Global Roundup: 1st Woman in Urdu Storytelling Tradition, Moroccan Journalist Tells Her Truth, Empowering Women Via Art, Brave Sisters in Croatia, Namibia on Track to Abolish Homophobic Colonial Laws

Compiled by Inaara Merani

Fouzia Dastango (scroll.in)

Dastangoi is an Urdu oral storytelling tradition which has existed for centuries. It now has its first female artist: Fouzia Dastango, the first female Dastangoi artist who has dedicated her life and career to learning and practicing this art form since she first discovered it in 2006 and fell in love.

Originating in pre-Islamic Arabia, Dastangoi is a combination of the Persian words “dastan”, meaning story, and “goi”, meaning tell. It reached India in the 19th century, however the tradition was rarely practiced until 2005, when Urdu poets Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Mahmood Faruqi revived the long-lost art. The Dastango, or storyteller, takes you through a number of stories for the duration of the performance, with only their voice carrying the performance. 

Born into a lower-middle class family in Old Delhi, Fouzia began contributing to her family’s income when she was in seventh grade. She developed a deep interest in the arts but was unable to pursue it at the time. Despite her family’s economic status, they ensured that she continued her studies. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Masters in Education Planning and Administration, Fouzia was a lecturer at the State Council of Educational Research and Training until she joined the tradition of Dastangoi. 

After watching the performance in 2006, she immediately knew that she wanted to pursue the art of Dastango, saying that she felt at home during the performance. However, Fouzia knew that entering this world would come with many challenges, especially as she was the first woman to ever practice this tradition. With the training of Mohammad Faruqi, she performed her first Dastangoi in 2006. She was subject to discrimination and sexism.

Fouzia is among a small group of women who are playing an important role in reviving the art form. She has chosen to remain single and dedicate her life to being a dastango.

I studied Urdu in school so that I could read all the classics. I just knew I had to do something bigger with my love for the world of fantasy. I chose Dastangoi as a profession over a well-paying job and my family stood by me every step of the way - Fauzia Dastango

Despite these struggles, Fouzia has prevailed. Her storytelling emphasizes mental health and feminism, and she has performed a number of stories of the famed feminist writer Ismat Chughtai.

Women told stories in the privacy of their homes and never publicly. But I have tried to change the norm and have done 88 shows all over the country so far…I didn't wear the hijab or the burka, so people were surprised initially but they gradually accepted me - Fauzia Dastango

She also performed a Dastangoi about a queer relationship, titled Kallo. She has broken the glass ceiling and continues to demonstrate how powerful storytelling can be, no matter your gender.

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Hafsa Boutahar. (Twitter)

Moroccan journalist Hafsa Boutahar came forward last year alleging that Omar Radi, a well-known journalist, had raped her in July 2020. She chose to come forward 10 days after the incident, and is now pending before the court. Boutahar has received considerable press coverage throughout this process because her assailant is so well-known. 

The media, however, has vilified Boutahar and has accused her of fabricating the story in order to take him down for speaking out against government abuses of human rights. Due to this negative coverage, Boutahar has not only lost her job, but she has also been the victim of constant cyberbullying and harassment through social media. Since going public last year, she has been faced with ongoing ostracization and hostility which has affected both her physical and mental health. 

Boutahar reached out to human rights organizations, both in Morocco and around the world, but her claim was either ignored or rejected. She recounted that the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), the primary Moroccan rights NGO, interrogated her like she was a criminal and forwarded her written letter to her rapist’s team for comment. The very institutions which are supposed to uphold human rights have resorted to the mentality of victim-blaming. It is absolutely abhorrent. 

In the face of all the negativity which has been sent her way over the last several months, Boutahar will not back down. On March 10, she held a press conference and spoke out against organizations which failed to listen to her and help her obtain justice, and urged women to speak out against sexual violence even when it seems like the world is against them.  

What happened to me is true...I am fighting alone, and I won’t stop until I get my dignity back - Hafsa Boutaha

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Photo courtesy of Spectrum News.

Mexican-American artist Nuria Ortiz is using art to support her community and empower women around the world. From a young age, Oritz learned to explore culture, folklore, sisterhood, and social justice through art and colour. She started graffiti when she was 12 years old and has not stopped since. 

Ortiz grew up with dyslexia and obstacles to communication, and despite these challenges, she found comfort in comics and wordless cartoons; art became an extension of herself.

I welcome Intimidation from walls I paint. I welcome fear because only then do I know that I am being pushed past my limit to create something beyond my dreams — an evolution of the mind, body, and craft. I never went to art school, but I taught myself everything I know. It is my 1st and truest loves. My obsession with it and with colors is what pushed me to the position I am now - Nuria Ortiz

She began teaching art workshops for youth at schools, community centres, and different clubs. Her artwork has also been displayed in museums, galleries, and on the streets in the US, Australia, Egypt, France, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. Ortiz wants her artwork to reach populations across the world, teaching and working with different communities about the universal language of art. 

Through her art, she is also dedicated to sending a positive message to women around the world. Ortiz found solace in her artwork, and for many other women, art can be a form of emotional therapy. She uses her skills and knowledge to empower women so that they can express themselves and their emotions however they see fit. 

Ortiz is currently decorating a truck for Angel City F.C., a new women’s soccer team in Los Angeles. Young girls and women have been working collectively with Ortiz to finish this project, using art as an outlet. 

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Thousands of women’s rights supporters marched through downtown Zagreb on international women’s day in 2019, demanding more rights including abortion free of charge. The banner reads in Croatian: Fight like a woman. (Darko Bandic/AP Photo/Al Jazeera)

Last year, the Brave Sisters was founded, an organization in Croatia which provides emotional support for women who receive abortions. Despite abortion being legal in Croatia, it has recently become increasingly challenging for women to obtain abortions. In light of these challenges, Brave Sisters is determined to reduce the stigma about abortions and to simply provide emotional support to these women.

Abortion is legal in Croatia until the 10th week of pregnancy; this law was passed in 1978 when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia. Since the nation gained independence in 1991, there has been considerable backlash from the conservative population. On Saturday, a Walk for Life protest took place where thousands protested against abortions. Also at this protest were pro-choice activists who were present to remind everyone that it is always a woman’s right to choose because it is her body and no one else’s. 

The World Health Organization estimated that in 1985, there were around 823 procedures per 1000 live births, compared to 67 procedures per 1000 live births in 2016. While anti-abortion activists attribute this reduction in operations to Croatia’s perceptions about abortion, pro-choice activists say that these numbers are reflective of increased access to contraception, family planning, sex education, and the 2003 amendment which gave doctors the right to conscientious objection. It is estimated that around 60% of doctors in Croatia are considered conscientious objectors, making it extremely difficult for women to obtain abortions in the country. Many are forced to carry out abortions in private clinics, or must travel abroad and pay extraordinary fees. 

Zorana, a volunteer who recently joined the organization, accompanied a woman to Slovenia who had an appointment booked at an abortion clinic. Although she was unable to go inside with the woman, she remained in contact with her via WhatsApp. “She was so frightened,” Zorana said. “She gave me second-by-second updates all the way through.” While she waited, Zorana bought some juices and sandwiches.

When the young woman returned to the car, she burst into tears when she saw the makeshift banquet.

I don’t think she was crying about the abortion. She kept saying, ‘This is so beautiful’. I think it was because someone did something nice for her and that was a breaking point - Zorana 

Of the 130 women who applied to become a Brave Sister, 40 have received training and are actively supporting women across the nation. These women are ready to face any obstacles that cross their path in the hopes that women and people who need abortions will regain control over their bodily autonomy and discourse surrounding abortion will be destigmatized. 

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Hildegard Titus/Getty Images (them.us)

Namibia is reportedly making moves to officially abolish its colonial-era sodomy laws from its books by the end of this year. The anti-sodomy codes are a legacy of Roman-Dutch common law, similar to many other nations that are left with homophobic statutes imposed upon them by their former colonizers. 

This shift in the country’s legislation has been in the making for several years, and will hopefully be brought forth in the coming weeks. 

In 2018, Namibia’s Law Reform and Development Commission began identifying laws which needed to be amended, repealed, or completely removed. Last week, the Commission submitted a report on Namibia’s criminal codes, with a proposal to outlaw same-sex intimacy. Justice Minister Yvonne Dausab plans to propose the removal of these laws to the Namibian Cabinet in the next two weeks.

Homophobia, transphobia, any phobic tendencies are not state-sanctioned…But we must allow people to have their own views. What we should not allow is that there is any active or passive discrimination against any segment of our society - Yvonne Dausab, Justice Minister

Although the laws are not often enforced, the fact that such a law is still in existence is inherently wrong because it discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community and creates a space which normalizes stigmatization. 

Removing this law from the country’s constitution will be a step in the right direction and it will have tremendous impacts on the LGBTQ+ community in Namibia. Many countries in Africa have been home to homophobic ideologies which have been perpetuated by lawmakers and individuals in positions of power. Although it seems that the things are getting better for the LGBTQ+ population in Namibia, this is not the case in other African countries such as Ghana, where the community has been repeatedly faced with discrimination, violence, and slander. 

With Pride Month just beginning, the global community must stand together in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community worldwide, especially those who may be facing conflict and violence due to their identity. We must continue to amplify their voices, support their causes, and hold our lawmakers accountable.

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Inaara Merani (she/her) is a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa where she studied  International Development and Globalization with a minor in Women’s Studies. She is an Ismaili Muslim Canadian who is deeply passionate about human rights, social justice and feminism, and in turn, dismantling the patriarchy and ensuring that all women have safe and equal access to all their rights. She hopes to pursue a career in law so that she can continue to fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups everywhere. She also enjoys reading, travelling and spending time with her beautiful cat. 

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