Fighting for the Right to Choose—A Woman’s Battle Against Dictatorship

Against a turbulent backdrop of political regulation of choice, a young woman climbs to the top of a car on an ordinary day in Mashhad, a conservative Iranian city famed for its Islamic shrines. She removes her headscarf and starts chanting, “Death to the dictator!” Protesters nearby join in, and cars honk in support. This young woman is Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish Iranian visiting Tehran. Because Amini revealed some of her hair, she is sent to a re-education camp and, several days later, dies while in custody.

Protestors in Iran hold up a sign showing Mahsa Amini. [Source: TRT World]

Iran’s Islamic laws require women to cover themselves up completely in public, such that their hair is not visible, using a hijab or a headscarf. The hijab became compulsory in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the then-newly-elected authorities. Many Iranian women, especially in major cities, have long played a game of cat-and-mouse with authorities, with younger generations wearing loose scarves and outfits that push the boundaries of the state-imposed conservative dress code. Under former President Hassan Rohani, who served from 2013 to 2021, the enforcement of the hijab law was loosened. But since hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in August 2021, the authorities launched a crackdown on women who violate the law. At least 185 people, including 19 children, have been killed in the nationwide protests across Iran. The highest number of killings occurred in Sistan and Baluchistan provinces.

While the government argues that Amini had underlying health conditions, her family and thousands of protesters believe she was killed due to a deadly beating at the hands of the police. This incident of police brutality and violence against women ignited what has now grown into nearly two weeks of widespread unrest in Iran, which seems to be continually taking a turn for the worse. During the ongoing rallies and omnipresent protests, some women, including female members of Mahsa’s family, removed and burned their headscarves, directly challenging the clerical regime. 

Systematic suppression of voice

The government of Iran has made several attempts to suppress the protests, from shooting protesters with birdshot and metal pellets, deploying tear gas and water cannons, to blocking access to many apps including Instagram and WhatsApp, and limiting internet accessibility to reduce protesters’ ability to organize. These may be the most severe internet restrictions in Iran since 2019 when the internet was shut down completely.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently issued a statement focusing on violence against women in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an attempt to plead with the Iranian government, as demonstrations become increasingly grotesque, and the series of large-scale protests across the country begin to steadily garner international attention.

A woman holds up a piece of her hair, cut in protest against Iran’s hijab-and-chastity law. [Source: Lowy Institute]

Apart from the protestors, the authorities have also been cracking down on the media personnel. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), around 11 journalists were picked up in “post-midnight raids” of their homes. It said that Shardh Daily’s Niloofar Hamedi, who was credited for reporting from Amini’s hospital bedside, was one of the journalists who had to go through the raiding of her house. Similarly, photographer Yalda Moaiery was beaten and arrested over her coverage of the protests.

“This image created, this act was something which would most certainly have been unthinkable,” said Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams, who grew up in Mashhad and had been living in exile since 2009. Shams teaches Persian literature at Penn and is the author of the book  ‘A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option Under the Islamic Republic, which is a study of poetic legitimacy and the role of poetry and poetics in the political ideology of the Islamic Republic. She opines that the central slogan of this revolution is “Women, Life, Freedom” used by The Kurdish women of Kurdistan and Turkey.  The focus, the very core of this revolutionary movement, is reclaiming the bodily autonomy of women. Shams also mentioned how this revolution is a continuation of the Green Uprising that took place in 2009.

Protestors hold up signs reading “Women”, “Life”, and “Freedom” in the Iranian flag colours. [Source: News18]

On June 23, 2009, a spontaneous mass demonstration erupted in Iran against the officially declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was perhaps the most publicly contested presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic. The following day, the victorious Ahmadinejad staged an official demonstration in support of the declared victory. The day after that, on June 25, Iran witnessed a huge mass rally against the status quo with the slogan of “Where Is My Vote?”, which eventually emerged as the defining moment of an uprising that its supporters by now called the “Green Movement” or “Green Uprising”. The Green Movement progressed apace with mass demonstrations and civil disobedience until February 14, 2010, when its attempt to stage a rally in support of the emerging Arab revolutions was brutally suppressed. 

According to Shams, the difference is that back in 2009, there was still a belief that the system could be reformed. If there were a fair election and a free election, the protesters could possibly have a candidate that represented their hopes and their demands, to some extent. Today’s revolution is completely leaderless in the sense that none of the previous political figures such as Mohammad Khatami, who was the ex-President of Iran, are being called upon. People in the streets are not waiting for anyone to come and take the lead. They are the leaders of the revolution. It becomes important to keep in mind that these protests were a response to the brutal killing of an innocent woman, but at this point, it has gone much beyond that.

Separatist colourings plastering brutality against Mahsa

Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the emancipatory Kurdish movement, gave a renowned speech in 1998 where he said that women are the first captives in history and until they are liberated, any such movement, in fact, will be doomed to fail. Mahsa Amini’s family in Iran, including her father and uncle, have repeatedly denied supporting Kurdish opposition groups, which Iran accuses of separatism. Her cousin Erfan believes the momentum could have a lasting effect. “We shouldn’t forget the people of Iran have been in resistance and protest against the regime for many years, but the people now are revolutionaries,” he says. “They are women, workers, teachers, sportspeople, artists, taking to the streets and mixing their voices of dissent with that of Zhina’s family. In my opinion, these protests will continue and they will end with the fall of the Islamic Republic.”

A protestor holding up a sign with Mahsa Amini’s name and picture. [Source: News18]

As per recent developments, more gruesome details have been revealed. On 20th September 2022, a 16-year-old girl named Nika Shakarami disappeared in the city of Tehran hours after the protests. After nearly 8 days, a family contacted the police upon discovering a body that matched the description of Nika. A few days later, on 23rd September, another 16-year-old girl named Sarina Esmailzadeh, was reportedly beaten by the authorities at a protest in Gohardasht in Alborz province. Sarina was a popular YouTuber who used the platform to speak up against the Iranian government.
In an attempt to explain the continuous disappearances and deaths, officials attributed the protestors’ deaths to suicide. They even claimed that Sarina had a history of mental health problems, which only helped to catalyze the protests even further.

On an ending note, we send our prayers and support to the protestors and the families of those who lost their lives for this strong cause of the Iranian women. No one deserves to suffer through such grave injustice. We hope the sun shines upon them soon, and they get what is due—their basic human rights.

Conscious Consumerism—An Illusion of Change or a Green Reality?

The year is 2022, and the world is on fire—both literally and figuratively. Pollution and global carbon emissions by individuals and corporations have increased manifold in the past decade. From floating plastic ‘islands’ in the Pacific to microplastics in our food and water, the effects of our carbon and plastic footprints are becoming more and more evident. These in turn, cascade into both long-term health effects on people and the environment and have devastating short-term consequences—rapid climate change. From forest fires and unprecedented changes in weather patterns to unforeseen fuel prices and inflation, the paradigm of this century seems to be one of a transitive dystopia. The need for sustainable development has never been greater.

Sustainable development, in simple terms, is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Such an endeavour entails the cooperation of both individuals and organizations; in other words, society as a whole must come together to accomplish such a task.

[Graffiti artwork on Regent Street, London depicting a shopper with many shopping bags and an ironic “I love Earth” slogan. Credits: Colin O’Brien onepointzero.com]

One way to do this is through “conscious consumerism”, a concept that has seen growing momentum lately, with a somewhat controversial term coined rather recently, but has been in practice earlier than one might think. During the 1800s, black abolitionists started the free-produce movement that encouraged people to buy free-made goods—that is, products not made with slave labour. They even organized “free produce” stores, making it easier for fellow consumers to shop for the alternative. It was one of the first documented acts of solidarity and a rejection of the unjust status quo. By spending their money elsewhere, these activists hoped to do their part in reducing the power of the structures propped up by slave labour. These early consumer activists understood consumer power as a moral and ethical force that had the potential to change the world for the better.

The conscious consumerism we see in practice today is quite congruent to this philosophy, with more of an emphasis on preserving nature. In short, it is a way of sustainable shopping where each individual consumer makes conscious decisions regarding their purchases, in such a way that there are minimal adverse effects on people and the environment. This includes shopping for organically grown produce, supporting local businesses, and overall buying consumer products that do not leave a permanent negative environmental or ethical footprint.

One of the core principles of conscious consumerism is placing the onus on the consumer. It describes a system where the power to limit carbon emissions and help prevent climate change lies with us, the buyers, and not the sellers or corporations. This not only includes purchasing organic produce or recycled products but also making smart and ‘green’ decisions in how we shop and consume. Reusing old products, recycling and segregating waste, and reducing the amount of trash we produce are all part of this philosophy. The hard part about this, of course, is that it requires impeccable cooperation among people from every stratum of society to have any appreciable positive change. If you think about it, if a few hundred or even a thousand determined individuals were to make conscious decisions every time they went shopping, their efforts would still be drowned by the millions of consumers who would choose convenience over responsibility.

A significant factor here is the role of producers, that is corporations and enterprises which are trying to balance their monetary gains against socially acceptable production choices. The public demand for transparency on the products they purchase has sharply increased in the last few decades. Big conglomerates like Nestle and Volkswagen have been embroiled in controversies after being discovered to be fraudulent with their sincerity and integrity regarding environmental concerns. And this too is a trend that has seen an increase in recent times, where a company tries to fool consumers into believing they are eco-friendly when in reality they aren’t. This deceitful practice, termed ‘Greenwashing’ can be as subtle as misleading packaging choices all the way to petroleum companies posing themselves as eco-champions. Either way, greenwashing is a harmful and deceptive way of advertising, and is yet another hurdle for conscious consumers to overcome.

[Credits: The New York Times]

There is also a matter of privilege involved here. The sustainability movement is advertised as something that everyone at every economic level can and should practice. But digging deeper, one can quickly figure out that this “movement” is mainly isolated among the upper classes of society. The reason for this wealth disparity is simple—you need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options. Not everyone has the time or dime to research their purchasing decisions and ignore the more inexpensive options for more environmentally safer alternatives. There’s also the problem of ‘Green companies’ charging more for their products since meeting green regulations and paying their workers fair wages increases production costs.

According to the saga of conscious consumerism, every purchase you make is a “moral act”—an opportunity to “vote with your money” for the world you want to see. We are led to believe that if we don’t like what a company is doing, we should stop buying their products and force them to change. We like to think that informed consumers with transparency and information will always make the ethical choice. But sadly, this is not how the largely capitalist world of the 21st century works.

Making a series of small and ethical purchasing decisions, however multitudinous in amount, while ignoring the enormous structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t break through the exploitative system that has been established. It merely makes us feel better about ourselves. Proof of this is clearly evident in the data from a 2012 study that compared the carbon footprints of “green” consumers who try to make deliberate eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers and found no meaningful difference between the two.

[Findings from a recent survey depicting consumer practices. Credits: gwi.com]

While refraining from indulging in fast fashion, ensuring your seafood is ethically sourced, and recycling old newspapers can make you feel better about yourself, it is no substitute for a systematic change, one where corporations and governments are held responsible for their practices. Although some degree of scepticism and cynicism around conscious consumerism is rightly warranted, there are a few diamonds in the rough that we cannot ignore. 

The increasing gap between the profession of conscious consumerism and the practice of it still signals that ethical consumption is most definitely a socially desirable behaviour. People tend to behave in ways that society values—when those actions are within reach. So if it becomes less cumbersome and more affordable for a person to be a conscious consumer, or if societal nudges are calibrated to make ethical consumption a more realistic option and less of an aspirational one, then this gap will most definitely shrink.

So what can you, as a consumer, do to participate in or at least further this movement? One sure-fire way is to educate yourself and others. Read labels and packaging, look for the recycled symbol on new products and use social media to read and spread information about companies that do and don’t follow green practices.

All in all, conscious consumerism is a good starting point for people to start taking action and thinking about how their individual behaviour impacts larger communities, social groups, and the planet.

Featured image credits: The Drum

Looking Beyond Nine-to-Fives—Universal Basic Income, AI, and the Future of Jobs

The work landscape has been rapidly changing for the past decade and the last couple of years of the pandemic in particular.  A number of jobs that were done manually a decade ago have either been rendered obsolete by advancements in technology or have been replaced by some form of automation. At the same time, a great number of jobs have been created in sectors and markets which did not exist earlier. 

The onset of the pandemic saw the “work-from-home” era, economic stimulus checks being handed out, and the “Great Resignation” where a large number of people quit their jobs. This could be seen as a result of the general dissatisfaction people had with their jobs, as well as having sufficient money from stimulus or savings to pursue something more valuable.

A graphic depicting workers quitting their jobs [Source: Vox]

An academic study conducted on 20,000 employed individuals from 40 different countries found that about 25% of them were unsure about the value of their job in society. With a booming AI industry taking over the private sector by automating common jobs and workers facing unprecedented uncertainties in the job market, the future of jobs and the economy at large seems to be unfolding in an entirely new direction. What, in this scenario, could the next step be for our society? What concepts and ideas are starting to take root in the minds of economists and policymakers all over the world? Degrowth, Universal Basic Income, and the rapid automation of jobs are all revealing themselves to be the pieces of the puzzle that forms the economy.

The Age of Artificial Intelligence

Studies like the one mentioned above go on to show that many working individuals engage in work in fast-paced industries where the contribution of their role to society isn’t clear. On the other hand, when it comes to individuals working in the education, healthcare, and defense sectors, the meaning of and need for their jobs is easily evident to them and to outsiders. Why does this difference exist? The answer is simple: machines cannot recreate human traits. Empathy, creativity, justice: these and many more human values fuel jobs in the public sector. In this case, one can ask: would it be better to hand over the “socially meaningless” jobs in the private sector to robots that can do it much faster and more easily than us? The answer seems to be yes, as many industries are steadily heading towards automating whatever jobs they can.

An infographic depicting the automation potential of various sectors. [Source: Fortune Magazine]

If the private sector is allowed to be fully automated by technological advancements, the future for humans would clearly be in service jobs. These historically underpaid and underappreciated jobs would inevitably gain more value in such a society. Teachers, healthcare workers, sanitation workers, and many others engaging in care work can be paid more than their current wages as the private sector becomes more efficient. This would also lead to the formation of better healthcare and education systems. One significant concept that can act as a tool to achieve these changes is Universal Basic Income. It is described as giving every citizen, whether young or old, rich or poor, a fixed amount of money at regular time intervals (weekly, monthly, or annually) that could be used as desired and without being taxed. It is an idea where each and every working-class individual is given a fixed amount of unconditional cash benefits, irrespective of any social or cultural barriers and qualifications. Proponents of this idea advocate for the same on many grounds, such as an aging population with depleting natural resources and the AI boom which threatens the loss of many jobs. This concept has been introduced for trials under many guises such as “Negative Income Tax” and “Guaranteed Minimum Income”. But is this idea worth pursuing? Just like any idea that challenges societal norms, Universal Basic Income also comes with its own sets of benefits and pitfalls. However, it is a plan that can prove to be immensely powerful in ending poverty if implemented well.

The Curious Case of a Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income, a major idea that can completely change the work landscape, has been tested in various countries such as Finland, Canada, Kenya, and the USA. Answers to questions about the amount and source of this income are subjective and vary by country. There are many obvious advantages as well as some doubts that can only be cleared when the plan is implemented on a nationwide scale.

The idea of a Universal Basic Income, at its very core, is about giving citizens financial freedom. For starters, providing people with the power to afford their basic needs gives them more time to pursue a job or career that is right for them. A study conducted in Seattle, where a thousand families received a basic income, found improvements in the subjects’ physical and mental health and saw that children performed better in school. Another study conducted in Canada, where hundreds of families received a basic income for four years, found that in addition to the results mentioned above, crime rates plummeted and hospitalisations decreased by about 8.8%. Researchers noticed that there was always a small reduction in working hours as well, where people spent this time doing other useful activities, such as young adults pursuing further education and individuals waiting to secure a better job.

Because a UBI tends to be a relatively small amount (such as $12,000 annually), people remained motivated to work and earn a larger sum. Clearly, the goal of a universal basic income is to establish a basic, healthy, and dignified living standard for everyone in a society, rather than to encourage people to be dependent on it without doing anything productive.

A graphic of a citizen receiving a basic income. [Source: The Conversation]

The main question regarding UBI that still requires careful consideration is: how would we pay for it? It can also be argued that providing a basic income to every citizen does not make much sense, as many earning massive incomes among the upper class do not actually need this financial support. As such, the universality of the concept is questioned by many, even though it helps to eliminate any stigma that may be associated with the reception of this income. Millions of people would have to inevitably contribute towards a UBI by paying more in taxes, leading to inflation in marginal tax rates, and making the implementation of this idea politically challenging.

Another unfortunate drawback to a nationwide UBI is that it leaves behind lesser monetary assets for government-funded programs, such as a universal health care system, that would still be necessary regardless of the existence of a UBI.  Providing every adult with a basic income that they can use as desired would mean that the working population of a country would reduce to some extent as well. Though the aim of UBI is to provide every citizen with basic funds regardless of gender, religion, caste, and societal status, the presence of immigrants creates special circumstances for governments with respect to eligibility.

A graphic showing the reception of a basic income by Indian citizens. [Source: The Economic Times]

A solution that is proposed to beat all such challenges is Negative Income Tax, which can be considered as a form of basic income guarantee. Under this system, any individual falling below the poverty line would be unconditionally supported through a basic income. This income would be funded through taxes paid by those above the poverty line, and hence the basic income received by them would be lesser compared to the income received by below-poverty individuals. Through this scheme, protection from poverty would become a fundamental right, and not just a privilege.

Since basic income would keep on decreasing incrementally above the poverty line, people would always be encouraged to keep their jobs and continue working, as well as reap all the benefits of having a basic income. A study conducted by three US economists has also revealed that a Negative Income Tax based system that eliminates poverty would cost $336 billion at most–a measly 1% of the GDP of the USA.

Dreaming of Degrowth

The concept of “degrowth” challenges the current socioeconomic belief that a system, such as a country, must keep on growing towards greater economic throughput, often done at the expense of the well-being of its human resources and the rapid depletion of its natural resources. The economic power of a country is largely measured in terms of its GDP–Gross Domestic Product. However, as is evident of late, GDP is hardly an accurate measure of the growth of an economy.

This metric does not consider the welfare of the general population, one of the most important criteria to measure the growth of a country. Metrics like the GPI and ISEW that do measure the welfare of the common man, however, have remained stagnant over the last few decades. This shows that, beyond a certain point, fuelling the economic growth of a country does nothing to improve the well-being of its citizens.

A graphic depicting the rise and eventual slowdown of an economy. [Source: The Economic Times]

Automating routine jobs and using AI to improve efficiency frees the population of a country to capitalise on the traits not possessed by their machine counterparts. Emotional, creative, and care work all require unique human traits not reproducible by technology. A society that focuses on building and supporting jobs that are characterised by these traits is the aim of the Degrowth model.

So how does one go about trying to achieve it? It is here that a UBI is regarded as a useful tool to enable degrowth and restructure an economic system rooted in outdated and inaccurate metrics. With the private sector reaching new levels of efficiency supported by AI and automation, and every adult member of the population having a financial safety net to fall back on, it is possible that modern society could progress towards something that existed many millennia ago: a society based on noble leisure.

Featured image credits: Alex Knight, Unsplash

Woke, But Not Yet Awake—Discrimination Faced by the LGBTQ+ Community in Healthcare

The post-90s was an era of dramatic societal change, building an environment seemingly quick to accept, understand and socialise. Advocacy for marginalised communities reached an all-time high. However, it appears to be a surface phenomenon in many ways. It is simple to hide behind a screen and type out a plea for justice for a community without believing and being faithful to the cause and exercising it in actuality. Equal access to healthcare is a fundamental right. The picture today’s society paints, however, is anything but peaceful. This has marked the onset of the so-called Woke Phenomenon.

As human beings, we resist change. We are opposed to any sort of dissimilarity, unable to accept the differences between people and their personal choices, and feeling the uncontrollable urge to infiltrate personal lives and pass commentary on impersonal issues. In this scenario, one finds it difficult to go through life in the absence of proper help. The average teaching imparted to the youth simply perpetuates the opposite sex attraction over same or no sexual attraction. The community is often treated as an added accessory to society: a society which is divided into two human-made factions—the “normals” and the “aberrations”.

Innumerable mental health issues for the community [Image Credits: istock]

The LGBTQIA+ community faces many barriers in their everyday life regarding acceptance and equality from friends, family and society. One would think trained medical professionals with implicit knowledge of biology and the human mind would not be a part of the problem however, the attitude of the medical sector only makes the wall infinitely higher for them to climb.

The Fear Factor

Medical professionals, in many cases, are not equipped to handle the issues and needs of the community as healthcare training is often done on the basis of heteronormativity and gender stereotypes. Patient-doctor confidentiality rules are violated, and their problems are treated as taboos or salacious gossip. Purposefully misgendering individuals and stereotyping them only furthers the innate fear of visiting medical professionals in times of need. More often than not, members of the community are not recognised as equal receivers of treatment and healthcare. Other times they might be heckled, harassed and humiliated for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Consequentially, the community becomes averse to approaching the healthcare system and getting their medical needs addressed, in constant fear of ridicule, moral policing or even macro-aggressions such as foul, abusive language and assault.

The Increasingly Horrifying Reality

The experiences recorded in the results of a study on the experiences of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community show that interpersonal discrimination was highly common, including a majority being subjected to slurs. The atrocities faced by the community only seem to escalate drastically as macroaggressions such as sexual harassment, violence and harassment regarding bathrooms were recorded at a shocking rate. Consequently, the community chooses to hide crucial details about certain conditions, which results in doctors not being able to identify the issue, brushing it under the carpet or leading to wrong treatment, which may be fatal.

Statistics show that the community faces mental health burdens at a higher proportion than others as a consequence of constant harassment and the tussle for acceptance as an equal shareholder of society. For queer women and transpeople, unfortunately, the family is often a site of abuse. Policing and suppression of their identities by their family members is highly prevalent. Transpeople are consistently ridiculed and systemically shunned for their gender expression. This takes a severe toll on one’s mental state of being. Life becomes difficult to traverse in the absence of proper help.

The pandemic added to their problems [Image Credits: The Trevor Project Design by Ruth Basagoitia]

Mental health and treatments related to prior experiences depend on how transparent the communications between the doctor or counsellor and the receiver are. If someone is scared to reveal the bigger chunk of their identity in fear of abuse from the people in power, their vulnerabilities can only amplify drastically with time.

The severe lack of medical knowledge about LGBTQ+ issues in terms of health promotion poses a grave disparity in access to proper healthcare. Given that there is no dearth of funding in biomedical, pharmaceutical and physiological research, the lack of concrete information can only be traced to the perpetual innate homophobia, lack of acceptance of opposite sex attraction or transpeople and viewing the members of the community as “add-ins” or “outliers”. The lack of recognition of the community as individuals with equal rights is simply perpetrated by the medical society and shamefully so, as educated and trained professionals should be bridging the gap instead of widening it.

Bridging The Gap

On the grounds of pre-existing research, there exists a massive health equity potential which is not inclusive of data populated from the studies conducted on cisgender, heterosexual individuals. At the very outset, gender identity might seem irrelevant to predominantly respiratory and viral illnesses, but knowing this information can have a significant bearing on a better understanding of quarantine and isolation behaviours. The ability to perform routine health care maintenance, mental health needs, and support networksare all critical to disease transmission and the severity of the clinical course.

Growing evidence clearly illustrates that LGBTQ+ adults have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease such as angina, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarction compared to cisgender, heterosexual adults due to higher rates of substance abuse induced due to greater exposure to discrimination and violence among many other psychosocial factors.

Disproportionate Occurrences for Major Diseases

According to the National LGBT Cancer Network, gay and bisexual men have been proven to have had a significantly higher incidence of anal cancer, while lesbian and bisexual women have an elevated risk of breast cancer. Respiratory health disparities are also common among the communities, including higher rates of sinus infection, asthma, bronchitis, and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), which also has an influence on COVID-19 prognosis.

Social constructs like a person’s gender individuality and its effect on health have been taboo topics. There has to be a new beginning, and that is the proper acceptance of how relevant the interconnection between sexual minorities and their need for categorised health data analysis actually is.

Effect of the Pandemic on Healthcare for Marginalized Communities

The pandemic made healthcare for marginalized communities hit a new low. Sexual activities are already considered a social stigma. The community faces much higher discrimination in this regard. Studies by The Indian Journal of Medical Research show that the HIV virus is 4% more prevalent in the case of homosexuals than in the general population. Yet the barriers are far more daunting for the community as the cost of testing is high, and the prevalence of social phobias makes it even more inaccessible as a viable resource. Of the transgender population, more than half are unable to access proper healthcare for the treatment of STDs, rendering the entire community at risk.

 HIV-positive transgender health workers at a counselling programme [Image Credits: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji]

The lockdown had restrictions on livelihood and access to health care, especially for the trans community. It impacted the proper communication of medicines like Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) for people living with the Human Immuno Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and those going through Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for gender transitioning. India is home to the world’s third largest population living with HIV. Given their damaged immunity, the HIV+ transgender community is even more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Till today transpersons are dependent on conventional and interactive forms of livelihood, which came to a halt due to the lockdown. Transgender people staying with unsupportive family members during the pandemic have had to deal with stress leading to anxiety and depression.

Poor mental health has been linked with behaviour that is detrimental to their overall health, including extended use of substance abuse, smoking, drinking, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies.

Health Insurance—Spending the Big Bucks

The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) has stated rules for insurance companies around the country to be loud and clear about underwritten rules, specifically for transgender applicants. The decision is hugely admired for ensuring transparency and making such social security benefits inclusive and accessible for the community. Under the IRDAI directive, the insurers must not conceal any details of the health insurance offered. They said, “All the insurers are now instructed to publish on their respective websites the aspects of underwriting philosophy and approach about offering health insurance coverage to transgender persons so that they have the complete information on the philosophy adopted by the company.”

Reputed companies like IBM, Godrej Group, Accenture, IT services providers Cognizant and Tech Mahindra and HR services firm ADP offer medical insurance to same-sex partners of their LGBTQ employees. However, many companies still do not extend this benefit to live-in or unmarried partners, even though they can. This is perhaps due to a lack of clear definitions of laws for such couples. A major setback is that gender-reassignment surgery is still considered an essential medical procedure and not covered under insurance by most companies.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

For a matter as sensitive as this, changes should start off fundamentallyby changing the inherent mentalities of power-rich entities and hence the society in general. One can only define non-abstract shoulds and shouldn’ts by setting rules and regulations such that the marginalized communities aren’t violated. In bigger chain hospital units, funding must be properly used to impart proper knowledge and training to the staff regarding making patients from the community feel comfortable. As for corporates, equality in all literal genders should be carried on. There should be boards to make sure these employees aren’t singled out for their complaints and are given proper healthcare benefits. As citizens, we must encourage all individuals from the communities to seek proper medical help.

Judiciary justice for the LGBTQ community [Image Credits: AFP]

While individuality is attacked and put to the stand very often, what makes the average human population feel threatened, is the existence of unabashed personalities. When we talk about identity from the constitutional spectrum, it must not be a non-customisable binary spectrum.

In the NALSA vs Government of NCT in Delhi case, the petitioners have stated that the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender(LGBT) community, comprising 7-8% of the total Indian population, need to be recognized and protected, for sexual orientation is an integral and innate facet of every individual‘s identity.

It no doubt is clear how abuse and inequity in accessing rights have a domino effect on the holistic progress of the LGBTQ+ community. A person belonging to the said community does not become an alien to the concept of the individual, and their individualism cannot be viewed with a stigma. The impact of sexual orientation on an individual‘s life is not limited to their intimate lives but also impacts their family, professional, social and educational life. Ultimately, the human species over the years have flourished and thrived best with the ‘live and let live’ ideology.

Featured Image Credits: Firstpost

The Mothers of The Motherland—Women In The Independence Movement

On the stroke of midnight when the world fell asleep, India woke up as an independent nation. After countless trysts with destiny, the country was finally free from British rule, largely because of the protests, sacrifices, and rebellion of the people. While most forerunners of the independence movement were and continue to be celebrated, there remained an entire class of citizens whose contributions were overlooked, namely women.

While women fought against the external colonisers, they were pulled back by the constrictions imposed on them by the patriarchal society of those times. They battled social evils, generational oppression, and artificial barriers to deny equal opportunities, amongst others. At times even national greats like Mahatma Gandhi were convinced that it was the duty of women to look after home and hearth, be good mothers and good wives. As a result, for a long time, Congress was reluctant to allow women to hold any position of authority within the organization.

The Unsung Women of India's Freedom Struggle - My Pen My Friend

Image of a protest during the Civil Disobedience Movement [Image credits: Wikipedia]

Regardless, the beginning of the 20th century saw increased participation of women in the freedom struggle. When Lord Curzon declared the partition of Bengal, the country adopted the Swadeshi movement as a response, boycotting anything British. People from all genders burned foreign goods while women took up the handlooms and spun khadi to supplicate it.

Soon after, the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement was announced in 1920, and the Civil Disobedience movement in 1930, both characterized by multitudes of women protesting and suffering its consequence at par with men. Leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru, and many others participated in Satyagrahas across the country. They also consolidated the No Tax Campaign in all the major states of India.

Around the same time, revolutionaries were countering the British atrocities in the subcontinent with more radical measures. In 1938, in a bleeding Chittagong, Pritilata Waddedar led a band of Indian Republican Army resistance to storm an Anglo-only club whose signpost read “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” It served as a reminder that Indians would no longer take disrespect from them.

Women at the forefront of the Indian Freedom Movement [Image credits: Wikipedia]

Around 1942, when it became increasingly clear that the British had no intention of granting natives the power to govern themselves, Congress launched the Quit India Movement, demanding them to leave the country. Naturally, it was met with widespread and brutal repression by the colonial rulers, with hundreds of leaders being jailed and hundreds of thousands of Indians dying. At a time like this, Aruna Asaf Ali, also referred to as the Grand Old Lady of Indian Independence, hoisted the National flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan, Bombay. She was subsequently jailed after. Usha Mehta, another compatriot, risked her life to run an underground radio station keeping the nation informed of the colonial tyranny.

No account of the history of women in the freedom struggle is ever complete without a mention of Captain Lakshmi Sehgal and her Rani Jhansi regiment, INA. When Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose reached Singapore in 1943 to form an army with the Indian Prisoners of War, Capt. Lakshmi demanded a women’s regiment to be commissioned. The battalion fought on the front line against the British right until they were ordered to retreat in 1945. They were arrested in Burma and were tried in the infamous INA Trials, which ignited public outrage and further hastened the departure of the Crown.

Replug: Remembering Captain Lakshmi Sahgal | NewsClick

Captain Lakshmi Sehgal inspecting the Rani Jhansi regiment with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose [Image Credits: Wikipedia]

As India completes 75 years of Independence in terms of governance, economy, and spirit. We are now a developing nation that has seen a pleasant palate of progressive developments. Throughout these 75 years, women went on to hold the highest offices in the country, the most recent of which is Smt. Draupadi Murmu’s election as the President of India. However, despite their sacrifices, and the challenges they faced, the active participation of women in delivering India’s freedom remains unrecognized, perhaps by a force of habit.

Featured Image Credits: Pinterest

Flamed And Cancelled—Salem In The 21st Century

It was a cold winter night in colonial Massachusetts. Paper hung on the walls of the houses saying, “Notice to practitioners of Witchcraft: Those who seek out communion with the devil shall be burned”. In the distance, people shouted “Burn the devil!” while holding their pitchforks and torches. Two of them tied a woman to a stake and burned her. Her screams were silenced by the cheers and celebrations of the village.

This sight was not uncommon in 1692 and 1693. People were accused of worshipping Satan, kidnapping and sacrificing children, and performing witchcraft. With the onset of spring, signalling new life, 25 people faced death. This is not only one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria but also a lesson from history on how accusations and witch hunts can result in unnecessary destruction. Today, we know of Witch Hunts by a more unassuming term—Cancel Culture.

When The Devil Entered Salem

The Devil is said to have first entered Salem, a town heavily populated by the Puritan community, in the chilly winter of 1692. It knocked on Reverend Parris’ door when his 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece started showing ‘unusual’ and ‘non-religious behaviour’. This included throwing fits, shuddering, shaking, and barking like dogs. When they took the girls to a physician, his diagnosis was—the girls were affected by an evil and unholy hand.

An artist’s rendition of one of the girls who was regarded as a victim of witchcraft.

With the so-called disease coming to the town of Salem, people started looking for its source. When the two girls were brought before the magistrate, they accused three women of being the root of this ‘disease’. On February 29th, 1692, three women from marginalised communities—Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne—were accused of being Devil worshippers. 

The Unfortunate Fate of Sarah Good

Sarah Good had lost her father when she was young. The law at the time prevented girls from inheriting their father’s property, forcing Sarah to find refuge in charity. She married a servant named Daniel Poole, whose death left her in debt and forced her to sell a small portion of her father’s land, which was the only property she owned. She later married William Good. Sarah developed a reputation for being a “turbulent spirit, spiteful and maliciously bent“. She challenged the Puritan values, which did not sit right with the people of Salem.

Sarah Goodwhose poverty resulted in her being held guilty of practising witchcraft.

When she was accused of practising witchcraft, she claimed her innocence until the very end. Her husband told the examiners that she was “an enemy to all good” describing her as a “burden to him“. He said that he hated her demeanour and that she had failed to meet his expectations of a wife. Sarah was pregnant at the time of her arrest and gave birth to a child in Ipswich, who later died.

After the trials, Sarah was given a death sentence. Even at the time of the execution, she profoundly claimed her innocence while blaming Osborne and Tituba for witchcraft. 

The Tragic Life of Sarah Osborne

Sarah Osborne was the wife of a prominent man from the Putnam family, Robert Prince. The couple had two sons, after which Prince passed away. Following his death, Sarah married Alexander Osborne, an Irish immigrant. She took over the land and the property that her late husband had left for their sons, resulting in them suing their mother. When she was accused of practising witchcraft, Osborne was dealing with legal issues and had not attended church for three years which made matters worse for her. Unlike Tituba and Good, Osborne pleaded her innocence without accusing anyone else of practising witchcraft. She died in jail on May 29th, 1692.

Sarah Osborne | Paintings from the Collection | Gallery guides and podcasts | State Library of New South Wales | State Library of NSW

Sarah Osbornewhose financial independence resulted in her accusation

Osborne, unlike Tituba and Good, did not belong to a marginalised community, but she broke social norms by taking over her late husband’s land and denying her sons the wealth that they inherited by law. Her economic independence made the Putnam family feel insecure, and her owning and taking over a part of their land resulted in their financial instability. Hence, it is possible that the Putnam family had a hand in her arrest. 

The Black Witch of Salem

On March 1, 1692, while Good and Osborne claimed innocence, Tituba stood apart from the other two by confessing to having practised witchcraft. She also denied these accusations at first, but later confessed with persuasion, clarity, and scary specifics. Tituba’s testimony is one of the longest in Salem’s dark period. 

She told the Court how the Devil had come to her and bid her serve him along with Good and Osborne. She had signed in the Devil’s book using blood. She related detailed images of red cats, black dogs, yellow birds, and a certain black man she described vaguely, who asked her to sign in the Devil’s book. She was called ‘The Black Witch of Salem’.

Tituba (cdogdancer12) - Profile | Pinterest

Titubawhose ethnicity and social status resulted in her accusation

Today, we know very little about her apart from her being a worker and caretaker in the Parris household. Her status as a ‘coloured slave’ is an obstacle to knowing her story and her point of view on the accusations. Although very little is known about her later life, it is said she was jailed, and her status of ‘sole witness’ helped her survive the initial days of mass hysteria. During her trial, Tituba mentioned that there were nine more signatures in the Devil’s book—it planted a seed of paranoia, which led to 144 more accusations in the town. 

The View of The Church

The Puritans were members of a religious movement that arose in the Church of England. Its purpose was to cleanse the church of its Roman Catholic values. They were also the people who immigrated to the US and formed the majority of Salem’s population.  Reports of witchcraft, which was considered evil and satanic, threatened the holy barbed wire of their religion. Hence, these cases were dealt with immediately. The magistrate did not interrogate the accuser and the accused separately, and the necessity of physical evidence was ignored. In such conditions, the accused had only two options—confess to practising witchcraft or face a death sentence.

Can an auto-immune illness explain the Salem witch trials? - BBC Future

A scene from court trials determining the fate of the woman who was accused of practising witchcraft [Image Credits: BBC]

When unexplained events began to occur, the people of Salem turned to their God for an explanation. They believed that by punishing those who performed witchcraft, they were performing their duty towards Him. While the religion teaches peace and respect, they thought they were acting in accordance with His teachings by purging the world of Devil-worshippers—the epitome of destruction. They relied more on their instincts and faith than on physical evidence.

A Bad Case of The Ergotism

In 1976, Dr Linnda R. Caporael suggested that all the symptoms of witchcraft that were seen in the victims may have been a case of rotten bread. Ergotism is a form of food poisoning, caused in Salem in 1692 because of a rye bread that was infected by a fungus. It explained some of the symptoms experienced by victims. Other conditions like sleep paralysis accounted for the nocturnal attacks. Interestingly enough, the fungus, Claviceps purpurea is what modern-day LSD is derived from. There are many records that back up Caporael’s theory. The year 1691 was a wet season for Salem, making the conditions perfect for fungal growth. Moreover, the minister was paid in grains, and it was the minister’s daughter and niece who were the first victims of ‘witchcraft’.

There are still some people out there who deny Caporael’s theories because they choose to believe in flying broomsticks, grimoires, shape-shifting, and dark magic.

A Tale of Patriarchy and Discrimination

In the 17th Century, Christians believed that women were inferior, making them easy targets, and more susceptible to Satan’s wiles. Perhaps the Salem Witch Trials were to serve as a reminder of the status of women in the gender hierarchy. They believed that the devil could reach and ‘pollute’ a women’s soul more easily. The roots of this belief lie in the New Testament. Satan in the form of a serpent lured Eve and made her eat the forbidden fruit, which led to the fall of humankind. Around 70-80% of the people accused in the Trials were women, of whom, many were around the age of 40 and above—notably, an age when a woman’s fertility starts fading away. Sarah Good began questioning the values of the Puritan Society. Osborne gained economic independence by claiming her late husband’s land. Both of their actions were considered ‘evil’. 

The Salem Witch Trials were not about killing and punishing witches who went against God. It was about people trying to maintain the ill-balanced social hierarchy of the time. They felt that the hierarchy that benefited them was at risk because of Good and Osborne’s actions. They wanted to maintain the fragile status quo of male supremacy. They wanted to keep on defining a woman’s worth through her fertility. This was done best by linking folklores and myths about the Devil to women and people of colour. The Salem Witch Trials was an attempt at maintaining a position of power and privilege over those less fortunate.

The accusations soon flared out in Salem’s neighbouring towns in 1693. It did not take long before accusations were meted out indiscriminately. When the wife of Francis Dane, Governor of colonial Massachusetts, was accused of performing witchcraft, the trials were ended, sentences were retracted, the arrested were released, and compensation was given. The trials came to an end.

The Trials remain a tale of patriarchy and discrimination. It was an event that marked the beginning of the end of Puritan society. It is a tale of how people valued authority over justice and delusion over truth. It is a story that is being told to this day.

The 21st Century Witch Hunt

The hashtags keep popping up on the screen. People chant with their pitchforks and receipts “Cancel! Cancel! Cancel!”. The stake is replaced by hashtags, the pitchforks with keyboards. The internet warriors come to serve justice. Salem now is not just a small city in Massachusetts with a small population. It is a town that exists on digital media with a population of millions. Years have passed, but time has not changed. Every generation has its own Salem.

The Salem of today is made up of social media apps. However, the beginning of the Witch Hunt in today’s Salem is very different compared to the 17th Century. Cancel culture arose within black culture. It arose during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. For black people ‘Cancel Culture’ was not a mere hashtag—it was about calling out those who threatened their rights and freedoms.

Cancel culture was initially supposed to represent the helplessness people felt because of unjust systems and the influences of people in power. It was a way to boycott racist businesses in the 50s. It was a way to tell people that one may not have the ability to change the inequality and the laws that support tyranny. However, one does have the power to fight, to ‘cancel’ out the inequality and those who promote it in society.

The Aftermath of A Hashtag

Cancel culture has taken a different turn in modern times. While appearing very different from the Salem Witch Trials, it is the same issue at its heart. In a strange turn of events, it is no longer the persecution of minorities. Now, it targets those in power who often misuse their authority.

Many celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were cancelled because of sexual misconduct in their workplaces and had to serve prison sentences for the same. On the other hand, when celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and JK Rowling were cancelled, it hardly made a difference in their lives. Ellen and her show continue to maintain popularity. Even after her transphobic tweets, JK Rowling continues to profit off Harry Potter and its merchandise. 

So, while Cancel Culture was successful in hunting down figures like Harvey Weinstein, many people, even after being held at the stake of cancellation, continue to maintain their status in society. Cancel culture, just like the Salem Witch Trials, is based on instinct and faith, rather than tangible evidence. It is based on mob mentality. 

Instead of bringing down these authority figures, it has created fear in people’s minds. Innocent individuals are burned at the stake of social humiliation. People with their keyboards hunt down others and hold them accountable for something they said or did several years ago. It is true that because of a corrupt justice system, people often resort to a hashtag to mete out punishments, but it can be harmful when the person being held accountable is innocent.

Cancel Culture frequently hides under the disguise of call-out culture and often turns into cyber-bullying. At the end of the day, such ‘justice’ is not worth it when it comes at the cost of mental health and the lives of the innocent.

What Lies In Store For The World? 

While we continue to live and grow up in a patriarchal society where discrimination still exists, the witch hunt today is very different from what it was 330 years ago. Today, people get cancelled for supporting patriarchy and discriminating against others based on their skin.

In the 21st century, history is not recorded from the point of view of the biased majority, but in the form of digital footprints. Being able to hear opinions of both sides along with those of ‘internet warriors’ serving ‘justice’ via their keyboards instead of by the gavel does not justify the suffering innocent people had to go through. It was not warranted in 1692, it is not justified in the 21st century. With history being recorded through digital media accessible to the majority, the fate of the impetuous millions is yet to be determined.

Featured Image Credits: History.com

A Constitutional Calamity—The Overturn of Roe v Wade

On 24th June 2022, the Supreme Court of the USA made a monumental ruling on the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, which ended the constitutional right to abortion, after 50 years of abortion being a federal legal right, by overturning the decision made on the 1973 Roe v Wade case.

The ruling is playing out as a political earthquake across the States, as it acts on one of the country’s most polarising and fiercely fought social debates, at the heart of which lies the intrinsic question of whether a woman has the right to choose an abortion.

The move, which gives individual states the power to define abortion rights, is expected to completely criminalise or severely restrict legal access to abortion in at least half of the States of America. With some states already having fired trigger laws to outlaw abortion and many more mobilising immediate actions against abortion, the public is in divisive chaos with furious protests from abortion advocates.

Doors are being shut on women in abortion clinics across the States amidst celebrations from anti-abortion advocates who see this as their victory.

Abortion Over The Years

In light of the recent events that have prompted a tidal wave of anger and concern among advocates across the country, it is imperative that we take a closer look at the history of abortion rights in the past. Abortion was widely destigmatised for American women before 1840, according to historians. The American Medical Association, formed in 1847, argued that doctors had a better understanding of the female anatomy and therefore, should have the authority over abortion. This excellent grasp of knowledge, however, did not exist and was used to discredit female healers and midwives. It also served as an impetus to pass anti-abortion laws. Consequently, by the early 1900s, abortion was made illegal in every state.

Over the years, abortion remained criminalised at every stage of the pregnancy. Americans brought about change in the 1960s as many organisations, including AMA, advocated against anti-abortion laws. Colorado became the first state to change its law in 1967, followed by California and New York. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalised abortion in all fifty states with the Roe v. Wade decision.

The Origin of Roe v Wade

Since all but a few states in the US denied abortion as unconstitutional until the Roe v Wade case, when 21-year-old Norma McCorvey from Texas wanted to terminate her pregnancy in 1969, she faced restrictions from the state of Texas where abortion was forbidden unless childbirth would pose a threat to the woman’s life. McCorvey, pregnant for the third time, with the first two children given up for adoption, was from a distressed and disadvantaged background and thus, like many other women in similar situations, failed to undergo an illegal abortion. She had also claimed that she had been raped, but the case was rejected.

In 1970, McCorvey, going by the pseudonym Jane Roe, along with two Texas attorneys, filed a lawsuit against Dallas district attorney Henry Wade, who defended the anti-abortion laws. The Texas district court declared that a ban on abortion violated the constitutional right to privacy, but Wade insisted on continuing the prosecution of people partaking in abortion.

Discussions over the Roe v Wade decision at the Capitol in Wisconsin in 1973. [Source: Associated Press]

Roe’s appeal made it to the Supreme Court in 1973 and was in the national spotlight popularly called ‘Roe v Wade’, in the backdrop of the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement and the political debate over abortion on moral and religious grounds. On 22nd January, a landmark 7-2 verdict was made, which declared that a woman had the constitutional right to undergo an abortion under the purview of the right to privacy. The decision struck down the states’ laws that infringed on this right and legalised abortion by means of the trimester system, allowing full freedom to a woman to undergo abortion in the first trimester and only some regulation in the second trimester.

Although Roe had already gone through her pregnancy forcefully by the time the court made its decision, her case is seen as a historic win providing women with the legal right to abortion, much to the chagrin of the anti-abortionists.

The Overturn Verdict

This verdict which caused a formidable impact on the citizens of America and the world has shaken everyone to the core. The historic decision of Roe v Wade was overruled by the Supreme Court on Friday in a 5-4 decision. The court’s contentious but anticipated decision grants breaking Roe, which had legalised abortions during the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Tens of millions of individuals will be impacted by the laws nationwide, and some may need to travel across state lines to access reproductive healthcare. The Supreme Court’s ruling is projected to result in over half of the states banning or severely restricting abortion.

The majority opinion that overturned Roe and the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion, was inexorably written by Justice Samuel Alito and backed by Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. The Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill rapidly became the scene of protests as the three liberal justices of the court—Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan filed a dissenting opinion to the decision.

The Dire Consequences

As the nation stands divided, abortion bans were triggered within hours in multiple states including Utah, Ohio, Missouri and Alabama, with no exception for cases of rape in most of the states. In due course of time, as many as 26 states are expected to impose severe restrictions according to research.

A graphic using information from the Guttmacher Institute showing the legality of abortion across different states. [Source: The Guardian]

Some states such as Washington and California have assured continued protection of rights and are expected to release new constitutional amendments protecting reproductive rights. President Joe Biden publicly denounced the ruling and communicated that women wanting to undergo abortion should travel to the states where it was not banned.

Abortion seekers entered a frenzy of confusion as the news came out, with many abortion clinics and providers abruptly halting services out of fear of being prosecuted amidst the uncertainty of laws and many women travelling across state borders in urgency to states which still permitted it. The clinics still operating are preparing to face an influx of thousands of patients from neighbouring states.

There is also a spike in the demand for abortion pills and medications, using which half the legal abortions have been taking place in the country. Texas and Louisiana have already banned the movement of pills across other states with more states likely to follow suit. The obstacles for women created by the ruling are therefore far-reaching and insoluble without legal aid.

Marginalised women, however, will bear the brunt of the decision as a lack of abortion rights has historically fuelled financial instability among women. Access to abortion will also be exclusively reduced for Black and Hispanic women, as many women will be unable to afford to travel to other states for undergoing procedures, while disparities have already resulted in worse reproductive healthcare for Black women in the US compared to white women.

Several corporate tech and banking goliaths have come forward to assist employees seeking abortion in the form of reimbursements and employee benefits for healthcare and travel. Tech firms also face the challenge of securing user data in the wake of possible prosecution owing to involvement with abortions.

Perhaps the most jarring prospect of this tectonic verdict is that it is largely being seen as a threat to the legacy of the court, putting erstwhile constitutional rights in jeopardy. As people wait to see its long-run ramifications, the country is left in a state of ambivalence.

The Public Outcry

The verdict has birthed a plethora of problems for the government. The political fallout coupled with miscommunication amongst the masses has cast the government in a negative light. People across the country now have varying levels of access to healthcare.

Heated protests outside the Supreme Court over the court’s ruling [Source: The New York Times]

The atmosphere was filled with voices of anger and dissent, as the young and old joined together to chant slogans of protest and defiance. Throughout the afternoon, protesters, most of whom were female and young, trickled in and out of a barricaded area across the street from the Supreme Court. The crowd listened to a rotating list of speakers who sobbed as they shared their abortion stories.

“This has been a fight 30 years in the making to overturn women and people’s fundamental rights to make decisions about their body. There is no coming back from this. There is no response other than outrage and action,” said Sara Kugler of Washington DC, who was standing outside the court building. The majority of Americans (61%) believed that Roe should remain the law of the land, and only 36% supported overturning it, according to the Public Religion Research Institute think tank.

Anti-abortion advocates celebrating. [Source: The New York Times]

As a chorus of anti-abortion advocates lined up outside the Supreme Court post the verdict, the future of abortion rights seemed bleak. Many of them expressed their joy and satisfaction and claimed that the overturning of the Roe Vs Wade case was just the beginning. The Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, called the decision “deeply significant and encouraging.” The Massachusetts Family Institute said it looked forward to a “re-energised fight to restore a culture of life to the commonwealth.”

Until and unless a change is made, this constitutional setback will continue to have an impact on millions of lives. As tens of thousands of women struggle to access sufficient healthcare in their hometowns, they will reluctantly turn to illicit surgeries that could be fatal to their lives. Developing progressive global health programmes centred on women’s sexual and reproductive rights will become more challenging for governments and organisations as they run the danger of losing financing in the future. The verdict is simply the beginning of what may eventually become a widespread movement against abortion, leaving the fate of women in a desolate and precarious state.

Featured Image credits: Associated Press

An Economic Cataclysm—Sri Lanka’s Financial Crisis

The island nation of Sri Lanka is currently facing the heavy consequences of its government’s financial mismanagement and ill-timed decisions. A tremendous drop of 70 per cent in foreign exchange reserves has pushed the country to the verge of defeat. The coronavirus pandemic further dealt a massive blow to Sri Lanka’s already crumbling economy. With $7 billion to be paid in foreign debt obligations this year and just about $2 billion left in foreign exchange reserves, Sri Lanka faces the unenviable dilemma of choosing between paying for crucial imports and repaying its foreign investors.

The ones that are suffering the most during this economic calamity are the families belonging to the low-income sector of society. The inflation rate in Sri Lanka has skyrocketed to 17.5 per cent, the highest in Asia. Food and medicine costs are surging like never before. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has only added to the misery of the common man by driving up the prices of oil. Four elderly men have lost their lives waiting in queues to buy fuel in the sweltering heat. Soldiers have been posted at hundreds of gas stations to prevent violence, stockpiling, and inefficient distribution. People have been forced to take up a second job, but the income from these is still not enough to sufficiently support their families and themselves. Paper and ink shortages mean students cannot give their exams. Hospitals are reporting shortages of necessary medical equipment. People are choosing to self-medicate instead of going to a doctor to get treated, which can only lead to higher morbidity rates. Electricity is also a rare commodity now, with daily ten to thirteen-hour power cuts becoming the norm. The drastic decrease in their quality of life has inevitably led to thousands protesting against the government and demanding change.

Sri Lankans waiting in a queue to refill their cooking gas cylinders in Colombo

Sri Lankans waiting in a queue to refill their cooking gas cylinders in Colombo. [Credits: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena]

Sri Lanka’s public debt is currently estimated to be 119 per cent of its GDP. This means that the country owes more than it can produce through goods and services. The largest portion of its foreign debt comes from international sovereign bonds, which make up 36.4 per cent of the total debt. These are followed by loans from the Asian Development Bank, Japan, and China. India has offered a $1 billion line of credit to assist Sri Lanka in procuring essentials such as food, fuel, and medicine. In addition to this, India has also extended a $400 million currency swap and $500 million for 40,000 tonnes of diesel to help with severe fuel shortages. India has also deferred the payment of $515.2 million by two months to the Asian Clearing Union.

This is the worst economic crisis the country has faced, since gaining independence in 1948. Sri Lanka is deep in debt with no single way to overcome it.

Who’s responsible?

The Sri Lankan government began financing its investments through foreign borrowings and in 2007, issued its first international sovereign bond for $500 million. A sovereign bond is a debt security issued by a government that can be denominated in both foreign and domestic currency. The buyer would be paid a given amount of interest for a stipulated number of years along with repayment of the face value on the maturity of the bond. The three-decade-long civil war with the Tamil militancy ended in 2009, following which the government focused on reconstruction and real estate. The nation was desperate to pay off foreign debt but didn’t work much towards diversifying its exports, an important source of forex. In 2019, the Rajapaksa government cut value-added tax from 15 per cent to 8 per cent which caused revenue losses of more than 2 per cent of its GDP. The same year saw the devastating Easter Sunday bombings that also took a toll on the tourism industry.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon at hundreds of university students who were trying to break through barricades near the town of Kandy. [Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP]

Police fired tear gas and water cannon at hundreds of university students who were trying to break through barricades near the town of Kandy. [Credits: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP]

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused Sri Lanka’s unstable economy to take a turn for the worse. The vital tourism sector dried up. Lockdowns disrupted the informal sector, which accounts for about 60 per cent of the country’s total workforce. Tax cuts from the previous year weakened the government’s ability to deal with the public health crisis. Further, in 2021, the government announced a ban on the import and use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in an attempt to promote organic farming, as well as to conserve quickly depleting forex, which only led to shortages in crop yield and inflation in food prices. Remittances from foreign workers, the nation’s biggest source of dollars, also dropped by 22.7 per cent in 2021. That September, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of economic emergency in the country to take control of the supply of basic food items and fix prices to control inflation. Due to the relentless protests of the citizens, the government has dissolved as all governmental authorities resigned except for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Even after the imposition of a social media shutdown, people still circumvented using VPNs and got to the streets to march against the administration. The next major challenge that Sri Lanka needs to tackle is the repayment of a $1 billion bond maturing in July 2022

Sri Lankan soldiers walk past a bus burned by demonstrators at the top of the road of President Rajapaksa's residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Sri Lankan soldiers walk past a bus burned by demonstrators at the top of the road of President Rajapaksa’s residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka [Credits: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

In the last decade, China has financially supported Sri Lanka by lending over $5 billion to help with projects like building roads, ports, and an airport. According to critics, however, these funds were utilised for unnecessary ventures with low returns. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now asked China to restructure its debt repayments, in addition to asking for concessions on imports from China, to help Sri Lanka tide over its financial crisis. President Rajapaksa also offered to allow Chinese tourists to return to Sri Lanka, a major move in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sri Lanka is a significant member of China’s Belt and Road initiative, which is a long-term project focused on building infrastructure that links China with the rest of the world. This project has been called a “debt trap” for smaller nations with unstable economies. 

How It Affects India

The port of Colombo is a major trans-shipment hub on which India is heavily dependent for global trade. While exports to Sri Lanka only amount to 1.3% of India’s exports, 60% of India’s cargo trans-shipments are handled by this port. Any disruptions at Colombo port leave India vulnerable to increased costs and congestion issues. 

India is among the biggest drivers of Foreign Direct Investment in Sri Lanka. Investing in a wide range of sectors such as petroleum retail, hotels, real estate, manufacturing, telecommunication and banking services. Many Indian companies have a significant presence in Sri Lanka. Located at the centre of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a country of major military and geopolitical importance. In the last decade, Chinese influence in Sri Lanka has grown multifold, making China its largest import partner and one of its largest investors in public infrastructure projects. The Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is a cause of concern for India. However, Sri Lanka’s debt crisis has created an opening for India to counter Chinese influence. In the last few months, India has provided monetary support as well as relief in the form of food and medicine.

So far, sixteen Sri Lankan Tamils have arrived at Indian shores seeking refuge. They fled due to severe food shortages. India has not granted refugee status to any Sri Lankan since 2012, after the civil war. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M K Stalin, conferred with Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to allow the Tamil Nadu government to provide humanitarian aid to the Tamils living in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

Overcoming The Economic Crisis

Sri Lanka is currently facing a shortage of foreign exchange to pay for its imports. The government is now borrowing from other governments and carrying out currency swaps to overcome the forex deficit. However, these measures are not enough. The country has approached the IMF for help, to wade over this crisis. The IMF has recommended some policy changes to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected including but not limited to, reforming the revenue generation and collection system, increasing taxes to improve Sri Lanka’s low tax-to-GDP ratio and ensuring a greater contribution from higher-income earners of the country, and leaving fuel and exchange rates to the market rates.

Sri Lanka's inflation rate has increased to 17.5 per cent. [Credits: CNN]

Sri Lanka’s inflation rate has increased to 17.5 per cent. [Credits: CNN]

The IMF has also proposed the need for a banking act giving the Central Bank of Sri Lanka more regulatory powers to aid the process of resolving the country’s debt. Sri Lanka also desperately needs to diversify its exports as it is heavily dependent on tea leaves. The removal of import restrictions can help encourage investments, bringing in the necessity for exports. There is a need for reforms to improve conditions and ensure financial security for the labour force in farming and non-farming sectors to ensure the people living at the edge are uplifted first. 

Once revered as the radiant Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s crippling economy has rendered it a husk of its former self. The congregations within the government can only do so much to restore financial stability. The country desperately needs international helping hands to resolve the crisis, and revive the tourism industry in the process. The several strategies in place could eventually create a strong momentum—one which can hopefully pave the way to rekindle the glory of Sri Lanka.

Featured Image Credits: CNN

The Pearl of the Indian Ocean—Sri Lanka

Not far below the Indian peninsula, lies in all its glory—the magnificent and glorious island of Sri Lanka. My siblings and I were looking for a week-long getaway and Sri Lanka turned out to be the ideal vacation spot for a luxuriant budget experience. The nation has a rich atmosphere that seemed to naturally draw one into its warm embrace. I shared this sentiment wholeheartedly as I touched down on Sri Lankan soil for the first time.

Ceylon, as it was known under the British crown until 1948, reflects its contemporary colonial fashion in synergetic coalescence with its own culture. The population primarily comprises a harmonious potpourri of three languages—Sinhalese, English, and Tamil. Several tourists from all over the world also make frequent trips to dip their toes in all that the country has to offer. As I took to the long and open roads, it felt quite similar, yet different to the Indian roads I was accustomed to. With long trees forming a cascade of lush greenery across the landscape, the drive from the airport feels like a road trip in and of itself.

The calm streets of Sri Lanka observed during the daytime.

Generally recognised as the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, the beauty of the Kandy cityscape can be captured through the eyes of its exclusive viewpoint, amidst the winding roads. One can see the tropical rainforest hills, crystal-clear rivers, cascading waterfalls, valleys, and much more. Kandy also houses the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that exhibits an architectural wonder at the heart of the royal palace. This temple is the namesake of Gautama Buddha’s tooth, said to be preserved across the ages, exchanged by the hands of several dynasties.

Tucked away in clouds of mist atop valleys and mountains lies Ella, undoubtedly the most aesthetic locale in Sri Lanka. The best way to travel to Ella is by train, an adventure of its own that treats one to a simply breath-taking view of the hilltop, bristling with lush foliage in the comfort of a luxurious coach. The train crosses the famous Nine Arch Bridge, where people can freely roam about the tracks and click pictures during brief periods. While waiting for the train, one can take a sip of the exotic world-famous home-grown tea along the hillside plantations—the country’s single largest export.

An angle of the traversable Nine Arch Bridge in Ella.

Walking through the streets of Ella, I was mesmerised by the quaint ambience the small village presented, which felt straight out of a children’s fairy tale. The topology provided for a plethora of experiences. One can hike up to Adam’s peak, where the primordial human from the Bible is said to have first set foot on earth. At the foothills, one can unwind with a zip-line through dense clouds of fog, making for a unique experience altogether.

On the way to the sunny beaches of Galle awaits a mystical boat tour just short of the Indian Ocean. As the boatman paddles, one can revel in the natural elegance with the temperament of wildlife ranging from endemic birds to monitor lizards—and the sporadic crocodile if you’re lucky! Apart from the gloomy mangrove caves, the boat also stops at a few islands along the archipelago, each with its own unique idiosyncrasies to offer.

Most of the exotic beaches of Sri Lanka can be found along the coast of Galle and Unawatuna. I felt rejuvenated as I stepped foot into the warm and fluffy golden sands of the seaside. The palm-fringed sunbed plays host to a variety of travellers and locals looking to relax and unwind as they feast their eyes on the sun taking a dip into the placid turquoise waters. Furthermore, the crystal-clear oceans allow for excellent visibility, making it a haven for scuba diving and snorkelling as one falls into the ineffable trance of the aquatic kingdom. A multitude of other water activities can also be availed to pass the time. When dusk falls, the idyllic ambience breathes life to the sands through a culturally vibrant nightlife—brimming with music, dance, and laidback parties.

The majestic Galle Fort, considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands strong against the test of time—including a calamitous tsunami in 2004—and serves as an important colonial hereditament. The adjoining Galle Lighthouse follows suit as the oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka, still operational and guiding sailors to this day. Not too far away was the setting for one of my personal favourite moments—The Turtle Hatchery. I was taken aback by the magnanimity of the Sri Lankan locals towards marine conservation. Following a brief tour of marine life, I was given the gratifying opportunity to release a baby turtle into the ocean. This bittersweet moment left a poignant imprint on my mental scrapbook.

A view of the Galle lighthouse from atop the remains of Galle Fort.

Teeming with stories of lost ancient mythos, the masterfully crafted places of worship abundant in Sri Lanka ethereally call out to the religious soul. Be it Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, these houses of gods have been around for a lot of the nation’s spiritual history. The secularity rampant in the country is admirable and it anchors a society akin to that of Mother India. Gangaramaya Temple is one such temple that boasts a truly novel blend of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture.

Another prominent part of Sri Lanka’s colourful and exquisite culture is its flourishing gem industry. It is affectionately known as ‘Ratna-Dweepa’, or Gem Island, owing to the fact that nearly 25% of the total land area of Sri Lanka is potentially gem-bearing, making Sri Lanka one of the countries with the highest density of gem deposits.

At the heart of it all is Colombo City, the commercial capital and the largest city of Sri Lanka by population density. One can witness a drastic transition while heading towards the bustling city centre from the balmy tranquillity of the shores. Colombo is a sultry melting pot of modern life, colonial-style buildings, and monuments. The structural edifices such as the Twin Towers, the adjacent Bank of Ceylon, the Colombo Fort, and the Old Dutch Hospital, are architectural marvels inspired by multiple eras—most notably the British and Dutch. The bulk of the country’s major activities takes place here, such as concerts and cultural performances from all over the world. I would recommend wandering about on the old-world sidewalks to truly bask in the picturesque glory of Colombo.

The architectural variety prevalent in buildings across Colombo City [Image Credits: Getty Images]

Although the country was facing economic problems in light of the pandemic, it did not hamper my experience one bit. My one-week sojourn in the Sri Lankan enclaves will always occupy a special place in my heart, from the places I visited, to the moments I lived.

Featured Image Credits: BBC

A Contentious Legislation—The AFSPA

Permeating fear in people’s hearts often gives megalomaniacs the illusion of control. From individuals to organisations, everyone craves to exercise power in every possible form. In the context of security forces, this takes the shape of arms, ammunition, and a smart strategy. An allegedly botched up intelligence report to a foiled counter-insurgency operation, covered up by a dubious tale that makes one question the ability of people in power, made the Indian Armed Forces the centre of unwanted attention over the past few weeks.

Decoding the Nagaland killings

On 4th December 2021, soldiers of an elite para commando battalion—the Assam Rifles—opened fire at civilians in the Mon region of Nagaland, near the Assam border. Claiming to have mistaken the civilians in an open-bed pickup truck for militant insurgents from across the border, the battalion killed six of the villagers before they realised their mistake. Even as help rushed in from neighbouring villages, protestors intercepted the military convoy who were seen carrying the dead bodies of the villagers.

Officials taking a look at the destruction that took place in the ambush at Mojo, Nagaland [Image Credits: EastMojo]

In the ensuing struggle between protesting villagers and the retreating soldiers, seven more civilians were killed by retaliatory gunfire. The Army maintains that it fired shots only on being provoked and after the death of one of its men. Locals also claim that the Army was trying to dress up the dead bodies to make them look like militants. Several people got injured in the entire incident and needed medical attention. Adding fuel to the already raging fire was the fact that the President of BJP in Nagaland claimed to have been fired at, despite his vehicle bearing the party flag.

Incidents of alleged intelligence failure like these have been the cause of the deaths of civilians multiple times in the past. Even though the Nagaland Police, and other witnesses, have made statements indicating that the Army opened fire indiscriminately, top Army officials and the rest of the political diaspora are yet to give their concrete views on the topic.

A Troubled History and a Contested Existence  

Passed by both Houses of Parliament and approved by the President in 1958, The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has never been more relevant in the contemporary context. It grants the Indian Army special powers to maintain order and peace in ‘disturbed areas’. According to the law, once an area is declared ‘disturbed’, it needs to maintain the status quo for three months before the Act can be lifted again. The Act gives the Army the power to prohibit a gathering of more than five people in an area, use force or open fire to dispel the crowd, or even arrest a person without a warrant.

North-eastern states like Tripura, Manipur, and Assam have faced the brunt of this Act with multiple occurrences of violence, terrorism and protesting citizens forcing the government to grant more liberty to the Army. Even though the Act was lifted in Tripura, it persists in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland even today.

Another region where this Act has played a pivotal role is the Punjab-Chandigarh-Jammu and Kashmir belt. The Act was withdrawn from Punjab and Chandigarh in 1997, around 14 years after being imposed. On the other hand, a rudimentary state-enforced version of the AFSPA was already present in J&K since 1978. Despite being dubbed a “lawless law” by Amnesty International, the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act failed to sensitise the country’s masses about its debatable nature. The AFSPA has been in power in J&K since 1990, despite multiple protests by a weak opposition.

Protests against the imposition of the ASFPA in Jammu and Kashmir have not resulted in a fruitful decision yet. [Image Credits: Outlook India]

The AFSPA was initially convened, drawing inspiration from the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, formulated by the British to suppress the Quit India Movement. But, as it turned out, the AFSPA is considered a better and meaner version of its predecessor. For example, concerning the protection of soldiers from prosecution, Section 4 of its colonial counterpart restricted the soldier’s actions presumed as being in “good faith”. In Section 6 of the newer ordinance that deals with the same issue, the words “good faith” are missing, granting soldiers free rein.

The two main events defining aspects of the AFSPA are the prolonged deployment of armed forces in apparently disturbed areas and the lack of transparency in dealing with the law. This has led to the armed forces coming up with their own variations of the rules helping them operate more ruthlessly in unstable areas. Subsequently, it has also been a knee-jerk reaction of those in power to hide under the AFSPA umbrella every time a rogue action is committed.

The Way Forward

It is a widely known and lesser accepted fact that most insurgency problems, unrests, and clashes between militant groups in various parts of the country are primarily fuelled by diverse political or personal interests. The armed forces being granted special powers to tackle political or personal fights tips the scale to favour an eventual loss in military capability for the country rather than regional political peace. It is for this very reason that people and organisations across the nation have been clamouring for a repeal of the AFSPA laws.

Historically, the AFSPA has been received with mixed opinions from the country’s top brass. People across the nation have expressed their views on the varied humanitarian angles of the Act. From Tamil Nadu’s P. Chidambaram to Saifuddin Soz of Jammu and Kashmir, both being from the Congress party, there have been various politicians over the years who have condemned the Act and wanted it revoked. On the other hand, some others like Amarinder Singh have been staunch supporters of AFSPA.

Amongst its civilian disapprovers, Irom Sharmila, hailing from Manipur, had risen to fame for her stubborn and widely known opposition of the Act since November 2000. Dubbed the “Iron Lady of Manipur”, she undertook a hunger strike that lasted 16 years, from 16th November 2000 to 9th August 2016. Being denied the right to vote since she was imprisoned for her protest, she stoically refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, demanding that the AFSPA be repealed in the region of the Seven Sisters. Declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, she was voted the top woman icon of India by the MSN Poll on International Women’s Day in 2014.

Hundreds of people carry out rallies and protests demanding the repeal of the AFSPA in Nagaland [Image Credits: Hindustan Times]

Following the recent deadly Nagaland killings, hundreds of people walked 70 km to demand the repeal of the controversial Act. They began their protest in Dimapur, a city in Nagaland state, and walked to the capital city of Kohima, raising slogans against the AFSPA. Despite these protests, the Central Government extended AFSPA throughout Nagaland for another six months, effective from 30th December 2021. It was stated that “the area comprising the whole of the State of Nagaland is in such a disturbed and dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary“. Additionally, in consultation with top leaders from Nagaland, the government also formed a seven-member committee, chaired by Dr. Vivek Joshi, Registrar General & Consensus Commissioner, to review the situation and submit a report within three months.

Ultimately, people’s opinions, the political turmoil in the region, and the influence of various tribal and militant groups need to be considered while making decisions that directly affect people’s lives. Though promulgated with good intentions in mind and premeditating certain necessities, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in addition to allocating more power to the armed forces, needs to ensure that it does not get misused as it has been over the course of time. If not, the Rule of the Gun will become the new norm in various regions of the largest active democracy of the world.

Featured Image Credits: Orissa Post