In Hong Kong Protests, Technology Serves as a Tool of Both Expression and Repression

While activists have used the internet as a powerful organizing tool, web coverage on the Chinese mainland is defined by mass blackouts and systematic silencing.

Protesters in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo. CC BY 2.0

Protesters in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo. CC BY 2.0

The most widely attended protest in recent American memory, the Women’s March, brought about 1 percent of the population onto the streets. Last month’s protests in Hong Kong brought 25 percent.

By any standards, the anti-extradition campaign in Hong Kong, spurred by a proposed China-backed amendment that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China, was an astronomical success, engaging huge swathes of the population and eventually leading to the death of the proposal. Images of the demonstration depict unfathomable numbers of citizens exercising their right to peaceful protests, but something remains invisible in those photos: the constantly active, multilayered and multifaceted presence of the internet, which—through messaging apps, social media, and LIHKG (Hong Kong’s answer to Reddit)—allowed protestors to turn ideology into concrete action.

On June 12, the protest reached a milestone when tens of thousands of citizens surrounded the Hong Kong legislative building, spurring an initial suspension of the bill. In order to mobilize without attracting unwanted attention, activists created online events inviting people to a “picnic” in nearby Tamar Park, a cover-up for their actual intentions. Messaging services, too, helped with planning efforts. Particularly popular was the encrypted app Telegram—although the arrest of Ivan Ip for “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance” set efforts back, given that Ip was leading a group on the platform of 30,000 users. Still, Ip’s group was far from the only one: In a Baptist University poll of protestors, more than half of respondents reported using Telegram for broadcasting information and participating in discussion groups.

Protestors in the streets. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protestors in the streets. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

The survey also revealed the protestors’ widespread use of LIHKG, which lived up to its reputation of supporting free speech by subtly assisting activist efforts: Administrators removed ads from their site for about two weeks in June to shorten loading time and upped the number of replies allowed on some threads from 1,001 to 5,001, citing a need “for more convenient discussions.”

For protestors, the utility of social media and messaging platforms was far from over once planning progressed into action. During the demonstration on June 12, attendees broadcast real-time updates through countless Instagram stories and an hour-long livestream on the Twitter-owned service Periscope. In addition to spreading the word to Hong Kongers not attending the demonstration, protestors were able to communicate amongst themselves, using apps to request supplies, share the locations of food and water stations, and disseminate hand signals that would allow for discreet communication. Technical difficulties, however, thwarted efforts to some degree: Poor mobile signals made accessing the internet a challenge and threatened to spur chaos. “Without Telegram and WhatsApp, people did not know what they had to do,” Laura, 18, a student who volunteered as a first-aid staffer, told the South China Morning Post

Holding a sign that reads “kids are not rioters.” Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Holding a sign that reads “kids are not rioters.” Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Limited connectivity was not the only tech-related hurdle facing protesters. Tech-savvy activists cautioned against using public Wi-Fi or swiping their Octopus public transit card, actions that could put users at risk of having their personal information picked up and employed to incriminate them. And protestors made sure to turn off Face ID and fingerprint ID on their phones so that police could not unlock their devices without consent, as well as enabling encryption on apps where it was not already automatic.

Across the border in China, however, such internet-driven activism would have been impossible. Hong Kongers have the privilege of a much more open internet—a dichotomy that has manifested starkly in mainland media coverage of the protests. As part of the mass censorship and limited access that has long defined the Chinese internet and that is sometimes dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” the Communist Party has enacted a total blackout on protest coverage in newspapers and on TV, with television screens simply going dark when foreign news outlets show images of the demonstrations. Video footage of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologizing for her attempt to push through the extradition law never lasted long on social media, as censors would immediately delete the content each time it was reuploaded. And even a song that activists sang during the protests, “Can You Hear the People Sing” from “Les Miserables,” was inexplicably missing from QQ, a popular musical streaming site.

Protestors filled the streets on June 16. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protestors filled the streets on June 16. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

On social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, users devised strategies to get around the firewall, like distorting images of the protests or blocking parts of the image with giant smiley-face logos. In some cases, however, China’s tech power was simply too strong: Telegram reported on June 12 that it was experiencing a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which means that a number of computers were attempting to overload its servers with bogus requests, resulting in service slowdowns or outages. Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, said that the IP addresses behind the attack were coming mainly from China, potentially suggesting a concerted effort by authorities.

By systematically silencing the voices of activists, China is able to spread its own narrative of the protests, which it portrays as violent events provoked by foreign elements amining to undermine Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” policy. The policy was formulated in the 1980s for the reunification of China by Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping; in the interest of furthering Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center, it guarantees freedom of speech and protest for citizens. Yet Hong Kongers have long feared an erosion of their autonomy, a concern that most recently boiled over in the form of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which streets in the city’s business district were flooded by demonstrators for nearly three months. Throughout that time, mainland China busily erased all mention and images of the protests from its internet.

Protesters were unsatisfied by the original postponement of the bill. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protesters were unsatisfied by the original postponement of the bill. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

On July 8, Lam publicly stated that the bill was finally dead, describing the proposed amendment as a “total failure.” Yet Hong Kongers were not entirely satisfied, as questions remain about whether Lam will officially withdraw the bill or whether it might be revived in future. Either way, the anti-extradition movement of 2019 will stand as a landmark protest for the digital age: one whose scale and power could have only coalesced in an era of instant connectivity, and one that throws into stark relief the power of technology—for expression and repression alike.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


Three Years Since the Standing Rock Protests

What Has Changed?

In 2016, Native American tribes and allies from all over the country came to North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is in the center of North and South Dakota. Standing Rock was originally established as a part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which was established in 1868. In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners LP made plans to build an oil pipeline that would stretch over a thousand miles from North Dakota to Iowa, and carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The pipeline, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, would run through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

When the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved in 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sprang into action. The pipeline would run right next to their drinking water—any spill or leakage would contaminate their water supply. Additionally, the pipeline would run through the tribe’s sacred burial sites. 

On April 1, 2016, a group of 200 Native Americans rode on horseback to protest the construction. They set up a camp, called The Sacred Stone Camp, which became a site of protest for the cause. In November, 2016, the protesters were ordered to evacuate their protest site. The protesters intended on staying, and clashed with the police. 

Finally, the Obama Administration denied a key permit for the Dakota Access pipeline to be built. Protesters were relieved until a couple of months later, when the Trump Administration reversed that decision and approved further construction. The Dakota Access pipeline is now built, and carrying oil. Energy Transfer even plans on expanding, and transporting more oil.

But all hope is not lost. Standing Rock Activists did not give up the fight. Although the Sacred Stone Camp is gone, its ethos lives on in the Sacred Stone Village. Sacred Stone Village is an EcoVillage, whose mission is to combine Native traditions and sustainable living. Their Facebook page continues to update on the work that they have accomplished. Highlights include collecting trash from the cannonball river, planting indigenous trees and berries, and continuing to educate about the dangers of fossil fuels. 

The individual activists from Standing Rock continue to speak out and work hard to warn against the dangers of oil pipelines. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of Sacred Stone Camp, continues to give speeches and educate the world about indigenous rights and environmental protection. Spiritual activist and former Standing Rock spokeswoman, Cheryl Angel, is still working towards her goal of uniting people in fighting for water safety and protection. 

Three years later, activists won’t give up on their mission to fight for their slogan, Water is Life.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 


From North Carolina to Norway, Fossil Fuel Divestment Hits Headlines

Whether motivated by practical or ideological means, institutions around the world are pulling their finances out of oil, gas, and coal.

Divestment protest at Tufts University. James Ennis. CC BY 2.0

Divestment protest at Tufts University. James Ennis. CC BY 2.0

Upon receiving the news in 2017 that our planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event, spurred partly by rampant climate change, stunned denizens of Earth everywhere struggled to process the implications and searched for concrete ways to mitigate the damage. In the months since, countless climate proposals have rolled out across the globe, and U.S. citizens have watched as 2020 presidential hopefuls laid out their plans—all while the current president decried the very existence of climate change. In the flurry of rhetoric and policy aimed at addressing the climate crisis, one strategy continues to hold strong: fossil fuel divestment, which has hit the headlines this summer with particular force.

On July 4—Independence Day in the United States—Britain’s largest membership organization declared independence from fossil fuel investments. The National Trust, which stewards 780 miles of coastline; 612,000 acres of land; and more than 500 historic houses, castles, monuments, and parks, announced that it would divest its £1 billion portfolio from fossil fuels in a bid to address the worsening climate crisis. 

Previously, the trust had invested £45 million into oil, gas, and mining companies, despite having made earlier pledges to cut down on its own use of fossil fuels. The vast majority of those investments will be withdrawn in the next 12 months, the trust promises, and 100 percent within three years. The freed-up funds will be diverted to alternative energy options: CFO Peter Vermeulen told The Guardian, “Now we will seek to invest in green startup businesses and other suitable portfolios that deliver benefits for the environment, nature and people.”

Fossil Free Freiburg divestment protest. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fossil Free Freiburg divestment protest. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Five hundred miles away in Norway, another high-profile institution is also preparing to drop fossil fuels: the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), which was founded in 1990 to oversee the integration of petroleum revenues into the national economy, and which invests in more than 9,000 companies worldwide, including Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. On June 21, Norway’s parliament, the Storting, approved plans for the GPFG to divest more than $13 billion of the $1.06 trillion it manages from investments in oil, gas, and coal. The decision comes with some caveats: GPFG will only divest from companies that are exclusively involved with fossil fuels, but not oil companies that also have renewable energy units, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell. And the fund maintains that financial considerations, not ideological ones, are behind the divestment, given the risk posed by fluctuations in oil prices. Nevertheless, environmental advocates can appreciate the fact that GPFG will earmark up to 2 percent of its funds—or about $20 billion—for investments in renewable energy.

In some cases, not only individual institutions are divesting, but also entire regions. At the beginning of June, the city council of Charlottesville, Va., voted 4-1 to divest the city’s operating budget investments from any entity involved with the production of fossil fuels or weapons. Supporters explain that the divestment—which will be carried out within 30 days of the decision—aligns with the city’s strategic plan goals, including being responsible stewards of natural resources. Charlottesville joins various other college towns across the United States, including Ann Arbor, Mich., and Berkeley, Calif., in pledging to divest.

At some universities, however, the prospect of divestment has long brewed controversy, which is coming to a head in light of the climate crisis. During Al Gore’s speech at Harvard University on May 29, the former vice president turned environmental activist called on his alma mater to divest, stating that climate change is “a threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it” and framing divestment as “a moral issue” for the university. In recent years, student activists at Harvard have ramped up demands on the school to divest, and the student newspaper reversed its formerly opposed position in May, acknowledging that Harvard’s reluctance to entertain the possibility of divestment “compromises its efforts to position itself as an academic institution at the forefront of the fight against climate change.” On the administrative side, more than 300 faculty members have signed a petition calling for divestment of fossil fuel stocks. Nevertheless, this number represents less than 14 percent of all faculty, and the university maintains the opinion that it should impact public policy through research rather than through its endowment.

Advocates for divestment at Harvard. victorgrigas. CC BY-SA 3.0

Advocates for divestment at Harvard. victorgrigas. CC BY-SA 3.0

Across the country, 47 U.S. colleges and universities have chosen to divest, although the number has dropped off in recent years, with only 10 making the decision since 2017. Most recently, the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, voted on June 21 to divest a portion of their $50 million endowment from fossil fuels. The unanimous vote, which will make the Asheville campus the first in the UNC system to divest, builds on a resolution spearheaded by student activists. In concert with administration and the Board, these activists researched new funds in which the university could invest about 10 percent of its capital, eventually landing on Walden Asset Management, which focuses on investing using environmental, social, and governance criteria.

Botanical gardens at Asheville. David441491. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Botanical gardens at Asheville. David441491. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the University of California—another sprawling and well-regarded state university system—saw 77 percent of its voting faculty agree “to divest the university’s endowment portfolio of all investments in the 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies with the largest carbon reserves.” The decision is now in the hands of the University Regents. Should the Regents choose to divest, the news would make waves on the national level due to U Cal’s significant size and prestige—and in the fight against fossil fuels, ideological statements, even if they have negligible bearing on the industry’s financial resources, are of the utmost importance.

Individuals in academic circles, therefore, are beginning to take their own stands to support divestment. In a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, climate activists Christiana Figueres and Bill McKibben explain that they have begun refusing to accept honorary degrees from colleges that have not divested, writing, “[e]ach of us has already turned down these honors at institutions that remain committed to coal, gas, and oil.” Meanwhile, members of the younger generation are also weighing in—such as Jamie Margolin, a rising high school senior and prominent environmental activist with more than 11,000 Twitter followers. In a piece for Teen Vogue last month, Margolin wrote, “I have serious concerns about how my future school might be investing in fossil fuels and, if they can’t be convinced to divest by student activists like me, how that might render my college education useless.” From Norway to Britain to Asheville to Cambridge, from Ivy-educated vice presidents to those still awaiting their high school degrees, the world is beginning to agree that taking action is not optional.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


Blue Out on Insta

Sudan Flag Sticker on a Car. pjbury. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sudan Flag Sticker on a Car. pjbury. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Blue Out on Instagram: Support for Sudan through Social Media Awareness

Recently, a specific shade of blue has been popping up around Instagram in the form of profile pictures. This Blue Out was started by Instagram influencer Shahd (@hadyouatsalaam). She is a Sudanese-born, New York City-based activist—or how she likes to identify herself, “a political scientist by degree and a social media influencer by interest”, according to her recent Insta post, introducing herself to her new followers. 

Shahd created this movement for the sole purpose of raising awareness to what is currently going on in Sudan. Protests in Sudan began in December of last year, when there was a price-spike in basic commodities (i.e. bread). It was not until April 11th, after a mass, multi-day sit-in, that the Sudanese people did see the change they wished for. The current President, a man named Omar al-Bashir, and his party were being jailed or put on house arrest. The protestors believed this to be a victory. They were wrong. General Awad Ibn Auf, the Vice President, soon gave a televised statement explaining the new governmental system that was going to be put in place—one run by three separate military factions called the Transitional Military Council (TMC). He stated that they intended to remain in power for two years until the country could elect a new President, also claiming a three-month state of emergency and curfew. The people did not accept these conditions and in under 24 hours, Ibn Auf resigned and General Abdelfattah al-Burhaan become the new chairman.

Since General Abdelfattah al-Burhaan’s new appointment, negotiations between the people and the TMC have been chaotic. Once again being fed up, the Sudaneese people, with the people of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), organized a mass strike from the 28th of May to the 29th. These strikes immediately became violent and the TMC used these mass demonstrations to portray the SPA in a vicious light. On June 3rd, government forces began shooting at the protestors which, reportedly, left 118 dead and many more injured. Since then, an Internet black out has been in place and thus sparked social media outcry.

But why should this matter to us? The answer is simple: because we have the power and the privilege of accessing the Internet with the capable means of shouting loud enough that somebody will listen. Over the past two weeks, because of the uproar on social media, there have been an influx of articles written about what is going on, how long it has been going on, what is the important information that we need to know about the revolution in Sudan. One Instagram user, Rachek Cargle (@rachel,cargle), with the help of “an incredible group of activists” has even composed a masterlist of articles ranging from immediate updates to fundraising efforts, according to her post that calls for any more information to add. 

Unfortunately, with the uproar, there have also been people who cruelly want to capitalize on the movement for clout reasons. Just last week, a post went viral that claimed for every re-post to a page or story, the originators of the account would donate meals to the Sudanese people. Very soon, the page was labeled as a hoax given curious peoples’ inquiries into how they would provide the food, where is the funding coming from, and other questions which the page either did not answer or gave vague responses to. From these instances, it is important to remember that when trying to get information out, there needs to be a more thorough and conscious effort on the part of other social media users to not just mindlessly click-and-post, but rather, do a quick search about what the post is, and then determine whether or not it is legitimate. 

Using the privilege we have—whether it be from simply having the means to repost an article or getting in contact with local government officials so they can talk about what is going on—is a butterfly-effect that will change how the Sudanese revolution will go. Being complacent or a bystander is just as harmful as supporting the violence because inaction is not action, inaction does not bring about change but lets things remain as they are, because they are not directly affecting us. I encourage those of you reading this article to look at the Instagram influencers I have mentioned as well as the hashtag #Iamsudanrevolution. There you will find countless posts, articles, links, and organizations that can inform you, help you, and guide you on how you can help. For immediate action, check out Cargle’s post which is a picture of protestors with SUDAN in bold, blue letters and the subtitle of Information & Support Round Up. There you will find the link to the master document which will provide the beginning of any information you want to know. 

I must repeat—acting as a bystander perpetuates the actions that are harming individuals because it is neglecting them the action they need. Use your privilege for something productive. 

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 


Palestinians Protest Puma

Palestinians protest German athletics company Puma for sponsoring the Israeli Football Association (IFA). The IFA’s six national teams have been playing in Israeli settlements on traditional Palestinian land, thus violating International Law. MustangJoe. CC0.

Palestinians protest German athletics company Puma for sponsoring the Israeli Football Association (IFA). The IFA’s six national teams have been playing in Israeli settlements on traditional Palestinian land, thus violating International Law. MustangJoe. CC0.

Palestinian activists, organized by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBL), protested and boycotted German athletics company Puma the weekend of June 15. They targeted stores in 15 different countries as a way of spreading information about the boycott. As of last year, Puma began sponsoring the Israeli Football Association (IFA). The IFA hosts games in Israeli settlements held on traditional Palestinian land. This is in violation of both international law and FIFA (football’s governing body) rules. The protesters feel that Puma is profiting off this situation, as well as normalizing it for the rest of the world.

Six teams play in this section of the West Bank. In 2018, Puma began sponsoring the IFA as part of a 4-year deal to provide equipment, including kits, for Israel’s national football teams. Adidas had been the IFA’s sponsor for the last 10 years, until they ended their sponsorship over a similar boycott campaign in July 2018.

In December 2016, the UN Security Council reaffirmed the position that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories are a violation of international law. In 1961, FIFA suspended apartheid-laden South Africa, but has said little about Israel and Palestine’s current problem. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) called for a vote on Israel’s FIFA membership in 2014 and 2015, but ultimately backed down both times. In June 2019, FIFA’s Ethics Committee launched an investigation in PFA President Jibril Rajoub regarding statements and actions against Israel.

PACBL appealed to both Puma and Adidas on the basis of social justice. Puma launched a social justice campaign called #REFORM last year, inspired by American sprinter Tommie Smith, who raised his fist at the 1968 Olympic games in protest of racism. However, according to the Palestinian protesters, this hypocrisy in regards to justice shows that money is still the ultimate factor with sports sponsorships. There is always an element of calculation as to how beneficial the social justice commitment will be.

Ultimately, Puma’s decision—regardless of the protests—will come down to reputation. Meanwhile, the protests and boycott against Puma are supported by over 200 Palestinian sports associations and clubs, as well as prominent Palestinian athletes such as Aya Khattab, who is on the women’s national football team.

Mahmoud Sarsk, a Palestinian footballer who used to play on the national team, said, “Endless restrictions on freedom of movement, access to resources and fundamental civil liberties make engaging in sport a constant struggle for Palestinians—these violations of rights are totally incompatible with the principle of sport being accessible to all,” according to Aljazeera. Sarsk was imprisoned for three years by Israeli authorities without charges or a trial. This ended his career as a professional player.

In a statement last year, Adidas said they ended their sponsorship of the IFA for political reasons, as they upheld human rights and agreed with FIFA that a decision needed to be made regarding the state of the settlements. The protest included complaints from over 130 Palestinian football clubs, according to the Palestine Chronicle. Regardless, it was claimed afterwards that Adidas ended the sponsorship for non-political reasons, particularly since the sponsorship term was ending

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BCD) is a Palestinian-led organization with a larger sports component, which is what the Puma boycott is part of. The sports component has been steadily growing since 2011.

The international response has also been growing. According to Mondoweiss, in February 2017 six NFL players withdrew from a PR trip to Israel, which serves as a prominent win for the BDS movement. Argentina also called off a friendly match with an Israeli team in Jerusalem last June. 

FIFA’s response has been lacking, but the international disdain has made it clear that Israel may soon start to run out of sponsors for its sports teams if something is not done about the settlements held on Palestinian land that violate International Law.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.


Rainbow Railroad

How Rainbow Railroad is Saving LGBTQI Lives Worldwide

Person holding the Pride flag. Yannis Papanastasopoulos. CC 2.0

Person holding the Pride flag. Yannis Papanastasopoulos. CC 2.0

Love is one of the most powerful acts of humanity. Unfortunately, it is an act not all can do freely. For those in countries that disavow LGBTQI+ rights, love is illegal for them. To express it is a crime, dangerous and potentially life-threatening. For these individuals, there almost seems no hope. “I want you to imagine being beaten, interrogated, stabbed for who you love,” says Executive Director Kimahli Powell in a YouTube video by Rainbow Railroad titled SAVE A LGBTQI LIFE. “I want you to imagine this is all happening to you because you live in one of over 70 countries where your government not only tolerates, but supports and initiates this violence towards you—and in some cases, you might even face the death penalty all for loving who you love.”

Rainbow Railroad is a non-profit organization solely focused on rescuing and aiding LGBTQI+ individuals across the globe. They help those who are living in countries that do not condone the LGBTQI+ community. Rainbow Railroad is currently “working on 30-50 open cases, confirming their details, putting them in touch with local resources and helping them identify safe routes for escape.”. One of their most recent cases helped Ahmed, an Egyptian activist and Rainbow Railroad rescuee, escape.

Ahmed was persecuted by his own country solely because he made the brave decision of brandishing the rainbow Pride Flag at a Marshrou’ Lelia concert in Cairo, Egypt. The consequence of the impactful decision? Ahmed being sentenced to jail for a little over three months. “It was the worst feeling I had ever felt,” states Ahmed in a video detailing his story on the Rainbow Railroad site. “Knowing that all of the country was against you and all of the country wanted to … arrest you and kill you.” Ahmed then pauses in the video and then pridefully states, “Now I am free.”

Egypt has no explicit laws condemning homosexuality, but the country has many ways of making the law work in their favor. Many individuals who are suspected of being apart of or supporting the LGBTQI+ community can face “debauchery and public morals laws with prison terms of up to 17 years” according to Lonely Planet's advice column for LGBTQI+ travellers going to Egypt. But they are not alone in their mistreatment.

Countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Maldives, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan have strict and life-threatening laws in place that subject anybody who is openly or suspected of being in the LGBTQI+ community in danger. The laws in place range from years in imprisonment, fines, public whipping/physical abuse, and in the worst cases, death. Rainbow Railroad has been able to aid the people in these countries, specifically Tarek and Mazen, a couple from Syria. They applied for aid and were granted asylum in Canada in 2016, where they now live happily and freely.

But how does Rainbow Railroad do it? They raise funds from donations that volunteers, visitors, or supporters of their cause can donate at any time. All donations are put into a general fund that helps the organizations overall mission. Rainbow Railroad also provides a way where one can turn their upcoming birthday party or celebration into a sponsored event. If a host opts to sponsor an event, the proceeds they will raise go directly to a case they are sponsoring. According to a spokesperson for Rainbow Railroad, “Rainbow Railroad has community sponsorship, which means the organization facilitates helping LGBTQI refugees through the government PSR program ( Groups of community members get together, raise about $20,000 to support a newcomer as they prepare for their journey, meet them at the airport and through their first year in Canada.” Rainbow Railroad also has volunteers across the globe to help with tasks from outsourcing people to verifying individuals request for help. For more information, click on their TAKE ACTION tab on their website, There they list step by step how to get involved and how to contact them regarding how one wants to get involved.

Ahmed is one of the 198 people helped in 2018, but there are still many more individuals in need of escape. If you are interested in helping Rainbow Railroad, under their TAKE ACTION tab on their website,, list the many ways you could get involved with their organization. The most immediate way to help is to click the DONATE tab and give whatever you are able. Our capacity to love is what keeps us powerful and Rainbow Railroad continues to exemplify the actions that can be taken with said power.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.

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5 Social Action Songs about the Most Pressing Issues of 2019

Musicians Use Their Lyrics as Calls to Action

John Legend, singer of “Preach.” Lauren Monaco. CC 2.0.

John Legend, singer of “Preach.” Lauren Monaco. CC 2.0.

Throughout the ages, some musicians have used their song lyrics as a tool to impart their political, social, and spiritual beliefs. Musicians have a unique opportunity to reach audiences with their words because unlike politicians and speechmakers or television, radio, or published personalities, musicians have their words sung over and over again by their audience. Their words—and subsequently, their ideas—are repeated with a catchy tune, until they are ingrained in the memories of their listeners.

Think about how John Lennon’s 1971 piece, “Imagine”, or Bob Marley’s 1973 hit “Get Up, Stand Up,” are still being played on the radio, and on playlists, for over 40 years. Their messages live on, even after they have both passed away.

In 2019, there is still much to protest and sing about. Musicians are still taking advantage of their platform to write and produce songs with a mission, or a call to action. Here are some powerful songs written in 2019 by famous musicians:

Madonna, “I Rise”

Madonna makes a statement about protest and gun control in her new single, “I Rise.” The song opens with a clip from a speech that Emma Gonzalez delivered to a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2018. Gonzalez became an advocate for gun control after surviving the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.

In her song, Madonna encourages her audience to act like Gonzalez, and “Rise,” in the face of adversity. She sings, “There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done

Not bulletproof, shouldn't have to run from a gun.” She recognizes as humans, we are vulnerable, but we also have the power to take action as a group. This is demonstrated by her switch from “I Rise,” to “We Rise,” at the end of her song.

The Killers, “Land of the Free”

In “Land of the Free” The Killers make a scathing critique of American society. Their music video contains clips of migrants trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. The video does not omit the barbed wire, security guards, and fences that will greet them. The Killers sing, “Down at the border, they're gonna put up a wall, Concrete and Rebar Steel beams (I'm standing crying), High enough to keep all those filthy hands off, Of our hopes and our dreams (I'm standing crying),People who just want the same things we do, In the land of the free.”

Like Madonna, The Killers also mention gun control. “So how many daughters, tell me, how many sons, Do we have to have to put in the ground, Before we just break down and face it

We got a problem with guns? (Oh oh oh oh), In the land of the free.” They also bring up race and privilege, “ When I go out in my car, I don't think twice, But if you're the wrong color skin (I'm standing, crying), You grow up looking over both your shoulders.”

The Killers are holding up a mirror to their audience and asking them: Is America really the land of the free and home of the brave? How can we change?

John Legend, “Preach”

Ironically, in “Preach,” John Legend sings about how it’s not enough to simply write songs, speak out, or “preach” to an audience. It is more important to take action when things are wrong in society.

He sings, “Every day I wake and, Everything is broken, Turning off my phone just to get out of bed. Get home every evening, And history’s repeating, Turning off my phone cuz it’s hurting my chest.” His music video features clips of police brutality against African Americans, and violence at the border with Mexico, as issues that deeply hurt him.

Yet, Legend knows that action speaks louder than words. “I can’t just preach, baby, preach. And heaven knows I’m not helpless, What can I do? Can’t see the use in me crying

If I’m not even trying to make the change I wanna see.”

Fever 333, “One of Us”

In “One of Us,” rock band Fever 333’s rage is contagious. They are angry about the state of society today. They sing about the people in power, “They gotta isolate, they gotta segregate this. Just to keep us down, to keep us broken down.”

Instead of breaking down under oppression, Fever 333 sends the message that we are all united in taking responsibility for change. In their music video, the band marches on the street among protesters for many types of causes—from environmental, to social.

They scream at their listeners, as a wake up call, to “Stand up or die on your knees.” If we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody else will.

Yungblud, “Parents”

The desperation and pessimism at an out-of-touch leadership is palpable in Yungblud’s “Parents.” He writes about he, and people in the LGBTQ communtiy suffer at the hands of intolerant and closed-minded people.  He sings, “My daddy put a gun to my head

Said if you kiss a boy, I'm gonna shoot you dead. “

Even though Yungblud’s “high hopes are getting low,” he sings, “I'll never be alone

It's alright, we'll survive. 'Cause parents ain't always right.” Yungblud is hopeful in a new generation of ally leaders.

In 2019, just as in the past, artists continue to try and inspire change, action, and introspection through their words. Who knows which activists and movements they will inspire?

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 


Lebanon’s LGBTI Activists: Constantly Fighting Back

Lebanon’s LGBTI activists fight every day against hostility. Slowly, gains have been made. Nancy Dowd. CC0.

Lebanon’s LGBTI activists fight every day against hostility. Slowly, gains have been made. Nancy Dowd. CC0.

Lebanon’s first LGBTI organization, Helem, was registered by the government in September 2004. In the years since, LGBTI activists have fought for their rights, as well as those of others, in an increasingly oppressive environment.

Most visibly in the past two years, the Lebanese government has begun increasing crackdowns against activists, particularly on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOTB). Obviously, on that day, organizations plan activities that bring LGBTI people and activists together, while also confirming and celebrating their rights. The government has generally taken the side of extreme religious groups that threaten the activities, and therefore completely shut down the events. Last year, activists were banned from even entering Lebanon. In the past 15 years, activists have said that hardly a day passes without a raid, arrest, or limitation of their right to privacy.

Helem was created as the result of local activism. In the early 2000s, the main concern was Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which criminalized sexual activity against the laws of nature. Homosexuality was widely antagonized against, for religious, socio-cultural, or moral reasons. For example, films portraying a LGBTI person in a positive manner were forbidden and public screenings and were censored.

Activists came out of the woodwork, both working with LGBTI organizations and the media by allying with and sharing their stories with journalists. Generally, LGBTI activist individuals carved out spaces for themselves in the broader civil society as the years passed. In addition to fighting for their own rights, they also fought for the rights of women, migrant workers, and for the right to freedom of expression.

Judges have passed brave rulings that don’t criminalize the right to privacy, but overall few of those judgements have been made. However, Article 534 has been rendered inapplicable, due to research with international medical references.

On the other hand, police officers still arbitrarily arrest people on the street for walking with a member of the same sex on suspicion of same-sex activity, and engineer “confessions” based on false promises or intimidation. Last September, Lebanese General Security officers attempted to shut down a LGBT conference. The officers questioned the director, Georges Azzi, and took the details of those attending from the hotel registry. Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said, according to HRW: “General Security’s latest efforts to shut down an LGBT conference in Lebanon is an attack on freedom of assembly rights and an attempt to silence the voices of courageous activists.” Though the exact reasons for attempting to shut down the conference were unclear, the previous reason the government stopped events was in order to preserve public morality. This past February, HRW also submitted a complaint to the UN regarding the police’s shutdown of LGBTI activism events.
Now, LGBTI individuals and activists are somewhere in the middle. They are not actively persecuted for their way of existence, but they are also not free to live as they wish. Unfortunately, the harassment and hostility continues, but everything has gotten better as time has passed. Last week, on May 17, which is also International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, the activists of Beirut, Lebanon agreed to fly pride flags, starting by Raouche Rock. Pride parades had been cancelled before they could take place the two years previous. An activist who wished to remain anonymous said, according to GayStarNews: “It’s saying we are here even despite the transgressions on our community.”

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.


In India, Grassroots Initiatives Work to Undo the Period Taboo

For many Indians, lack of access to menstrual products is compounded by entrenched societal stigma. Across the country, women are beginning to make a change.

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For most people with periods in the Western world, menstruation is something of an afterthought—annoying and sometimes painful, but easily dealt with, and far from debilitating. In parts of the Global South, however, “that time of the month” is not only a serious health concern and financial impediment but also a source of profound social and cultural tension. Over the past two years, grassroots activists have brought increased attention to the plight of menstruating women in India, and begun to envision a future in which well-being and participation in society is not dictated by one’s reproductive cycle.

Shameful attitudes toward menstruation in India are deeply ingrained, and, especially in rural areas, can be actively harmful to women of all ages. Indian women experiencing their periods can be banned from entering the kitchen and preparing food, separated from family members, and removed from religious ceremonies, sometimes on the grounds of theistic tradition: In 2018, many Indian men were outraged at a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court allowing women of menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, a Hindu temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, who is seen in traditional mythology to be disgusted by the concept of female fertility. Indignation at the ruling reached a peak in January 2019, when one person died and dozens were injured in protests against the judgment.

Equally dangerous, and highly imbricated with traditional views of menstruation, is the pervasive lack of access to sanitary products, which are crucial to keeping women clean and safe during their periods. An estimated 70 percent of Indian women are unable to afford such products, with 300 million resorting to unhygienic options such as newspapers, dry leaves, and unwashed rags. Menstruation is also a key driver of school dropouts among girls, 23 percent of whom leave their schooling behind upon reaching puberty.

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

In a sociocultural landscape where natural bodily functions are affecting the human dignity of people with periods, education, outreach, and access are crucial. In February 2018, Indian news outlet Daijiworld reported on one person working toward these goals: the so-called “Pad Woman” of Manguluru, who has been leading a group of young students in her southwestern port to create awareness of menstrual hygiene. The Pad Woman, Prameela Rao, is the founder of non-profit Kalpa Trust, which offers students at the Kavoor government First Grade College materials to manufacture sanitary pads for women in rural areas. The completed pads are distributed free of charge to the colonies of Gurupur, Malali, Bajpe, and Shakthinagar, obviating the need for women to purchase prohibitively expensive mainstream menstrual products. The pads are made from donated cotton clothing, which the students wash, iron, cut, and stitch to create the final product.

In the western state of Gujarat, an organization known as the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) is directly targeting period taboos among rural communities. Activists Manjula and Sudha told the Indian magazine The New Leam that, for the girls they have educated in the villages of Karamdi Chingaryia and Jariyavada, confusion and fear regarding menstruation have given way to confidence and clarity. For the AKSRP, which emphasizes gender equality and the societal participation of women, offering rural villagers the ability to make informed choices about their own menstrual health is key. As of The New Leam’s report in April 2019, the non-profit had reached about 60 Indian villages, providing information about sanitary pads of various designs, longevities, and price points.

While pads are a far more hygienic choice than rags or newspaper, they are not the only option: Back in Manguluru, two German volunteers have initiated a menstrual cup project known as “a period without shame.” In their pilot run, Nanett Bahler and Paulina Falky distributed about 70 menstrual cups free of charge to Indian women, as well as leading workshops on effective use for recipients. The cups, which are made of silicone and emptied around twice per day during one’s period, can be used for up to 10 years, making them a hygienic, eco-friendly, and potentially more affordable option for people of all ages.

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Such grassroots efforts have been instrumental in chipping away at stigma among Indians in certain cities and villages, but broader change is unlikely without widespread publicity. One potential avenue for increased awareness is the newly released documentary Period. End of Sentence., which follows rural Indian women in their battle against period stigma. To create the film, Iranian-American director Rayka Zehtabchi visited small villages outside of Delhi to inquire after women’s menstrual health, and shot extensive footage of women who have learned to create their own sanitary products. The diligent pad-makers, many of whom are housewives who have never before held a full-time job, sell their creations to locals in their area, educating women on proper use and convincing shop owners to stock the products. By the end of the time span covered by the documentary, the women had set up a factory and manufactured 18,000 pads, earning economic self-sufficiency for themselves and an Academy Award nomination for Zehtabchi.

The work of these Delhi entrepreneurs, along with that of the AKSRP and Pad Woman Prameela, has made a positive difference for countless people—but, according to Mumbai-based journalist and author Puja Changoiwala, education and access must rise above the grassroots level and reach the legislative in order to create enduring change in attitudes toward menstruation. In a piece for Self, Changoiwala suggests that the Indian government should distribute free pads and launch an “aggressive nation-wide awareness program,” engaging celebrities and the press to address the dire consequences of long-held stigma. For anyone in India with a period, such a moment cannot come soon enough.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

Ugandan Nuns Protest Trafficking, Seeing it as an Extension of the Slave Trade

Nuns in Uganda are fighting against human trafficking, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade that plagued Africa for centuries. Sammis Reachers. CC0.

Nuns in Uganda are fighting against human trafficking, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade that plagued Africa for centuries. Sammis Reachers. CC0.

Ugandan nuns are protesting human trafficking as part of the 6,000 member organization Association of the Religious in Uganda. They understand trafficking to be a basic human rights and dignity issue, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade. Their inspiration to fight the issue comes from a variety of sources including Biblical stories, African proverbs, Scripture, and the lives of the saints, notably St. Catherine of Siena, who said that silence kills the world. Groups of nuns have met with government representatives to implore them to combat the issue further.

At a three-day workshop in November 2018 organized by the Africa Faith and Justice Network, nuns examined the global issues facing Africa today, as well as the effects that the centuries of the slave trade have had upon the continent. The issue of human trafficking was seen in a much harsher light following that discussion, as the Africans participating in trafficking are essentially perpetuating the slave trade.

After the workshop, 32 nuns visited the Ministries of Internal Affairs; Foreign Affairs; Gender, Labour and Social Development; and the Uganda Human Rights Commission. These are departments that deal with travel outside Uganda, labor organizations, and citizens’ human rights.

The speaker of the Parliament of Uganda, Rebecca Kadaga, met with 13 Association-affiliated nuns after they petitioned her against abroad workers’ cases of slavery and torture. She said that she blames members of government for faltering on the issue. “Unfortunately, a number of people in government own labour export companies and I am told it is very lucrative so they continued,” Kadaga said, according to the Daily Monitor. Some of the workers who go abroad don’t come back. The nuns are also requesting that the government at least halt the employment of girls, because they are common targets for trafficking and sexual abuse. They also asked for law changes via harsher penalties for those caught trafficking.

"Human trafficking is dehumanising. It exposes our sisters and brothers to untold torture, sexual abuse and slavery. Some of our daughters are trafficked abroad and forced to have sexual intercourse with animals, while some are killed for organ transplant. For those lucky to return home, the trauma they have suffered incapacitates them and makes them social misfits," Sister Teresa Namataka, from Kenya, was quoted as saying in AllAfrica.

In all the meetings, a common point was expressed: a need for collaboration in fighting human trafficking. The nuns made a statement and called for a press conference, both of which caused the fight to gain more media attention. The nuns are currently working on setting up a joint meeting between stakeholders and collaborators to search for a way forward out of this human rights and dignity tragedy.

The religious international anti-trafficking organization Talitha Kum celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and also recently launched the Nuns Healing Hearts campaign, beginning with a photography exhibition documenting the work the organization does around the world to combat trafficking.

Other issues facing Africa today include the devaluation of currency, as well as the adverse effects of globalization. Those are particularly felt through the destruction of local economies by the buildup of discarded objects like computers and refrigerators and the importation of poisonous objects. Africa has many social ills, but the nuns are starting with human trafficking, seeing it as the most alarming.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

The Teenager Schooling World Leaders on Climate Change

For hundreds of thousands of young people, Greta Thunberg is an icon. At only 16, she’s proving you don’t have to be an adult to make a world of a difference. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee is among the most influential voices speaking out about Earth’s dire climate crisis. 

The teen first learned about the devastating, lasting impact of climate change when she was just 11 years old. Dismayed by adults’ unwillingness to respond, she decided to take action herself. She began by making small changes in her own life—cutting meat and dairy from her diet and convincing her parents to also live more sustainably

Frustrated by the lack of attention from policymakers, Greta held a strike in August 2018, missing class to sit in protest in front of the Swedish Parliament with a sign that read “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” (“School Strike for the Climate”). She vowed to hold strikes every Friday until Sweden was in alignment with the Paris Agreement

People in Sweden (and now, the world over) began to take notice of Greta’s stance. After a viral TED Talk where she explained her call to action, others began to join in her protests. Today, #FridaysforFuture has grown to be a global phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of young people from over 125 countries standing alongside Greta. 

In addition to her Nobel Peace Prize nomination, Greta’s actions have earned her speaking engagements at the World Economic Forum and COP24—but most importantly, they’ve ignited a new generation to create change and stand up for the future. 

Greta says she owes her dogged determination in part to being on the spectrum: “I think if I wouldn’t have had Asperger’s I don’t think I would have started the school strike, I don’t think I would’ve cared about the climate at all… That allowed me to focus on one thing for a very long time.” 

Her #FridaysforFuture protest on March 15, 2019 drew 1.6 million strikers, from 2,000 locations, across all seven continents. She wants world leaders to know that change is coming, whether they like it or not.

Female Saudi Arabian Activist on Death Row for Peaceful Protest

On August 21, 2018, Saudi Arabian public prosecutors announced that they were considering the death penalty for five Saudi Shia activists. One of the five is Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist who could become the first woman sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Ghomgham, along with four other Saudi Shia activists including her husband, engaged in peaceful demonstrations for Shia rights beginning in 2011 during the rise of the Arab Spring, which led to their 2015 arrests.

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs the Middle East sector of Human Rights Watch. “Every day, the Saudi monarchy’s unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of ‘reform’ to allies and international business.”

Responding to peaceful protests with the death penalty is compromising both to proponents of human decency and order, and these actions are symptomatic of a larger illness. If Saudi Arabia is to continue to suppress and murder its own citizens, its actions could lead to its internal combustion. To preserve its tenuous position of prosperity, the Saudi Arabian government must honor the voices of its insurgents—or at least allow them to live.

Saudi Arabia, a desert country in the Middle East said to be the birthplace of Islam, holds a complex position at the pinnacle of capital and culture. It has the world’s third highest national total estimated value of natural resources. It is home to the world’s largest oil company, and it has been the proponent of various reform agendas, significant amount of money invested in solar energy. It is also ruled by the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement, which is part of Sunni Islam.

It has shown support for counterterrorism and revolutionary liberal and Arab Spring ideals and has supported rebel forces in Syria and Yemen, but internally it has been a breeding ground for violent forms of radical Islam, placing it at a crux between the most progressive and oppressive sides of the ideological spectrum. The nation’s 32-year-old king, Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing to modernize his country, opening movie theatres and allowing women to drive for the first time—but his actions towards protestors despite his presentation of liberalism rings eerily close to the actions of Bashar al Assad, Syrian president who also began his reign by encouraging Westernization in Syria before cracking down on protestors and unleashing a bloody civil war. Under Salman, critics of the Saudi Arabian regime have been arrested in scores, and 58 people are currently on death row. Many of these prisoners are women, often arrested for protesting the country’s guardianship system, which places Saudi Arabian men in almost complete control of their daughters’ or wives’ lives.

Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband were arrested on December 5, 2015, and are on trial at the Specialized Criminal Court, which Saudi Arabia installed in 2008 and which has drawn expense criticism from human rights activists, sentencing eight protestors to death in 2014 and 14 in 2016. Currently human rights campaigners are working to secure her freedom and life.

EDEN ARIELLE GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.

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What Does the #MeToo Movement Look Like in France?

The sexual assault debate in the City of Love.

From the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral. By Pedro Szekely. April 28, 2018.

From the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral. By Pedro Szekely. April 28, 2018.

Last October in the US, a media firestorm erupted in response to many prominent actresses coming forward to accuse producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. In the days after the story broke, women across the world were invited to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment using the hashtag #MeToo. In the safety of numbers, inumerable women came forward to share their experiences, exposing their bosses, CEO’s, and elite, powerful men to the scrutiny of society. But this is all old news. While the movement has had incredible success in America, it has had a different reception in other cultural climates, namely, France.

The French have historically taken a different perspective on sexual allegations than Americans. Take, for instance, the shock and horror Americans expressed when news of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky broke, versus the “c’est la vie” air expressed by the French in response to President Mitterand's affair with actress Julie Gayet.

In early January, French actress Catherine Deneuve joined 99 other well-known French women in an open letter to the #MeToo movement. The letter posed a critique of #MeToo, comparing it to a Stalinist “thought police,” and arguing that “what began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite – we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shut down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors.” To the crafters of the letter, #MeToo represents a “hatred of men and sexuality,” an American brand of anti-feminine, anti-male feminism. The letter also included an unfortunate phrase regarding men’s right to “pester women.” To some in France, the #MeToo movement seems like little more than a wave of American puritanism, an encore to the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Not surprisingly, the letter exploded on social media where it was condemned as an example of internalized misogyny or, more extremely, rape-apology. Devenue and other signers were largely viewed as out of touch with reality, as glamorous older women whose privilege allows them to forget the fraught workplaces of millenials, or the students who walk home alone at night.

While the writer’s statements do pose a kind of reality check to the #MeToo movement, their statements on men’s so-called right to “pester women” and emphasis on men's role as the seducer, emphasize their experience of an older culture in which male subjectivity was a natural right. While the writers paint a rosy picture of sexual freedom apart from what they see as an American-inspired wave of “puritanism,” the emphasis on female objectivity and passivity, of being pursued, has no point of reference in the worlds of ordinary French women. Sure, women enjoy to flirt and be flirted with (as do men), but to claim a grey line between this and assault smacks of the predatory sexism that sparked the #MeToo movement in the first place. “If that’s your fetish, if that turns you on, there’s a problem," Rania Sendid, a medical student at Sorbonne University told NBC. "She doesn’t speak for me.”

Nevertheless, according to feminist and historian Michelle Perrot, the writers, “are triumphant free women who show a certain lack of solidarity with the #MeToo victims … But they say what they think, and many people share their point of view. The debate is real and must be recognised.” Despite being hailed as outdated or out of touch, the Devenue letter was signed by many millenials. Thus, the divide seems as much ideological as generational.

While the letter was perhaps poorly expressed, it did draw on the fear of many French women that #MeToo represents a brand of moralist, antisexual thinking that is more oppressive than freeing. In some eyes, the movement seems to have morphed from assault victims seeking justice into a culture of revisionism. In an interview with the Atlantic, 55 year old event organizer Jean-Julien Pascalet said that, “we suffered for a long time from religion, which imposed a moral order — saying, 'that’s good, that’s bad.' If we go back to that … it would be terrible, it would be an Orwellian society.” Others object to the trial-via-media occuring in America, saying that disagreements belong in court, not a public blacklist.

In opposition to these points of view are those who recognize that the media blitz of #MeToo was a last resort for women. Due to the statute of limitations, threats, or simply a lack of resources, it is incredibly difficult to even get a rape or sexual harassment case before a court, let alone receive a favorable verdict. Activist Rebecca Amsellem told NBC that the writers of the letter, “don’t represent all women in France,” saying that, “the problem is that the legal system has failed women and has failed victims.” Pauline Verduzier, a French journalist specializing in gender issues, told NBC that, “The statement said if men don’t have the right to be pushy or flirty without asking, without making sure that it’s OK, it’s the end of seduction because seduction is based on men conquering women," she said. "This is not the future; this is the past. This is wrong. Everything in this statement is not for freedom, it’s the opposite.”

The often-overlooked initiator of the public letter, Abnousse Shalmani, is a 41 year old French-Iranian who grew up in Tehran until her parents were forced to immigrate to Paris in the mid 80’s. She is also a rape survivor. In the midst of the uproar over the letter, Shalmani appeared on radio to say that, “we do not dismiss the many women who had the courage to speak up against Weinstein. We do not dismiss either the legitimacy of their fight. We do, however, add our voice, a different voice, to the debate.”

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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Tagging Germany with Love

For the past three decades, Irmela Mensah-Schramm has made it her mission to eradicate hate in the world. Armed with a spray can, a scraper and a bottle of nail polish remover, the 71-year-old activist takes to the streets of Berlin to remove and cover up Nazi imagery and racist graffiti. After visiting a concentration camp for the first time, Schramm was moved to do her part to build a better future. Today, she’s removed over 77,500 neo-Nazi stickers all over Germany, and she has no intentions of stopping. Wherever there is hate in the world, Schramm will be there, can in hand.