The Economic Status of Transgender People in India

Hijra communities in India form their own chosen families. Source: Yahoo! images

Imagine discovering that your internal identity does not align with the way that your body looks or the way that you are perceived by society. Because you recognize this internal dichotomy, the society you know and love treats you as an outcast. You are regarded as less than human. Your family abuses you for pursuing a physical body and social presentation that aligns with your internal identity. Society at large is structured in a way that makes it relatively impossible to get a formal job or make money in a safe way. Transgender people in India experience this every day.

A. Revathi is an activist for the rights of transgender people and other gender and sexual minorities in India. In her book, A Life in Trans Activism, she details many struggles she faced while navigating the economic system of India. Most transgender people in India work in the informal spheres of sex work and street begging, but a lucky few find low-salary jobs at LGBTQ+ Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or service places.

A picture of an Indian woman named Revathi wearing a maroon saree with gold jewelry. She has a gold stud in her nostril piercing and a red bindi between her eyebrows. White text reads, “A Life in Trans Activism, A. Revathi as told to Nandini Murali”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Rēvati, and Nandini Murali. A Life in Trans Activism. Zubaan, 2016.

Because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by many employers within India, transgender people are often discriminated against in the formal sphere. If a man comes in for an interview, and his documentation still has an F sex marker, the employer will know that he is transgender and all prejudices and stereotypes that they hold will then apply to the man searching for a job. The process of changing one’s sex marker on official documents is a complicated and grueling process for transgender people, which makes it almost impossible to go stealth* in one’s workplace. It was this lack of economic mobility that lead Revathi, and many others like her to the streets for sex work.

*Stealth (adj.) – describing a transgender person who presents themself as a cisgender member of the gender they identify as, often to avoid discrimination. For example, a male-to-female (MTF) transwoman presents as a cisgender woman and keeps her trans identity a secret to avoid violence.

In India, self-employed sex work is legal, but many police officers will find other reasons to accuse sex workers of crimes like loitering or stealing, whether the accusations are true or not. The general public tends to accuse them of stealing in order to demonize them or try to get them off the streets, which often leads to violent confrontations with community members and the police. During sex work, Revathi, like many transgender women, was often put into dangerous situations with the public as a result of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding transgender people. She experienced sexual assault, public abuse, and was sometimes not paid for her services. Most transgender sex workers must be very careful to keep their identities as transgender silent because many face violence if they are outed.** On the other hand, when outed, some people receive dehumanization in the form of fetishization which results in more violence and less pay.

**To out someone (v.) – to reveal someone’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission or control, often leading to dangerous situations for them.

Economic Consequences

The few that find jobs, often at LGBTQ+ organizations, are often paid less and treated with disrespect by their colleagues and employers. While reading A Life in Trans Activism, a pattern stuck out to me. I would like to call this something like “The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality.”

  1. The formal work of a certain group of people is undervalued and/or ridiculed by society.
  2. The marginalized group then internalizes this as a reflection of their character and feels as though they have “something to prove” while working in the formal sphere.
  3. They then work harder and accept lower pay than their colleagues.
  4. Co-workers and employers take advantage of their willingness to work hard for lower salaries and disrespect their work-life boundaries.
  5. The disrespect becomes a foundational aspect of their workspace, and transgender people feel and live subserviently to society. The cycle repeats.

The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality can apply to any group of people whose work is undervalued. We see this in the American workforce with Black employees. There is a widely-held stereotype in America that Black people are “lazy workers” because of their lack of sufficient economic mobility. Employers internalize this and hold Black workers to a higher standard in which they must “prove themselves” as hard workers. It is often the case that Black employees work twice as hard as their White counterparts and are still undervalued by their employers and colleagues. They internalize this as a reflection of themselves and work harder and harder for less and less. This phenomenon is not only manifested in the salary gap between races, but also in the levels of worker burnout and unemployment rates.

A bar chart showing “Unemployment Rates by Race and Age, 2016”. On the y axis is 0-30% representing unemployment rates, and on the x axis is age groups from 16 to 70+. For each age range, there are two different bars representing Black and White workers. The highest unemployment rate is 16-19 year olds with Black youth at around 27% and White youth around 14%. Both statistics slowly fall before plateauing at around the 40-44 age range, with Black workers at around 6.5% and White workers at around 3.5%. These statistics stay pretty consistent for the rest of the chart, if not a slight dip around the age ranges 50-60.
Statistics show much higher unemployment rates for Black individuals in every age range. Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics

A. Revathi experienced the Vicious Cycle herself while working as an openly transgender woman at an LGBTQ+ NGO in India called Sangama. Even while she was head director of multiple subsections of the NGO, she experienced disrespect from the staff she was directing. Here, Revathi reflects on her experience:

“[Sangama staff] were well behaved with [past directors] and respected boundaries. However, with me, they were very different. They would storm into my cabin and argue endlessly with me, often in very rude or offensive language. They demanded prompt promotions, increases in salaries, and crowded my working hours with endless demands and trivial things, which they could have handled themselves.” (Rēvati, 110) 

Revathi charitably credits this to her open-door policy and her show of belief that hierarchies in workplaces were solely for accounting purposes, and should not reflect upon the social interactions of the staff. I suspect that the main reason that she has these policies and beliefs is that her work has been consistently undervalued and she has internalized that she will never be seen as “above” anyone else in her workplace. By setting and enforcing certain boundaries with her staff, she would have to acknowledge that she is above them in the workplace. This would break the social contract that says that she is always on the base of the metaphorical pyramid because of her transgender identity.

Government Progress (or lack thereof)

A large group of mostly women in colorful saris, jewelry, and makeup gather together with black signs with white text. One reads, "Protect the Rights of Transgender Community".
Transgender Indian protesters gather to fight for the implementation of policies that protect their rights. Source: Yahoo! images

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to create a third gender category called “hijra” which would be inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender individuals. People in this category were legally categorized as an “other backward class” or OBC. Job reservations were made for people of OBCs in an attempt to improve the economic status of transgender people. Read more about this ruling here. 

In addition to this ruling, in 2019 the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill” was passed, which served as an anti-discrimination bill meant to improve the status of transgender people in education and the workforce. It was faced with backlash from the trans community because it required a person to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to the government before being able to change their gender marker legally. This type of policy is called trans-medicalism*** and is exclusive and harshly binary. Read more about this bill here.

***Trans-medicalism (n.) – the idea that one must medically transition, in other words: go through gender reassignment surgery, in order to be a valid member of the transgender community. 

Although these actions were well-intended, neither the 2014 ruling nor the 2019 bill has been well enforced. They have been inefficient in changing the economic and educational statuses of transgender people. Employers still have room to discriminate against workers. Sex workers are still treated horrifically and inhumanely in the streets. Transgender employees are still disrespected in their workplaces and have low opportunities for economic mobility. One of the problems with these actions is that they are both “top-down” approaches, which start with government implementation and slowly trickle down into cultural changes and real-life improvements for transgender people. Many recommend a “bottom-up” approach, which begins with radical cultural shifts and builds its way up to government implementation. While both are valuable, the “bottom-up” approach is more efficient in creating quicker social change for people genuinely affected by the social issues at hand. 

Breakthrough Birmingham

I wanted to include this picture to show just how many people came to work together during the summer to help bridge the academic gaps in the BCS district.
Source: Kala Bhattar; A representation of the many hands that worked together to make Breakthrough’s summer 2022 program a success!

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.

Why Middle Schoolers? Why Undergraduate Teaching Fellows?

Wanted to include some images from college trips to showcase how BTB is attempting to increase college attendance among low-income students
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; A collage of pictures from various college trips that scholars from each grade took as part of their Breakthrough summer experience

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.

This image was included because it was taken on celebration day, the last day of the summer program
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; An image to capture the joy felt on celebration day, the last day of the summer program. Pictured here are some BTB admin, along with all the summer teaching fellows, and the high school interns

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

Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; A collective picture of teaching fellows and Breakthrough admin outside the Legacy Museum. In addition to the in-depth training and professional speakers that teaching fellows received, they also got the chance to visit the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham as part of the exposure pillar

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.

Relationships

I included this image to showcase the sense of community that can be found at Breakthrough, especially during the work day
Source: Kala Bhattar; TFs are expected to teach a subject from an academic field, such as reading, writing, science, and math. Each academic field had one-two TFs from each grade, and an Instructional Coach, (or mentor) to guide the process. This was my team; #writingteam

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.

I included this image to showcase what breakthrough's summer program means to the scholars
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; Scholars line up with their TFs before the celebration day events begin. Breakthrough provides a safe space for scholars to develop healthy relationships and find mentorship in their fellow TFs.

Growth

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 wanted to include this graph to showcase the improvements that I personally saw with my own scholars
Source: Kala Bhattar; In an attempt to measure the growth achieved from the summer program, each academic field was required to collect data on a daily basis to be later analyzed. This was one such form of data collected, in the form of pre and post-assessments for scholars in my writing class. As shown, almost all of my scholars improved at least one grade point, and many of them even showed improvements by 2 points. This was achieved in the short 4-6 week program over the summer

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

This is the image from the final day of the breakthrough summer
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham; An image of all the Breakthrough staff from the summer program, including the director of Breakthrough Birmingham pictured in the front

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.

 

How Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Endangers LGBTQ+ Rights and History in U.S. Education

Florida's Congress
Source: Yahoo Images

A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students, under the condition that the “Don’t Say Gay” house and senate bills currently in Florida’s state legislature are moved into law. The legislation was moved forward by the Florida State Education Committee last month. Controversy arose over how exactly “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” will be interpreted and the potential for LGBTQ+ history to be erased from public education. The bill, named “Parental Rights in Education”, also encourages parents to sue schools or teachers if such topics are covered in the classroom without the parents’ prior notification and approval. If approved by other state Senate committees and the State House, it will go into effect on July 1 of this year.

Legislation Creates National Controversy 

Formally known as House Bill 1557 and Senate Bill 1834, opposers have begun referring to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill due to its attempt to deem sexual orientation and gender identities as subjects too taboo for public schools in America. LGBTQ+ activists have been both shocked and disheartened by the creation of such bill, which directly attacks both school children’s rights and securities. Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition, a Central Florida LGBTQ+ advocacy group, told ABC News, “We have to create a learning environment where they feel safe and healthy, or it’s not an effective learning environment.” She went on to say, “When you have laws like this, that directly attack our kids for who they are, it prevents them from learning. It prevents them from being able to be healthy.” Advocates nationwide, including myself, believe that this legislation teaches children that speaking about gender identity or sexual orientation is shameful and should be hidden, which directly creates discrimination based on such identities. On top of this, LGBTQ+ history is especially important to preserve and expand upon in public education because of the extreme discrimination the community has faced and constant struggles the community deals with today. 

Despite the human rights violations at play, many are still in support of the approval of the “Parental Rights in Education” Bill. Among supporters is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has publicly vocalized his favor for prohibiting any dialogue regarding LGBTQ+ topics in the state’s primary schools. According to this NBC article, Gov. DeSantis stated that it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity, citing instances of them telling children, “Don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet.” He added, “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.” 

White House denounced the Bill 

As a counter to Gov. DeSantis, both the Biden-Harris White House Administration and President Joe Biden have communicated their disapproval of the Florida legislation via their twitter accounts. The White House shared a post stating, “Today, conservative politicians in Florida advanced legislation designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids. Instead of making growing up harder for young people, @POTUS [President of the United States] is focused on keeping schools open and supporting students’ mental health.” President Biden “retweeted” the post to add, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.” 

Other Attempts to erase LGBTQ+ History 

Gay Pride Flags at Protest
Source: Yahoo Images

Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQ+ efforts such as these are not uncommon by American lawmakers. One instance took place in March of 2021, when Tennessee Rep. Bruce Griffey proposed House Bill 800, which would completely erase all topics and people involved in the LGBTQ+ community from the state’s public school curricula. In addition, House Bill 529 was introduced by Rep. Debra Moody, seeking to require parental notification and approval 30 days before any child is taught curriculum regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. Although these bills are stated to have the intention of protecting parents’ rights, erasing any part of history is detrimental to a child’s education. A successful learning environment includes exposure to wide ranges of ideas and beliefs, in addition to learning how to respect beliefs that are initially unfamiliar. 

Ways to Help  

While attempts to delete discussions regarding the LGBTQ+ community in public school systems remain constant, counter efforts also persist, including the American education organization GLSEN, which works to ensure that “every student has the right to a safe, supportive, and LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 education.” Additionally, you can use  this template to send a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose “Don’t Say Gay Bills” HB 1557 and SB 1837.  

Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

Disability Rights under the Taliban

Pictured is the Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. It is a black, winding path in the middle of pale yellow hills.
Bamyan Band Amir road in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Imagine being confined to your home. Imagine not being able to go to work or attend school or play sports. Over the course of the past year, individuals across the world have experienced such limitations. While many are inching closer towards glimpses of life before these restrictions, for Afghans with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, this is more likely to become an enduring reality.

Almost twenty years after their first regime, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, raising concerns that the same violations of the rights of women and other minorities will be committed again (for a brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban, visit a previous article on the IHR blog linked here). While no longer a minority in terms of numbers, the 80% of adults in Afghanistan who are disabled are already seeing these concerns materialize. Disability rights advocates are being targeted, with many fleeing the country out of a fear for their lives and many more desperately trying to do the same. In light of these events, this article explores the status of individuals with disabilities in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came into power, and how their future might look.

Disability in Afghanistan

The war in the 1990’s devastated health systems in Afghanistan, leading to individuals with disabilities being neglected. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001, there was an influx of international funding to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country. NGOs and other international organizations attempted to fill the gap in the health system by offering medical services, although the demand did, and continues to, exceed the supply. Moreover, reconstruction efforts in the country were not inclusive of people with disabilities, as bus transports, buildings and bathrooms were inaccessible which made it difficult for individuals with disabilities to navigate their daily lives outside of their homes. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on Rights of People with Disability in 2012 and even passed legislation in 2013 that was meant to safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities to be included in society. Although awareness regarding disability has increased over the past two decades, and disability rights have been named a priority by the former government, much of the work towards this end has been carried out by NGOs, international organizations, and dedicated activists.

In addition to systemic barriers, the societal attitudes and stigma pertaining to disability is also a significant factor impacting the lives of disabled individuals in Afghanistan. Different kinds of disability are viewed differently, receiving varying degrees of negative attitudes. Congenital disability, or developmental disability, is considered a punishment to the parents for their past deeds. This problematic perception leads to discrimination against the individual with the disability, as well as their family, to such an extent that the parents tell others that their child acquired the disability as a result of the war. Amputees, on the other hand, do not face the same discrimination because they are assumed to be war veterans. One individual with a physical disability described to the Human Rights Watch her experience of this stigma: “Some time ago, my friends and I decided to go to the market in our own wheelchairs and shop ourselves. But people called us ‘grasshoppers,’ which is why we decided to stay at home.” Such accounts depict how the freedom and independence of individuals with disabilities is being curtailed not only by structural barriers, but also by regressive attitudes.

Disability under the Taliban

Benafsha Yaqoobi, a blind disability rights advocate and a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stated in multiple interviews that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against under the Taliban rule, experiencing severe neglect and even death. She is concerned about their access to basic human rights like food and shelter. Yaqoobi had to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban takeover seemed imminent. She described her traumatic experience in attempting to escape, as she heard gun fire but could not see where the guns were pointed or who got shot – or if it was her husband who was wounded. Her experience also highlights just one way in which war can have a disproportionate psychological, and physical, impact on people with disabilities.

Isabella Hodge, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD), told The Nation that there is also concern that stipends will no longer be provided to individuals who were disabled in war and that rehabilitation centers will close. Hodge strongly believes that individuals with disabilities will not be valued by the Taliban, saying that the “Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.” These concerns are reflected in reality when considering that 80% of suicide bombers of the Taliban had either a physical or psychological disability of some kind. Dr.Yusef Yadgari of Kabul Medical University attributed this statistic to societal stigma, due to which people with disabilities struggle to find employment to support their family. Out of both necessity for money and resentment, according to Dr.Yadgari, they are more likely to become suicide bombers.  However, one cannot help but question how much value that the Taliban attributes to the lives of people with disabilities when they were willing to sacrifice so many for their cause.

With the Taliban’s rise to power, people with disabilities will likely have less opportunities to flourish. One stark example of this is that Tokyo 2020 Paralympic athletes from Afghanistan almost lost the opportunity to participate in the event because of the dearth of flight transport created by the turmoil in August. Fortunately, with the help of the international community, these athletes did manage to finally make it to Tokyo, although one athlete missed the event he was preparing for. Opportunities and freedom of people with disability does not seem to be a priority. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi echoed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters – that people with disabilities will be confined to their homes and isolated from the rest of society due to the loss of programs and initiatives like the Special Olympics (which works specifically with people with intellectual disabilities). Sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities is a great way to develop essential life skills like walking and eating. Zala Hashmi, a women’s coach in the country’s special Olympics organization, believes that the Taliban does not care enough for the success of these individuals to ensure the continuation of such programs. The grim situation is put best in Jawed’s own words: “we cannot support them, we lost them.”

A girl with a prosthetic limb, donning a black dress and a determined expression, walks through the ward of a rehabilitation center in Afghanistan. The ward has light blue walls, and there are other individuals with disabilities sitting on benches that line the wall. There is a support beam in between the girl and people sitting on the benches.
“Learning to walk again with support from UK aid” by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination in Afghanistan long before the Taliban came into power. They are often considered a burden to the family and are considered not fit for marriage, consequently increasing their likelihood of being subject to violence both in and outside the household. Women with disability are also more likely to be sexually harassed when seeking government assistance or employment. One individual in an interview with the Human Rights Watch said, “the ministry employee told me that I can get this certificate only if I agree to be his girlfriend”. The status of education of girls with disabilities is not any more promising. In a Human Rights Watch report, a disability rights advocate describes the pushback from schools in accepting girls with disabilities: “The schools do not want girls [with disabilities] to go to the classes. Usually, they argue that they are not normal people so they cannot sit in the classrooms and learn like other students.” In addition to this stigma, public schools are not wheel-chair accessible, leaving some kids out of the classroom and other school related activities, while few private schools enroll people with disabilities at all. Moreover, schools are also often far and difficult to reach without dedicated transportation, which is often not available.

These inequities for women with disabilities are likely going to be exacerbated under the Taliban. While the Taliban promises that they will uphold the rights and freedom of women, their actions so far have not conveyed the same message. Women have been removed from their jobs, which has been particularly devastating in cases where they are the sole earners in the family. Women have already been told to stay at home for security reasons, an excuse that sounds eerily similar to the one they provided during their time in power in the late 1990s as they imposed oppressive restrictions on women. This confinement will be particularly detrimental for women with disabilities, compromising their access to rehabilitative services and other beneficial activities like sports. Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and captain of national wheelchair basketball team, expressed deep concern about girls with disabilities not being allowed to play sports, saying their disability will become more severe without the activity. In addition to this, the barriers to education for women with disabilities will also increase under the Taliban, who completely banned education for women during their previous regime.

Support for People with Disabilities

Disability rights activists in Afghanistan are being targeted due their association with the United States, leading to a decline in supportive services offered to individuals with disabilities. The United States International Council on Disability (USICD) reported that around 50 disability rights advocates are currently in danger of being attacked by the Taliban and are in urgent need of evacuation. Many of them participated in a conference on disability rights organized by USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in 2017 and received grant funding from the U.S., putting them in a precarious position. One advocate describes severe persecution, being forced to move from one house to another to avoid being captured after the Taliban launched a grenade into his house and attempted to find him at his organization’s office. He told The Nation that the Taliban believes advocates are spying for the US because they received grant funding from the U.S. The evacuation plan of the US did not account for the needs of people with disabilities either, as multiple disability rights advocates were unable to make their way around Kabul airport. One amputee had to return home due to extreme pain. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi believed the Taliban was searching for them as well, coming to their offices and damaging their property. All this points to the fact that disability advocates will find it increasingly difficult to play their crucial role in supporting the disabled community. For example, initiatives to make bathrooms more accessible, to provide rehabilitation, to conduct vocational training, and to provide trauma care service for land mine victims all are at risk of being lost. The champions of the rights of individuals with disability are being silenced.

Disability rights activists are not the only ones facing difficulties in continuing operations – humanitarian organizations too are struggling to continue providing their essential services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that approximately three-quarters of organizations faced challenges in providing aide since August. The Taliban has a history of actively clamping down on organizations providing humanitarian aid and health services as well, banning the Red Cross and WHO in 2019 from operating in its territories after claiming they were carrying out “suspicious” activities and not sticking to their mission. They have since lifted the ban, and Red Cross is providing services currently, but this incident sets a chilling precedent to the relationship we can expect to see in the future between the Taliban and international aid organizations. In addition to this, a Human Rights Watch review reported that the increase in conflict since 2016 has led to increased difficulty in collecting data from rural areas. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan’s current state of turmoil, making it difficult to assess the needs of people with disability and whether they are being addressed.

In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that health systems in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse, partly due to a decrease in funding. While the services provided by aide organizations and advocates are far from being able satisfying the immense demand, and by no means replace systemic efforts to rectify the situation, the role of advocates and aide organizations is undoubtedly more important than ever to ensure people with disabilities are not neglected.

The Taliban take-over might deconstruct the existing structures, but there is no guarantee that that they will build them back, let alone build them back better. It is disheartening to know that the violations minorities experienced under the Taliban occurred for more than five year and would have continued for longer if the US did not invade in 2001. My point is not to comment on the merit of the “war on terror” but to point out the more prolonged, devastating consequences that could have occurred in the past, and that very well may occur in the foreseeable future, due to insufficient action by the international community. The international community needs to mobilize resources to aid those who are disproportionately impacted by this transition. You and I can contribute to bettering the situation in Afghanistan as well. Consider donating to trusted humanitarian aid organizations, like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and UN Women, that are doing essential work on the ground. Humanitarian aide itself, however, is insufficient – foreign governments need to increase pressure on the Taliban to guarantee the rights and well-being of marginalized communities.

 

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.

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

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.  

 

 

Golf and Life Lessons: The Dennis Walters Story

On Wednesday, February 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts and Sciences and Lakeshore Foundation to present World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Walters. During his lecture, he addressed his passion for golf, experience with disability, and journey of perseverance.

Raised in New Jersey and playing college golf at the University of North Texas, Walters had dreams of being on the PGA Tour. Amid his burgeoning career as a professional golfer, Walters experienced a golf cart accident that left him paralyzed from the waist-down. Following the accident, Walters underwent four months of excruciating rehabilitation, peering at the golf course across the street with a desire to drive a ball across the green. Although his doctor claimed he would no longer play golf, but Walters’ vision suggested otherwise.

Following his rehabilitation, Walters moved back home with his parents in New Jersey while he became accustomed to his new way of life. One day, he finally mustered the courage to swing a golf club. With help from his father, they had a makeshift system that included a pillow, waist strap, rope, and a tree to assist with Walters’ swing. As a result, Walters was hitting golf balls as he did before which kept his golfs dreams alive. The first time Walters played on a course after his accident, he received cheering support from fellow golfers and, soon after, a re-purposed bar stool for his golf cart. Thus, The Dennis Walters Golf Show was born.

However, not everyone was originally thrilled about Walters’ show. After his father wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus and told him of his son’s ambition, Walters’ career took off. Although Walter’s show is not just any golf exhibition, it’s a performance! His show includes golf shots with a three-headed club, fishing rod, radiator hose, gavel, left-handed club, crooked club, and tall tee as well some bad jokes and a four-legged sidekick. After more than 40 years, Walters has traveled over 3 million miles and done over 3,000 golf shows for fans near and far.

Walters exclaimed, “There’s no expiration date on your dreams” and offered the crowd his five P’s for success:

    1. Preparation (establish a plan)
    2. Perspiration (hard work pays off)
    3. Precision (stay focused)
    4. Passion (live what you do)
    5. Perseverance (stay on the path or else the other four don’t matter)
This is a picture of Walters posing with members of UAB Men's and Women's Golf teams.
Walters with members UAB Men’s and Women’s Golf teams. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Walters asked himself, “Why have this dream?”. At times, he felt entirely hopeless about golfing again. However, golf was like therapy to him, both mentally and physically, which he claimed was better than medicine. He then closed by expressing, “The good about golf is the people you know”, which highlights the importance of inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities on and off the green.