First Death Reported in Tonga Volcano Blast as Nation Remains Cut Off

The first death from a massive underwater volcanic blast near the Pacific island nation of Tonga has been confirmed, as the extent of the damage remained unknown Monday. 

Tonga remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world, after the eruption crippled communications and stalled emergency relief efforts. 

It is two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded, cloaking Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami and releasing shock waves that wrapped around the entire Earth. 

But with phone lines still down and an undersea internet cable cut — and not expected to be repaired for weeks — the true toll of the dual eruption-tsunami disaster is not yet known. 

The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami. She was identified as Angela Glover, 50, who lived in the Tonga capital with her husband, James, Glover’s brother Nick Eleini told British media.

Two women also drowned Saturday in northern Peru in big waves recorded after the volcanic blast, authorities there said. 

Only fragments of information have filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, home to just over 100,000 people. 

In one of the few communications with the outside world, two stranded Mexican marine biologists made a plea for help from their government, using a satellite phone provided by the British Embassy to call their family. 

“They said they were sheltering in a hotel near the airport, and they asked us for help to leave the island,” Amelia Nava, the sister of 34-year-old Leslie Nava, told AFP in Mexico. 

Tonga’s worried neighbors are still scrambling to grasp the scale of the damage, which New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said was believed to be “significant.” 

Both Wellington and Canberra scrambled reconnaissance planes Monday in an attempt to get a sense of the damage from the air. 

And both have put C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land if runways are deemed operational and ash clouds allow. 

There are initial reports that areas of Tonga’s west coast may have been badly hit. 

Australia’s international development minister Zed Seselja said a small contingent of Australian police stationed in Tonga had delivered a “pretty concerning” initial evaluation. 

They were “able to do an assessment of some of the Western beaches area, and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said. 

“One of the good pieces of news is that I understand the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added.

“That will be very, very important as the ash cloud clears and we are able to have flights coming into Tonga for humanitarian purposes.” 

Major aid agencies, who would usually rush in to provide emergency humanitarian relief, said they were stuck in a holding pattern, unable to contact local staff. 

“From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense, especially for outlying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation. 

Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be complicated by COVID-19 entry restrictions. Tonga only recently reported its first-ever coronavirus case. 

France, which has territories in the South Pacific, pledged to help the people of Tonga. 

“France is willing to respond to the population’s most urgent needs,” the Foreign Ministry said. This assistance would be provided through a humanitarian aid mechanism with Australia and New Zealand that is known as FRANZ, the ministry added.

What is known is that Saturday’s volcanic blast was one the largest recorded in decades, erupting 30 kilometers into the air and depositing ash, gas and acid rain across a swath of the Pacific. 

The eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States. 

The Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, was estimated to be cloaked in 1-2 centimeters of ash, potentially poisoning water supplies and causing breathing difficulties.

“We know water is an immediate need,” Ardern told reporters. 

After speaking to the New Zealand Embassy in Tonga, she described how boats and “large boulders” washed ashore. 

Wellington’s defense minister said he understood the island nation had managed to restore power in “large parts” of the city. 

But communications were still cut. The eruption severed an undersea communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take weeks to repair. 

“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Southern Cross Cable Network’s networks director Dean Veverka told Agence France-Presse. 

“It could take up to two weeks to get it repaired. The nearest cable-laying vessel is in Port Moresby,” he added, referring to the Papua New Guinea capital more than 4,000 kilometers from Tonga. 

Tonga was isolated for two weeks in 2019 when a ship’s anchor cut the cable. A small, locally operated satellite service was set up to allow minimal contact with the outside world until the cable could be repaired. 

 

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Right-Wing Hindu Posters Banning Non-Hindus From Ganges Ghats Draw Outrage

Rights activists in India are outraged after members of two right-wing Hindu groups put up posters around the ghats of the Ganges River in Varanasi, asking “non-Hindus” to stay away from the bank of the river in the north Indian city.

With the posters, members of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Council and its youth wing Bajrang Dal (BD) tried to whip up anti-minority passion and polarize the society on a communal line, activists said.

VHP leaders said that some activists from the organization put up the posters without knowledge of the group’s leaders. “We have suspended from our organization two activists who were involved in the Varanasi ghat case,” the national spokesperson of VHP, Vinod Bansal, told VOA.

Hindus view the Ganges as a holy river, and every year, millions of Hindu pilgrims from India and other countries visit the ghats of the Ganges and the nearby temples of Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The centuries-old ghats – steps leading down to the river — are also very popular among foreign tourists who are largely Christian and Buddhist.

‘This is a warning, not a request’

The posters that the VHP and BD activists put up around the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi on January 6 and 7 had “Entry Prohibited for Non-Hindus” written on top.

“The ghats and temples along the bank of Mother Ganga are symbols of the Sanatan Dharma [Hindu religion], Indian culture and faith. Those who follow the Sanatan Dharma are welcome here. Others should note, it’s not a picnic spot,” read one of the posters in Hindi. “This is a warning, not a request,” a highlighted line of the poster read.

Local leaders of the VHP and BD appeared in separate videos warning non-Hindus to stay away. Both were arrested and released on personal bonds.

VHP spokesperson Bansal said the posters reflect feelings of the Hindu activists who are angry with what he called the “anti-Hindu activities of the jihadis.”

“However, the activists in Varanasi did this without taking consent from the central authority of our organization. We disapprove of their posters…This is not the policy of VHP to boycott any religious community or stop it from entering any public place,” Bansal said.

Varanasi is the parliamentary constituency of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), happens to be the ruling party of Uttar Pradesh, where crucial state elections will be held in seven phases between February 10 and March 7.

‘Strategy to humiliate India’s minorities’

The right-wing Hindu activists, whose ideology is known as Hindutva, released the posters in Varanasi with a plan to polarize the society along communal lines and help the BJP win more votes in the upcoming state elections, Dhananjay Tripathi, a local school teacher and social activist told VOA.

“Varanasi has a history of all religious communities living together peacefully for generations. With the posters the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists threaten to destroy the legacy of the city’s communal harmony,” Tripathi said.

Many are of the view that since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Muslim and Christian minorities have found themselves marginalized, attacked by right-wing Hindu groups and subjected to many discriminatory practices as his party pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda.

“The posters at the Ghats of Varanasi manifest the continuation of their strategy to humiliate India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, by openly infringing upon their fundamental human rights,” Professor Ashok Swain, head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told VOA.

“The overall strategy of Hindutva forces is to reduce India’s minorities as second-class citizens of the country in all spheres of life,” he said.

Hindus make up an estimated three-fourths of India’s 1.4 billion people.

Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said that the Hindu right-wing activists operate as foot soldiers of the BJP.

“In recent years, the spike in cases like those of forcing Muslims to chant Hindu slogans, beating up Muslims on trumped-up charges, lynching them, framing them in false ‘love jihad’ cases shows that the perpetrators, who are the Hindutva groups, enjoy impunity,” Khan told VOA.

“Love jihad” is a controversial term used by Hindu nationalists who say that Muslim men marry non-Muslim women to spread Islam.

Professor Apoorvanand, who teaches at Delhi University and uses one name, agrees that impunity helps Hindutva groups in their campaign to marginalize the non-Hindu minorities.

“The ideology of Hindutva claims that Hindus have the first claim over all the natural and cultural resources of India. For the last decade or so, non-Hindus, mostly Muslims, are being pushed out of economic activities and common public spaces and they find it increasingly difficult to buy houses or land in Hindu-dominated areas. The idea is to create a segregated India making its large parts free of Muslims,” Apoorvanand told VOA.

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Hindu Monk Jailed After Calling for ‘Genocide’ of Muslims

Indian authorities have charged a Hindu monk with inciting religious violence after he called for the “genocide” of India’s Muslims at a meeting of right-wing supporters, police said Monday.

Senior police officer Swatantra Kumar said Yati Narsinghanand Giri, an outspoken supporter of far-right nationalists who also heads a Hindu monastery, was initially arrested on Saturday on allegations that he made derogatory remarks against women. He appeared the following day in a court in the town of Haridwar, where he was sent into 14 days of custody for hate speech against Muslims and calling for violence against them.

Kumar said the monk Giri, whom he described as a “repeat offender,” was formally charged Monday for promoting “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.” The charge can carry a jail term of five years.

In December, Giri and other religious leaders called on Hindus to arm themselves for “a genocide” against Muslims during a meeting in Haridwar, a northern holy town in Uttarakhand, according to a police complaint. He is the second person to be arrested in the case after India’s Supreme Court intervened  last week.

Uttarakhand state is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata. The political party’s rise to power in 2014, and landslide reelection in 2019, has led to a spike in attacks against Muslims and other minorities.

Muslims comprise nearly 14% of India’s 1.4 billion people, a largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character.

The three-day conference that the monk Giri helped to organized was called the “Dharam Sansad” or “Religious Parliament” and followed on years of rising anti-Muslim hate speech. The closed-door meetings witnessed some of the most explicit calls for violence yet.  

Videos from the conference showed multiple Hindu monks, some of whom have close ties to Modi’s ruling party, saying Hindus should kill Muslims.

“If 100 of us are ready to kill two million of them, then we will win and make India a Hindu nation,” said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a Hindu nationalist leader, referring to the country’s Muslim population. Her calls for such a massacre were met with applause from the audience.

Pandey is being investigated by police for insulting religious beliefs.

During the congregation, Hindu monks and other supporters, including Giri, took an oath calling for the killing of those who were perceived to be enemies of the Hindu religion.

The calls for violence were met with public outrage and drew sharp criticism from former military chiefs, retired judges, and rights activists. Many questioned the Modi government’s silence, warning hate speech against Muslims will only grow as several Indian states, including Uttarakhand, head to the polls in February.

Last week, students and faculty at the Indian Institute of Management — one of India’s most prestigious business schools — submitted a letter to Modi in which they wrote his silence “emboldens” hate and “threatens the unity and integrity of our country.”

Modi’s ruling party has faced fierce criticism over rising attacks against Muslims in recent years.

Opposition leaders and rights groups have accused it of encouraging violence by hardline Hindu nationalists against Muslims and other minorities. The party denies the allegation.

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UN Experts: Taliban Steadily Erasing Afghan Women from Public Life

A group of United Nations human rights experts Monday alleged Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban government was attempting to steadily erase women and girls from public life. 

 

Taliban leaders “are institutionalizing large scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence” against women, the experts said in a statement issued by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

 

The experts reiterated their alarm at a series of restrictive measures, particularly those concerning women and girls, that the Taliban have introduced since seizing power last August. “Taken together, these policies constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded on gender-based bias and harmful practices,” the experts said. 

The Taliban have barred most Afghan women from returning to their jobs, ordered taxi drivers to offer rides only to those female passengers wearing hijabs, required a male relative to accompany women traveling further than 72 kilometers, and imposed a strict dress code on women and girls.

 

“In addition to severely limiting their freedom of movement, expression and association, and their participation in public and political affairs, these policies have also affected the ability of women to work and to make a living, pushing them further into poverty,” the experts said.

 

The majority of girls’ secondary schools remain closed across Afghanistan. 

Taliban leaders have said they hope to be able to allow all girls to go back to school following the Afghan new year, which starts in early March. They say challenges such as paying salaries to teachers and ensuring a safe environment for female students in line with Islamic teachings are causing the delay. 

“We respect women’s rights but require them to observe hijab,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban permanent representative-designate to the U.N., told VOA. 

Critics continue to question the integrity of Taliban pledges concerning girls and schools. 

“We are also deeply troubled by the harsh manner with which the de facto authorities have responded to Afghan women and girls claiming their fundamental rights, with reports of peaceful protesters having been often beaten, ill-treated, threatened, and in confirmed instances detained arbitrarily,” the experts said. 

 

Women have routinely taken to the streets in Kabul and other cities to protest Taliban rollbacks of their rights. Taliban forces at times have used violence to disperse these protests and banned unsanctioned demonstrations. 

 

On Sunday, Taliban police fired pepper spray at a group of about 20 women who protested in the Afghan capital, decrying restrictions on their rights, including the mandatory hijab, participants alleged. During the rally, protesters set fire to a burqa or veil the Taliban’s ministry for Islamic guidance has mandated for women. 

 

The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice responded by warning that the Islamic holy book, the Quran, has ordered Muslim women to wear the hijab. 

 

“Opposing hijab is in fact opposing the Quranic commandment and the Prophet’s teachings. We request our Muslim sisters to not be influenced by foreigners and to not encourage the opposition of hijab,” the ministry asserted in a tweeted statement, referring to the Prophet Muhammad. 

 

Critics such as Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch questioned the Taliban assertions. 

 

“The obsession with how women dress has often been the least of their concerns, but it is indicative of the Taliban’s desire to dictate and restrict every aspect of women’s lives,” Barr told VOA.

“The Taliban seem to believe they are the only people on the planet who fully understand and respect Islam,” she said.

 

The fundamentalist group’s oppression of women during their previous hold on power in Afghanistan in the 1990s is one of the main reasons the global community has refused to recognize the new government in Kabul and blocked its access to Afghan foreign cash reserves, largely held in the United States.

 

The financial restrictions and continued sanctions on Taliban leaders have led to the collapse of the Afghan economy and worsened humanitarian upheavals in the conflict-torn country. 

 

The U.N. experts called on the global community to step up urgently needed humanitarian aid for Afghans. They stressed the need to pressure Taliban authorities to ensure that restrictions on the fundamental rights of women and girls are removed immediately.

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Texas Hostage-Taking Draws Attention to Pakistani Woman Imprisoned in US

Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated-Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence in the United States for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is the person whose release was sought by the hostage-taker at a Texas synagogue on Saturday.

U.S. authorities said the hours-long standoff ended with all captives safe and the man holding them dead.

Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist, is being held at a federal prison in Texas.

Marwa Elbially, her attorney, issued a statement condemning the hostage-taking.

“Whoever the assailant is, we want him to know that his actions are condemned by Dr. Siddiqui and her family,” Elbially told CNN.

Siddiqui’s case continues to draw attention ever since she was arrested in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni in 2008 under suspicion of being in possession of notes on how to make “dirty bombs” and plans to attack U.S. cities. Her family and lawyers have denied the charges.

Siddiqui was immediately flown to the U.S., where two years later a federal court found the 49-year-old mother of three guilty of attempted murder and assault of U.S. officials during interrogation in Ghazni.

The neuroscientist studied at two prestigious U.S. institutions — Brandeis University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — between 1991 and 2002 before moving back to Pakistan.

The Pakistan-born Siddiqui disappeared from her native Karachi a year later and her whereabouts was not known until she surfaced in neighboring Afghanistan and detained.

Analysts say most Americans are unaware of Siddiqui’s case, but militant groups have been seeking her release and using the case to gain more recruits.

In 2014, Islamic State sent an email to the family of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria, offering to release him in exchange for Siddiqui. Foley was later beheaded.

“Siddiqui isn’t well known in the U.S., but in Pakistan she’s a big name — many view her as an innocent victim. Also, at one point, ISIS had demanded that she be released in exchange for ISIS captives,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at Washington’s Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter in response to Saturday’s hostage-taking.

The 2010 conviction of Siddiqui sparked outrage in Pakistan, where thousands took to the streets to denounce the U.S.

The Pakistani Senate unanimously passed a resolution in 2018, dubbing Siddiqui as “Daughter of the Nation” and urged the government to take “concrete steps” for her repatriation.

Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested in media interviews after meeting at the White House in 2019 with then-U.S. President Donald Trump that his government could consider the possibility of releasing Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi in exchange for Siddiqui.

In 2018, a Pakistani court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison for organizing a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA locate and kill al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Afridi’s appeal against the verdict is still pending.

In July 2021, Siddiqui suffered serious injuries after an inmate attacked her.

The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad immediately took up the matter with U.S. authorities through its embassy in Washington.

“We lodged a formal complaint with the relevant U.S. authorities to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure the safety and well-being of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” the ministry said at the time.

The attack prompted protests by human rights activists and religious groups in the U.S., calling for improved prison conditions and Siddiqui’s repatriation to Pakistan. 

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Third Blow for Millions in India’s Vast Informal Sector as Cities Impose Curbs

On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile.

“We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said.

“Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.”

This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.

 

While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern — their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements.

In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter.

“We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said.

Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave.

Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.

 

The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted.

“Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug.

Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs.

At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave.

“We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed.

On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts.

Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.

 

“Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said.

Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress.

“There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor.

“Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.”

That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit.

“They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.”

Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.”

Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.

 

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Afghan Tradition Allows Girls to Access the Freedom of Boys

In a Kabul neighborhood, a gaggle of boys kick a yellow ball around a dusty playground, their boisterous cries echoing off the surrounding apartment buildings.

Dressed in sweaters and jeans or the traditional Afghan male clothing of baggy pants and long shirt, none stand out as they jostle to score a goal. But unbeknown to them, one is different from the others.

At not quite 8 years old, Sanam is a bacha posh: a girl living as a boy. One day a few months ago, the girl with rosy cheeks and an impish smile had her dark hair cut short, donned boys’ clothes and took on a boy’s name, Omid. The move opened up a boy’s world: playing soccer and cricket with boys, wrestling with the neighborhood butcher’s son, working to help the family make ends meet.

In Afghanistan’s heavily patriarchal, male-dominated society, where women and girls are usually relegated to the home, bacha posh, Dari for “dressed as a boy,” is the one tradition allowing girls access to the freer male world.

Under the practice, a girl dresses, behaves and is treated as a boy, with all the freedoms and obligations that entails. The child can play sports, attend a madrassa, or religious school, and, sometimes crucially for the family, work. But there is a time limit: Once a bacha posh reaches puberty, she is expected to revert to traditional girls’ gender roles. The transition is not always easy.

 

It is unclear how the practice is viewed by Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban, who seized power in mid-August and have made no public statements on the issue.

Their rule so far has been less draconian than the last time they were in power in the 1990s, but women’s freedoms have still been severely curtailed. Thousands of women have been barred from working, and girls beyond primary school age have not been able to return to public schools in most places.

With a crackdown on women’s rights, the bacha posh tradition could become even more attractive for some families. And as the practice is temporary, with the children eventually reverting to female roles, the Taliban might not deal with the issue at all, said Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has written several books on Afghanistan.

“Because it’s inside the family and because it’s not a permanent status, the Taliban may stay out (of it),” Barfield said.

 

It is unclear where the practice originated or how old it is, and it is impossible to know how widespread it might be. A somewhat similar tradition exists in Albania, another deeply patriarchal society, although it is limited to adults. Under Albania’s “sworn virgin” tradition, a woman would take an oath of celibacy and declare herself a man, after which she could inherit property, work and sit on a village council – all of which would have been out of bounds for a woman.

In Afghanistan, the bacha posh tradition is “one of the most under-investigated” topics in terms of gender issues, said Barfield, who spent about two years in the 1970s living with an Afghan nomad family that included a bacha posh. “Precisely because the girls revert back to the female role, they marry, it kind of disappears.”

Girls chosen as bacha posh usually are the more boisterous, self-assured daughters. “The role fits so well that sometimes even outside the family, people are not aware that it exists,” he said.

“It’s almost so invisible that it’s one of the few gender issues that doesn’t show up as a political or social question,” Barfield noted.

The reasons parents might want a bacha posh vary. With sons traditionally valued more than daughters, the practice usually occurs in families without a boy. Some consider it a status symbol, and some believe it will bring good luck for the next child to be born a boy.

But for others, like Sanam’s family, the choice was one of necessity. Last year, with Afghanistan’s economy collapsing, construction work dried up. Sanam’s father, already suffering from a back injury, lost his job as a plumber. He turned to selling coronavirus masks on the streets, making the equivalent of $1-$2 per day. But he needed a helper.

The family has four daughters and one son, but their 11-year-old boy doesn’t have full use of his hands following an injury. So the parents said they decided to make Sanam a bacha posh.

“We had to do this because of poverty,” said Sanam’s mother, Fahima. “We don’t have a son to work for us, and her father doesn’t have anyone to help him. So I will consider her my son until she becomes a teenager.”

Still, Fahima refers to Sanam as “my daughter.” In their native Dari language, the pronouns are not an issue since one pronoun is used for “he” and “she.”

Sanam says she prefers living as a boy.

“It’s better to be a boy…I wear (Afghan male clothes), jeans and jackets, and go with my father and work,” she said. She likes playing in the park with her brother’s friends and playing cricket and soccer.

Once she grows up, Sanam said, she wants to be either a doctor, a commander or a soldier, or work with her father. And she’ll go back to being a girl.

“When I grow up, I will let my hair grow and will wear girl’s clothes,” she said.

The transition isn’t always easy.

 

“When I put on girls’ clothes, I thought I was in prison,” said Najieh, who grew up as a bacha posh, although she would attend school as a girl. One of seven sisters, her boy’s name was Assadollah.

Now 34, married and with four children of her own, she weeps for the freedom of the male world she has lost.

“In Afghanistan, boys are more valuable,” she said. “There is no oppression for them, and no limits. But being a girl is different. She gets forced to get married at a young age.”

 

Young women can’t leave the house or allow strangers to see their face, Najieh said. And after the Taliban takeover, she lost her job as a schoolteacher because she had been teaching boys.

“Being a man is better than being a woman,” she said, wiping tears from her eye. “It is very hard for me. … If I were a man, I could be a teacher in a school.”

“I wish I could be a man, not a woman. To stop this suffering.”

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The AP Interview: Taliban Pledge All Girls in Schools Soon

Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March, their spokesman told The Associated Press on Saturday, offering the first timeline for addressing a key demand of the international community. 

Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7. The international community, reluctant to formally recognize a Taliban-run administration, is wary they could impose similar harsh measures as during their previous rule 20 years ago. At the time, women were banned from education, work and public life. 

Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information, said their education departments are looking to open classrooms for all girls and women following the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21. Afghanistan, like neighboring Iran, observes the Islamic solar Hijri Shamsi calendar. 

Education for girls and women “is a question of capacity,” Mujahid said in the interview.

Girls and boys must be completely segregated in schools, he said, adding that the biggest obstacle so far has been finding or building enough dorms, or hostels, where girls could stay while going to school. In heavily populated areas, it is not enough to have separate classrooms for boys and girls—separate school buildings are needed, he said. 

“We are not against education,” Mujahid stressed, speaking at a Kabul office building with marble floors that once housed Afghan attorney general’s offices and which the Taliban have adopted for their culture and information ministry. 

The Taliban dictates so far have been erratic, varying from province to province. Girls have not been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools beyond grade 7, except in about 10 of the country’s 34 provinces. In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and the classes have always been segregated. 

“We are trying to solve these problems by the coming year,” so that schools and universities can open, Mujahid said. 

The international community has been skeptical of Taliban announcements, saying it will judge them by their actions—even as it scrambles to provide billions of dollars to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that the U.N. chief this week warned could endanger the lives of millions. 

With a breakdown of services and only sporadic electricity in the bitterly cold Afghan winters, most people rely on firewood and coal for heat. Among the hardest hit are some 3 million Afghans who live as refugees within their own country, having fled their homes because of war, drought, poverty or fear of the Taliban.

Earlier this month, the United Nations launched a $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, the single largest appeal for one country. 

Washington has spent $145 billion on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. Yet even before the Taliban recaptured the country, the poverty rate was 54%—and a 2018 Gallup poll revealed unprecedented misery among Afghans. 

Mujahid appealed for economic cooperation, trade and “stronger diplomatic relations.” So far, neither Afghanistan’s neighbors nor the United Nations seem ready to grant formal recognition, which would help open up the Afghan economy. However, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for greater economic development, saying it’s critical to rapidly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy “and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and destitution for millions.” 

The international community has called for a more representative government that includes women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. While all members of the new Taliban Cabinet are men and most are Taliban members, Mujahid said there are exceptions such as the deputy finance minister and officials in the economics ministry who are holdovers from the previous, U.S.-backed administration.

Mujahid also said 80% of civil servants who have returned to work were employees under the previous administration. Women are working in the health and education sector and at Kabul International Airport in customs and passport control, he added. He did not say if or when women would be allowed to return to work in government ministries. 

He also told the AP that most of the new government’s revenue will come from customs that the Taliban will collect at border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations to the north. Without offering figures, he claimed the Taliban have brought in more revenue in their first four months in power than the previous government in over a year. 

He appealed to Afghans who have fled to return to their homeland. Since the takeover, there have been cases of opponents arrested, journalists beaten, rights workers threatened and demonstrations by women dispersed by heavily armed Taliban troops firing in the air.

Mujahid acknowledged incidents of Taliban members harassing Afghan civilians, including humiliating young men and forcibly cutting their hair. 

“Such crimes happen, but it is not the policy of our government,” he said, adding that those responsible were arrested.

“This is our message. We have no dispute with anyone and we don’t want anyone to remain in opposition or away from their country.”

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Kazakhstan Puts Unrest Death Toll at 225

The bodies of 225 people killed in unrest in Kazakhstan last week, including 19 members of the security forces, were delivered to morgues throughout the country, the prosecutor general’s office said Saturday.

The figure included civilians and armed “bandits” killed by security forces, Serik Shalabayev, the head of criminal prosecution at the prosecutor’s office, told a briefing.

He did not provide an exact breakdown of the figures and said numbers could be updated later.

Violent protests began in the oil-producing Central Asian state this month after a jump in car fuel prices. The toll provided by Shalabayev confirmed the violence is the deadliest in the country’s post-Soviet history.

Shalabayev said 50,000 people joined the riots throughout the former Soviet republic at their peak on January 5 when crowds stormed and torched government buildings, cars, banks and shops in several major cities.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to a Russia-led military bloc for help during the unrest, and he sidelined his former patron and predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev by taking over the national security council.

After complaints about beatings and torture of those detained in the aftermath, Tokayev ordered police Saturday to avoid abuse and told prosecutors to be lenient to those who have not committed grave crimes.

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Kashmiri Media Describe Toll of Legal Harassment

Freelance journalist Sajad Gul was at home in Shahgund, a village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, when the army came for him.

It was about 10 p.m. on January 5. The journalist’s family told local media that Gul received a phone call asking him to come outside.

The next thing the family heard, he had been taken to a police station and accused of serious anti-national crimes.

Gul, 26, contributes to the news website Kashmir Walla and studies at Central University of Kashmir.

Fahad Shah, editor at The Kashmir Walla, described the arrest as a “brazen violation of freedom of press [that] threatens the very core of people’s rights.”

Effect on coverage

Shah said that cases like the one against Gul, in which reporters or media outlets are accused of sharing or posting anti-national sentiment, are increasing in Kashmir, and that the threat of legal action is having an impact in a region where journalism plays a significant role.

It’s not an isolated problem. Lawsuits against media are on the rise across India, with a growing trend of judicial harassment and intimidation against those who do not toe the line of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific lead for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

In Kashmir, Bastard said, that pattern can mean that every journalist who is critical of the government risks being deemed anti-national or anti-Indian. Some may start to self-censor to avoid harassment.

Neither the Jammu and Kashmir Home Department nor India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting responded to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In Gul’s case, his arrest appears linked to a video he posted to Twitter of a protest over the killing of a local militant commander, The Kashmir Walla reported.

A police statement said Gul “uploaded the objectionable videos with anti-national slogans.”

He is charged with criminal conspiracy, assertions prejudicial to national integration — a complaint usually referring to comments deemed against the sovereignty and integrity of India — and making or sharing statements to promote enmity and hatred.

Police in Kashmir did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Sensitive to criticism

The current administration in India appears prickly about criticism, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

But, she said, the best way for a government to prevent tensions is to act swiftly when credible and fair investigations find evidence of human rights abuses.

Journalists play a crucial role in exposing shortcomings, and a rights-respecting government should rely on that information to address needs, Ganguly said.

“Unfortunately, the government is selective about what it believes exacerbates tension or conflict,” Ganguly said, “quickly punishing peaceful critics, including by accusing them under draconian counterterrorism laws.”

Bastard of RSF shared a similar view, telling VOA, “Censoring journalists who try to cover their fellow citizens’ situation is actually the best way to create frustration among the population, and hence to promote enmity. This is all the more true in a region with a strong history of separatism like Jammu and Kashmir.”

Intimidating calls

Being summoned is always disturbing, Kashmir Walla editor Shah told VOA.

“It is intimidating to be at a police station where you are asked about your personal and professional life,” Shah said. “You are asked to give details of your life, even ID documents, bank details, et cetera, at times. And mostly, you are treated as a suspect for something which you don’t even know. And then it stays on your head like a sword that if you do something that is not liked you will be in trouble.”

Shah has been arrested, questioned and summonsed several times. His media outlet, too, has run into legal issues. It is currently fighting a false-news case in the High Court.

Srinagar photojournalist Mukhtar Zahoor, who contributes to outlets including the BBC and Al Jazeera, says he was left confused by a police raid on his home last October.

“They check my phone, my contacts, and images in the cellphone. It was a traumatic experience,” he said.

Police detained Zahoor and questioned him about his movements on September 1, the day that a veteran separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, died.

At that time, authorities had suspended communications and sealed off the roads around Geelani’s home in a move some believed was an attempt to limit coverage of the death.

“They had all information about my location on that day and the route I took. … Even the Wi-Fi connection of my phone that I shared with my friend,” Zahoor said.

When asked how the raid has affected his work, Zahoor didn’t hesitate: “I am observing self-censorship.”

In some cases, journalists find themselves called by members of the police and army.

Quratulain Rehbar, a female freelancer from Pulwama, said she was contacted by both in December after covering a protest.

“I was getting calls for verification, and they would call repeatedly. Both army and police started calling my family as well,” Rehbar said, still sounding distressed.

Crackdown viewed as arbitrary

The Vienna-based International Press Institute has flagged what it says appears to be a largely arbitrary crackdown on the press.

“We have seen numerous examples of the harassment and intimidation of journalists in what we believe to be an effort by the authorities to control the flow of news and information,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen told VOA.

The Kashmir Press Club has urged authorities to improve the environment for journalists.

“The threats, summonses and arrests of the media persons have effectively restrained independent and investigative reporting from the region,” the club said in a statement that also condemned Gul’s arrest.

For Gul, the arrest is not a first. Just over a year ago, Jammu and Kashmir police accused him of participating in an illegal demonstration that he was reporting on.

And he has frequently tweeted about how police harassment affects his work, studies and health.

For now, he is in custody. His editor Shah told VOA, “We have filed for bail plea in the court and will contest these charges through court.”

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