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Global Roundup: Kenya Woman Astronomer, Iran LGBTQ+ Group Initiative, China Feminist Journalist Trial, Somalia Women Engineers, The Queer Muslim Project
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Photograph: Daniel Chu Owen
Astronomer Susan Murabana is on a mission to make astronomy accessible for young people, particularly girls in Kenya. Travelling Telescope, a social enterprise set up by Murabana in 2014, aims to educate remote communities and inspire a love of science and astronomy among young people.
Every two months, Murabana and her husband, Daniel Chu Owen, a photographer, load their telescope and an inflatable planetarium on to the roof of their 4x4 and set off to rural communities, where they give up to 300 children a chance to view the planets and learn about constellations and the basics of astrophysics. She estimates that she has shown the wonders of the night sky to 400,000 people since the launch of the Travelling Telescope. They primarily target schools in remote areas because of the quality of the night sky and because of Murabana’s mission to give children an opportunity that she wishes had been available to her.
There is a common misconception in Kenya that astronomy – and science in general – is hard, boring, for the west, and only for boys. I’d like to teach young girls that science is neither of these things and that they, too, can become astronomers like me. -Susan Murabana
Murabana knows that astronomy for development is an ambitious goal. It has been challenging to secure funding for her projects, especially in a country that has more pressing developmental needs such as access to healthcare, water and sanitation. About 90% of the Travelling Telescope costs are self-funded. Nonetheless, her work continues to make an impact. In 2021, Murabana was selected as a Space4Women mentor, a UN programme that pairs women in the space sector with young girls aspiring to careers in STEM.
Murabana looked to Dr Mae Jemison, a former Nasa astronaut and the first Black woman in space, as a role model when she was studying astronomy. Now she hopes her own work will inspire a generation of female African space scientists.
I hope that one day, through this work, I will spark a chain reaction that leads to the first African woman in space. -Susan Murabana
The IDC knows the power of using social media and the internet to amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ people inside Iran who want to end the dictatorial regime. This is why they launched the ‘Connectivity is a Human Right: Keep Iran Online’ initiative on the first anniversary of the protests to help Iranian people connect and share their stories with the world.
The initiative was born with the advice of Yasmin Green, CEO of Jigsaw, a Google company whose mission includes promoting technological aid to people in authoritarian states. Funds raised through the project will provide a VPN (virtual private network) service, which protects internet connection and privacy online, in Iran to stop the government shutdowns.
Nicolette Mason, co-founder of IDC, highlights how Iran is a “very interesting” country with a large youth population that is “extremely tech savvy” and is keyed into the power that social media can give to their fight for freedom.
And what this movement is at its core – I know the media and definitely the regime wants to make it about the compulsory hijab – is about human rights. It is about an intersectional belief and understanding of what human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, labour rights and also environmental rights encompass. -Nicolette Mason
VPNs are critical for bypassing the Iranian government’s internet shutdowns and shining a light on the human rights atrocities that are being committed in the country. The IDC initiative will also look at how activists in the country can innovate VPN capabilities to stop government censorship. It will also forge a roadmap on tech infrastructure needed to prevent future shutdowns, ensuring sustainable connectivity in Iran.
Beyond donating to the initiative, Mason says people worldwide can bring about positive change for LGBTQ+ people in Iran by using their online presence for good. She cites how people worldwide raised awareness for Sareh Mansouri (also identified as Zahra Seddiqi Hamedani) and Elham Choobdar, two LGBTQ+ activists who were sentenced to death in September last year and were later released from prison.
It’s inspiring to know that, when people care, when LGBTQ people everywhere sign on and feel like they do have agency and being able to advocate for people in Iran that we can make an actual tangible difference that is powerful. -Nicolette Mason
Sophia Huang had planned to leave China on Sept. 20, 2021, for the United Kingdom, where she planned to start a master's degree in development. Credit: Sophia Huang file photo
Feminist journalist Sophia Huang and labor activist Wang Jianbing stood trial in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on Friday for "incitement to subvert state power" as dozens of rights groups called for their release. Huang and Wang were detained in 2021, and later charged with "incitement to subvert state power," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong the following day for the United Kingdom, where she planned to embark on a master's degree in development with a prestigious Chevening Scholarship. Wang, who is a labor and healthcare rights activist, had planned to see her off on her journey.
A close friend of Huang’s who gave only the nickname Wanxia said she had been subject to torture in the form of sleep deprivation. Another of Huang's friends who gave only the nickname Mark for fear of reprisals said Huang hasn't done anything wrong. He said neither Huang nor Wang had been allowed to meet with their attorneys for the first year of their detention.
Before being targeted by the authorities in 2019, Huang had been an outspoken member of the country's #MeToo movement, and had carried out a survey of sexual harassment and assault cases among Chinese women working in journalism. She had also previously assisted in the investigation and reporting of a number of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors at several universities.
Dozens of rights groups including Amnesty International, Safeguard Defenders and China Human Rights Defenders signed a statement calling for Huang and Wang's "immediate and unconditional" release. Since Huang and Wang's arrest, both activists have been prevented from seeing family members, the statement from 32 rights groups said.
Sophia Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing represent the courageous wave of younger Chinese activists who have connected with the public concerned about social issues. They have been targeted for their peaceful activism on women’s and labor rights by a government that fears organized dissent. These baseless charges are motivated purely by the Chinese authorities’ relentless determination to crush critical voices. -Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International deputy regional director for China
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Construction engineer Faduma Mohamed Ali, 22, has her work cut out for her, supervising male workers twice her age, while defying stereotypes in this conservative Muslim country in the Horn of Africa. She has had to face social stigmatisation, opposition from her family and harassment at work, but insists she has never doubted her choice of career.
[My family] said: 'How can a girl waste time studying civil engineering? It's a man's job’ -Faduma Mohamed Ali.
In Somalia, where women make up less than a third of the working population, according to the World Bank, many parents disapprove of their daughters working with men. But attitudes are changing. Fathi Mohamed Abdi, 23, who has been an engineer in Mogadishu for three years, says she has been supported by her parents, who are "very happy" that she has become the first woman in her family to do this job.
The construction sector is booming in the Somali capital, where the security situation has improved somewhat thanks to a military offensive launched a year ago by the government against the radical Shebab Islamists in the centre of the country. However, women engineers say that they are regularly confronted with sexism at work and receive a lower pay than men.
The rhetoric and the bad opinions that people have of us as women engineers is what disappoints me the most. Men keep telling us that this job is not for women. Workers are insubordinate when they are supervised by women engineers, they think we are weak compared to men. -Iftin Mohamed, 26
DESIGN BY ALAFIYA HASAN
With activism and community-centred storytelling at its heart, The Queer Muslim Project (TQMP) has a global presence working with LGBTQIA+ Muslim youth, helping to challenge stigmas and misconceptions through digital art and faith-based dialogue.
Starting as a Facebook page in 2017, the collective has helped establish opportunities for self-representation and leadership for underserved artists, creators and activists. Gay Times spoke with Rafiul Alom Rahman, TQMP’s founder, and Maniza Khalid, Programmes and Innovations Officer, to find out more about their work.
Rafiul mentions how in December 2022, TQMP convened 10 queer Muslim artists, creators and filmmakers from across South Asia in Nepal. They discussed narrative change but also sought to build diversity among underrepresented queer artists of intersectional backgrounds.
Having a bunch of queer Muslims come together was so powerful, so magnetic. We started to ask, how do we give them the resources, networks and connections to tell stories that can create change? -Rafiul Alom Rahman
Maniza discusses how being “out” versus closeted is not always a simple dichotomy for queer Muslims who have to be closeted in some spaces but are able to be out in others. Visibility can be a double-edged sword according to Maniza. While it’s liberating it also comes with a lot of social responsibility for marginalized groups.
Through our work, we’re very careful about partial visibility or playing with the idea of visibility. People use a pseudonym when they want their work published, for instance, or they don’t use their full name or don’t make public appearances. -Maniza Khalid
Looking to the future, TQMP is open to building partnerships with different festivals, platforms and institutions, allowing for queer artists to excel, tell their stories and be resourced. One of the big challenges is that artists are often underpaid or there are very few resourcing opportunities. They are also looking at possibilities of empowering artists and creating pathways for them in the creative industry.
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is an aspiring urban planner studying at Toronto Metropolitan University. Throughout the years, she has worked in nonprofits with survivors of sexual violence and youth. Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She loves learning about the diverse forms of feminist resistance around the world.