Ukraine: How a Controversial New Language Law Could Help Protect Minorities and Unite the Country

‘The language matters!’: Activists demonstrate in Kiev, April 2019 to demand the passage of a new language law. EPA-EFE/Sergey Dolzhenko

‘The language matters!’: Activists demonstrate in Kiev, April 2019 to demand the passage of a new language law. EPA-EFE/Sergey Dolzhenko

Ukraine is celebrating 28 years of independence – but since 1991 the country has struggled to find the right policies and practices to protect and promote Ukrainian, the state language. It has also tried to prioritise policies of inclusion for ethnic and linguistic minorities while supporting the languages and cultures of Ukraine’s indigenous peoples. A new law passed in July 2019, if successfully implemented, may finally help strike the balance.

Ukrainian is currently is the eighth most spoken language in Europe with more than 33m speakers. Along with Belarusian and Russian, with which it shares Cyrillic script, it is an East Slavic language. Despite having some similarities with Russian, it is a separate language. Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine with small concentrations of Romanian and Hungarian speakers in the west. Ukraine’s indigenous languages (Crimean Tatar, Karaim and Krimchak) are recognised by UNESCO as endangered languages.

Over the past three decades, Ukrainian politicians have too often, in my opinion, exploited the issue of language policy – especially the question of giving Russian official status in the country – as a way of mobilising their respective bases, at the expense of national solidarity and cohesion.

This is despite the fact that Ukrainians routinely rank the issue of language very low on a list of the country’s problems. In 2018, only 2.4% of Ukrainians viewed the status of the Russian language as the most important problem in the country. Despite this, the former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, made the support of the Ukrainian language a key element of his re-election campaign. But it didn’t give his campaign any discernible lift and he was ousted at the April 2019 election by comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russian gets weaponised

In 2014, the Kremlin used the issue to justify its military aggression against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin repeatedly claimed that Ukraine’s post-Maidan government was targeting Russian-speakers in the country. Given that the government was led by native Russian-speakers, such as Oleksandr Turchynov and Petro Poroshenko, this was an absurd argument. But nonetheless, some western observers appeared to accept it.

The law, On the Provision of the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language, passed in April and took force on July 16. Unsurprisingly, it was met with a fierce reaction from the Kremlin, which called for the United Nations Security Council to debate the issue.

Russian influence: Vladimir Putin with members of the pro-Kremlin biker gang Night Wolves in Sevastopol, Crimea, August 2019. EPA-EFE/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin

Russian influence: Vladimir Putin with members of the pro-Kremlin biker gang Night Wolves in Sevastopol, Crimea, August 2019. EPA-EFE/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin

But beyond the political bluster, what are the actual features of this law and does it have the potential to allow effective functioning of Ukrainian and other languages and, at the same time, bring the country together?

Securing official status

The law affirms Ukrainian as the main language of inter-ethnic communication – a role most recently played by Russian and by German and Polish in earlier historical periods. It also ensures that information and services are available in Ukrainian – something that was not previously the case in the majority of cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russian dominates in all spheres of public life. But the law also allows official interactions in languages that are “acceptable to both sides”, and it doesn’t completely rule out the use of Russian.

Drafts of the law in development were criticised for forcing media (including academic publications) to publish equal numbers in Ukrainian and other languages. It was argued that this makes the existence of such newspapers like the Kyiv Post – the most famous Ukrainian newspaper in English – very problematic. As a response to this criticism, the law was changed to allow publication in English and “other official languages of the European Union”. So, while supporting multilingualism, the law clearly rules out Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication.

But the law’s requirements to ensure that all theatrical performances and 90% of films are in Ukrainian, with an undefined exception for “artistic necessity”, seem both unproductive and excessive.

Supporting language minorities

If successful, the law will go a long way towards protecting Ukraine’s indigenous languages. Media outlets are obliged to produce a certain percentage of their content in the indigenous language, while all higher educational institutions must have the capacity to teach indigenous languages to all students who express a desire for it.

Protesters demonstrate against the disappearance of Crimean Tatar activists. Tatars are one of Ukraine’s oppressed minority groups, October 2016. EPA/Roman Pilipey

Protesters demonstrate against the disappearance of Crimean Tatar activists. Tatars are one of Ukraine’s oppressed minority groups, October 2016. EPA/Roman Pilipey

The law also stipulates that language courses must be available in the languages of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities and, for the first time in Ukraine’s history, Ukrainian sign language is given protection and support. This empowerment has been somewhat overlooked in the recent comments on the law that mostly focused on the rights of Russian-speakers.

But Ukraine’s parliament has still to pass additional legislation on the rights of the indigenous people and minorities of Ukraine, which is required under the terms of the language law. This should provide additional mechanisms to protect the rights of Russian-speakers and other minorities. The newly-created party, Servant of the People, recently won power and has declared that it will “deal with this issue”.

As we’ve heard, despite the outside world’s obsession with language as one of the critical issues in Ukraine, only a small minority of people see it as a high-priority problem. The 2018 survey referred to above also showed people are far more worried about the ongoing military conflict and the effect it is having on living standards and the economy.

What’s clear, though, is that these problems won’t be solved without national cohesion. So, whether or not Ukrainians themselves think it important, the right formula for establishing Ukrainian as the official state language, as well as supporting and protecting indigenous and minority languages, will be key to helping the embattled country pull together.

IVAB KOZACHENKO is a Postdoctoral research associate, University of Cambridge.


Puerto Ricans Unite Against Rosselló – And More Than a Decade of Cultural Trauma

People wave Puerto Rican flags as they attend a rally to celebrate the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 25.  REUTERS/Marco Bello

People wave Puerto Rican flags as they attend a rally to celebrate the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 25. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Puerto Ricans wrote a new chapter in their history on July 24.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló finally resigned after 12 days of massive protests in Puerto Rico, as well as protests abroad, that demanded his resignation; all the protests used the hashtag #RickyRenuncia.

The beginning of the protests can be traced to the release by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo of 889 pages of a Telegram chat transcript that exposed offensive and unethical comments made by the governor and his inner circle.

But the chat was only the latest blow. A series of natural and human-made disasters have caused turmoil and trauma in Puerto Ricans’ lives, including the more than decade-long recession that started in 2006; the financial crisis and subsequent enactment of the PROMESA law in 2016that reinforced Puerto Rico’s colonial status; and the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

Rosselló’s corruption further compromised the post-disaster recovery of Puerto Ricans, many of whom continue to suffer personal and cultural trauma.

Whereas personal trauma “involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual,” by cultural trauma, we mean what sociologist Jeffrey Alexander says “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”

The chat’s transcript served as a catalyst for Puerto Ricans to come together in indignation.

Personal and cultural trauma

Together, we have been studying Puerto Rican activism, the diaspora’s political ideologies and migration, particularly in Central Florida, for many years.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, approximately 159,000 to 176,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the continental U.S. This major movement is expected to continue, with an anticipated 14% of the island population leaving over the next two years.

We wanted to understand the conditions under which post-disaster Puerto Rican migrants successfully integrated into continental U.S. society, and the challenges they face. We will soon begin a two-year study on how those leaving the island after the hurricanes have fared in Central Florida.

Data we have collected already suggest that post-disaster migrants continue to experience personal trauma and stress long after the immediate disasters passed.

Some Puerto Ricans not only lost family members or everything they owned, but, even a year after impact, many in Puerto Rico still lacked access to basic necessities such as potable water, warm food, shelter, medicines, and electricity.

Of the 19 Puerto Ricans we have interviewed so far, as well as over 100 surveyed, many were deeply impacted by Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For those in our sample who lived on the island during the hurricane but have since moved to Florida, many felt traumatic loss in leaving their homes and families behind to survive the slow recovery.

Many told us that they lost their jobs, suffered health problems and, upon migration, faced racism and downward occupational mobility in the continental U.S.

Members of the diaspora also experienced personal trauma during the days and weeks after the hurricanes, not knowing about the status of their loved ones in Puerto Rico.

One of the Puerto Ricans we interviewed, John, explained the agony he felt in the aftermath of the storm waiting to hear from his father in Puerto Rico: “I talked to my dad the night before it was supposed to hit and he said he’ll call me as soon as he can. And then I didn’t hear from him for a couple days, so it was definitely stressful,” he said.

His father finally called; John said, “That was one of the most important phone calls I ever received… I cried because I was just excited to hear from him.”

In recent years, the totality of personal traumas Puerto Ricans have faced, including the recent chat scandal, amount to an arc of cultural trauma.

A man walks past a sign that reads ‘You are finally leaving. Ricky resign. Thanks Puerto Rico for resisting’ on the street that leads to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A man walks past a sign that reads ‘You are finally leaving. Ricky resign. Thanks Puerto Rico for resisting’ on the street that leads to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Resiliency and resistance

Puerto Ricans told us that they have used a range of coping mechanisms to contend with their challenges. Some of the main coping strategies to deal with personal trauma were connecting with family and friends for support; finding solace in their faith; trying to adapt to new daily routines; and trying to secure a job to provide for their families.

All of these resilient acts bring meaning to their sacrifices and losses. Our interviewees are actively recreating their homes, whether in Puerto Rico or elsewhere.

We see the current collective protests as acts of resistance to their cultural trauma. The protests have brought about a sense of group solidarity that has strengthened cohesion among the people of Puerto Rico, regardless of where they are geographically. These protests also signal that Puerto Ricans are actively reconstructing a more democratic society.

That is why journalists and participants have compared these recent protests to the “Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques” (All of Puerto Rico with Vieques) movement that aimed to remove the U.S. Navy from using the island of Vieques – part of Puerto Rico – for military exercises, particularly, the “Paz para Vieques” march on February 21, 2000. Back then, these collective actions aimed to hold the U.S. government accountable for the damages caused by the bombings in Vieques and the poor health of its residents. The protests were successful in removing the navy, although Vieques residents are still battling in court for reparations and clean-up.

Research shows that these types of group political actions can help to foster a process of collective healing, notably when the objectives are achieved.

While the Telegram chat was the latest shock in an arc of cultural trauma afflicting Puerto Ricans, we think that Puerto Ricans have demonstrated powerful acts of resilience in rebuilding a hopeful future for Puerto Rico. A simple hashtag – #RickyRenuncia – represents resistance against more than a decade of struggles, yet it is only the beginning of what is to come.

ELIZABETH ARANDA is a Professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida.

ALESSANDRA ROSA is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of South Florida.


In Romania, 500 Days of Silence Mark Movement Against Corruption

For citizens of tiny Sibiu, Romania, “watchful eyes” nestled in the city’s roofs have become a symbol of ongoing protest.

Houses with eyes in Sibiu. lucianf. CC BY 2.0

Houses with eyes in Sibiu. lucianf. CC BY 2.0

Each day at noon, in the picturesque little city of Sibiu, the red-shingled roofs and the protestors silently assembled in the streets send the same message to the corrupt government of Romania: We are watching you.

Visitors to Sibiu take note of the standard Central European attributes: the quaint, historic architecture, punctuated by the Gothic Lutheran cathedral, whose steeple looms high into the sky; the houses clinging to the bank of the river Cibin, which winds lazily down from the main waterway of Olt. But they are likely to do a double-take upon noticing the ever-watchful Sibiu eyes—narrow windows rising up from the city’s roofs, giving the impression of a perpetual half-lidded gaze. Originally designed to ventilate attics where meat, cheese, and grain were stored while keeping the harsh sunlight out, the eyes have become a potent symbol of Romania’s anti-corruption movement—specifically, a grassroots organization called V Vedem din Sibiu, or “we are watching you from Sibiu.”

V Vedem din Sibiu came about in December 2017, when the government moved to shift judiciary statutes in a way that was widely regarded as tightening state control over judges and undermining the National Anticorruption Directorate. The attempt further inflamed tensions ignited at the beginning of the year, when the ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) decriminalized a range of corruption offenses, triggering Romania’s most sizable street protest since the fall of communism in 1989. The emergency ordinance—which, among other stipulations, dropped charges of official misconduct in cases where the financial damage did not exceed 200,000 lei ($47,000)—passed at 10 p.m. local time; by midnight, more than 10,000 infuriated citizens had taken to the streets in the capital of Bucharest, and around 10,000 in other cities across Romania.

Anti-corruption protesters in Bucharest. Paul Arne Wagner. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anti-corruption protesters in Bucharest. Paul Arne Wagner. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Corruption is considered a serious problem in Romania, and the country’s fragile political state is exacerbated by its status as one of the European Union’s newest and poorest members, leaving citizens concerned for their rights and constantly at the ready to mount a protest. In the years and months since the events of 2017, Romania has seen ongoing organizing against corruption and in support of judicial independence, and the government has endured criticism from the European Commission, the U.S. state department, and the centrist president and National Liberal Party leader, Klaus Iohannis, who has made strong calls for governmental transparency. In January 2018, approximately 50,000 Romanians marched towards parliament in Bucharest, waving flags, contending with riot police, and raising raucous chants of “Thieves!” And in August of that year, up to 100,000 members of the Romanian diaspora descended on Bucharest to protest the PSD—an event that took a violent turn when police deterred marchers with tear gas and water cannons.

Anti-corruption protesters in Bucharest. Paul Arne Wagner. CC BY 2.0

Anti-corruption protesters in Bucharest. Paul Arne Wagner. CC BY 2.0

Relative to the chaotic, overwhelming tableau of the ongoing demonstrations in Bucharest, the soundless walkouts occurring daily in Sibiu present a stark contrast. This July, the Sibiu protesters commemorated their 500th day gathering in the city center, sacrificing their lunch breaks or school recesses to stand in silence outside the headquarters of the PSD. “Those 15 minutes every day, it is like a flame that never goes out,” said Ciprian Ciocan, one of the founders of V Vedem din Sibiu, in an interview with The Guardian. “Somebody knows that there are still people in Sibiu, no matter whether it rains or snows or whatever.”

Ciocan posts live videos of the protests on V Vedem din Sibiu’s Facebook page, where they reach more than 20,000 followers. During the events of December 2017, allies from around the world sent in more than 68 versions of the Sibiu eyes—scrawled on walls and scraps of paper, carved into sand at the seashore, inscribed with branches laid on fresh snow, from Berlin to Chicago to Kuala Lumpur. Though the initial tide of eyes has slowed, the page continues to share media coverage of the protests along with its regularly scheduled live videos. The “about” section defines the sit-in as a form of protest, stating, “We are protecting the values and principles in which we strongly believe, the state of law and the independence of Justice.”

Sibiu. Camelia TWU. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sibiu. Camelia TWU. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In May of this year, under pressure from the EU and overwhelming dissent from Romanian voters, the PSD abandoned some of its most controversial measures. Even more devastating for the party was their loss of seats in European Parliament elections and the departure of the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who was jailed on May 27 and is expected to serve a three-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption.

Despite small steps in the right direction, however, citizens remain on high alert. “There are many other dangers,” Bianca Toma of the Romanian Centre for European Policies told The Guardian. “There are still things to be undone and it’s a matter of fact, not just [making] statements.” And in Sibiu, the ongoing protests have had little impact on the PSD, whose workers drew the blinds when sit-ins began and issued a statement accusing the activists of “aggressive” behavior. Still, like clockwork, citizens will keep turning out in the streets, and the watchful eyes will keep gazing from Sibiu’s rooftops, waiting for a day when Romanians at home and abroad can live without fear of corruption.

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.

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.


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.


In Iran, a Lost Generation Raises its Voice

Saddled with the effects of the 1979 upheaval, Iran’s “children of the revolution” have expressed their rebellion through both destructive and creative means.

University students in Iran. Julia Maudlin. CC BY 2.0

University students in Iran. Julia Maudlin. CC BY 2.0

Iran’s younger generation has faced an uncomfortable paradox: While they were born after the massive cultural and political revolutions that redefined their country beginning in 1979, they nevertheless have to grapple with its less-than-favorable results. Over the past decade, Iranians at home and abroad in the United States have faced internal turmoil and external oppression—and with unrest once again brewing between America and the Middle East, upheaval threatens to return in full force.

Forty years ago, in 1979, the revolutionary period began when Iran’s Islamic Republic seized power from Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamists aimed to do away with the Westernized era of the Shah, and reinstate traditional religious principles. “We must root out immorality from our society,” announced the Ayatollah two weeks after his arrival in Tehran. “We shall purify the entire press, the radio, the television, the cinemas, the schools and the universities.”

In the ensuing years, Iran transformed into what Qantara—a German website seeking to promote dialogue with the Islamic world—calls “Neither East nor West, but an Islamic republic.” Vigilantes claiming to be “Followers of the Party of God” (“Ansar-e Hezbollah”) blacklisted liberal newspapers and torched publishing houses and bookshops. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution disseminated instructions to educators at all levels of the school system, ordering them to ensure their curricula aligned with the tenets of Islam. Further, the revolution adopted distinctly anti-American rhetoric, decrying the United States’ profiting from Iranian oil and thwarting of democratic movements for the past quarter-century.

Not every regime that has come to power since 1979, however, has enforced strict regulations on the lives of its constituents. Between 1997 and 2005, reformist leader Mohammad Khatami ushered in the “Tehran spring,” a period of political liberalization and relaxation of the harsh rules governing citizen behavior. Yet Khatami largely failed to live up to his promises of freedom, democracy, transparency, and reform, even when the reformers gained power in Parliament. Particularly traumatic for the Iranian people were the events of summer 1999, when gangs of thugs killed one student and injured many others during an attack on a Tehran University resident hall. When the students defended themselves, Khatami refused to support them, prompting many students and young people to distance themselves from the pro-democracy movement. And with the election of religious hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, even the perfunctory reforms enacted by Khatami lost their potency.

In recent years, Iran’s overwhelmingly youthful population—60 percent of its 70 million citizens were under 30 as of 2009—is placed in an uncomfortable position with respect to its country’s tumultuous past. This cohort did not experience the revolution directly, or experience the rule of the Shah, or fight in Iran’s battle with Iraq—yet they have experienced the aftermath of the 1979 upheaval and have grown up steeped in what The Economist calls “Iran’s strange blend of theocracy and democracy.”

This group of younger citizens was dubbed “the children of the revolution” by the mullah leadership that took control of the government after the 1979 student-led takeover of the American embassy. Having never known a world other than the one controlled by Islamists, they are branded with this label regardless of their own views on the massive cultural shifts that defined their childhoods. Their education was marked by intense ideological indoctrination, and among those who came of age in the 1980s, the principle of jihad and martyrdom against enemy forces in Iraq was often embraced.

A young woman in Gorgan, Iran. Soudeh Rad. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A young woman in Gorgan, Iran. Soudeh Rad. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the following decades, young people were profoundly affected by the economic failures of the Iranian government: Although citizens are generally extremely well-educated and literate, job prospects have historically been grim, with rampant inflation and unemployment disproportionately affecting the young. The population spike following the revolution only made matters worse, as it encouraged rapid urbanization and an increasingly slim job market. With a job shortage, a lack of leisure and entertainment facilities, and discouraging prospects for the future, many young people experienced crippling apathy. In the mid-2010s, Qantara described dangerous levels of drug addiction among Iranian youth and an insurmountable rift between younger generations and ruling clerics. Overall, asserts Qantara, the children of the revolution yearn to live in freedom—to develop their talents and ideologies according to their personal desires and morals rather than under the aegis of spiritual leaders.

Yet despite widespread disaffection, young people are stymied by their complex relationships to their own country and its leadership. Many young Iranians still hold religion in high regard, and do not wish to transform Iran into a secular country; rather, they would prefer Islam to be eliminated from the public sphere and kept within their private lives. Further, despite the failings of their government, younger generations maintain a strong sense of national pride, and would still protect their leaders if faced with outside interference or attack.

Today, blame has shifted slightly among some citizens, targeting the theocracy rather than the elected executive class. Writing for The Economic Times of India in 2019, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra notes that lower-class rural voters are beginning to turn against the same religious leaders who have long supported them, but that their lack of independent leaders and means of mass mobilization effectively limits the harm they can do to the established order.

Meanwhile, Iranians living in America face unique challenges and often have complicated feelings about their native country. Virginia-based magazine AltDaily notes that the 2009 elections, which reinstated Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president, placed the country’s power structure and governance at the center of American dialogue. Writing 10 years later, in May 2019, Shervin Malekzadeh—who left Iran as a baby in 1978—describes the revolution as transforming Iran “from an exotic and ancient civilization” in the international eye “into something ominous.” Malekzadeh describes demonization of Iranians as religious fanatics, and feelings of pressure to present the “correct” narrative to Americans about a country that, to him, was largely an enigma.

Young men in Qazvin, Iran. Kamyar Adl. CC BY 2.0

Young men in Qazvin, Iran. Kamyar Adl. CC BY 2.0

In a piece for the Asian American news and culture magazine Hyphen, Iranian American writer Manijeh Nasrabadi notes hesitation to identify as Iranian among children of the diaspora: The 2000 US census indicated slightly more than 500,000 people of Iranian birth and descent living in America, but diaspora organizations place that number between 600,000 and 1 million. Nasrabadi points to negative treatment of immigrant groups by Americans, exacerbated by the 1979 upheaval and its anti–US rhetoric. Yet xenophobic attitudes—especially after 9/11, when Americans grew ravenous for knowledge of little-known, “threatening” parts of the world—have paradoxically offered a new outlet for Iranian American expression: writing. In the mid-2000s, memoirs by writers who came of age in Iran, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, achieved mainstream success, and helped make a name for Iranian American literature as a distinct creative category.

“We have all faced a daunting challenge,” Nasrabadi writes, “how to grapple with a violent revolutionary legacy while inhabiting an America that abhors Iran and yet constitutes our home.” Now, with US tensions against Iran once again ramping up, and President Trump invoking bellicose threats as he deploys a military presence to the Persian Gulf, Iranian youth both in the Middle East and in America may once again face profound trauma as their native country grows embroiled in international turmoil. Perhaps this time, rather than channeling their frustrations into public disturbance, the younger generation will go the way of Nasrabadi and Malekzadeh, and express their disaffection through creative means—in the process, acquainting the international community with the unique concerns of the children of the revolution.

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.


Fighting Human Extinction in London and Beyond

Over the past week, governmental officials and police say, protesters have wreaked havoc in London—but it’s all part of an effort to address the sociopolitical factors wreaking havoc on our planet.

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

In the early afternoon of Monday, April 22, about 100 people entered London’s Natural History Museum and made their way to Hintze Hall. As sunlight streamed in from the skylights and illuminated the Romanesque arches that punctuate the stone walls, the protestors positioned themselves underneath Hope—the enormous blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling—and lay down on the ground. After about half an hour, most concluded their “die-in,” but a few remained; wearing face paint and crimson robes, they gave a classical music performance on the steps beneath the skeleton.

This unusual demonstration was part of a massive mobilization by Extinction Rebellion (abbreviated as XR), a non-partisan movement aiming to revise environmental policy with the goals of slowing climate change and minimizing the possibility of imminent human extinction. The group launched in the United Kingdom in October of 2018—in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report announcing that we have just 12 years to halt catastrophic change—and quickly proliferated worldwide.

Today, the movement boasts about 130 groups across the UK, and is active in countries from the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. Its core demands are threefold: Honesty and transparency from governments regarding the ecological crisis; reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and the implementation of a participatory democracy to monitor progress towards these goals.

The current actions in London, advertised on XR’s website as “UK Rebellion—Shut Down London!,” are the focal point of a constellation of protests planned in 80 cities across 33 countries. Beginning on April 15, thousands of protestors poured into the heart of London, blocking five major landmarks: Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus, and Piccadilly Circus. From the beginning, group members made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere, filling the bridge with trees and flowers and even setting up a skate park and stage. Live music emanated from Oxford Circus, and a life-sized model of a boat with “Tell the Truth” painted on the side blocked the center of the bustling junction.

Nearby at Piccadilly Circus, younger protestors chalked messages on the pavement, while inside an open-sided truck at Marble Arch, bands entertained hundreds of onlookers. In Parliament Square on April 15, Jamie Kelsey Fry—contributing editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine—encouraged demonstrators from an octagonal stage.

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

The audience waved flags and banners emblazoned with the symbol of the movement, dubbed by Steve Rose of The Guardian as the ubiquitous logo of 2019. According to Rose, the “X” signifies extinction, and the horizontal lines suggest an hourglass—reminding us once again that time is running out.

A high point for protestors was a visit from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg on Sunday, April 21. The Swedish teenager, who staged a “School Strike for Climate” at Sweden’s Parliament last year and initiated the weekly #FridaysforFuture school walkouts, received chants of “We love you” as she took the stage at Marble Arch.

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

While the protests have in some ways resembled a modern-day Woodstock, full of music and goodwill, London authorities—who have deployed some 9,000 police officers in response—see a different side of the story. As of April 22, more than 1,000 people had been arrested since the demonstrations began; the youngest to be charged was 19, and the oldest 74.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said that the protest was taking a toll on London’s police forces and businesses, commenting, “I'm extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime.” Protestors, for their part, view the stress on police as unavoidable: “We wish we didn’t have to distract police resources,” their website states. “80 year old grandfathers would rather not be putting themselves in the physically uncomfortable position of being in a police cell and children don’t want to be skipping school  – but 30 years of government inaction have left us with no choice.”

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

As protesters continue to be removed from the scene one by one by the police, with more rushing in to take their place, the question is whether or not the government will be responsive to XR’s message. On the first day of the mobilization, XR wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining its demands, requesting talks, and issuing a stern warning: Failing government action, the group’s disruptive demonstrations would only escalate over the coming weeks. On April 22—the day of the Natural History Museum die-in, and also Earth Day—the group said that they would soon hold a “people’s assembly” to determine next steps. The next day, protesters marched on Parliament in a renewed push to open dialogue with government officials.

London’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit has said that XR’s demand for carbon neutrality by 2025 “technically, economically and politically has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled,” but nevertheless supports the message behind the movement and the actions it has engendered. For XR, surmounting the impossible is the only way forward to ensure that human beings can continue to inhabit the earth: Their website reads, “Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst case scenarios and restore a safe climate.” Only time will tell whether those in power agree.

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.

Indigenous Communities in Brazil Protest Encroachment on Land Rights

The annual Free Land protest takes on a new sense of urgency under Bolsonaro’s far-right government.

Photo of the Brazilian flag by by  Rafaela Biazi  on  Unsplash .

Photo of the Brazilian flag by by Rafaela Biazi on Unsplash.

Last week, more than 4,000 indigenous people from over 300 tribes across Brazil gathered in Brasilia to set up camp in front of government buildings for three days of cultural celebrations and protest.

While the Free Land protest is an annual event, it has taken on a new significance this year under president Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right government’s encroachment on the rights of native people and their territories. Al Jazeera writes that according to The Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB), the central organizer of the gathering, this year the event occurs in a "very grave context".

Recently, Bolsonaro promised to stop the development of new indigenous reserves, and to revoke the protected status of established land reserves. Bolsonaro has even gone so far as to publicly question the need for indigenous reserves at all.

The Guardian writes that among the new far-right government’s projects is a movement to enable commercial farming and mining on indigenous reserves. One of the reserves targeted is the Yanomami territory, Brazil’s largest reserve which already experiences threats from illegal gold miners.

“We are defenders of the land, we are defenders of the Amazon, of the forest,” Alessandra Munduruku, one of the representatives of the Munduruku tribe told the Guardian. “The white man is [...] finishing off our planet and we want to defend it.”

Instead of directly handling the demarcation of Brazil’s indigenous reserves, the government has given the project to the agriculture ministry, a branch controlled by the farming lobby, a powerful organization which has been known to oppose indigenous land rights (Guardian). Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous congresswoman in Brazil, told Al Jazeera that during her time in office she had become aware of just how deeply the government was to indigenous rights. “The government is completely anti-indigenous,” she said, “[Jair Bolsonaro] is only open to those who defend mining and land grabbing, which is his intention.”

After days of encampment outside government buildings, indigenous groups began their annual march last friday. Protestors wore body paint and feathered headdresses, while beating beating drums and holding bows and arrows (Reuters).

The Guardian writes that last week Bolsonaro’s justice minister Sérgio Moro, requested the presence of Brazil’s national guard at the event, foreshadowing possible clashes with protestors. While Moro said that the guard would be working to “secure the public order and the safety of people and patrimony,” the guard said in a statement to Al Jazeera that it would use force “if necessary” to protect the “safety of the patrimony of the Union and its servers.”

In response to growing concern, the APIB released a statement saying that “our camp has been happening peacefully for the past 15 years to give visibility to our daily struggles. [...] We are not violent, violence is attacking our sacred right to free protesting with armed forces.”

In a statement to Reuters, David Karai Popygua, a native person from the state of Sao Paulo, summed up what is at stake for protestors. “Our families are in danger, our children are under threat, our people are being attacked,” he said. “In the name of what they call economic progress they want to kill our people.”

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.

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Students Across Europe Protest in Hopes of a Greener Future

After years of political gridlock surrounding climate change legislation, students emerge as a force for change.

Photo of a student protester. By  Josh Barwick  on  Unsplash .

Photo of a student protester. By Josh Barwick on Unsplash.

Thousands of students across Europe left school on Friday, February 15 to protest the lack of action on climate issues in their countries. In what the New York Times called a “coordinated walk out for action on climate issues,” elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate students came together to demand a greener future. In London, protestors held signs reading “The ocean is rising and so are we” and “Act now or swim later.”

The student-led movement for climate action that is currently taking Europe by storm began with 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. In September, Thunberg started skipping class to stage sit-ins at the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government seriously address climate change. Thunberg’s action inspired teens worldwide, some of whom created the global movement Youth Strike 4 Climate and began organizing protests and walkouts, using social media to coordinate efforts. According to the New York Times, demonstrations have been held in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland, among others.

The New York Times writes that the new organization gained even more energy in October of 2018 when a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disclosed that the world has only twelve years to change its climate policy before the consequences of inaction such as food shortages, rising sea levels, floods and forest fires manifest themselves.

Thunberg remains a notable voice in the movement she inspired, and went on to speak at the global climate-change conference in Poland last December. “You say you love your children above all else — and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she told politicians at the conference. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

In British schools, protesters received mixed reactions from teachers and staff. While some encouraged students, others threatened to punish them for skipping class. “My school was not supportive at the start. They said I would get detention for unauthorized absence,” Anna Taylor, the seventeen-year-old co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network told the New York Times.

Sixteen-year-old Bonnie Morely, who was attending the strike with friends from school, told the New York Times that a head teacher had taken down posters advertising the strike in her school’s common areas. “They’re treating us like we are doing something really wrong,” Morley said. “The future of our planet is looking really bleak, and all the politicians are asleep at the wheel. We have to wake them up, and I think thousands of kids on the streets will do just that.”

Like the teachers, European politicians displayed mixed reactions, with some supporting the students and others going so far as to suggest that the strikes were the product of a secret governmental organization.

According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that, “everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasize that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”

Thunberg tweeted in response: “British PM says that the children on school strike are ‘wasting lesson time.’ That may well be the case, but then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

“We don’t miss school because we’re lazy or because we don’t want to go to school,” Jakob Blasel, a high school student who assisted with the organization of an earlier protest in Berlin told the Washington Post. “We can’t go to school, because we have to strike. We have to deliver an uncomfortable message to our leaders that it can’t go on this way.”

Youth for climate is currently planning another round of protests and another global youth strike for March 15. The movement is growing and more students from nations across the world are expected to join.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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As Cuba Backs Gay Marriage, Churches Oppose the Government’s Plan

As gay Cubans gain more rights, opposition is also growing. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

As gay Cubans gain more rights, opposition is also growing. AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Cubans are debating a constitutional reform that, among other legal changes, would open the door to gay marriage. It would also prohibit discrimination against people based on sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in the communist nation.

The proposed new Constitution, drafted by a special commission within Cuba’s National Assembly, was unveiled in July. If the National Assembly and President Miguel Díaz-Canel approve the document after a Feb. 24, 2019 public referendum, marriage would be defined as a “union between two people.”

Cuba’s 1976 Constitution, known as the Carta Magna, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. And it does not fully protect private enterprise, freedom of association or allows for same-sex marriage – despite growing social acceptance and political tolerance for such rights.

Emigrés who retain Cuban nationality have been invited to participate in Cuba’s public debate on the constitutional reform – though not to vote on it – via a digital forum run by the Foreign Ministry – a level of citizen outreach that’s “unprecedented” in Cuba, says Ernesto Soberón, the ministry’s director of consular affairs and Cubans residing overseas.

Cuba’s political process opens up

This lively, broad-based debate is a sign of how much Cuba – a main subject of my research as a professor of literature and cultural studies – has changed in recent years.

President Raúl Castro, who took over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006, began to open Cuba’s economy to foreign investment and normalized diplomatic relations with the United States, which has maintained its economic embargo on the Communist island since 1962.

Raúl Castro also worked with President Barack Obama to ease some economic restrictions on Cuba.

Castro stepped down in April 2018, handing power over to the much younger Díaz-Canel.

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met in Havana in 2016, the culmination of the diplomatic ‘normalization’ process between the U.S. and Cuba. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met in Havana in 2016, the culmination of the diplomatic ‘normalization’ process between the U.S. and Cuba. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Cuba has moderately amended its Carta Magna just three times. A 1978 constitutional reform created an official channel for youth political participation, for example, while that of 1992 liberalized elements of Cuba’s socialist economic model to revitalize Cuba’s economy.

Today’s proposed reform is a complete overhaul. It would add 87 articles, change 113 and eliminate 13, even a section of Article 5 affirming Cuba’s “advance toward a Communist society.”

Beyond legalizing gay marriage, the new Constitution would protect private property, limit the presidential term to five years and introduce the role of prime minister.

Intense debate has surrounded the possibility of marriage equality in Cuba, and not just within the government’s official public meetings. Cubans are also discussing and debating gay marriage with neighbors and friends, in the streets and online – a departure from Cuba’s traditionally more top-down style of government.

The rise of gay rights in Cuba

Cuba’s nascent LGBTQ rights movement also began under Raúl Castro, thanks in large part to the leadership of his daughter Mariela Castro, a National Assembly member and president of the semi-governmental Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual, founded in 1987 to advance sexual awareness in Cuba.

A lack of opinion polling makes it difficult to measure Cuban public support for gay marriage. But acceptance of homosexuality, both within the government and in civil society, has grown appreciably.

During the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was considered incompatible with Cuba’s model of the revolutionary man: atheist, heterosexual and anti-bourgeoisie. Gay people, active Christians and others who defied these ideals were sent to military work camps to “strengthen” their revolutionary character.

Today, the Cuban government appears to accept homosexuality as part of socialist society. In 2008 the National Assembly approved a law allowing sexual reasignment surgery.

La Habana holds annual marches against homophobia and transphobia and cities across the island celebrate the Gay Pride parade.

Mariela Castro (center), daughter of former president Raúl Castro, is a leader in Cuba’s LGBTQ movement.Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Mariela Castro (center), daughter of former president Raúl Castro, is a leader in Cuba’s LGBTQ movement.Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

But legacies of intolerance remain.

The Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, the Evangelical League and the Methodist Church of Cuba, among other Christian churches, have issued a joint statement opposing gay marriage.

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

Their public letter, published on June 8, argues that such “gender ideology” has “nothing whatsoever to do with our culture, our independence struggles nor with the historic leaders of the Revolution.”

Cuba is a secular country where political ideology has historically trumped religion. Religious opposition to a government proposal is rare.

It is even more unusual for the church to attempt to mobilize the Cuban public, as some Christian leaders are trying to do now.

According to the Cuban magazine La Jiribilla, preachers on the streets have been handing out fliers saying gay marriage defies God’s “original design” for the family.

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

Traditionally, religion has taken a back seat to politics in Cuba. AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

LBGTQ activists answer

Gay rights groups and feminists are responding with a creative show of force.

Clandestina, Cuba’s first online store, and the tattoo studio La Marca are spearheading a campaign called “Cuban design,” celebrating a “very original family” – phrasing that rebuts Christian claims about God’s design.

“More than anything, this is an issue of free expression,” Roberto Ramos Mori, of La Marca, said in an email. “The way to push back against hate is calmly, with intelligence – and, of course, humor.”

Cubans with internet access use the hashtag #mifamiliaesoriginal to signal their support for LGBTQ rights on social media.

The church’s powerful opposition to marriage equality reflects a strategy commonly deployed across Latin America, says the Cuban feministAilynn Torres Santana.

Catholic and evangelical groups in Ecuador used similar language, for example, to oppose a 2017 law allowing citizens to choose their own gender identifier, she says. In response to the legislation – which recognized gender as “a binary that is socially and culturally created, patriarchal and heteronormative” – churches called for “citizens to live in harmony with nature.”

Similar scenes played out when both Colombia and Brazil advanced LGBTQ rights, with Christian groups dismissing any attempt to change traditional gender roles as the “result” of what they pejoratively call “gender ideology.”

What’s next for Cuba

Gay marriage is not the only battlefield for Cuba’s newly empowered churches.

Abortion, illegal in most of Latin America, has been a woman’s right in Cuba since 1965. Traditionally, not even Cuba’s Catholic church publicly opposed it.

Recently, though, Christians in Cuba have begun publicly advocatingagainst abortion.

If conservative religious groups manage to prevent gay marriage in Cuba, I believe it would be a setback for social progress on the island.

But the mere existence of alternative voices in Cuba’s public sphere – including that of its churches – is, itself, proof that the country has already changed.

MARÍA ISABEL ALFONSO is a Professor of Spanish at St. Joseph's College of New York.


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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“I Am For Russia”

What you should know about the Pussy Riot World Cup demonstration.



On July 15 during the middle of the World Cup final between France and Croatia, four protesters dressed as Russian police officers dashed onto the field, briefly halting the progress of the game.

In a statement made on twitter, the punk protest group Pussy Riot claimed responsibility for the disturbance.

Pussy Riot was founded in 2011 as a feminist protest punk rock group and has since become a powerful symbol of Russian resistance to the Putin regime. One of the groups most well known projects was their “punk prayer” protest in which members of the group in colourful balaclavas sang an anti-Putin political prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior during the lead up to Russia’s 2012 election. The song and location of the protest were meant to serve as a commentary on the co-dependent relationship of the church and state in Russia. In response, two of the group's members were jailed for almost two years.

The New Yorker writes that in Pussy Riot’s statement on twitter claiming responsibility for the protest, the group cited Russian Poet Aleksandrovich Prigov’s work contrasting the difference between “heavenly” police officers who care for a utopian society, and “earthly” police officers who maintain corrupt systems. According to a video statement made by the group, “the Heavenly Policeman will protect a baby in her sleep, while the earthly policeman persecutes political prisoners and jails people for sharing and liking posts on social media.” In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen compares the group’s intrusion on the soccer match to the police’s intrusion in the everyday lives of citizens. She writes that “the beautiful world of sport has its bubble punctured by people running and flailing haphazardly, intent on destruction.” According to Pussy Riot’s own statement, “the earthly policeman, who intervenes in the game every day and knows no rules, is destroying our world.”

The police uniforms worn by the group carry a powerful symbolic message, but were also instrumental in enabling the group to carry out the protest. "No one stopped us," Pyotr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot told the BBC, "I know the Russian psychology: a police uniform is sacred. Nobody will ask for your permit or accreditation. I pretended to be yelling into my phone - 'Nikolayevich, where do you want me to look for them?!' - and I gestured to the steward to let me through the gate. He opened it."

Along with the explanation of the symbolism of their protest, Pussy Riot presented this list of demands:

1. Let all political prisoners free.

2. Not imprison for “likes”.

3. Stop Illegal arrests on rallies.

4. Allow political competition in the country.

5. Not fabricate criminal accusations and not keep people in jails for no reason.

6. Turn the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman.

Shortly following the match, the Pussy Riot members who participated in the protest were sentenced to 15 days in jail and a 3 year ban from Russian sporting events. A video clip tweeted by anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny shows the interrogation of two of the group's members. In the clip the police officer accuses them of bringing shame to Russia and says, "sometimes I regret that it's not 1937," referring to the Great Purge under Stalin in which at least a million people were executed. As the interrogation continues Verzilov says what become the most poignant words of the video, "I am for Russia, just like you — if you are for Russia."

The Pussy Riot protest is a reminder of the conditions millions of Russian people live under everyday.


EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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