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The struggle of Iranian women lights the way for Afghans: ‘Iran has risen up, now it is our turn’ | International

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“Iqra” (“read” in Arabic) was the first word that Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims believe. Those four letters adorned a sign that an 18-year-old Afghan woman held up for an interminable quarter of an hour in front of heavily armed Taliban on December 25 outside the gates of Kabul University. Five days earlier, the fundamentalist government had banned Afghan women from higher education. With this solitary act of defiance that was reported by the BBC, the young woman was criticizing authorities for having trampled on the duty of attaining knowledge that the Koran imposes on all Muslims.

In the 17 months since the return of the Taliban to power, small protests such as this one have made Afghan women the most visible face of resistance against the extremists who are depriving them of their rights in the name of religion. The same argument is being used by the regime in neighboring Iran to subjugate its own women, albeit less radically. Iranian and Afghan women share “the same goal,” says former Afghan MP Zakia Noori. That goal is “to achieve freedom.”

Marchers protesting the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran.Photo: EFE | Video: EPV

Afghan women have raised their voices in support of the protests in Iran since their inception. On September 20, four days after the death in police custody of young Mahsa Amini – the trigger for the demonstrations against the Ayatollahs’ regime – a statement from the organization Women Protesters of Afghanistan adopted the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” chanted precisely in the Iranian streets. “We cry out this common pain. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the dictatorial government of Iran cannot stifle the voice of free women,” the text continued. Nine days later, around 25 Afghan women demonstrated with photos of Amini in front of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul while chanting that slogan and others such as “Iran has risen, now it is our turn,” before being dispersed by the Taliban, as seen in images posted on social media.

Solidarity also works in reverse. In October, the Iranian graffiti collective Khiaban Tribune posted a message of support for Afghan women with the phrase: “We are both fighting… against a Taliban.” Well-known Iranian activists, such as Masih Alinejad, have compared the Taliban to the Iranian regime on social media and expressed their fears about the fate that awaits Afghan women. An analysis by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) think tank finds that “it is only natural that two communities tied by language [Persian], culture and their oppression by authoritarianism masquerading as religious faith, are finding synergies.”

The Taliban and the Iranian regime share a common nature as autocracies that invoke religion, although the former profess Sunni Islam, the majority branch, while the latter embrace Shia Islam. They also share the opprobrium of the West – more pronounced in the case of Afghanistan – but, above all, what they have in common is repression of women as one of their main pillars, together with their disastrous record of human rights violations and cruelty shown by punishments such as stoning, amputation and flogging, or the hanging of dissidents from a crane.

In other aspects, the distance between the two countries is enormous, and so is the condition of women. Iran has a population of 87 million, while Afghanistan has 40 million, according to World Bank data. Figures provided by the United Nations show that 85.5% of Iranian women over the age of 15 can read and write, and 60% of university students are women. In Afghanistan, in 2020, only 29.8% of women could read and write. Iran is a country with a civilization stretching back thousands of years, where 76% of the population lives in the cities, according to the World Bank. Its Afghan neighbor remains a rural country, with only 26% of its population living in urban centers.

“Despite its religious and conservative character, the Islamic Republic [of Iran] is a modernizing regime. In 1979, 50% of the Iranian population was illiterate and 60% of the illiterate were women. Today, Iran’s literacy rate is 90% and, just as surprisingly, 60% of university students are women,” political scientist Ali Alfoneh stresses by email from the United States. This regime “on the one hand, wants to control women and, on the other hand, provides them with higher education, two contradictory things. The Iranian authorities do not understand that, for example, you cannot dictate to university women how they should dress [referring to the veil]. In Afghanistan, the Taliban know what they want: to control women. That’s why they prohibit them from accessing education.”

Some Iranian women have forced the hand of religious leaders in their country, even after death. When Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died in 2017 at age 40 of breast cancer, senior officials in her country were forced to publish photos of her without a veil. Mirzakhani, a resident of the US, never wore one. The first woman to win the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize for mathematics, was too prestigious to hide her image.

All alone

“If Iranian women are not like Afghan women, it is because we have not allowed it. Neither we nor our men,” says Nilufar Saberi, an Iranian activist in Spain. She is speaking about the massive presence of men in the demonstrations in which, in the last four months, at least 481 people have died as a result of repression. More than 18,000 have been arrested and at least four executed, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights.

Former MP Zakia Noori was responsible for ensuring the gender perspective of the Afghan budget before the Taliban returned to power. Noori believes that “both Iranian and Afghan women are victims of the religious government in their countries,” but “on different scales, because in Afghanistan women are not even allowed to go to school, university, work or travel.”

By email from Pakistan, the former lawmaker describes the “loneliness” of the protesters: “A large number of Afghans still hold reactionary religious views about women. In most regions, and even in some big cities, it is often the families who do not allow young girls to go to school.” Despite this, in the 20 years of the international presence in Afghanistan (2001-2021), “Afghan women have made enormous progress in terms of the right to education and work, have increased their collective self-confidence and have become aware of the struggle for their rights and freedom, which is alien to our history,” Noori stresses.

The minority of educated Afghan women have made “enormous progress,” agrees Shahlla Arifi, former head of Afghanistan’s now-defunct Women’s Ministry. These young women, who had not experienced “the abuses of the Taliban in their previous government [1996-2001], are ready to fight to the end for their rights,” says Arifi. Their struggle goes on, adds Noori, “empty-handed, alone and helpless, and without international support in the face of the most brutal regime in the world.”

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Uganda condemned for ‘shameful’ decision to close UN human rights office | Global development

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Rights activists and campaigners have condemned the Ugandan government’s decision to shut down the country’s UN human rights office, describing it as “shameful”.

In a letter to the Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) in Uganda dated 3 February, the foreign affairs ministry said it will not renew the host country agreement it signed with the OHCHR, which established its initial mandate in the country in 2005. The current mandate, signed on 9 February 2020, expires in August.

“The government of Uganda will now continue its cooperation with the OHCHR Headquarters either directly or through its Permanent Mission in Geneva,” reads the letter.

The development comes less than three months after the UN’s committee against torture adopted the concluding observations on Uganda, which raised concerns that torture and ill-treatment continued to be frequently practised, and called for investigation and prosecution of security officials accused of excessive use of force, violence and arbitrary detention.

“The closure of the @UNHumanRightsUG office proves that [the] government has lost all sense of shame. It no longer wants any close international scrutiny of its human rights record,” tweeted Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.

“If the protectors are sent away, what then happens to those they were protecting? We are headed for tough times,” he added.

Adrian Jjuuko, (speaking, centre left) executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, has condemned the OHCHR closure.
Adrian Jjuuko, (speaking, centre left) executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, has condemned the OHCHR closure. Photograph: Alice McCool

Bobi Wine, the reggae singer turned Ugandan opposition leader, whose supporters remain in unauthorised places of detention or “safe houses”, said it was no surprise that Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has closed the OHCHR. He tweeted: “In the face of growing international condemnation and isolation, tyrant Museveni has responded by shutting down NGOs, Facebook, DGF [Democratic Governance Facility] & declaring several internationals Persona Non-Grata or deporting them! Now he shuts down @UNHumanRightsUG.”

Wine added: “You’ll recall in the aftermath of the 2021 election and the hundreds killed or abducted by the Museveni regime, we petitioned the UN Human Rights Office & the military brutalised journalists right there. This UN Office condemned these actions. Not surprising it’s being closed.”

Human right activists and advocacy groups have called the decision a “mockery” and accused the government of running from international scrutiny on abuse and protection of human rights.

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“This is unbelievable, and the reasons given by the government are a mockery of the real state of human rights in the country,” said Jjuuko. “To claim that Uganda no longer needs the office [OHCHR] because of its strong stand for human rights is ironic to say the least.

“A strong stand for human rights would imply opening up to the UN and other actors.”

David Livingstone Sewanyana, founder of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in the capital, Kampala, told the Guardian, “The decision not to renew the mandate deprives Uganda of a critical player in the field of human rights promotion and protection.”

At least 38 local and international staff at the head office in Kampala and two field offices in Gulu and Moroto stand to lose their jobs.

Jjuuko said: “Following closely on the closure of the DGF, this is a scary move which indicates that the government is no longer willing to have its human rights record scrutinised by international actors.

“This leaves local organisations at much more risk of being further silenced and their work curtailed without the government fearing close international security. It is a sad day indeed for the human rights movement in Uganda.”



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2023 State of the Union address, live | Biden will call for collaboration with Republicans | USA

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On the List: Biden’s guests at the State of the Union address

In the highly theatrical ritual of the State of the Union address, delivered each year by the President of the United States to a joint audience of congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill, the most eagerly awaited list in the hours leading up to the address is that of those invited by the President himself to attend his speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. They are carefully chosen to underscore with their presence the points the president wants to emphasize. This year they range from rock stars (Bono) to anonymous citizens unwittingly placed at the center of a whirlwind of tragedy and media attention, such as the parents of Memphis teen Tyre Nichols, the latest name to enter the history of police brutality infamy in the country.
 
What follows is a list of some of those illustrious guests at tonight’s speech in Washington: 

Bono. Singer of the Irish band U2 and activist for the most varied causes, for whose fight he deploys his worldwide fame.

Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. She was already invited last year, when Biden’s first speech came six days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nearly a year later, the end of the war seems far off, but the U.S. commitment to Kiev’s cause remains unwavering.

Row Vaughn and Rodney Wells, mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols. Five police officers beat him to death last month in Memphis. His case, and the poise of his parents, have reopened the debate about police brutality in the United States, an issue that seemed on the mend after the chokehold death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. 

Brandon Tsay, another anonymous man at the center of American political power. Tsay disarmed the killer of 11 people in one of the latest mass shootings to horrify the country. It happened in Monterey Park, California, and the tragedy ripped the Asian American community in half. 

Deanna Branch. Lead was found in her son’s blood because of water coming out of the home’s plumbing. The Biden Administration has set a goal of replacing all lead pipes in the country within the next decade.

Mitzi Colin Lopez. Immigrant rights activist, specializing in advocacy for dreamers.  

Doug Griffin of Newton, New Hampshire. Lost a daughter to a fentanyl overdose. Biden plans to stress the importance of the fight against opioids. The drugs have taken the lives of 100,000 Americans by 2022.

Amanda Zurawski, Texas neighbor. She almost died because of restrictive anti-abortion laws that came out of the Supreme Court ruling that eliminated a woman’s federal right to choose.

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High-profile lawsuit against Meta can be heard in Kenya, Nairobi court rules | Global development

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A Kenyan court has ruled that a case brought against Facebook by a former content moderator can go ahead.

Daniel Motaung, who was hired as a Facebook content moderator by the tech firm’s subcontractor Sama in 2019, filed a suit against the two companies last year, alleging that he had been exposed to graphic and traumatic content at work, without adequate prior knowledge or proper psychosocial support – which he says left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He also claimed he was unfairly dismissed after trying to unionise his co-workers to fight for better conditions.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, contested its involvement in the case, saying that Sama was Motaung’s employer, and Meta could not be subjected to a hearing in Kenyan courts because it was not registered, and did not operate, in the country.

However, on Monday the judge found that the tech giant was a “proper party” to the case.

The Kenya employment and labour relations court is yet to release its full ruling on Motaung’s case, but the decision – the first of its kind in Africa – is already being hailed as a win for the accountability of big tech on the continent, and in the global south.

“If the attempt by [Meta] to avoid Kenyan justice had succeeded, it would have undermined the fundamental tenets of access to justice and equality under the law in favour of foreign privilege,” said Irũngũ Houghton, executive director of Amnesty International Kenya.

“We finally have an avenue for accountability,” said Odanga Madung, senior researcher for platform integrity at Mozilla. “It calls for tech giants to make serious changes within their companies that take into consideration their workers and users outside the US and Europe.”

Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, a UK tech justice non-profit, which supported the Motaung case, said social media platforms should not outsource critical online safety functions like content moderation. “It is the core function of the business. Without the work of these moderators, social media is unusable. When they are not able to do their jobs safely or well, social media’s safety brutally falters.”

Meta is facing a second court case in Kenya, which was due to be heard this week but has been postponed. It was filed by two Ethiopian petitioners and a Kenyan rights advocacy group, Katiba Institute, who claim that the company failed to take online safety measures to manage hate speech on the platform during northern Ethiopia’s civil war – which they say fanned the conflict, with serious offline consequences.

Mercy Mutemi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a second case against Meta due to be heard in Kenya, outside a Nairobi court in December.
Mercy Mutemi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a second case against Meta due to be heard in Kenya, outside a Nairobi court in December. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The father of one of the petitioners was killed after a violent Facebook post that was reported, but not acted on in time. The petitioners claim that Facebook also failed to recruit enough moderation staff to its regional hub in Nairobi.

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“There are problems with Facebook’s woeful failure to value or to staff content moderation outside of the English-speaking United States,” said Crider, adding that Monday’s ruling could have global and regional implications on how tech firms think about and manage content moderation.

Leah Kimathi, a convenor for the Council for Responsible Social Media, agrees. “Big tech should not just look at Kenyans as a market, but should be accountable and alive to the nuances, needs and peculiarities of Kenya, especially when it comes to content moderation.”

Facebook has more than 13 million users in Kenya. It and Meta’s WhatsApp are the most commonly used social media platforms in the country.

A nationwide poll conducted in 2022 by the Council for Responsible Social Media showed that 68% of Kenyans who have internet access get their news from social media, and that a majority of these feel that social media platforms could do more to remove harmful content.

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