For girl student in Balochistan, empowerment comes on two wheels in boy’s outfit

Disguised as a boy, Khadija tul Kubra, 17, drives her father to his workplace at Sariab Road, Quetta, Balochistan. (AN photo by Saadullah Akhter)
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Updated 09 July 2021

For girl student in Balochistan, empowerment comes on two wheels in boy’s outfit

  • Khadija tul Kubra has been riding a motorcycle since high school, she aims to improve women’s mobility in the conservative region

QUETTA: Disguised as a boy, Khadija tul Kubra uses her motorbike to drop off her siblings at school every day, riding down the crowded roads and alleyways of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province.
The 17-year-old has a quest: Increasing women’s mobility in a region where it is traditionally restricted.
Social norms and safety concerns limit women’s mobility across Pakistan, where general commuting and travel activity is estimated to be 80 percent dominated by men, according to a 2016 London School of Economics study on gender inequality in transportation.
Things are even worse in Balochistan, Pakistan’s most impoverished province, where in Quetta alone traffic police registered 28,700 motorcyclists in 2021 — none of them women. Police data shows only three motorcycle licenses have been issued to female drivers in Quetta since the 1990s. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistic, female labor force participation in Balochistan is only 5.06 percent of the total population of women in the province, the lowest rate in the country.
“Here, many girls have to skip their studies due to transportation problems,” Kubra told Arab News. “I must disguise myself as a boy to avoid attention on roads, so I wear a male outfit with a cap, gloves, boy’s shoes, glasses.”
Kubra has been riding since 2015, when she passed her high school exams. The third child of 12 siblings, she is now responsible for driving her younger brothers and sisters to school, after which she goes to attend university, covering about 22 km on her bike every day.
She learned to ride a bike from her father, Ghulam Qadir Bugti, a teacher at the Sariab Mill Boys High School in Quetta.
“Khadija had a passion for motorcycle riding when she was just 10,” Bugti said. “When I realized I couldn’t afford school transport for my children, I decided to teach Khadija bike riding. I always wanted my children, particularly my daughters, to get educated.”
It was Bugti’s idea that Kubra disguise herself as a boy, he said: “I was afraid for my daughter Khadija, that she would have to bear negative comments and she might be hit by someone or chased by wandering boys.”
While girl riders remain invisible on the streets of Quetta, police say they will support them if they come forward.
“We will support them and plan for their training,” Senior Superintendent Police Traffic Gul Said Khan Afridi told Arab News. “We have many female traffic police officers performing duties at various points in Quetta and they have been assisting female drivers. If girl motorcyclists will be on roads, definitely traffic police would be available for their protection and assistance.”
But for that to happen, there must be a change in mindset, Kubra said, saying she had started by asking the parents of her university friends to allow their daughters to drive.
“It empowers us. Through this easy ride we could reach everywhere we want without facing hurdles or harassment on public transportation,” she said.
“I hope one day I can ride my bike in the streets of Quetta in my own girl’s dress,” she said. “I want to see more girls riding with me in the city in their own clothes.”


Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

Updated 16 sec ago

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

  • ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit
  • Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform
Oct 18 : Myanmar’s shadow government, formed by opponents of ruling military, welcomed on Monday the exclusion of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from an upcoming regional summit, but said it should be the legitimate representative.
However, the opposition said it would accept inviting a truly neutral alternative Myanmar representative, as decided over the weekend by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit, in an unprecedented snub to the military leaders behind a Feb. 1 coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.
The opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which has been outlawed by the military, said the non-political figure who attends the summit must not be a representative of the junta in disguise.
“ASEAN excluding Min Aung Hlaing is an important step, but we request that they recognize us as the proper representative,” said its spokesman Dr. Sasa.
The decision was an unusually bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which traditionally favors a policy of engagement and non-interference.
Brunei, ASEAN’s current chair, issued a statement citing a lack of progress made on a roadmap that the junta had agreed to with ASEAN in April to restore peace in Myanmar.
A spokesman for Myanmar’s military government blamed “foreign intervention” for the decision which it said was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter and its principles.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform. Thousands of its opponents have been arrested, including San Suu Kyi.
Security forces have killed more than 1,100 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group that has tracked the arrests and killings. The military has called its opponents “terrorists.”

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

Updated 3 min 23 sec ago

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

  • No changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3
WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the country’s biggest city Auckland will remain in lockdown for another two weeks as it looks to control the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
There will be no changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3, Ardern said at a news conference.

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.


For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

Updated 18 October 2021

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

  • Scandinavia opened its arms to Syrian refugees in 2015, but attitudes have since hardened
  • The waves of people fleeing Afghanistan have brought the issue of European asylum policy to the fore

STOCKHOLM: Of the millions of Syrians displaced by civil war since 2011, a significant minority has managed to reach Europe, escaping not only violence and persecution but also forced army conscription and poverty.

Even in the initial phase of the arrival of the wave of humanity, many European countries closed their borders. But along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming.

In September 2014, images of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi lying face down in the Mediterranean surf near Bodrum in Turkey drove home the terrible truth about the Syrian civil war.

A graffiti by artists Justus Becker and Oguz Sen depicts the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi at the harbor in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 10, 2016. (AFP) 

That same month, the Swedish Migration Authority announced that all Syrian refugees applying for asylum would be granted permanent residency on arrival.

“Our assessment is that the conflict will not end in the near future,” Anders Danielsson, the agency’s director general, told national radio at the time. “Therefore, international law dictates that they should receive permanent residency permits.”

Following the announcement, the number of Syrians applying for asylum in Sweden rose from 30,000 in 2014 to 51,000 in 2015, according to government figures. Neighboring Denmark also saw an increase during 2015, processing about 21,000 asylum applications.

But six years on, the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the opposite direction.

Along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming to Syrian refugees. (AFP file photo)

“Denmark went first down the nationalist-populist road, followed by Norway,” Swedish socialist MP Ali Esbati told Arab News.

Esbati fears his own country is beginning to follow suit. “This is due in part to many people in Sweden feeling that we did what we could in 2015 and took the responsibility that a rich country should take, while other countries did not.”

Indeed, as the situation in Afghanistan again brings the issue of European asylum policy to the fore, the political mood in Sweden is a far cry from the receptiveness of 2015.

“We will never go back to 2015. Sweden will not find itself in that situation again,” Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s prime minister, told the national daily Dagens Nyheter on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban seized Kabul.

Afghans gather on a roadside near Kabul airport on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP)

Esbati said that what upsets him most about the comments is the lack of acknowledgement of Sweden’s success in welcoming and integrating Syrians.

Among those who fled to Scandinavia in 2015 was Abdulla Miri. Desperate to avoid conscription into the Syrian regime’s armed forces, Miri chose to flee to Europe, promising his fiancee Nour he would get her out, too.

Refugee Abdulla Miri

“I’d paid so many bribes that my money was running out,” he said, speaking to Arab News at his home in Stockholm.

Miri recalls an incident soon after his arrival in Denmark en route to Sweden when he noticed two police officers watching him. “This was before I started to dress like a Scandinavian, so it was pretty obvious to them that I was a refugee,” he said.

“I thought I was in trouble, but the police officers helped me buy a ticket to Sweden. They knew that almost all the refugees wanted to cross the bridge to Sweden, so the three of us just laughed about the situation.”

Nine months later, Sweden granted Miri political asylum.

The Syrian refugee crisis began in March 2011 after a brutal regime crackdown on protests in support of a group of teenagers who were rounded up over the appearance of anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Daraa.

The arrests sparked public demonstrations throughout Syria, which were violently suppressed by security forces. The conflict quickly escalated and the country descended into a civil war that forced millions of Syrians from their homes.

Syrian refugees have sought asylum in more than 130 countries, but most live in neighboring states: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey has the largest share of the refugee population, today sheltering around 3.6 million people.

European countries collectively host around a million Syrian refugees, with 70 percent hosted by just two countries: Germany with 59 percent and Sweden with 11 percent. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands and France host between 2 and 5 percent, while other countries host below 2 percent.

Most refugees from Middle Eastern and African states reach Europe by trekking overland from Turkey via Bulgaria and Romania, or by crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats operated by people traffickers.

At least 1,146 people died attempting to reach Europe by sea in the first six months of 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than double the number during the same period in 2020, when 513 migrants are known to have drowned.

Those who survive the perilous journey get a mixed reception. Many trying to reach the UK, for instance, tend to find themselves stranded at the French port of Calais in squalid makeshift camps. For the most part, those who choose to settle in Germany or the Nordic states are afforded international protection status.

INNUMBERS

6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide, of whom 5.6 million are hosted by neighboring countries.

1,146 Asylum seekers who drowned attempting to reach Europe in the first 6 months of 2021.

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, well over a million international protection decisions on applications by Syrians have been taken by asylum authorities in EU+ countries, according to UNHCR.

However, economic problems, a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks, and a sense that migrant communities have failed to fully integrate have led to a rise in right-wing populism in many European states, causing the welcoming spirit exhibited in 2015 to ebb away.

Nawal Abdo Hadid, a 62-year-old Syrian who lives in the quiet Copenhagen suburb of Gentofte, has been told her residency permit will not be renewed because the Danish authorities consider the situation in Syria no longer dangerous.

Nawal Abdo Hadid

“When I got the letter, I had a heart attack,” Hadid told Arab News. In addition to her heart problems, Hadid suffers from asthma, which makes it difficult to climb the three flights of stairs up to her one-room apartment. Her home is sparsely decorated, giving the impression of a life spent in perpetual limbo.

Hadid believes her return to Syria could be a death sentence because of her posts on social media that are critical of the government. A neighbor whom she accused of being a pro-Assad “criminal” has threatened Hadid and her son, who still lives in Syria with his six children.

“I haven’t seen my grandchildren for more than six years,” she said. “I’d rather die alone in Denmark than go back to Syria and put my son’s family at risk.”

Miri’s situation could not be more different. On receiving his Swedish citizenship in July 2017 after five years in the country, he flew to Beirut to marry Nour and then brought her home with him to Stockholm.

Although Sweden suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, the couple have been fortunate. A widower rented them the ground floor of his home in an affluent Stockholm suburb.

“Having him in our lives is a blessing,” Nour told Arab News. “I can always ask him for help and he is something of a father figure for us.”

Nawal Abdo Hadid's home in Sweden. (Supplied)

Nour, who studied English literature in Damascus and who loves the poet Lord Byron, has already begun to discover Swedish authors.

“Everything I don’t remember,” by the celebrated writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, himself the son of a Tunisian immigrant, has left a distinct impression. “He understands what moving between countries does to the soul,” Nour said.

Miri, who now uses his Swedish nickname “Abbe,” speaks flawless Swedish. Nour’s Swedish has a barely detectable Arabic accent although she struggles at times to find the right words.

Every year, on June 6, Miri hosts a Swedish National Day party for their friends. Native Swedes do not usually bother with the holiday, so the gatherings are something of a novelty.

“My Swedish friends don’t even call it National Day any longer,” he said. “They call it Abbe’s Day instead.”

Miri’s journey will be difficult for future asylum-seekers to mimic. On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residency permits the norm, just like the Danish system.

“We need an entirely new political (framework) in order for people to be included in society and to settle in,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, an immigration policy spokesperson for the conservative Moderate Party, recently told national radio.

“We have to start by decreasing immigration.”

Still, hope springs eternal. On the windowsill of Miri and Nour’s home sits a pile of books on pregnancy and parenthood. They arrived as a gift from a Swedish neighbor when she learned the couple were expecting their first child.

____________________

This is the first of a two-part series. Next: What Afghan asylum-seekers can expect.


Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India

Updated 17 October 2021

Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India: At least 25 people have died in landslides and floods triggered by heavy rains in southwestern India, officials said Sunday, as rescuers scoured for survivors in muddy debris and the military flew in emergency supplies.
Residents were cut off in parts of the coastal state of Kerala as the rains, which started to intensify from late Friday, swelled rivers and flooded roads.
Some 11 bodies have been found so far in Idukki district and another 14 in Kottayam district, officials told AFP, after the areas were hit by landslides and flash floods.
Thousands of people have been evacuated and at least 100 relief camps have been set up, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sunday.
The army, navy and airforce are assisting with flood relief and rescue operations. Officials could not say how many people were missing.
“It was my livelihood. Everything is gone,” a distraught man told Kerala news channel Manorama TV in Koottickal town in Kottayam, which was hit by a landslide.
“The hill broke off near us. There has been a lot of damage and loss. The house has gone. Children have gone,” a woman from Koottickal added.
Video shared on social media showed buses and cars submerged in floodwaters.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences and said authorities were working to help those who were affected or hit by the deluge.
The India Meteorological Department said the heavy rains, caused by a low pressure area over the southeastern Arabian Sea and Kerala, were expected to ease on Monday.
In northern India, some states including the Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are forecast to experience “heavy to very heavy rainfall” in the next two to three days, the weather bureau said.
The northern weather system would be caused by a low pressure area over Afghanistan and its surroundings interacting with strong winds from the Bay of Bengal, it added.
In 2018, nearly 500 people were killed in Kerala when it was ravaged by the worst floods to hit the state in almost a century.