If you consider yourself to be a supporter of human rights and all of its technicalities, then you are surely aware of the document that formally brought forth legislation about human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations by a vote of 48-0-8 on December 10, 1948.
Per its name, the main goal of the Declaration was to universalize human rights and to ensure that every human, no matter where in the world, has the same basic human rights.
This inherent goal of the Declaration (its aim of universal human rights), has been a source of debate in the philosophical realm for quite some time. This blog will bring forth one particular view relating to the debate, as well as its implications.
Rather than plainly stating what relativism is, I am going to show you one of the many ways the concept was devised.
The Earth is big. On our big Earth, there are seven continents. Throughout these seven continents, there are hundreds of states and nations. In these states and nations, billions of people exist. Most of the people within these nations align with a specific cultural identity. Whether it be American, French, Japanese, or Swiss, all humans have a unique cultural identity.
Moreover, cultures have different forms of expressions. One culture is not necessarily like another (for what is right in one culture could very much be wrong in another).
Therefore, there is no possible way that an objective set of rules could ever exist. What is correct is relative to the culture and society of where that expression is happening.
If you followed along and agreed with all of the statements just made, then you are stepping into the realm of relativism.
More on Relativism
Relativism is the view that what is “right” and “wrong” is solely dependent on one’s culture. What is correct in the United States could very much be wrong in another nation.
A finite example of this is gratuity, or “tipping,” after a meal in a restaurant. In the United States, it is acceptable to tip your server after a meal at a restaurant. In Japan, this would be disrespectful.
In the eyes of relativism, both of these customs are correct. Moreover, they are equally correct—one is not more “right” than the other.
Additionally, cultural relativism not only says that cultural customs are equally correct but the moral codes of every culture is equally correct also. In other words, no culture is better than another—no culture is more correct.
However, this characteristic of cultural relativism brings forth another one of its characteristics: there is no such thing as moral progress.
To say that something has “progressed” is to say that it has become better, meaning that before its progression, it was flawed. This goes against cultural relativism because relativism states that every culture is inherently correct—there is no need to progress. Therefore, rather than saying a culture has “progressed,” relativists say that a culture has simply changed its ways and its moral code. (This is different from progression because it does not imply a culture has advanced for the better due to some arbitrary standard.)
Cultural relativism, at least at first, might be an appealing outlook on life. After all, who are we to tell different cultures what is right and what is wrong? Every culture and society should be allowed to have their own rules and social norms. It sounds immoral to enforce the United State’s social norms onto other nations.
Relativism’s Implications on Human Rights
The big implication that follows from relativism (as it relates to human rights) can be broken down as follows: (i) if cultural relativism is correct, every culture is equal and correct; (ii) if every culture is equal and correct, no culture has authority or agency over another; (iii) enforcing universal human rights would not align with all cultures in the world; (iv) if no culture/society has the agency to tell another what to do, and enforcing universal human rights would require telling other cultures what to do, universal human rights cannot exist.
Despite this argument coming to the conclusion that universal human rights cannot exist, we all are very much aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—something that does indeed exist. However, we must note that the argument above does not apply to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is due to the fact that the Declaration holds no legal obligation as it is solely a declaration, not a treaty. Nations are not forced to follow it. Instead, they are encouraged to follow it. (However, this is not to say that the Declaration is not followed.)
Therefore, the argument that universal human rights cannot exist still stands. However, the argument’s basis is founded on the premise that relativism is true and correct—and that might not be the case.
Before we carry on with our discussion of relativism, I would like to point out another view: universalism. As it relates to politics, universalism, unlike relativism, states that universal human rights can and should exist.
Universalism is the direct opposite to relativism in the world of politics. It claims that social norms across all cultures are fundamentally similar, hence why it would be possible to universalize (and legislate) human rights.
Objections to Relativism
Having now formulated a basic understanding of relativism (as well as its counter: universalism), we can now move on ahead and consider some of the theory’s big objections.
First, let us consider the objection of “no cultural progress”. The lack of cultural progress in relativism, as aforementioned, is formulated from the basis that all cultures are equally correct, with no culture being “better” or “worse.” Due to this, no culture can progress as it would imply it was not “good” in the past. Rather than progressing, a culture merely changed its practices and moral codes.
Therefore, under relativism, one would not be able to say that modern-day Germany is better than Nazi Germany, even though we know it is. Relativism would suggest that moral code of Nazi Germany is just as correct as the moral code of modern Germany; one is not better than the other.
Moreover, under relativism, one could not say that the abolishment of slavery was progress for the United States; we merely changed our ways.
This, as one would obviously assume, is a big pill to swallow. Most would agree that modern-day Germany and the modern-day USA are better than they were many years ago. However, to say this would be to reject relativism, thereby stating that some cultures and social norms indeed are better than others.
Another objection to relativism comes from the fact that most people align with multiple different cultures. For example, everyone in the United States lives under the cultural code of the United States. However, we also follow cultural norms that are more local—such as the cultural codes of what city/state we live in. In cases like these, relativism gives no true guidelines on what one should do.
A famous example of this objection comes from the case Wisconsin vs. Yoder.This case was between the state of Wisconsin and an Amish family that lived in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, legislation requires that every family sends their children to get educated until the age of 16. However, Amish customs say that no child needs education after 8th grade. Thus, a dilemma formulated between one culture and another—the culture of Wisconsin and the culture of the Amish.
This however, is just one example of conflicting cultural social norms. What is one supposed to do when their culture does not align with another culture they are a part of? Relativism does not say.
Besides the two mentioned objections to relativism, many more exist. Therefore, it is quite clear that relativism is not a perfect theory nor a perfect view of life. However, despite the objections to the view, many have still aligned with the theory.
As there are many attractions and objections to relativism, one is, perhaps, able to see why the concept of universal human rights has been a heated source of debate.
Whether or not there will ever be a treaty formulated that legally binds nations into following basic human rights is unknown. However, what we do know is that this issue is not one that is as obvious as people might believe at first.
Perhaps, in the future, if there is diplomatic debate on this topic, a treaty could very well be created. This treaty will ensure that no human ever on this planet gets mistreated. However, until that day, we solely have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a very good starting point for a treaty on human rights.
Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.
Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation
Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time.
The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true.
Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…
The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.
The Command Economy
The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.
This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.
The March of Suffering
The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.
Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves.
Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il.
*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”
Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play.
As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.
Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.
Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole
So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.
This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.
While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.
As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.
Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality. Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.
Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.
The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure
One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.
Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.
Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.
The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.
Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.
From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.
I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.
How to get involved
For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.
In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue.
The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022
Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.
Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022
Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally.
Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life.
India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021
Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all.
Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population. A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.
Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020
Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here.
FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.
Where do we go from here?
While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!
You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!
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
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 fromThe Children’s Society:
Kicking, punching, hitting
Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Listen to and believe survivors
Teach the next generation and learn from them
Call for responses and services fit for purpose
Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help
Start a conversation
Stand against rape culture
Fund women’s organizations
Hold each other accountable
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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