Southasiasphere is our monthly roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about the protests in Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s so-called morality police for violating mandatory hijab rules and how the restrictions on women’s attire are being discussed around the region. We also look at how a progressive piece of legislation regarding the rights of transgender communities in Pakistan, the 2018 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, is being attacked by the country’s religious right.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we unpack Nepal’s constitutional crisis over the controversial citizenship legislation, escalating tensions along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, income tax raids on think tanks and charity organisations including the Centre for Policy Research, Oxfam India and the Independent And Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) across India, and more.
Finally in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss ‘Life Cycle’, a documentary film by Malini Sur, exploring bicycles in the everyday lives of city dwellers in Kolkata, plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Marlon and Shwetha from Colombo, as well as Aimun from Karachi, and Sana from New Delhi. Hi guys!
RW: Our main stories this week will be on how protests in Iran around hijab rules are being discussed around the region, and on a new transgender bill being debated in Pakistan.
We’ll begin with the situation in Iran, where there have been protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by Iran’s Gasht-e-Ershad, or morality police, in a metro station in Tehran, for violating the country’s strict dress codes on the wearing of the hijab. Women in Iran have been speaking out about the morality police’s heavy-handed approach, cutting locks of their hair in support of Amini, or taking off their headscarves and burning them, while chanting slogans like ‘women, life, freedom’ and ‘death to the moral police.’ The story has captured the world’s attention, including in the Southasian region.
[Audio of slogans from protests in Iran]
Sana Amir: That’s right, Raisa. While women in Iran are protesting against the state violence and mandatory dress code, against the hijab, Muslim women in India are fighting for their right to wear hijab.
To give some context, in India, the state government of Karnataka banned headscarves in schools early this year which sparked protests by Muslim women and a larger debate on freedom of choice and moral policing by the state. While the BJP government pushes the narrative of ‘women’s empowerment; and ‘secularism’, the debate around the hijab ban in India should also be seen as part of a larger pattern by the right-wing government to attack minorities, especially Muslims in India and criminalise their identity and spread Islamophobia.
So, it wasn’t surprising when the protests in Iran against the mandatory dress code were co-opted by the right-wing parties in India for their own agenda, where they weaponise the hijab to further criminalise and do moral policing of Muslim women in India.
In terms of news coverage, much of the TV debates and opinion pieces in India around the hijab ban are focused more on analysing and targeting Islamic books and Islam as a religion and less on bodily autonomy or state oppression, which of course goes with the BJP government’s narrative of spreading Islamophobia and shows Muslim women in India as ‘victims’ and devoid of any agency.
Aimun Faisal: Which is so disingenuous if you think about it. What the women in India and the women in Iran are demanding is basically the same thing – that the state stays out of their wardrobe. Regulating women’s attire to expand state control is an age-old tactic anyway. For theocratic regimes like Iran, where the imposition of something as dynamic as religion into law becomes a challenge, the bodies of vulnerable communities like women become the first targets for the state to mark its territory and display its power. Similarly in places like India where religion is being mixed with the affairs of the state and majoritarianism is on the rise, women from minority communities find their bodies being viewed with suspicion as they battle discriminatory laws.
The justifications given for this violence sound similar as well. For the Iranian regime, it is to supposedly protect women from western influence. For the Indian regime, it is to “protect” Muslim women from the patriarchy of the Muslim man. Either way, rendering the woman devoid of agency to make her own choice. Muslim women are repeatedly asked to choose between their cultural identity and their gender identity, forcing them to walk a double-edged sword.
[Audio of Iranian version of Bella Ciao and other protest songs]
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Yeah, I completely agree with you, Aimun and Sana. In Sri Lanka, following the Easter Attacks, there was a ban on wearing full-face veils including burqas in public. This was brought forward citing national security and since there were widespread anti-Muslim sentiments in Sri Lankan society at that time, which led to stigma and violence against Muslim communities. The majority was in favour of the ban. There was also confusion that ensued from this ban because most Sri Lankans could not distinguish between a hijab, niqab or burqa, or even an abaya. So, the majority decided to interpret this as any form of face covering. And Muslim women, all over Sri Lanka, were constantly harassed. In public spaces, in business premises, and in well-known supermarkets as well. This piece of legislation was a disaster and it was nothing short of racial profiling and discriminatory on so many levels. And investigations into the easter attacks did not reveal any clear links between face coverings, including face veils, and the Easter attacks. The bombers were all men who did not use face coverings. It was absurd on so many levels. This ban was actually revisited by the subsequent government in 2021 where it was approved by the cabinet and the Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera at that time stated that burqas is a “sign of religious extremism”.
RW: That’s right, Marlon. And I remember there were reports that some Muslim women were being denied entry into spaces of business, including even banks. I also remember seeing on Twitter someone sharing that one of their relatives even got into a car accident because a driver in another vehicle seemed to be reacting to the fact that they were wearing hijab. So, there were definitely some impacts. Some women including Muslim activists who chose to wear niqab or burqa said they confined themselves to their homes because they did not want to leave the house. In Sri Lanka too, as in India, the discussion focused on whether the choice to wear hijab, burqa and niqab was freely made or not, and it did often lapse into Islamophobia, unfortunately.
SS: Thanks, Raisa. And if we look at the situation in Afghanistan, in September last year, there was a powerful social media campaign where Afghan women from around the world shared photos of themselves wearing traditional colourful clothes, using the hashtag #DoNotTouchMyClothes. This protest was in response to a sit-down demonstration at Kabul University, where about 300 women appeared in head-to-toe all-black garments, waving Taliban flags, in support of the strict dress code for female students and gender segregation at schools and universities which was mandated by the Taliban.
On 7 May this year, the Taliban’s ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice announced that women and girls should not leave their homes unless necessary, wearing the head-to-toe burqa showing only their eyes – similar to the restrictions during the Taliban’s previous rule between 1996 and 2001. Now despite threats and risk of imprisonment, women’s rights activists, who have spent years struggling against the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights, are protesting this move in Kabul.
SA: It is also important to note here that Muslim women have always been leading and staging protests against state violence and repression, as Shwetha also just mentioned about how women have been protesting in Afghanistan, and also with what’s happening in Iran.
But in terms of international coverage on Muslim women, it has always been fixated around the veil, hijab, and burqa, where women are depicted as victims, someone who needs to be saved from their own community and religion.
As many would remember how in 2001 when the US declared war on terror on Afghanistan, it claimed “the fight against terrorism was also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” and a lot of reporting around the war was then focused on ‘saving Muslim women.’ And much of that outrage and reporting is missing now on the recent killing of girls from the Hazara community in Afghanistan.
Similarly, as many activists from Iran are also pointing out, much of the international coverage on protests against the mandatory dress code in Iran is focused on it being a symbol of liberation and a protest against Islam, which again falls into the same ‘western saviour’ or ‘west vs Islam’ trope rather than a nuanced coverage around freedom to choose, state violence and repression, state surveillance, internet shutdowns, gender, the economic and political context of it.
RW: I agree, Sana. I think a lot of the coverage that I’ve seen has also fixated a lot on the gender aspect and something that’s been forgotten or only been reported in standalone pieces is that there are a lot of other factors as well. Mahsa Amini’s death was a sparking point, but Iran was also experiencing economic issues and political turmoil and unfortunately, it’s only crystalised into this, which has led to a lot of generalised international coverage.
SA: Exactly. And I saw some reporting on it, like if there was a beat or a page focused on IT [technology], then they would, maybe, specifically talk about internet shutdowns. But general coverage is basically on whether the hijab is allowed or not or forced on them.
AF: Thank you, guys. Our next story for this episode concerns the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018 in Pakistan which is considered among the most progressive legislations regarding the rights of the transgender communities around the globe and is now being attacked on social media by the religious right.
[Audio from Pakistan tv news]
Formulated in conjunction with civil society and medical experts and passed in unison by all political parties in the parliament, the Act defines transgender as anyone with a mixture of male and female genital features or ambiguous genitalia, a person assigned male at birth but who has undergone castration, or any person whose gender identity or expression differ from their assigned sex at birth. While it has a long way to go before ensuring all civil rights of transgender persons, the law gives trans persons the right to get themselves registered as per self-perceived gender identity with all government departments, allows them to get a driver’s license and passport, prohibits discrimination against transgender persons in education, employment, and healthcare as well as harassment within and outside of the home.
The law is particularly progressive because of its decolonial aspect. The Act negates the colonial Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 that criminalised the transgender community in Southasia, reverting to a more complex understanding of the question of gender that existed prior to the arrival of the European empires in the region.
MA: Aimun, wasn’t there a lot of push-back, especially from the religious right-wing?
AF: Yes, Marlon. It became a storm on social media out of nowhere, really. No one knows why four years after the law was passed, it attracted the attention of the religious right in such a manner. Disinformation campaigns were rife on social media websites, led primarily by the political leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party. The campaign claimed that the law was “vulgar” because it promoted homosexuality in the country, in the negation of the laws. According to the critics of the law, the Act allowed citizens to change their genders “at will” allowing them to then marry people of their biological sex. This is, in fact, blatantly untrue. Not only does the law not allow people to just “change” their genders, but it is also silent on the question of marriage. The law actually does not allow transgender persons to get married, removing any questions regarding the legalisation of same-sex marriage. While it is based on lies, what this transphobic campaign manages to do is make an oppressed community even more vulnerable to the violence it routinely faces in the country, while threatening to roll back hard-fought rights.
SS: Yes, Aimun. In addition to this harmful campaign, violent attacks targeting transgender people have increased over the last few months in Pakistan. On 11 September, a gunman opened fire on three transgender persons and their driver returning in their car from a music event in Peshawar. Earlier, on 1 September, a transgender person was stabbed to death in Karachi. Over the last two years, activists who have been vocal about the increased targeting of the transgender community in Pakistan have been assaulted and received death threats. Facing continued discrimination and violence, Pakistan’s transgender community are still denied medical care or forced to flee, without adequate measures in place to safeguard their rights.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
MA: In Nepal, there is a constitutional crisis in the making, where the President of Nepal Bidhya Devi Bhandari is facing wide criticism for her recent decision regarding an amendment to the citizenship bill. She has refused to sign the amendment to the Citizenship Bill of 2006. Now, this amendment was passed by the House of Representatives of Nepal in July 2022, but President Bhandari returned the bill, which was endorsed by the ruling coalition of the Nepali Congress, the CPN (Maoist Centre), the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Rastriya Janamorcha, along with the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, stating that the bill was discriminatory to single mothers. When it becomes law, more than 500,000 people would get Nepal’s citizenship certificates, allowing them to vote in the general elections in November. Right now, the president is accused of breaching the constitution, and the Supreme Court has demanded an explanation of her actions regarding this matter.
RW: Along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, there has been relentless firing and shelling. Simultaneously, there’s been an increase in gunfighting between the military junta and the Rakhine-based ethnic armed organisation, Arakan Army. Both conflicts are impacting the Rohingya, with at least one teenager killed and six others injured due to cross-border shelling, and this has impacted an area where some estimated 4000 Rohingya refugees live. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen said that they have sealed their border in order to try and prevent Rohingya from seeking asylum in the country. In general, there have been attempts to repatriate some of the Rohingya back to Myanmar, which has been resisted by some of the refugees because they were of course fleeing violence from Myanmar in the first place and discrimination. But now, that process, for those who are willing to go back, is going to be impeded due to the conflict.
The UN is also reporting that the military is imposing restrictions on delivering humanitarian aid and essentials into Rakhine. Apart from this, refugees living along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border say their livelihoods are being impacted by the shelling, with the constant sound of mortars deterring workers from conducting agricultural cultivation. At the same time, activists working on the spread of hate speech released information on their interactions with social media platform Facebook and its parent company Meta, alleging that Facebook took too long to take any action on the spread of hate speech and misinformation targeting the Muslim community and particularly Rohingya, on its platform, which has in some cases led to violence.
SA: In India, on 7 September, income tax authorities conducted raids related to FCRA or Foreign Contribution Regulation Act contravention in funds in several states. As part of this, it also conducted a “survey operation” in the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy and Research, NGO Oxfam India and media foundation IPSMF. IPSMF has been funding a range of independent media organisations like Alt News, The Wire and EPW. The step is being seen as “an attack on independent media and voices.”
In another development, on 27 September, the government of India banned the Popular Front of India or PFI and its associated bodies under the draconian UAPA law for the next five years. PFI maintains that it works for the rights of Muslims and marginalised communities in India. Its associated body Campus Front of India called the move “undemocratic” and “anti-Constitutional” and said in a statement the ban will be challenged in court. This ban was announced after the government conducted raids and arrested more than 100 PFI members from across the country and filed cases under provisions of the UAPA, Indian Penal Code and Arms Act, among others.
SS: On 21 September, the US-based Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies the abuse of internet technologies, published a report on an unidentified online network running influence operations using bot accounts pretending to be Kashmiri users on Twitter. The accounts associated with the network were posting pro-Indian Army propaganda, praising their military successes in Kashmir. There were smear campaigns against Kashmiri journalists like Fahad Shah, they were labelling critical reportage as anti-national expressions, the tweets also took a number of approaches to criticising Pakistan and China, for example, highlighting university student protests in Balochistan and using hashtags like #BoycottChina.
The report concluded by stating this suspended network is large and political, and the findings only scratch the surface – signaling a disturbing trend we’re seeing across the region. (Do check out our latest Twitter Space recording on surveillance and the impact of social media in the global south to find out more.)
Now it’s time for our next segment, Bookmarked.
SA: So, I recently watched the documentary ‘Life Cycle’ by Malini Sur. Life Cycle explores the everyday life of city dwellers like daily-wage workers, teachers, environmentalists, etc., who use bicycles and how they navigate the ever-changing city of Kolkata in West Bengal.
[Dialogue from ‘Life Cycle’]
I thought apart from the experiences that people share or the problems the cyclists face, it was also a commentary on the design and infrastructure of a city. Who is the city for? Who benefits from the rules that are made? Who gets left out? How do people navigate it? Although the documentary focuses on Kolkata, I thought it is true for every other city in India as well. Like when I bought a cycle in Delhi, which was mostly for recreational purposes, I had to wake up really early to be able to cycle on roads, or else once the office hours start, it was close to impossible to navigate the roads because there are no separate lanes for cycles in Delhi except for a few areas. So, you could imagine how that went – I had to stop cycling and kept it in the garage.
There is a dialogue in the documentary where this man says cycling on Indian roads is like a “mutual insulting department” and I totally relate to it. The documentary is online on YouTube and we will leave a link for anyone who is interested in watching it.
Did anybody else watch the documentary?
RW: So, I have to admit that I forgot until the last moment and so I hastily watched it over my lunch hour. And I really liked it. It was so fascinating to see this whole economy that has sprung up around bicycle use and so many things from milk to newspapers, so many vendors were using cycles – it was really part and parcel of society, and how the slow development of the city is now leading to this government push for modernity which seems to favour motor cars.
I was also thinking, in Colombo, recently, there was actually a discussion and event on cycle use, and I think it was the Dutch Ambassador who did this event and she encouraged everyone to cycle, and people were just ridiculing her at the time saying ‘this is Colombo, nobody rides bikes here. This doesn’t suit our society.’ I was thinking of that and how it’s so ironic that now because of the economic crisis, we’re seeing the return to bicycle use. In my area, I remember walking up to the junction one day and most people were walking and looking very frazzled, carrying heavy shopping bags, and then the next week when I walked to the top of the road, there were much more people on bicycles. Even now, in my area at least, some people are still cycling around, so there’s been a shift.
MA: I also looked at the documentary, it’s very nicely done, and just like Raisa, I was reminded of how we were almost forced to bring out our rusty bicycles and use them because there was no other way of getting around. Especially for about a month and a half when there was a fuel crisis. But going back to your point, Raisa, about the Dutch Ambassador and how everyone was ridiculing what she was proposing – just like the documentary says, there’s also a danger. In Colombo roads, there’s no designated lane for bicycles, so riding, in general, is quite a dangerous thing in a big city, even in a place like Colombo, especially when there’s no designated lane. But now, just like you, I see a lot of bikes, people on bicycles on the main roads, so hopefully there would be more and more people who use bicycles now.
RW: Yeah, I’ve also seen more people wearing neon vests, because we also have an issue of lack of proper street lighting down some of the roads, so I’ve seen people wearing these fluorescent vests because of this issue, and some of our loads don’t have [cycle] lanes as well.
MA: But outside of Colombo, I think there is a very vibrant bike culture. For example, Negombo because of all the flat roads. Where I’m from, Kandy, because of all the hills we don’t really ride bicycles, but most places outside of Colombo, even in the north and also the north central provinces, bike use is quite prevalent because the roads are not so busy and I think bikes are relatively less expensive than motorcycles for example.
RW: Yeah, definitely in the north and east as well, like you said, you see a lot of people riding bikes and a lot more women riding bikes. I remember when I first started going to those areas, that was one of the things that struck me that was very different to Colombo.
Shwetha, do you want to go ahead with your recommendation?
SS: Yeah, okay. So, my recommendation is a collection of essays called The East Was Read: Socialist Culture in the Third World, edited by Vijay Prashad. It’s about the impacts of socialist culture in various parts of the Third World told through people who grew up reading or later encountered books like Russian classics in translation, illustrated Soviet children’s books, communist philosophy texts, also magazines and early socialist cinema.
The essay I connected with the most was by Deepa Bhasthi, a writer based in Karnataka who is also a Himal contributor. She writes about her discovery of her grandfather’s collection of Soviet-era books, he was a communist intellectual and doctor, and he participated in the Indian Independence movement. And her essay looks at Russian publishing houses, translators and other interesting exchanges beyond South India.
In Sri Lanka, I didn’t personally grow up reading these books, but I was told that the Soviet-Sri Lanka Friendship society used to distribute Russian books translated in Sinhala and Tamil and Russian children’s books were a staple. But when the second JVP insurrection happened in 1987, people were forced to destroy these books, and some even arrested for having the books.
So, I thought this was a great read to give a sense of the cultural exchanges that drew in a Third World project and the Soviet Union, especially in Southasia. So that’s my recommendation for this month.
MA: Yeah, when I was growing up, there was so much Russian literature that was translated, and also Russian fairy tales. I specifically remember The Witch (Baba Yaga).
SS: Yes! I’ve heard about that.
MA: Yeah, terrifying. I remember reading a lot of fairy tales and reading a lot of literature in Sinhala, because there were lots of translations that were available at that time. And I think Sri Lanka has a history of this fascination, not just with Russian fiction but also Russian plays as well. Chekhov was translated and brought to Sri Lanka, there were lots of Russian plays that were produced in Sri Lanka, in Sinhala as well. There has always been this very vibrant cultural exchange between Russian literature and Sri Lanka. Of course, socialist literature also made its way here and very clearly there’s a link between what happened with the insurrections, the 71’ insurrection and also the 89’ insurrection, that you alluded to.
SS: Interesting. I love asking people about this – everyone has a story about these books. So, it’s really interesting.
MA: Yeah. My library in my village was very small, but still, we had Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – all the translations. I remember reading Crime and Punishment when I was like 9, I think. Shouldn’t have been reading that, because that terrified me as well, just like Baba Yaga!. I tried to read War and Peace, I couldn’t get it. So yeah, there was lots of Russian literature that was available at that time.
RW: So, my recommendation is actually a podcast. It’s a bit meta to recommend a podcast on a podcast, but it is what it is! This podcast is called Upstream, which does both quarterly documentary and regular conversation series unpacking economics. And they recently released part one of a documentary which is looking at Green Transition. And although it’s not set in Southasia, I feel like it’s really relevant for the region. It pretty much looks at how this push for renewable energy that we’re seeing is leading to continued resource extraction from the Global South and it actually starts off in Chile and Bolivia, and looks at how minerals like lithium, copper, cobalt and other materials that are necessary for things like electric vehicles, solar panels and so on, are being increasingly mined from countries in the Global South and sent to the US and Europe. It essentially looks at greenwashing and how the current system for exporting minerals are still based on this exploitative system. I also really liked how they looked at how debt burdens in Latin America were also contributing to this continued resource extraction and that they also recognise that the answer is obviously not stopping the push for renewable energy, but being more thoughtful about how to make that transition in a sustainable way. And in the next part, they’re going to be talking more about solutions in part two of this documentary.
But I really thought it was an interesting listen, especially relevant because many countries in the region are trying to expand capacity for renewable energy and are even trying to become manufacturing hubs. I know that India for example is making some investments in this regard. Even in Sri Lanka, a lot of people have been trying to switch to solar energy because of higher electricity bills. And it just gives a little bit more context into why it shouldn’t just be a continued rush and expansion of renewable energy, and something that shouldn’t lead to more exploitation in our region.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal’s work, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye!