In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence.  Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community.  While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them.  Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.