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Global Roundup: Serbia Women’s Movement, Girls Dress Up as Iconic Black Women, LGBTQ rights in Egypt, India Poet & Queer Activist, Fighting for Disability Justice & Joy
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Demonstrators march and chant for the eradication of male violence against women in Belgrade, Serbia [Courtesy of Irena Ljubenović]
In the interview published in September by the pro-government Informer newspaper, Igor Milošević, who had served a 15-year sentence for numerous rapes and physical assaults on women, not only instructed women on how to behave during an attack but also described how liberating it was for him to commit his crimes. Branka Blizanac, a history student and co-founder of Ženska solidarnost (Women’s Solidarity), a Belgrade-based women’s collective, believes that in many ways, the tabloid made Milošević a celebrity. His movements were regularly reported on by Informer journalists, who advised women and girls to buy self-defence tools and avoid walking alone at night.
Displeased with the tabloid and determined that the voices of women should be heard, Blizanac and other members of her collective urged women to protest. Since September, five street demonstrations have taken place in Belgrade. Hundreds of demonstrators whistled, held placards and chanted slogans like, “All to the streets! Justice for women and girls” and “The women’s revolution!”
The collective began in 2018 as a Facebook group where women shared stories about intimate partner violence. The demonstrations helped it evolve into a protest movement. Now Ženska solidarnost aims to draw attention to violations of women’s rights in Serbian society and to promote the idea of sisterhood and political solidarity among women while pushing for legislative changes to protect women at a national level.
No woman is responsible for the violence which a man subjects her to. We took that anger to the streets. -Branka Blizanac
Though women are being increasingly represented in politics, it has not translated into real equality for Serbian women as having women in power does not guarantee that their politics will be feminist. In 2021, 20 cases of femicide were reported in Serbia, the highest number in the region. More than 74% of these crimes take place in a family or intimate partner context, according to a 2020 study by the FemPlatz Civic Association, a Serbian women’s rights organisation. Serbian culture often promotes an image of dominant men while women are either viewed solely as homemakers or sexualised.
Višnja Baćanović, a gender equality consultant and trainer based in Novi Sad in northern Serbia, points out that feminist organisations like Ženska solidarnost have a limited impact on women from Serbia’s rural areas, where traditional cultural practices are more persistent and access to information more limited. She says that the collective needs to know what they want to achieve besides taking the people to the streets. Still, she praises the collective for its creative and innovative approaches, raising awareness among younger audiences and using social networks and educational activity to get their message across.
They are shaking the patriarchal structures, which are strong in Serbia and constantly send the message to women, ‘You have to be quiet and polite,’ despite the fact that our rights are regularly violated. Women in Serbia are really pissed off, and we need these kinds of rebels to voice the problems. -Višnja Baćanović
A Dreamcatchers Academy student in a recreation of a portrait of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa. Photo: DocumentWomen/Dreamcatchers Academy.
Seyi Oluyole is the founder of Dream Catchers Academy, which focuses on using dance and creativity to transform the lives of young girls living in the underresourced and underserved neighbourhoods of Lagos, Nigeria, who have “experienced abuse, neglect, or economic hardship resulting in a lack of educational attainment.”
Oluyole and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and activist Kiki Mordi (through Mordi's Document Women, a media platform focused on women's representation and empowerment) partnered up and worked with the girls from the Dream Catchers' Academy to recreate photos of iconic Black women from different walks of life, to help raise money for the school but also to capture the essence and impact of these iconic women on future generations. Some of the women featured in the project include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Maya Angelou and Althea Gibson. Global Citizen interviewed Oluyole to learn more about the project and Dream Catchers Academy.
Oluyole shares her lived experience growing up, which is very similar to the girls of Dream Catchers' Academy. She went through homelessness from age 10 to 13 and knows the impact it can have on girls’ education.
Dream Catchers is something I wish I had when I was younger. The biggest motivation behind Dream Catchers is me creating a platform and providing opportunities for young girls that I wish were available for me while growing up. -Seyi Oluyole
Oluyole is proud of the recognition Dream Catchers' Academy has received so far, including reposts from Rihanna and Beyonce, and the attention of international news outlets. However, she is most proud of the kids, some of whom are in university now. She says that having the girls dress up as iconic women helped give validation to their dreams, inspire them and open their minds.
We had the girls dress as iconic women just for them to know that there are women that they can look up to in the community that we live in. A lot of the girls are told, "Even if you go to school, you will end up coming back home to be somebody's wife." -Seyi Oluyole
Ultimately, Oluyole continues to do this work because she believes educating girls will change their communities. She also emphasizes that art and science are so important that none of them can stand in isolation, and art is as important as every other field.
Wall-painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two royal officials who have been identified as possibly brothers or a same-sex couple. Reign of Nyuserre Ini, late 25th Century BCE. Saqqara, Egypt.
Recent reports suggest that LGBTQ people in Egypt are increasingly being targeted digitally, but activists and observers say that the crackdown is, in fact, systemic. Some of the ways in which members of the Egyptian queer community are being targeted by the police include fake Facebook accounts or fake profiles on dating apps.
However, the London-based Egyptian neuroscientist Ahmed El Hady, who is deeply involved with the Egyptian queer community and who describes himself as "proudly gay" on Twitter, does not confirm any increased digital crackdown. He says that arrests are “systemic” and they happen on a small scale all the time. This observation was also confirmed by Lobna Darwish, a gender rights researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
In the past 10 years, people have been systematically arrested through entrapment on gay dating websites. Over this period, the numbers have remained more or less the same. -Lobna Darwish
However, there is no doubt that it has become common practice for the police to create fake accounts on dating apps. According to Darwish, the police talk to people and flirt with them until they agree to go on a date. Ahead of the first meeting, the police might ask them to bring some condoms. People then get arrested during the encounter, and the condoms are used as evidence for sex work. Then, they are mostly accused of habitual debauchery according to law No. 10/1961, which is known as the law combatting prostitution, or anti-prostitution law. Other common accusations are immorality or blasphemy.
While activists have not observed any recent increase of digital targeting, they do confirm that discriminatory actions against members of the LGBTQ community have multiplied since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in a military coup in 2013.
As a result of the recent warnings, the US-based dating app Grindr has installed a warning in English and Arabic for its users. But for the Berlin-based Egyptian activist Nora Noralla, the executive director at Cairo 52, a Cairo-based legal research institute that defends members of the queer community pro bono, this is only for show. She would much prefer that Grindr, as well as other apps, verified users and forbad police forces to set up profiles.
The queer community in Egypt has established workarounds to increase the safety of its members, such as checking other social media accounts of a person they meet online and then carrying out further communication via encrypted apps like Signal once their identity is confirmed. First meetings normally only happen after other members of the community have additionally confirmed the person's identity. The meetings take place at safe houses of friends or members of the community and the same location is never used twice. Nora Noralla, for her part, sees that the "community is growing despite the arrests."
Sadly, the environment is not the best, but we are far from crumbling. -Nora Noralla
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Tiwari shares that like many children from the queer community, his childhood was difficult as he struggled with identity and discrimination. He was often subjected to derogatory terms and physical abuse as well.
But, through it all, I was determined to understand who I really am. It was important for me to put into words what my true identity is, especially in a country where the queer community does not have the same rights as cis-het people. -Aditya Tiwari
Tiwari says that most LGBTQIA+ Indians in small towns and non-urban spaces grow up without understanding or even hearing terms such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’, or ‘queer’. As Tiwari looked for safe spaces to explore his identity, he found a public park in the neighbourhood, which was a hotspot for queer people in his town. After Section 377 of the IPC (an act that criminalized homosexuality) was scrapped in 2018, he gained the courage to share his horrific experiences. However, Tiwari says that decriminalization is not enough as hate crime in small towns still persists. He adds that queer lives in small towns are not visible enough in the mainstream media.
But I was determined to share my story. I truly believe that when more people share their stories, they help build safe spaces for fellow queers. It is a strange state of being...queerness breathes life into you and sometimes, also burns you…-Aditya Tiwari
Sharing all the negative experiences Tiwari has had are worthwhile to him as he now receives messages from young people about how he has helped them through their journey. According to Tiwari, queer culture is on the rise in India and queerness is no longer bound by geography. Tiwari advocates for expanding the idea of queerness in order to increase representation and to ensure that it is not just the most privileged who are taking up space.
COURTESY OF ISABEL MAVRIDES-CALDERÓN / DESIGN BY YOORA KIM
When Mavrides-Calderón became disabled at 11 years old from a spinal cord injury, she had a lot of internalized ableism and blamed her body for many of the barriers she was facing. But soon, she discovered the glaring inequalities and discrimination that disabled people face on a daily basis. So she got to work, intersecting her advocacy with her experiences as a disabled Latina.
As a freshman in high school, Isabel researched policies set in place for disabled people. She also transformed her social media accounts into a space to discuss ableism, accessibility, inclusion, and disability representation across education, healthcare, employment, and media. She organized, protested, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, advocated in New York City Council for continued remote schooling so disabled people and high-risk students maintained equitable access to education. Her TikTok account @powerfullyisa has since grown to 32.5K followers and 1.3M likes.
Mavrides-Calderón credits tiktok for allowing her to reach people her age who are new to disability justice. The biggest challenge, she says, has been trying to condense complicated issues into short videos, without oversimplifying the issue. She recently started an American Civil Liberties Union series called Educating for Access, creating a long-form webinar explaining her short videos in more depth. Another challenge for her has been ensuring she is not only covering depressing material but also balancing it with disabled joy.
My voice isn’t any less powerful because of my age. Another issue that’s unique to the disability rights activism space is that there are so many non-disabled people in the conversation, and oftentimes, they’re the ones who run the organizations and policy groups. So I’m often not only the youngest person in the room, but also the only disabled person in the room. We need more disabled people in the fight. We need to take back our voices. This is how we’re going to make change. -Isabel Mavrides-Calderón
Currently, Mavrides-Calderón’s biggest long term goal is to find a way to protect the American Disabilities Act as there have been multiple Supreme Court cases in a row trying to gut it. Short term, she wants to find ways for the accessibility that was introduced during the pandemic to continue – for instance, so many students are losing online schooling options, which means losing a way to make education accessible for them.
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.
Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.