UN Raises Appeal for Flood-Hit Pakistan to Address Hunger, Health

The United Nations dramatically hiked its lifesaving appeal Tuesday to help Pakistan, where erratic rains and a combination of riverine, urban and flash floods have unleashed an unprecedented global climate-change-induced disaster since June.

The international funding appeal, jointly launched with the Pakistani government from Geneva, is seeking $816 million — five times more than the $160 million flash appeal issued in August, in the wake of the immensity of the calamity and growing needs.

Pakistani officials say the floods have inundated huge swaths of the country of about 220 million people. The calamity has claimed the lives of nearly 1,700 people, one-third of them children, and it has displaced almost 8 million people. Women and children make up 70% of the 33 million affected across 84 districts nationwide, with an estimated 3.4 million children in need of assistance.

“The water has stopped rising but the danger has not,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s chief, told Tuesday’s televised launch event. He said an urgent and robust response is needed, along with sustainable funding, to control the spread of outbreaks of malaria, cholera, dengue, and an increase in skin infections in flood-ravaged areas.

“We’re on the verge of a public health disaster. Many more lives than were lost in the floods could be lost in the coming weeks if we don’t mobilize greater support for Pakistan … We estimate that more than 2,000 women are giving birth every day, most of them in unsafe conditions,” Tedros said.

Pakistani Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman said while addressing the ceremony that 16 weeks later, 34 districts are still crisis-affected, with 11 districts still under water.

Rehman said her government is still in what she described as “the longest rescue, relief and lifesaving phase” since the disaster struck and her country can’t afford recovery from the flooding on its own.

“[The] 33 million people affected are 7 million more than the entire population of Australia. We have been working around the clock. But honestly, ladies and gentlemen, we literally need a new coalition of the willing. It can be done for wars so it can be done to save lives,” the minister stressed.

Rehman said Pakistan was in urgent need of medicine for 8.2 million people and must import extra supplies of food.

U.N. officials warned of growing hunger in Pakistan, saying the deluge inundated more than 3.6 million hectares of farmland and killed more than 1.1 million livestock.

Pakistani officials estimate the flooding has inflicted more than $30 billion in damages on national infrastructure, washing away roads, bridges and about 800,000 houses.

“The people of Pakistan are bearing the brunt of the world’s inaction to face up to climate change or to prepare for its consequences. It’s a stain on our conscience internationally,” said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, while speaking at the Geneva event.

“The people of Pakistan have not caused this crisis for which they are undeserving victims and they’re paying the unimaginable price of its impact.”

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Most of Bangladesh Left Without Power After National Grid Failure

Large swathes of Bangladesh were left without electricity on Tuesday after a partial grid failure, a government official said, adding that authorities were working to gradually restore power supply in the country of 168 million people.

The country’s power grid malfunctioned at around 2 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Tuesday, leading to blackouts across 75-80% of the Bangladesh, Bangladesh Power Development Board official Shameem Hasan told Reuters.

“We are trying to restore the system,” Hasan said, adding that utilities were currently producing around 4,500 megawatts (MW)of power, compared to nationwide demand of 14,200 MW.

An investigation is underway to ascertain the reason for the grid’s collapse, Hasan said.

Bangladesh, which gets three quarters of its electricity from imported natural gas, has been facing frequent power cuts this year due to its inability to address higher power demand.

The country has rationed some gas supplies amid high global prices driven up by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The government vowed frugal spending after reporting a record fiscal deficit last year.

Over a third of the country’s 77 gas-powered units were short of fuel, government data showed on Tuesday.

Grid failures generally happen when there is a high mismatch between demand and supply, potentially due to unexpected or sudden changes in power use patterns.

Bangladesh’s peak power demand on Tuesday was 3% higher than the 13,800 MW forecast by the Bangladesh Power Development Board, according to government data.

Garment factories hit

Operations at Bangladesh’s lucrative export-oriented garment industry, which supply to clients such as Walmart WMT.N, Gap Inc GPS.N, H&M HMb.ST, VF Corp VFC.N, Zara and American Eagle Outfitters AEO.N were hit by the power outage on Tuesday.

“To cope with the (power) crisis, we have been using generators. Today’s outage was unpredictable. We had to shut our offices,” because generators can not run for long periods, Shahidullah Azim, Vice President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told Reuters.

The association represents members that have more than 4,500 garment factories nationwide. Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest garment exporter after China.

“We can’t run factories without power,” Azim added.

Zunaid Ahmed Palak, a junior minister in Bangladesh, said on Facebook it was “risky to restore (power) with a heavy load.”

The load on the power grid generally increases in the evenings in Bangladesh, when citizens return home after work. Demand growth in the recent years has largely been driven by the residential segment.

“If the stability of the system is fairly satisfactory, the power lines of all area of Dhaka will be activated. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” Palak said.

The Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh said on Tuesday mobile and internet services may be disrupted in some parts of the country due to the national power grid failure.

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Afghan National Institute of Music Performs First Concert in New Home

Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music has performed its first concert in its new home of Lisbon, Portugal. Members of the exiled school are determined to keep Afghan music alive even though they can’t play in their homeland. VOA’s Farkhunda Paimani and Munaza Shaheed attended the concert in Lisbon and filed this report narrated by Amy Katz. Camera: Nawid Orokzai

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UN Warns Deadly Diseases Spreading Fast in Flood-Ravaged Pakistan

A senior U.N. official warns flood-ravaged Pakistan is entering a second wave of death and destruction from outbreaks of diseases, including malaria, dengue, diarrhea, scabies and other skin diseases.

Julien Harneis, U.N. Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan, said the first wave of this climate-induced disaster has caused wide-scale destruction of roads, bridges, homes, and other infrastructure.

“They show what happens, what are the consequences when we do not stop global warming. The scale of it is beyond imagination. It is a climate change disaster that you can see from space.”

The United Nations reports an estimated 1,700 people have lost their lives, a third of them children, and 12,800 have been injured. It says more than 33 million people are affected by the floods, which have displaced 7.9 million.

Harneis said the wave of diseases spreading across the affected areas will lead to many more deaths, especially among children, millions of whom are suffering from acute malnutrition.

The U.N. Children’s Agency (UNICEF) said at least 3.4 million children need immediate lifesaving support.

Harneis said people are getting ill and dying from lack of health, nutrition, water and sanitation services, and lack of access to latrines across the flooded affected areas.

“People who are defecating in the waters and then drinking from those same waters. Children who are washing in those waters. So, that is the driver of illness and disease and at the same time more than 1,700 health facilities and hospitals have either been destroyed or damaged.”

Consequently, he noted, the health systems that normally would protect people from such risks are not fully functioning.

He said another threat is food insecurity, as the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the number of hungry people in Pakistan will rise from the current 5.9 million to 7.2 million without urgent international support.

The United Nations issued a flash appeal for $160 million at the end of August. Given the immensity of the disaster and the growing needs, Harneis said the U.N. will launch a revised lifesaving appeal for $816 million on Tuesday.

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Afghan Protests Continue Against School Attack as UN Raises Death Toll to 53 

Female students in Afghanistan took to the streets for a third day in a row Monday to seek justice for victims of last week’s suicide bombing of an education center in Kabul, as the death toll continues to rise.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said Friday’s powerful blast in the capital, Kabul, had killed at least 53 people, including 46 girls and women, and wounded more than 110 others.

“Girls and young women [were] the main victims. Casualty figures likely to rise further,” the UNAMA tweeted Monday. “Our human rights team continues documenting the crime: verifying facts & establishing reliable data to counter denial & revisionism.”

The attack targeted the private Kaaj tutoring center in Dasht-e-Barchi, a western Kabul neighborhood home to the Afghan minority Shia Hazara community.

Survivors said there were 400 boys and girls, separated by a curtain, in line with Taliban instructions, taking a mock university entrance exam when the bomber detonated his explosives in the girls’ section.

The Islamist Taliban government has come under severe criticism for failing to provide security to what rights groups see as the most persecuted Afghan minority group. The violence has sparked domestic and international outrage, prompting Afghan female students in several cities to stage protests.

On Monday, dozens of university students marched through the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern Balkh province, demanding justice for the victims.

Taliban security forces allegedly locked a group of women students in their dormitory to prevent them from joining the rally, according to social media videos. VOA could not verify the authenticity of the footage showing a girl trying to unsuccessfully break the door lock with a brick.

Kabul, western Herat, and central Bamiyan are among the cities where demonstrations have been held since Friday by mostly Hazara women students. Protesters also have pressed the Taliban to ease restrictions on women’s rights to work and education, while others have expressed support for ongoing protests in neighboring Iran.

Taliban security forces have disrupted protests by firing in the air, but some have accused them of beating or firing at demonstrators.

The Taliban have barred grades seven through 12 from resuming secondary schools in most of the country since they seized power a year ago. The Islamist group also backtracked on promises to open all Afghan schools in March.

However, the Taliban have opened public and private universities to women students across Afghanistan, with strictly segregated classrooms for male and females.

No one has claimed responsibility for Friday’s blast in Kabul, which critics see a setback to women seeking education in defiance of strict Taliban polices.

“Our last hope was educational institutions. Unfortunately, now the institutions are also under threat,” said Sakina Nazari, a 25-year-old resident and former Kaaj student whose family friend was badly injured in the attack.

Private tutoring centers have provided a lifeline to girls wanting to further their education and a chance to go to universities, where women are still allowed, though they face increased restrictions and growing economic challenges.

The UNAMA has called on the Taliban to bring to justice those responsible, urging the Islamist rulers to “fulfil obligations to ensure safety of all Afghans.” The United States, Pakistan and other countries have also denounced the violence.

The Taliban have vowed to enhance security of all Afghans following the attack and have sent their representatives to Hazara victim families in a bid to reassure them of protection against possible future attacks.

The Taliban foreign ministry in a statement has condemned Friday’s attack and other such incidents as the work of “malicious networks” and “a conspiracy by the enemies” of Afghanistan to create divisions among the Afghan people.

“The Islamic Emirate does not believe in any ethnic or religious division of the Afghan people and considers itself responsible for protecting the lives of all Afghans,” the ministry said.

“While pledging to all our compatriots that we will do more to identify and bring to justice perpetrators of these attacks, we urge all foreign parties to refrain from issuing irresponsible statements on Afghanistan’s internal affairs beyond expressing condolences.”

Previous attacks against Afghanistan’s Hazara community have been claimed by the local offshoot of the self-proclaimed, Sunni-based, Islamic State group, known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K.

The terrorist outfit has stepped up its extremist violence since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 when all U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Pakistani Hospital Overwhelmed as Water-Borne Illnesses Spread

 The emergency ward at the main government hospital in Sehwan, a small town in southern Pakistan, is overwhelmed. 

On a recent visit, Reuters witnessed hundreds of people crammed into rooms and corridors, desperately seeking treatment for malaria and other illnesses that are spreading fast after the country’s worst floods in decades. 

Amid the crush, Naveed Ahmed, a young doctor in the emergency response department of the Abdullah Shah Institute of Health Sciences, is surrounded by five or six people trying to get his attention. 

The 30-year-old keeps his cool as stretched emergency services struggle to cope with thousands of patients arriving from miles around after their homes were submerged under water when heavy rains fell in August and September. 

“We become so overworked at times that I feel like collapsing and going on an intravenous drip,” a smiling Ahmed told Reuters as he sipped a cup of tea in the hospital’s canteen during a short break. 

“But it’s because of the prayers of these patients that we keep going.” 

Hundreds seek clinic help daily

Ahmed is on the frontline of the battle to limit sickness and death across southern Pakistan, where hundreds of towns and villages were cut off by rising waters. The deluge has affected around 33 million people in a country of 220 million. 

Most of the estimated 300-400 patients arriving at his clinic each morning, many of them children, are suffering from malaria and diarrhea, although with winter approaching, Ahmed fears other illnesses will become more common. 

“I hope people displaced by the floods can get back to their homes before winter; (if not) they will be exposed to respiratory illnesses and pneumonia living in tents,” he said. 

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who fled their homes are living in government camps set up to accommodate them, or simply out in the open. 

Stagnant floodwaters, spread over hundreds of square kilometers, may take two to six months to recede in some places, and have already led to widespread cases of skin and eye infections, diarrhea, malaria, typhoid and dengue fever. 

The crisis hits Pakistan at a particularly bad time. With its economy in crisis, propped up by loans from the International Monetary Fund, it does not have the resources to cope with the longer-term effects of the flooding. 

Nearly 1,700 people have been killed in the floods caused by heavy monsoon rains and melting glaciers. Pakistan estimates the cost of the damage at $30 billion, and the government and United Nations have blamed the catastrophe on climate change. 

Over 340 people have died of diseases caused by the floods, authorities have said. 

Concerns about ‘second disaster’

According to the health department of Sindh province, the worst-affected region, 17,285 cases of malaria have been confirmed since July 1. 

Anticipating the risk of disease outbreaks after the rescue and relief phase of the floods, the Sindh government is trying to hire more than 5,000 health professionals on a temporary basis in districts most at risk. 

“We are short of human resources considering the magnitude of the burden of disease following the unprecedented rains and floods,” Qasim Soomro, provincial lawmaker and parliamentary health secretary of the Sindh government, told Reuters. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised concern about an impending “second disaster” of water-borne diseases spreading across the country, particularly in Sindh. 

In the hospital ward in Sehwan, a young man with a high fever was having fits on a bed outside the main emergency room. His mother ran to Ahmed, who attended the patient and asked a male nurse to place cold pads on his forehead. 

The air was heavy with humidity, and there were not enough air conditioners to cool temperatures in overcrowded corridors lined with beds. The wards were filled to capacity and a handful of beds had more than one patient on them. 

Ahmed, a graduate of a university in China, described the pressure he and other medics were under. 

“With such influx, we … cannot wait for test results for each patient to start the treatment,” he said, adding he begins administering medicine for malaria as soon as he sees some symptoms. 

The institute in Sehwan serves people from neighboring towns and districts, including those living in camps while the waters recede and rebuilding can begin. 

Jagan Shahani’s daughter fell unconscious after getting a fever around a week ago. He used a boat to get out of his flooded village of Bhajara and flagged down a car on the nearby road that took them to Sehwan. 

“Doctors said she had malaria,” he said late last week. “This is our fourth night here. There is nothing here to eat but Allah has been very kind to provide everything,” added Shahani, whose 15-year-old daughter Hameeda is now recovering. 

On the outskirts of town, hundreds of displaced people queued up for rations being distributed at Lal Bagah, a tent settlement where displaced families prepared tea and breakfast on open fires. 

The Indus Highway that runs past Sehwan is dotted with tent camps for displaced people. 

Some are beginning to return home where waters have retreated far enough, but not all are so lucky. 

“There is no one here to help me but Allah. I pray to Allah that the waters recede in my village, and I can return to my home,” said Madad Ali Bozdar. 

Bozdar, 52, is from Bubak, a town located on the north-eastern bank of Manchar Lake. Speaking on Friday, he said his village was still under 3-4 meters of water. He expected to be able to go back in around two months’ time. 

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What War in Ukraine Means for Asia’s Climate Goals 

The queues outside petrol pumps in Sri Lanka have lessened, but not the anxiety.

Asanka Sampath, a 43-year-old factory clerk, is forever vigilant. He checks his phone for messages, walks past the pump, and browses social media to see if fuel has arrived. Delays could mean being left stranded for days.

“I am really fed up with this,” he said.

His frustrations echo that of the 22-million inhabitants of the island nation, facing its worst ever economic crisis because of heavy debts, lost tourism revenue during the pandemic, and surging costs. The consequent political turmoil culminated with the formation of a new government, but recovery has been complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the consequent upending of global energy markets.

Europe’s need for gas means that they’re competing with Asian countries, driving up prices of fossil fuels and resulting in what Tim Buckley, the director of the thinktank Climate Energy Finance, refers to as “hyper-inflation … and I use that word as an understatement.”

Most Asian countries are prioritizing energy security, sometimes over their climate goals. For rich countries like South Korea or Japan, this means forays into nuclear energy. For the enormous energy needs of China and India it implies relying on dirty coal power in the short term. But for developing countries with already-strained finances, the war is having a disproportionate impact, said Kanika Chawla, of the United Nations’ sustainable energy unit.

How Asian countries choose to go ahead would have cascading consequences: They could either double down on clean energy or decide to not phase out fossil fuels immediately.

“We are at a really important crossroads,” said Chawla.

Sri Lanka: ‘Slow grind’ 

Sri Lanka is an extreme example of the predicament facing poor nations. Enormous debts prevent it from buying energy on credit, forcing it to ration fuel for key sectors with shortages anticipated for the next year.

Sri Lanka set itself a target of getting 70% of all its energy from renewable energy by 2030 and aims to reach net zero — balancing the amount of greenhouse gas they emit with how much they take out of the atmosphere — by 2050.

Its twin needs of securing energy while reducing costs means it has “no other option” than to wean itself off fossil fuels, said Aruna Kulatunga, who authored a government report for Sri Lanka’s clean energy goals. But others, like Murtaza Jafferjee, director of the think tank Advocata Institute say these targets are more “aspirational than realistic” because the current electrical grid can’t handle renewable energy.

“It will be a slow grind,” said Jafferjee.

Grids that run on renewable energy need to be nimbler because, unlike fossil fuels, energy from wind or the sun fluctuates, potentially stressing transmission grids.

The economic crisis has decreased demand for energy in Sri Lanka. So while there are still power cuts, the country’s existing sources — coal and oil-fired plants, hydropower, and some solar — are coping.

China, India: Home-grown energy 

How these two nations meet this demand will have global ramifications.

And the answer, at least in the short-term, appears to be a reliance on dirty-coal power — a key source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.

China, currently the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, aims to reach net zero by 2060, requiring significant slashing of emissions.

But since the war, China has not only imported more fossil fuels from Russia but also boosted its own coal output. The war, combined with a severe drought and a domestic energy crisis, means the country is prioritizing keeping the lights on over cutting dirty fuel sources.

India aims to reach net zero a decade later than China and is third on the list of current global emitters, although their historical emissions are very low. No other country will see a bigger increase in energy demand than India in the coming years, and it is estimated that the nation will need $223 billion to meet its 2030 clean energy targets. Like China, India’s looking to ramp up coal production to reduce dependence on expensive imports and is still in the market for Russian oil despite calls for sanctions.

But the size of future demand also means that neither country has a choice but to also boost their clean energy.

China is leading the way on renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuel dependence, said Buckley, who tracks the country’s energy policy.

“It might be because they are paranoid about climate change or because they want to absolutely dominate industries of the future,” said Buckley. “At the end of the day, the reason doesn’t really matter.”

India is also investing heavily in renewable energy and has committed to producing 50% of its power from clean energy sources by 2030.

“The invasion has made India rethink its energy security concerns,” said Swati D’Souza, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

More domestic production doesn’t mean that the two countries are burning more coal, but instead substituting expensive imported coal with cheap homegrown energy, said Christoph Bertram at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. What was “crucial” for global climate goals was where future investments were directed.

“The flipside of investing into coal means you invest less into renewables,” he said.

Japan, South Korea: The nuclear option 

Both Japan and South Korea, two of Asia’s most developed countries, are pushing for nuclear energy after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Sanctions against Russian coal and gas imports resulted in Japan looking for alternative energy sources despite anti-nuclear sentiments dating back to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. An earlier-than-expected summer resulted in power shortages, and the government announced plans to speed up regulatory safety checks to get more reactors running.

Japan aims to limit nuclear energy to less than a quarter of its energy mix, a goal seen as overly optimistic, but the recent push indicates that nuclear may play a larger role in the country.

Neighboring South Korea hasn’t seen short-term impacts on energy supplies since it gets gas from countries like Qatar and Australia and its oil from the Middle East. But there may be an indirect hit from European efforts to secure energy from those same sources, driving up prices.

Like Japan, South Korea’s new government has promoted nuclear-generated electricity and has indicated reluctance to sharply reduce the country’s coal and gas dependence since it wants to boost the economy.

“If this war continues … we will obviously face a question on what should be done about the rising costs,” said Ahn Jaehun, from the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.

Indonesia: Damage control 

The war, and consequent rising gas prices, forced Indonesia to reduce ballooning subsidies aimed at keeping fuel prices and some power tariffs in check.

But this was a very “hurried reform” and doesn’t address the challenge of weaning the world’s largest coal exporter off fossil fuels and reaching its 2060 net zero goal, said Anissa. R. Suharsono, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“We’re sliding back, into just firefighting,” she said.

Coal exports have increased nearly 1.5 times between April and June, compared to 2021, in response to European demand and Indonesia has already produced over 80% of the total coal it produced last year, according to government data.

The country needs to nearly triple its clean energy investment by 2030 to achieve net zero by 2060, according to the International Energy Agency, but Suharsono said it wasn’t clear how it was going to meet those targets.

“There are currently no overarching regulations or a clear roadmap,” she said.

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UN Raises Kabul Classroom Bombing Death Toll to 35 as Women Protest ‘Genocide’

The death toll of a suicide bombing on a Kabul classroom has risen to 35, the U.N. said Saturday, as Shiite Hazara women who bore the brunt of the attack staged a defiant protest against the “genocide” of their minority community.

On Friday a suicide attacker blew himself up in a Kabul study hall as hundreds of pupils were taking tests in preparation for university entrance exams in the city’s Dasht-e-Barchi area.

The western neighborhood is a predominantly Shiite Muslim enclave and home to the minority Hazara community — a historically oppressed group that has been targeted in some of Afghanistan’s most brutal attacks in recent years.

“The latest casualty figures from the attack number at least 35 fatalities, with an additional 82 wounded,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a statement.

More than 20 of the killed were girls and women, it said.

The U.N. mission’s casualty figure is higher than the toll Kabul authorities have given.

An interior ministry official told AFP anonymously on Saturday that 25 people were killed and 33 wounded in the attack on the Kaaj Higher Educational Centre — updating an earlier toll of 20 killed and 27 wounded.

Since returning to power last August, security has been a sensitive topic for the Taliban and the hardliners have often been keen to downplay attacks challenging their regime.

Meanwhile on Saturday dozens of Hazara women defied a Taliban ban on rallies to protest the latest bloodshed in their community.

Around 50 women chanted, “Stop Hazara genocide, it’s not a crime to be a Shiite”, as they marched past a hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi where several victims of the attack were being treated.

Dressed in black hijabs and headscarves, the protesters carried banners that read: “Stop killing Hazaras”, an AFP correspondent reported.

Witnesses have told AFP that the suicide attacker detonated in the women’s section of the gender-segregated study hall.

“Yesterday’s attack was against the Hazaras and Hazara girls,” protester Farzana Ahmadi, 19, told AFP.

“We demand a stop to this genocide. We staged the protest to demand our rights.”

Regular target

Protesters later gathered in front of the hospital and chanted slogans as dozens of heavily armed Taliban, some carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, kept watch.

Since the hardline Taliban returned to power, women’s protests have become risky, with numerous demonstrators detained and rallies broken up by Taliban forces firing shots in the air.

No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack.

But the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group regards Shiites as heretics and has previously claimed attacks in the area targeting girls, schools and mosques.

The Taliban also regard the Hazara community as heathens, and rights groups often accused the Islamists of targeting them during their 20-year insurgency against the former US-backed government.

Since returning to office the Taliban have pledged to protect minorities and clamp down on security threats.

However, Amnesty International said Friday’s attack was “a shamefaced reminder of the inaptitude and utter failure of the Taliban, as de-facto authorities, to protect the people of Afghanistan”.

In May last year, before the Taliban’s return to power, at least 85 people — mainly girls — were killed and about 300 were wounded when three bombs exploded near their school in Dasht-e-Barchi.

Again, no group claimed responsibility, but a year earlier IS claimed a suicide attack on an educational center in the same area that killed 24.

IS has emerged as a key security challenge for the Taliban, but officials claim their forces have defeated the jihadists.

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Indian Capital Gears Up to Tackle Air Pollution Ahead of Winter

The Indian capital of New Delhi will enforce a 15-step action plan to curb pollution ahead of the arrival of winter, when a haze of toxic smog envelops the world’s most polluted city.

High pollution is an annual sore point for Delhi, especially in October and November.

Authorities urge people to stay indoors as burning of crop waste ahead of a new sowing season and lower temperatures trap pollutants in the air for longer, often forcing the closure of schools, with curbs placed on use of private vehicles.

“We are announcing a 15-point winter action plan,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told a news conference at which he laid out the measures to reduce pollution, though the annual campaign has had little impact for years.

Measures to help limit dust in the air will include installation of anti-smog guns and water sprinklers, he added.

The government will also ensure that people do not burn waste materials, a major cause of pollution.

Tough measures to check vehicular pollution include curbs on the usage of diesel-fueled vehicles older than 10 years and petrol-run vehicles older than 15.

Pollution levels also peak during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which falls on Oct. 24 this year. The government renewed a ban on firecrackers this month.

The Delhi city government will draft thousands of volunteers to ensure the anti-pollution measures are followed, Kejriwal added. He urged neighboring states to ensure a constant supply of electricity and so limit use of diesel-run power generators.

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Ban on Islamic Organization Draws Mixed Reactions in India

The Indian government’s ban this week of the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamic organization that says it fights for the rights of minorities, has received mixed reaction in the country, with Hindu groups welcoming the move and Muslim groups, opposition leaders and rights activists criticizing it.

Hours after the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs issued the ban on the PFI on Wednesday, accusing it of “terrorism” and “anti-national activities,” the organization declared in a statement that it had disbanded itself.

While PFI leaders say that the accusations against it are baseless, the government insists that the organization poses a threat to the country’s internal security.

PFI leaders say the organization fights for the rights of the minorities and low-caste Hindus.

However, a government gazette that carried the notification about the ban said that the PFI had been found to be involved “in serious offenses, including terrorism and its financing, [and] targeted gruesome killings.”

“There is evidence that the group has a connection with the international terrorist group ISIS,” the notification said, in perhaps the most serious accusation against the PFI. ISIS is an abbreviation for the Islamic State group.

“Our top leaders have all along condemned ISIS — we can present media reports as evidence. The accusation that the PFI had a connection with ISIS is ridiculously false,” one Kerala-based PFI leader told VOA on the condition of anonymity because of fear of government reprisal.

“All charges against the PFI will be found to be false if the court tries the cases properly.”

Welcoming the PFI ban, the chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Assam tweeted: “The Government is firm in its resolve to ensure that anyone with a diabolical, divisive or disruptive design against India shall be dealt with iron fist. India of Modi Era is Decisive & Bold.”

In a statement, the Social Democratic Party of India, the political wing of the PFI, called the ban “a direct blow to democracy.”

“Freedom of speech, protests and organizations has been ruthlessly suppressed by the regime. … The regime is misusing the investigation agencies and laws to silence … the voice of dissent,” the statement said.

Muslim community leader and former chairperson of the Delhi Minority Commission Zafarul-Islam Khan denounced the ban on the PFI.

“There is no evidence in the public domain of the PFI or its allied organizations being involved in illegal activities. If an individual belonging to any of these organizations commits any crime, he must face action individually. His organization should not face punishment for his crime,” Khan told VOA.

The PFI ended up irking the current rulers because it built up a strong all-India cadre-based organization to work and fight for minority causes and its upliftment, he said.

“Such an organization is viewed as a hurdle to the Hindutva dream to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra [Hindu Nation, in Hindi]. Hence, for some years, the PFI and its allied organizations have been the target of the current rulers of the country.”

India’s Home Ministry did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

In August in Varanasi, some Hindu right-wing groups released a draft constitution of a Hindu Rashtra that proposed Muslims and Christians living in India would not have voting rights or be counted as citizens.

S.R. Darapuri, a former senior Indian Police Service officer who now works as a social and political activist, said the decision to ban the PFI appears to have been taken “prematurely.”

“When the organization has been accused of a charge as serious as terrorism, the case should have been investigated thoroughly and taken to court. Now, the organization has been banned before the charge of terrorism has been proven in a court of law,” Darapuri told VOA.

“In this situation, the ban appears to be a politically motivated and biased decision.”

Supreme Court lawyer Mehmood Pracha noted that several Hindu supremacist groups are exhorting “an open revolt against Indian state by seeking to replace the constitution of the country with a constitution based on Hindu scripture.”

“The government does not find the actions of those groups unlawful. So one cannot but view this action with doubt that the reason for banning the PFI is not based on their alleged terrorism and anti-national activities,” Pracha told VOA.

The opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), or CPI-ML, said that the crackdown on the PFI is aimed to whip up anti-Muslim passion.

“In the criminal cases against the PFI, except for some sketchy allegations, there is no reference to any actual incident of crime. The crackdown is a conscious attempt by the Modi government to spread Islamophobia among the public and demonize Muslims, as a community,” CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya told VOA.

“The actions against the PFI are blatantly discriminatory, given the impunity being granted to sundry (Hindu right-wing) organizations and individuals openly calling for anti-Muslim genocides and rapes, and turning India into a Hindu Rashtra.”

The crackdown on the PFI is a pretext for a massive witch hunt of Muslims, said feminist activist Kavita Krishnan.

“The charge by the NIA [National Investigation Agency] that the PFI is conspiring ‘to communalize the nation’s polity and encourage and enforce [the] Taliban brand of Islam’ is a mere pretext to harass Muslims by accusing them of being PFI members.

“The NIA has let off the real Hindu-supremacist terrorists who engineered several terror blasts. Saffron clad (right-wing Hindu) men and women are openly calling for violence against Muslims,” Krishnan said.

“But they are not being investigated or charged by the NIA for trying ‘to communalize the nation’s polity.’ The actions against the PFI appear to have their root in an anti-Muslim (communal) bias.”

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Anti-Taliban Wave Gaining Momentum in Pakistan Province Bordering Afghanistan 

An anti-Taliban wave is gaining momentum in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan, where many fear the Pakistani Taliban will make a comeback. Residents have questioned Pakistan army-sponsored talks with the militants, saying they put the decade-long peace in the region at stake. Fayaz Zafar reports from Swat Valley, Pakistan, in this report narrated by Fawad Lameh.

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Indian Proposal Threatens Nepal’s $61 Million Tea Industry

Nepali tea producers are increasingly worried about a proposal in India’s parliament that could make it much harder for them to sell tea to their giant southern neighbor and most important customer.

The proposal, contained in a June 2022 recommendation from India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce, calls for much stricter standards on the certificates of origin required for all Nepali tea imported into India.

Nepali tea exporters say they already face exacting requirements for entry to the Indian market, even when their products have met certification standards maintained by Japan, the United States and the international Certification of Environmental Standards organization.

“There have been constant policy changes that we have to comply [with], which makes it difficult to export tea to India,” said Shanta Banskota Koirala, co-owner and managing director of the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center.

“Usually there is also a lot of hassle on borders, things such as asking for more documents than what was initially required, and even if provided the required documents, the work doesn’t get done on time,” Koirala told VOA.

The stakes are high for Nepal, which sells about 90% of its high-grade orthodox tea – loose-leaf tea produced by traditional methods — and about 50% of its lower-grade crush, tear and curl tea – tea whose leaves have been crushed torn and curled into pellets — to India. The industry employs almost 200,000 people in Nepal and contributes more than $40 million a year to its economy.

The orthodox tea, grown at higher altitudes in the Himalayan nation, is especially prized around the world, with its taste and quality attributed to the region’s climatic conditions, soil, the type of bushes planted and even the quality of the air.

But critics in India accuse the Nepalese exporters of mixing their product with similar-tasting tea from the neighboring Indian region of Darjeeling, which sells in India for a much higher price. The recommendation from the parliamentary committee calls for much stricter measures to ensure that all tea sold from Nepal was indeed grown in Nepal.

For the Nepalese growers, the threat of new bureaucratic hurdles is compounded by indignation over the suggestion that their tea is of lower quality than the Darjeeling variety.

“The comments from the committee on the quality of the tea has hurt the traders and farmers in Nepal,” said Bishnu Prasad Bhattarai, executive director of the National Tea and Coffee Development Board Nepal.

“We have raised our concern with the counterpart Indian government officials. We are hopeful that the trade between the two countries will go on smoothly as the two countries share good relation with each other on many fronts including trade,” Bhattarai added.

Suresh Mittal, president of the Nepal Tea Producers Association, also rejected the parliamentary committee’s complaints, pointing out that the quality of all the tea sold into India is certified by India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority.

“Without this proof of origin, we cannot sell even a single leaf abroad. We are exporting tea that has been grown and processed here in Nepal,” Mittal insisted.

Mittal said discussions on the proposal are continuing between the two countries, and that, so far, the trade in tea is proceeding smoothly.

“However, sooner or later it can be a problem for the Nepalese tea industry and will have an adverse effect to over 70% of tea industry of Nepal. We have to start looking for alternate markets,” he said.

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Taliban Declares Use of Afghan Soil Against Pakistan or Others as Seditious

The Taliban say they will arrest and try for “treason” anyone using Afghanistan’s soil against Pakistan or other countries, as skepticism grows over the Islamist group’s counterterrorism assurances to the world at large.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the warning in a VOA interview, amid a recent spike in cross-border terrorist attacks that have killed dozens of Pakistani security personnel.

The latest attack took place on Friday when “terrorists from inside Afghanistan” opened fire on Pakistani troops, killing one soldier, according to a Pakistani military statement.

Officials in Islamabad believe that since seizing power in Kabul a year ago, the Taliban have turned a blind eye to activities of their Pakistani offshoot, the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — also known as the Pakistani Taliban — operating out of Afghan sanctuaries.

The Taliban reject the allegation and have hosted talks between Pakistani and TTP negotiators in recent months to try to broker a peace deal between the adversaries. But the effort has not eased the terrorism threat originating in Afghanistan and the peace process seemingly has fallen apart.

‘Treason’

“Whoever is present here, they aren’t allowed to carry out any such activities because they have assured us, they would not threaten another country,” Mujahid told VOA in his Kabul office earlier this month when asked for a response to allegations TTP insurgents enjoy greater operational freedom and mobility since the Taliban returned to power.

The spokesman argued the Taliban’s return following the withdrawal of the United States and allied troops has brought an end to the two-decade war and peace to much of Afghanistan. But Mujahid acknowledged that border security remains a challenge for Taliban forces.

“Afghanistan and Pakistan are separated by a long (boundary) line running through mountains and treacherous territory. There are even sections where our forces have not yet established a foothold or need air support to secure them,” he said.

“It is quite possible some people might be taking advantage of this situation. And if so, these people are committing treason against Afghanistan first. They must be hunted, arrested and punished,” Mujahid stressed.

“We are seriously committed to this issue and assure Pakistan that our soil will not be used against them. They (Pakistan) should also need to make sure their territory is not used to harm us,” he said.

The border between the two countries is more than 2,600 kilometers long. Kabul disputes the demarcation with Pakistan drawn up by 19th-century British colonial rulers and called the Durand Line.

Islamabad rejects the objection, saying it inherited the international border after Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.

Pakistani officials, however, downplay concerns that the TTP factor threatens to disrupt ties between the two countries, describing the relationship as “positive and thriving” despite frustrations over counterterrorism cooperation.

Pakistan notes that the Taliban have only recently returned to power after two decades and face serious governance as well as financial challenges, saying they need time and political space to address counterterrorism and issues related to human rights of Afghans, especially women.

Engaging Taliban

Funding for Afghanistan has dried up because no country has recognized the Islamist group as the legitimate rulers of the country, citing its restrictions on women’s rights to education and work, among other human rights issues.

“The answer has to be engagement,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told an event organized by Washington’s Wilson Center on Wednesday, when asked for his response to the resurgent TTP threat originating in Taliban-governed Afghanistan.

“We have to build their (the Taliban’s) capacity to take on these terrorist groups before we can give a definitive verdict on whether they have demonstrated the will to do so,” Zardari said.

Pakistan has maintained closed ties with the Islamist Taliban since they first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

While U.S. and former Afghan government leaders accused the Pakistani military of covertly supporting Taliban insurgents in the years that followed, the Pakistani Taliban — designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and United Nations — provided recruits and safe havens on Pakistani soil for the insurgency.

The new rulers in Kabul now appear to be returning the favor by refusing to crack down on TTP leaders, as Pakistan has requested. Instead, they have urged both Islamabad and TTP to revert to talks to find a resolution.

Common ideology

Critics remain skeptical that the Taliban would use force against their Pakistani offshoot, noting they share a common ideology, with the TTP leadership renewing its allegiance to Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada after his group took over Kabul last year.

The revelation that deceased al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri had been staying in a safe house in the heart of Kabul also has fueled fears the Taliban are reluctant to cut ties with terrorist groups that supported their insurgent operations over the years. Al-Zawahiri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July.

Trade links

Despite prevailing skepticism, Pakistan says it has taken a series of measures in recent months to boost economic cooperation with Afghanistan and will continue to do so. The policy has tilted the balance of trade in favor of the crisis-ridden country for the first time in the history of bilateral ties.

The change is attributed mainly to increased purchases of Afghan coal in the wake of rising global prices in a bid to reduce Pakistan’s dependence on expensive supplies from South Africa.

Traders say about 10,000 metric tons of coal is being exported daily to Pakistan, helping the Taliban generate much needed revenue to govern the country.

A high-level Pakistani delegation is expected to visit Afghanistan next month to discuss whether daily coal imports could be raised to around 30,000 metric tons to meet Pakistan’s estimated monthly needs of at least 1 million metric tons.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid echoed Pakistani assertions that sustained Afghan peace and economic stability can help counter “spoilers” threatening peace in both countries.

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Uzbekistan Says Won’t Deport Russians Fleeing Conscription

Uzbekistan has no plans to deport Russians who are fleeing en masse to Central Asia to evade conscription amid Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine, the Tashkent government said on Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of men, some with families, have left Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization last week; many headed to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian former Soviet republics.

Some draft dodgers, however, remain concerned about their safety in those countries since their governments have close ties with Moscow.

Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement it remained committed to principles such as respecting other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and supported a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.

“…Foreign citizens who have not broken the law are not subject to forced deportation,” it said.

Uzbekistan has not said how many Russians have arrived in the country since the mobilization announcement. Neighboring Kazakhstan has said it saw about 100,000 arrivals.

Uzbek officials this week reprimanded a Russian ballet dancer for performing to a song in Tashkent that could be seen as supporting Russia’s war effort.

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Suicide Blast at Kabul School Kills 19

A powerful suicide bomb explosion ripped through a packed classroom in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, early Friday, killing at least 19 students and injuring 27 others.

Witnesses and police officials said the bombing occurred inside the Kaaj Education Center in the western Dash-e-Barchi area of the city, a predominantly Hazara Shiite neighborhood.

Female students were among the victims.

Khalid Zadran, a Kabul police spokesperson, confirmed the casualties to VOA and denounced the violence. He said that Taliban security forces had reached the area and an investigation is under way.

“Students were preparing for an entry exam when a suicide bomber struck the educational center. Unfortunately, 19 people have been martyred and 27 others wounded,” Zadran said.

No one immediately took responsibility for the bombing.

Social media videos and photos showed bloodied victims being carried away from the scene to nearby hospitals.

The local offshoot of the self-proclaimed, Sunni-based, Islamic State group, known as Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has previously claimed credit for plotting such attacks in the area and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

ISIS-K has intensified its extremist activities in the country since the Taliban seized power in August of last year, when all U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war.

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India’s Top Court Legalizes Abortion Regardless of Marital Status

India’s top court on Thursday upheld the right of a woman to an abortion up to 24 weeks into pregnancy regardless of marital status, a decision widely hailed by women’s rights activists. 

The right to abortion has proved contentious globally after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in June its landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that had legalized the procedure across the United States. 

“Even an unmarried woman can undergo abortion up to 24 weeks on par with married women,” said Justice D.Y. Chandrachud of India’s Supreme Court, holding that a woman’s marital status could not decide her right to abort. 

A law dating from 1971, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, had limited the procedure to married women, divorcees, widows, minors, “disabled and mentally ill women” and survivors of sexual assault or rape. 

“The decision to have or not to have an abortion is borne out of complicated life circumstances, which only the woman can choose on her own terms without external interference or influence,” the court ruling said. 

It added that every woman should have the “reproductive autonomy” to seek abortion, without consulting a third party. 

Thursday’s decision came in response to a petition by a woman who said her pregnancy resulted from a consensual relationship, but she had sought abortion when the relationship failed. 

The ruling is a milestone for the rights of Indian women, activists said. 

“It is a first step, it is a progressive step,” said Yogita Bhayana, founder of PARI, or People Against Rapes in India.  

The court added that sexual assault by husbands can be classified as marital rape under the MTP law. Indian law does not consider marital rape an offense, though efforts are being made to change this. 

“In an era that includes Dobbs vs. Jackson, and makes distinctions between the marital status of women who are raped, this excellent judgment on abortion under the MTP Act hits it out of the park,” Karuna Nundy, an advocate specializing in gender law and other areas, said on Twitter. 

She was referring to the case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court judgment in June. 

 

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Taliban Disrupt Afghan Women’s Rally Supporting Iran Protests

A group of women in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, Thursday staged what was the first demonstration in support of protests in Iran before being forcefully dispersed by Taliban authorities.

The rally comes as nationwide protests continued in the neighboring country over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, while in detention by morality police in Tehran for failing to properly cover her hair with a hijab.

Witnesses in Kabul said that about 30 female activists in headscarves gathered outside the Iranian embassy chanting, “Women, life, freedom” — slogans used during Iranian protests. They also held banners that read, “Iran has risen. Now it’s our turn!” and “From Kabul to Iran say no to dictatorship!”

Taliban security forces snatched and tore the banners before firing in the air to disperse the rally. Organizers later said the demonstration was held to show “support and solidarity” with the Iranian people and the women in Afghanistan.

“We are sure that one day, our people will rise in the same way as the Iranian people,” said a protester who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since returning to power a year ago, the Islamist Taliban have instructed women to cover their faces in public and told many female public sector employees to stay home. The group’s vice and virtue ministry also requires women not to undertake long road trips unless accompanied by a close male relative.

The Taliban have barred teenage girls in Afghanistan from attending secondary school education beyond grade six.

The restrictions have outraged activists and students and have triggered relentless international calls for the Taliban to ease them if they want their government to be formally recognized.

The Islamist rulers maintain the restrictions are in line with Afghan culture and Islamic principles.

The protests in Iran have spread to at least 80 cities and towns. Security police have used tear gas, clubs and, in some cases, live ammunition to quell the protests calling for the end to the Islamic establishment’s more than four decades in power.

Iranian state media said 41 people, including members of the police and a pro-government militia, have been killed during the protests, although Iranian human rights groups have reported a higher toll.

Amini, 22, was arrested September 13 and died three days later in a hospital after falling into a coma. Her family filed a complaint this week against the Iranian police officers who arrested her, calling for a full investigation.

The Iranian police have denied responsibility for Amini’s death.

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

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Challenges and Hope as India Makes Home for African Cheetahs

Eight cheetahs have been brought from Africa to India this month to conserve a species that became extinct in the South Asian country seven decades ago. While the project is hugely challenging, conservationists say the benefits go beyond conserving the world’s fastest land animal – if successful, it could help save neglected ecosystems such as grasslands. Anjana Pasricha report from New Delhi

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Azerbaijani Activists Express Solidarity with Iranian Protesters

A group of women’s rights activists in Azerbaijan staged a protest Tuesday in central Baku to express solidarity with demonstrators in Iran angered by the death of a young woman held by authorities for improperly wear a head scarf.

The activists, gathered in front of the “Free Woman” statue in Baku, burned the effigy of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei’s black turban.

“This turban symbolizes the turban of Khamenei, the dictator, and oppression,” activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva told VOA. “By burning it at the feet of the ‘Free Woman’ statue, we want to show that oppression will be undone at the feet of women.”  The statue was erected in Soviet-era Azerbaijan to symbolize the liberation of Azerbaijani women from hijab.

The protests that have spread to various cities in Iran and Azerbaijan followed the death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini after being detained by the Iranian morality police.

This week Canada joined the United States in announcing new sanctions against those blamed in Amini’s death. Iran’s president has announced a probe into her death. The government’s crackdowns on the protests that followed have drawn broad condemnation.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told the Reuters news agency this week that Washington and European countries were to blame for supporting the “rioters” and ignoring those who still support the system.

“Washington is always trying to weaken Iran’s stability and security although it has been unsuccessful.”

Activists in Baku say the hijab protests that have spread throughout Iran have been watched closely in Azerbaijan partly because many protesters have been detained in regions of Iran with predominantly Azerbaijani populations, including cities such as Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil and Zanjan.

“There are people who died in Zanjan. Among the killed is a women named Aysan Madanpasand in Tabriz,” Iranian Azerbaijani human rights activist Jala Tabrizli told VOA.

In the videos of protests organized in these cities, demonstrators can be heard chanting slogans such as “freedom, justice” and “men and women, hand in hand, will crush the head of the oppression.”

Solidarity with protesters in Iran

Armenia is predominantly Muslim with the second largest Shia population in the world, after Iran. But unlike Iran, Armenia’s constitution calls for the separation of religion and state and protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs.

Speaking with VOA, Mehdiyeva said local activists feel solidarity with the struggle of Iranian women against oppression.

“You may ask ‘what is the purpose of this protest, if hijab is not compulsory in Azerbaijan?’ As Azerbaijani women, our bodies are constantly interfered with, our clothes are interfered with, and our looks are interfered with. Society tries to dictate to us how we should dress, how we should look, where we should go. Therefore, we are united with our Iranian sisters and their struggle,” she said.

Activist Narmin Shahmarzade, who also participated in the protest, says that they are sending a message to all dictators that they cannot make decisions for women. “Women should be independent when it comes to their bodies, whether or not to wear hijab and other such choices.”

An activist and member of the opposition Musavat Party, Nigar Hezi, told VOA that the mandatory hijab-wearing in Iran for more than 30 years has reached an unbearable level and the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police for violating hijab rules was the final straw.

“Women are challenging the mullah regime by going out onto the streets, and burning their head coverings and cutting their hair,” she said.

Hezi argues that happy communities start with happy women.

“Experience shows that nothing changes in kleptocratic societies unless women are on the streets,” she told VOA. “The more women are oppressed, the more oppressed the society is. Especially in societies like ours, women’s struggle is more important.”

Hezi says that although it’s hard to predict the outcome of the protests, “it’s great that women are fighting back in a show of unity.”

Power of women-led protests

Women’s rights defender Simin Sabri says that what makes these protests different from others is that they are led by women.

“In a movement where women are at the forefront, men get energy and strength and think “my woman is on the street fighting against her struggles, I can’t leave her alone” and they join them,” she told VOA.

Iranian-Azerbaijani human rights defender Jala Tabrizli says that women are leading the current protests with the experience they have gained from their 43-year-old struggle under the oppression of the Islamic Republic.

“They have been fighting for these rights for 43 years. They have done this continuously. They have learned. They have gained experience. They could always return the women to their homes. But today, they can’t get them from the streets,” she told VOA.

Tabrizli says that the women’s voices that had been considered “haram” [forbidden] for years are now being heard all over the country.

“Today women’s voices have covered all of Iran. The voice that is forbidden. The Islamic Republic declared women’s voice as haram. But now that voice can be heard in the streets,” she said.

The protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini after being detained by the Iranian morality police have spread to various cities across the country.

This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.

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Pakistan’s Progressive Transgender Law Faces Opposition 4 Years Later

Pakistan is considering amending a landmark transgender rights bill passed in 2018 that some legislators and clerics argue contradicts Islamic teachings on gender identity.

Rights activists, however, say the law is being misunderstood and the “misinformed” debate against it is further endangering the transgender community.

Hailed as among the more progressive laws on transgender rights globally by the International Commission of Jurists, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act gave transgender people in Pakistan the right to choose their gender identity as they perceived it themselves and to change it on previously issued government documents.

Opponents of the law claim the provision to choose or change one’s gender is un-Islamic and could open the door to same-sex marriage, currently prohibited in Pakistan.

In the last two weeks, at least four trans women have been killed. Some trans-rights activists blame lumping “transgender” together with “homosexuality” for the renewed targeting of their community. Homosexuality is a punishable offense in Pakistan.

Hashtags such as “amend trans act” and “take back the vulgar bill” were recently trending on Twitter.

Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of the conservative political party Jamat-e-Islami, is leading the charge against the 2018 law. He told VOA that allowing citizens to choose self-perceived gender identity presents a “danger to the family and inheritance systems,” as it will “open the door for 220 million people to choose to be anything.”

Pakistan uses the Islamic system of inheritance, which divides assets among descendants based on their gender. Men get twice as much as women. The act stipulated that a person identifying as a trans man would also get twice as much as a trans woman.

2018 law

Pakistan’s 2018 law defines transgender as anyone with a mixture of male and female genital features or ambiguous genitalia, a person assigned male at birth but who has undergone castration, or any person whose gender identity or expression differ from their assigned sex at birth.

Khan told VOA he does not believe “fully male” or “fully female” persons should be given the right to choose their gender if their gender perception does not match their physical or sexual anatomy. Instead, “they should seek psychological help,” he said.

He said the law should only encompass those who cannot be categorized as male or female at birth based on their sexual or reproductive anatomy.

His proposed amendments to the 2018 law include establishing medical boards that conduct detailed exams and then advise what gender a person should be.

Transgender rights activists oppose examination by a medical board to determine sexual and gender identity. Speaking to VOA, activist Zanaya Chaudhry asked that since a medical exam is not required to determine a man or a woman’s gender identity, “why is this discriminatory act being forced upon transgender people?”

According to Chaudhry, the purpose of the 2018 legislation was only to protect the rights of transgender people, whom she said, “were finally being accepted as human beings.”

Harassment, death threats

Abandoned by families and relegated to mostly begging, dancing or sex work due to social stigma, transgender people in Pakistan routinely suffer harassment and many face death threats and fatal attacks.

According to data collected by the International Commission of Jurists and its partner organizations, at least 20 transgender people were killed in Pakistan in 2021.

Only a decade ago, in 2012, the country’s top court ruled that transgender people have the same rights as all other citizens and ordered that a “third gender” category be added to national identity cards.

That ruling paved the way for the 2018 legislation, which expressly prohibited discrimination against transgender people in educational institutions, workplaces and health care, and it guaranteed them a share in inheritance.

Human rights activist and lawyer Hina Jilani rejects the notion the 2018 law is against Islam. She told VOA it’s perplexing that “a law that gave identity to a marginalized community and was passed by the parliament is being objected to now.”

Some transgender rights activists, however, are also dissatisfied with the language of the 2018 law.

Speaking to VOA, transgender rights activist Almas Bobby lamented that the trans community is still heavily stigmatized and unable to avail basic rights. Bobby contended the number of “real” transgender people in Pakistan is quite small and that this law protects those “who want to change their sex only because of a personal preference.”

Like Khan, Bobby also believes that only those with ambiguous genitalia should be called transgender.

New proposals

This week, Fawzia Arshad, a senator from one of the most popular political parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), also introduced a new bill to replace the 2018 legislation.

The proposals by senators Khan and Arshad focus on only protecting those with genital ambiguities and removing the clauses that allow a transgender person to choose their gender identity as they perceive it and spell their share in family inheritance.

The Senate chairman has forwarded the matter to the relevant standing committee for review.

The country’s religious court, known as Federal Shariat Court, is also reviewing arguments in favor of and against the 2018 law.

Earlier, the Council on Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that reviews Pakistan’s laws in the light of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, also declared the 2018 law un-Islamic for allowing one to choose self-perceived gender and gender reassignment.

While Pakistan’s law minister, Azam Nazir Tarar, has rejected the criticism of the law being un-Islamic as “baseless propaganda,” he has welcomed Khan’s proposed amendments, telling a press conference the word of the religious court will now be final.

In 2018, the transgender rights legislation passed with the support of all major political parties, although it was rejected by religious parties, including Khan’s Jamat-e-Islami.

In 2021, when Khan first raised the issue to amend the law, Shireen Mazari, then the human rights minister from the ruling party PTI, opposed the move.

Why is the issue now gaining traction? Khan said his consistent work on this matter is finally paying off.  

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