A simple tabbed content area with CSS and jQuery

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to create a tabbed content area to organize the various search fieldsets on a mock travel site. With extensive Google search and some help from my instructor Ryan, I arrived at a very simple yet elegant solution that involves radio buttons, some clever CSS and a couple of lines of jQuery.

The HTML Markup:
First I created a set of radio buttons with labels. I connected the inputs and their labels with their id attributes so that clicking on the label would select the corresponding radio button. This is important because we’ll be hiding the input fields and we want the users to be able to make a selection by clicking the labels.

The label element also holds a data-* attribute which stores the unique class name of the section of information we want to display when that tab is clicked.

search-fieldset

Next, I created separate sections that hold the contents for each tab and I gave each section two class names. The first “packages” is a general class name which applies to all the sections (this will help with styling and jQuery) and the second one is a unique class name which is exactly the same as its corresponding label’s data-* attribute.

sections

The CSS:
I used the CSS to set all input[type=radio] to display:none and then I used the adjacent sibling combinator to style the label for the radio input that was checked. input:checked + label.

I also set all the sections with the class of “packages” to display:hidden and then used the :first-of-type pseudo-class to display:block so that the user can only see the first section when they land on the page.

css

The jQuery:
And now we add the final piece of the puzzle to make it all work. I wrote the jQuery for this tabbed area before we launched into the JavaScript section of the bootcamp, yet the code was simple enough that I understood how it worked even then.

jQuery

First, we drop the link to the jQuery cdn at the bottom of our HTML page right before we close the body tag in a set of script tags. Then we open a new script to write our jQuery. Then we write the $(document).ready(); function which tells the script to wait for the document to finish loading before firing off the function(s) we want it to run.

Inside the document ready, we define an event listener. So when $(‘.search label’) is clicked, we tell it to find the .data() attribute of the label that is clicked and store it in a variable called $selection. Then we ask it to hide the section with class of packages and show only the section that has the same class name as the as the data-* of the selection we made.

Here we can see why making the data-* attribute the same as the unique class name of the section we want to display really helps us. All we had to do in the jQuery was to store the data-* information in a variable and concatenate a '.' before it to turn it into the class name.

Finally, here’s what it looks like when we put it all together.

Thanks for checking out my simple tabbed content tutorial! It’s very customizable, so just copy the code, drop it into your projects and make all the changes you need. Feel free to send me your suggestions or ask questions in the comments below.

Creating a multilayer parallax website with CSS

As I have been coding so many different one-page websites in the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about different layouts, designs and techniques to bring life to a single page that might otherwise end up looking flat and boring.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about using parallax as a design technique on website. While I enjoy the 3D effect, I find that sometimes it can be overwhelming and, as a result, it distracts the viewer from engaging with the actual content.

However, when done right, parallax scrolling can add a subtle beauty to a one-page design. One of the best uses of parallax I’ve come across is on Claudio Guglieri’s A Love Letter to Freelancing. His design inspired me to look for some practical applications of parallax where the technique can work in harmony with the content.

It turns out, parallax scrolling can be an excellent tool in long-form journalism, storytelling and interactive data visualizations. Some of my favorite examples that I’ve recently discovered include:

  1. The Boat
  2. Almost everything we think we know about Addiction is wrong
  3. A visual introduction to machine learning

parallax

Excited by the possibilities of applying parallax scrolling effects to my future work, I set out find a way of creating the effect through just CSS. A couple of Google searches later I arrived at Keith Clark’s wonderful article and demos for creating Pure CSS Parallax Websites. So, I decided to test out the technique for myself.

Following Keith’s directions, I created a simple page with 4 groups of parallax layers with png images. This technique mainly uses the two CSS properties transform and perspective to arrange the layers and the content. The perspective property applied to the parent div holding the 4 groups of layers determines the intensity of the 3D effect of the content.

Each parallax group has 1-3 layers positioned at various depths along the Z-axis with the use of the transform: translateZ() function. This property also controls the scrolling speed for the elements placed on that layer. The higher the negative Z value, the slower it will move.

The transform-style:preserve-3d property applied to each group ensures that the children of the group exist on their individual 3D planes. A side-effect of positioning elements along the Z-axis is that their size changes based on how close or far away from the user the element is placed. A quick fix for this distortion in size is by applying transform:scale() property.

As Keith points out, setting overflow-y:auto on the parallax div surrounding the layers is very important in creating the parallax effect as it ensures that the descendant elements are rendered in relation to the fixed position of this parent element.

Finally, when working with elements grouped together on layers, it’s important to allow the overflow content to be visible and then control the layer positions by setting the desired z-index value for each group.

The rest is just a matter of absolute positioning of images and content on the different layers.

The pen below gives you a peek at what I created with these simple CSS properties. I recommend viewing it as a full page to experience the effect. You can read a more detailed description of this parallax wizardry on Keith’s blog post. I hope you will try this technique out, I’d love to see what you create!

P.S. I haven’t had the opportunity to test it extensively, but it seems to work perfectly on Chrome and Safari, and works with some minor hiccups on Firefox.

Raising Digital Consciousness: An Analysis of the Opportunities and Risks Facing Human Rights Activists in a Digital Age

[Originally published in SUR Journal]
Authors: *Mallika Dutt & *Nadia Rasul
1  Introduction

Digital technology has revolutionized the field of human rights. New forms of information and communication technologies (ICT) have not only enhanced traditional forms of activism over the past decade, they have changed the very nature of advocacy. By bringing the voices of multiple communities, identities and geographies into the public square, digital technology has transformed the opportunities, challenges and risks for everyone in the human rights field, including victims, advocates, and those who violate rights.

Digital technology now enables people to directly advocate for fundamental human rights, providing new models for engagement and community building. The Internet, mobile phones, satellite television, and other digital technologies provide platforms on which individuals and organizations employ combinations of images, audio, video and text to raise awareness about social, political and economic struggles, mobilizing global audiences. For example, bloggers and journalists fueled recent Egyptian uprisings by exposing police brutality through videos and images posted online and shared in real-time on Twitter. In Mexico, the Internet has served as a key tool in reporting on drug cartel violence. Across Africa and South Asia, mobile phones facilitate rural healthcare service delivery.

This article begins with an examination of how digital technology has accelerated the human rights agenda. It then addresses the privacy challenges that accompany this new technology, and how they can pose security risks. Finally, the article weighs the unprecedented access to information that digital technology brings against a continued need for place-based activism, even in a digital world.

2  Advancing human rights: transforming the advocacy
and campaigning landscape

Online platforms and social media networks are powerful tools for engaging global audiences. Affordable access to multimedia tools to produce interactive websites, documentaries, games and music has changed the way advocates raise consciousness. The impact of compelling, high-quality images from disasters like Hurricane Katrina and violent conflicts in Syria and Libya build empathy. Social networks and online platforms provide ways to immediately translate that emotional connection into meaningful action. In this way, people share experiences more broadly than ever before.

2.1  Transformed relations between human rights organizations
and constituents

The use of digital technologies has altered the relationship between advocacy organizations and their constituents. Digital media, especially social media networks, has changed dialogue not just among peers, but also between publics and institutions.

Due to affordability and open access, new media has lower barriers to participation and encourages public dialogue, leading to an increase in the number of people who are politically vocal. Almost every international, national and grassroots organization uses some form social media to engage directly with their communities. Organizations immediately gather data and feedback to analyze impact and audience size. This allows institutions to more nimbly adjust messages, targets and tactics to efficiently deploy resources for maximum impact.

Lowered barriers to participation also give users access to more platforms to raise their voices. From sharing messages with their personal social media networks to creating globally distributed digital petitions, individuals and human rights advocates can align and interact with multiple interconnected causes in a variety of ways.

2.2  Redefining who can be an activist

Digital technologies have also lowered barriers to entry for activists themselves, allowing individuals from a much broader range of backgrounds and geographies to bring attention to human rights issues in their lives and communities and propel social change movements. With a plethora of digital resources now available, people can mobilize communities to take action without relying on the formal structures of traditional advocacy organizations. While formal organizations sometimes continue to play a significant role in scaling up movements, the fact that individuals can more easily become change agents drives collective action and sustains long-term movements.

2.3  Giving voice to marginalized people

The rise of the networked public sphere means that we are now seeing new fora for public dialogue and testimony. Digital technologies have given marginalized people around the world a new means to organize, communicate, tell their own stories and create change.

Take indigenous rights: the Zapatistas adopted these tools early, using the Internet more than a decade ago to reach beyond Mexican borders and spark a series of global indigenous rights movements (MARTINEZ-TORRES, 2001). They overcame authoritarian and often biased mainstream media by directly sharing their struggle for indigenous land rights online. In this way, they exposed Mexican corruption and dispelled false government claims that Zapatista autonomy would threaten the integrity of the Mexican nation (CLEAVER, 1998). In addition to communicating with existing supporters and allies, the Zapatistas aligned themselves with other anti-capitalist movements and coordinated global action.

The online world has given rise to a new wave of feminism, allowing grassroots movements and organizations to proliferate and collaborate to amplify their voices, reach larger audiences, bring visibility to women’s rights issues and lead social change. Although many women still face obstacles to active participation online, the rise of social media means that feminists from Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Muslim world can often raise issues in ways that used to be reserved for feminists from the global North. In the United States, women of color have used social media to challenge mainstream feminist narratives and create nuanced conversations. In August 2013, feminist blogger Mikki Kendall started a Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen to express her concerns about women of color’s exclusion from the mainstream feminism movement in the United States. Despite generating a backlash from white feminists, Kendall generated other conversations such as #NotYourNarrative to address Muslim women’s portrayal in Western media (JOHN, 2013).

Digital activism has also shaped immigration rights dialogues, especially in the United States. A Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication study by Summer Harlow and Lei Guo (2014) shows that immigration activists rely on online and multimedia tools to raise consciousness, collect donations, influence legislation and coordinate and mobilize people online and offline. In the United States, the face of immigration is increasingly female, yet their voices and unique struggles had remained largely unheard. Leading up to the 2012 Presidential election, my organization Breakthrough launched #ImHere, a digital campaign targeting young Americans who have the power to vote and are active on the social media. The centerpiece of the campaign was a short narrative film, The Call, portraying the negative impact of US immigration policies on immigrant families. The campaign’s intent was to raise awareness and establish empathy and compassion among young audiences. With the help of social media and the short film, Breakthrough connected directly with youth in a familiar context—by sharing a short video filmed in a way its audience could relate to. Culminating on Election Day, the #ImHerecampaign mobilized thousands of Americans into a critical mass of supporters and created powerful new conversations online that propelled the human rights of immigrant women onto the national agenda at a pivotal moment in American politics.

2.4  New methods for delivering help

The number of mobile phone subscriptions reached 6.8 billion globally in 2013. The mobile phone penetration rate is 96% of the world, 128% in developed countries and 89% in developing countries. Human rights organizations are harnessing this broad market penetration of affordable mobile phones, using them as tools to propel culturally-sensitive local action.  Mobile applications like Circle of 6 in the United States and India and Self Help in Nepal assist people who are at risk of violence by sending short text messages and geolocation data to the police and to a handpicked group of family and friends with the push of a button (KUMAR, 2013).

Similarly, with the use of free, open source digital platforms like Ushahidi, people can generate accountability in crisis situations. Initially developed for gathering and sharing reliable data during the violent Kenyan elections in 2008, Ushahidi has since been used in multiple conflict and natural disaster situations such as the earthquake in Haiti, floods in Pakistan and violence in Syria. Ushahidi allows organizations to map eyewitness reports of violence submitted online or via mobile phone in real-time. Admittedly, new media technologies come with their own challenges—it can be difficult to verify the validity and authenticity of reports. Platforms like Ushahidi respond to this challenge by employing fact-checking teams of citizen journalists and activists on the ground. Moreover, GPS-enabled devices can help verify a report’s location, and sets of multiple reports on the same incident provide nuance and corroboration for a story.

The value of the collaboration and citizen power of platforms like Ushahidi is worth risking an occasional errant report. In countries where mainstream media is hamstrung by lack of access or government constraints, crowdsourced maps can create transparency, accountability and rapid resource deployment by identifying violence hot spots and the type of intervention they require.

2.5  Transforming how human rights abuses are documented and monitored

Traditionally, formal organizations have documented, monitored and reported human rights abuses. This system faces challenges in accurate representation, financial resources, access to regions where violations are occurring, and staff capacity constraints. With lightweight cameras and smartphones, any concerned citizen can now document and report on human rights violations. Citizens less frequently rely on media organizations, non-governmental organizations or international organizations to raise their voices or share their stories.

The nonprofit organization WITNESS has harnessed the power of compelling personal storytelling for human rights advocacy by using citizen-sourced videos as integrated campaign tools. They train citizens and activists around the world to safely film human rights abuses. These stories have been used as testimony before human rights commissions, legislative bodies and executive bodies to bring human rights violators to justice.

3  Risks and challenges presented by digital technologies

While digital tools provide efficient, low-cost and innovative ways of advancing the human rights agenda, the same digital tools can perpetuate abuse. The following sections examine how new technologies at times enhance global inequalities, violate privacy and threaten individual and organizational security.

3.1  Privacy and security risks

Technologies that give human rights activists worldwide new tools to fight abuse, expose corruption, change government policies and bring human rights abusers to justice simultaneously pose security risks. Social media, blogs, mobile phones, videos and images can be appropriated by governments and non-state actors for surveillance in order to extract sensitive information, collect personal citizens’ data and intercept communications. As recently revealed in National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the US government has been involved in massive data collection and surveillance activities worldwide with little oversight. In Egypt, the former military government and the newly-formed democratic government have identified and targeted online activists. These infringements on privacy and freedom pose a serious threat to human rights defenders. While the digital technologies for creating and sharing information—along with tools developed for mass surveillance—have advanced significantly, the policies and international standards governing their use lag dismally behind.

As citizens become more aware of global human rights abuses through information shared online, digital technologies can simultaneously perpetuate violence. Digital technologies enable human rights abusers by making it easier for them to distribute child pornography, conduct human trafficking and practice modern-day slavery. A March 2014 report by Najat Maalla M’jid, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, warns that children are at more risk than ever to be sexually exploited or sold online (CHILD…, 2014). Digital abuse is not limited to the egregious abuses of trafficking and slavery—each day, women and minorities face harassment, bullying and threats online.

The increased use of digital technologies for data collection and surveillance has put technology firms under public scrutiny. These companies face dueling pressures and expectations to be transparent and to respect the privacy of their users. The right to privacy is a basic human right, and as technologies evolve, activists and human rights organizations throughout the world are calling on governments to create policies that ensure transparency and accountability when it comes to security surveillance and collection of personal data of their citizens.

3.2  A digital divide in access to technology, information and education

From social media to mobile phones to wearable technology, digital connectivity drives daily life. With such widespread use of information and communication technologies, we tend to overlook the gaping global digital divide. In a digital age, many basic freedoms and fundamental human rights are inextricably linked to the right to digital access. As a result, the United Nations declared access to the Internet a basic human right (KRAVETS, 2013), due to its ability to provide access to information, allow freedom of expression, allow citizens to take part in the political process of their country and allow them to actively take part in the cultural life of their communities.

And yet only 39 percent of the world’s population has Internet access. Seventy-five percent of Europeans are online, while only 16 percent of Africans have Internet access (INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION UNION, 2013).

The digital divide also cuts through both developed and developing nations, due to both limited access to technology and low literacy rates. Only 37% of the women in the world are online, versus 41% of men. Based on local cultural norms regarding women, literacy rates and gender inequalities, there also exists a significant gender gap in access even when digital technologies are available in the region. As women’s rights consultant Clara Vaz (2014) points out, part of the challenge is gendered distribution of information. Men create the majority of the online content. For example, on the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia, only 16% of the editors are women—and they contribute only 9% of the changes to Wikipedia entries (LAM; UDUWAGE; et al, 2011). Since Wikipedia relies on volunteers to add content, this has serious implications. Often, information relating to violence against women is absent or inaccurate. During a hackathon hosted by Breakthrough in December 2013, one group of activists and journalists identified and edited a set of key Wikipedia entries that left out important information regarding sexual violence against women, such as an article on Indian guidelines regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and an article explaining a landmark rape case judgment.

Government censorship and corporate policy also limit digital access. After all, government censorship means people throughout the world do not experience and access the Internet and digital tools in the same way (MACKINNON, 2014). In some cases, national governments and large corporations control how certain populations experience the Internet, resulting in inequality in freedom of access to information. In order to operate in certain countries, companies like Google have to exercise self-censorship and limit some of the information that they allow users to access.

4  Other impacts on the human rights field

This section considers some additional impacts that digital technologies have in enhancing the work of human rights advocates through innovation, creativity and collaborations between online and offline activism.

4.1  Driving innovation to bridge the digital gap

In places where Internet access is scarce, the constraints drive innovation in the ways mobile phones and radio can be used to generate social change. Gram Vaani, a Delhi-based technology company, uses mobile phones to create a community-powered social network. Mobile Vaani relies on an intelligent interactive voice response system where people can call a number to record messages about their community or listen to messages left by other members of their community.

In December 2013, Breakthrough partnered with Mobile Vaani in Jharkhand, India to raise awareness about the devastating impact of early marriage on young girls. Nearly 223 people called to contribute content, and 15,000 callers dialed in to hear these messages. Short compilations of the messages received aired as eight episodes over a period of four months. Similar to other social media, the Mobile Vaani content gives space for multiple types of messages. People expressed opinions, shared useful information about government programs related to early marriage and exchanged entertaining content such as stories, poems, dramas and songs.

In this way, Gram Vaani’s community-based network creates a system of accountability as people demand access to needed resources and make policymakers aware of the problems they face, while also generating solutions that are grounded in the context of their community.

4.2  New forms of presenting information for impact

At a time when audiences regularly digest information while quickly scrolling through tweets of no more than 140 characters each, organizations must continuously innovate to capture and hold audience attention. Long-form analytical reports, policy papers and research studies are certainly still relevant ways to convey more complex, nuanced arguments. As a result, organizations must creatively integrate digital tools in their campaigns and understand the best ways to build an argument and reach audiences using the range of tools at their disposal.

After all, the same report can exist in different forms. Based on the audience an organization is expecting to reach, content should be tailored for maximum viewership and shareability. In the past, organizations would generate reports that would sit as printed materials in their offices or housed as PDF documents on their websites. The ability to present information in multiple and engaging formats means that organizations can now share their reports and research with an even broader public, including audiences that would typically not have sought out reports published and distributed in a traditional manner.  Recently, The Barnard Center for Research on Women published a report on the future of online feminism on their website. The Center also created a visually-engaging infographic based on their major findings that could be shared across social media and generated online discussion during the launch event with the use of #FemFuture on Twitter (MARTIN; VALENTI, 2013).

4.3  Digital action and place-based activism

Online human rights campaigns are often dismissed as “slacktivism” and criticized for not translating into real change. However, this criticism assumes that digital activism replaces place-based activism. In reality, the success of human rights campaigns stems from a balance of online consciousness-raising and offline action to drive meaningful social impact. Dynamics of Cause Engagement, a 2011 study from Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, demonstrated that while social media activism still ranks lower than traditional activism, nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe that social media are important in bringing visibility and support for causes. Furthermore, “slacktivists” were twice as likely as others to engage in activities like volunteering, donating and recruiting others for a cause. Their social media support supplemented offline activism.

Though a single video can capture the attention of millions of online viewers, real change comes only when that attention is channeled into meaningful action. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and online petition platforms like Avaaz and Change raise awareness and mobilize physical action, acting as milestones along the journey towards social transformation.

Similarly, while Breakthrough has engaged more than 130 million people and our media and toolkits have been used by organizations worldwide, we firmly believe in keeping our work grounded in physical communities. For example, in India, women’s access to public transportation is limited due to rampant sexual harassment and abuse. In order to encourage women to reclaim public spaces, Breakthrough’s “Board the Bus” campaign urged women in Delhi who rarely use buses to join regular female bus commuters as a sign of solidarity on March 8, 2014. In the weeks leading up to the event, Breakthrough relied heavily on social media, radio and flash mobs not only to spread the word and encourage women to travel by bus, but also to share experiences of women who have faced harassment on public transportation. Still, the underlying intent was to drive our audience to physical, collective action.

5  Conclusion

Digital media have fundamentally transformed the landscape of human rights advocacy and campaigning. Despite the serious risks and challenges that these technologies can pose, their power to drive social change cannot be denied. As digital technologies continue to evolve and become ubiquitous, human rights advocates must understand them, adopt them and leverage them to preserve and advance human rights. Digital media can bring together groups of people in a collaborative environment to create and sustain meaningful change. People who previously did not consider themselves activists, such as journalists, technologists, scientists, designers and policy experts, are now applying collective intelligence to create holistic solutions to critical human rights issues facing our societies. These collaborations rely on co-creation, collective action and public dialogue that can spread through popular culture and social media to generate the long-term transformation needed to realize human rights.

* Mallika Dutt is founder, president, and CEO of global human rights organization Breakthrough, whose mission is to build a world in which violence against women and girls is unacceptable. Under Dutt’s leadership, Breakthrough has reinvented the delivery of social and cultural change through a mix of stirring multimedia campaigns and deep community engagement. Breakthrough works through centers in India and the United States.

Email: mallika@breakthrough.tv

 

* Nadia Rasul holds a Master of Arts in International Affairs from The New School, New York. She works on strategic digital engagement, community building and multimedia storytelling at Breakthrough.

Email: nadia.rasul@gmail.com

 

REFERENCES

Bibliography and Other Sources

CENTER FOR SOCIAL IMPACT COMMUNICATION. 2011. Dynamics of Cause Engagement, 22 Nov. Available at: http://csic.georgetown.edu/research/dynamics-of-cause-engagement. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

CHILD trafficking, exploitation on the rise, warns UN expert. 2014. UN News Center, 13 Mar. Available at: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47346&Cr=traffic&Cr1=abuse#.UzMdqK1dUr0. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

CLEAVER, Harry. 1998. The Zapatista Effect: The internet and the rise of an alternativa political fabric. Journal of International Affairs, New York, v. 51, n. 2, p. 621-640. Available at: http://www.uff.br/ciberlegenda/ojs/index.php/revista/article/download/280/165. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

GUGLIELMO, Connie. Apple’s Supplier Labor Practices In China Scrutinized After Foxconn, Pegatron Reviews. Forbes, 12 Dec. 2013, Tech. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2013/12/12/apples-labor-practices-in-china-scrutinized-after-foxconn-pegatron-reviewed. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

HARLOW, Summer; GUO, Lei. 2014. Will the Revolution be Tweeted or Facebooked? Using Digital Communication Tools in Immigrant Activism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12062. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcc4.12062/abstract. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION UNION. 2013. The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures, Feb. Available at: http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2013-e.pdf. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

JOHN, Arit. 2013. The Year in #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and Twitter Feminism. The Wire, 31 Dec. Available at: http://www.thewire.com/culture/2013/12/year-solidarityisforwhitewomen-and-twitter-feminism/356583. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

KRAVETS, David. 2013. U.N. Report Declares Internet Access a Human Right. Wired, 3 Jun. Available at: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/06/internet-a-human-right. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

KUMAR, Ravi. 2013. Young People Use Tech to End Violence Against Women in Nepal. Huffington Post, 18 Jul. Impact. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ravi-kumar/young-people-use-tech-to-_b_3612004.html. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

LAM, Shayong K.; UDUWAGE, Anuradha; DONG, Zhenhua; SEN, Shilad; MUSICANT, David R.; TERVEEN, Loren; RIEDL, John. 2011. WP: clubhouse?: An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance. Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration, Mountainview, p. 1-10. Available at: http://files.grouplens.org/papers/wp-gender-wikisym2011.pdf. Last accessed 31. Mar. 2014.

MACKINNON, Rebecca. 2014. Playing Favorites. Guernica, 3 Feb, Features. Available at: http://www.guernicamag.com/features/playing-favorites. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

MARTIN, Courtney E.; VALENTI, Vanessa. n/d. #FemFurture: Online Revolution. Barnard Center for Research on Women, New York, v. 8. Available at: http://bcrw.barnard.edu/publications/femfuture-online-revolution. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

MARTINEZ-TORRES, Maria Elena. 2001. Civil Society, the Internet, and the Zapatistas. Peace Review: A journal of Social Justice, San Francisco, v. 13, n. 3, p. 347-355. Available at: http://globalalternatives.org/files/MartinezTorresZapatistas.pdf. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

SANDLER, Joanne. 2013. The Online Terrain for Women’s Rights. Global Information Society Watch, Women’s Rights, Gender and ICTs. Available at: http://www.giswatch.org/en/report-introduction/online-terrain-women-s-rights Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

VAZ, Clara. 2014. Women’s Voices in Social Media: Challenges, opportunities and legislation. Fem2pt0, 7 Mar. Available at: http://www.fem2pt0.com/?p=20694. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

WOMEN, ACTION, & THE MEDIA (WAM!). Facebook Agreement Statement. 28 May 2013. Available at: http://www.womenactionmedia.org/fbagreement. Last accessed on: 31 Mar. 2014.

Interview: Pakistani Transgender Activist Looks to ‘New Dawn’ of Rights, Dignity

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]


Bindiya Rana, president of Pakistan’s Gender Interactive Alliance.

Gender identity and transgender issues have come under a renewed focus around the world recently, with a “third gender” option on birth certificates in Germany, Bradley Manning’s announcement of his female identity and the fatal beating of a transgender woman in New York City. 

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the transgender community has won some victories in obtaining basic civil rights this year.

Pakistan’s transgender people, or khawaja seras, have faced abuse and isolation for decades. (The termkhawaja sera can refer to transgender people, transvestites, hermaphrodites or eunuchs.) Historically, in South Asia, khawaja seras were respected as caretakers of royal harems, masters of art and culture, and trusted as messengers, watchmen and guardians. Over time, however, their social status diminished significantly. Transgender people now live on the margins of the society as entertainers, beggars and sex workers. Often denied access to education and healthcare, they face extreme discrimination, poverty, abuse and other violations of basic human rights.

But recent gains for Pakistan’s transgender community include a ruling by the Supreme Court to allow a third gender category on national identity cards, a legal share of family inheritance, a reserved 2% quota of jobs in all sectors and the right to vote in elections. But not much has changed in practice, and discrimination persists. In a country dealing with overwhelming economic and social ills, Pakistan’s transgender community continues to be ignored.

Bindiya Rana is the president of Gender Interactive Alliance, an organization that works for the rights ofkhawaja seras in Pakistan. Owing to the new right to participate in Pakistan’s general elections, Rana is one of the few transgender people who ran for office in 2013. While she didn’t secure a seat in the provincial assembly, she believes her victory is in having successfully submitted her nomination papers despite many obstacles. Reflecting on her journey in the run-up to the elections and her work for the rights of transgender people of Pakistan, Rana keeps a cheerful outlook and believes “a new dawn is near.”

From her home in Karachi, Rana communicated with Asia Society via Skype.

Tell us a little about yourself and your work for social justice and rights of transgender people in Pakistan.

I have been working to improve the standards of living, providing access to basic health care and well being of transgender people in Pakistan for the past seven years. When we first started doing social work, we were concerned about being able to meet this challenge that we are taking on. At first I thought this was just some sort of junoon [“madness” in Urdu]. Sometimes a person thinks they can do really big things, like playing cricket on a professional level, for example, but when you start doing it, you realize you don’t have the capacity to actually do it.

We work for the rights of transgender people and help them with various issues, including health care or larger problems like gang rape and other injustices. In Pakistan, most transgender people are forced to live in slum areas because other people are not prepared to let them live in apartment buildings or houses in nicer areas. When they live in slums, they live among sketchy people including drug sellers and they end up facing a lot of problems. Often we get calls for help late at night to help with health issues, accidents, rape or if someone has been involved in a serious fight. We then go in and take them to public hospitals.

We started by learning first from others who had experience working with social justice and human rights issues on a grassroots level, because I am myself transgender and I have no previous experience of working in this field. In the past, I used to dance with my troupe at weddings and I am proud of that work. People tend to hide their past, but I am proud of it. I am proud of my people who work hard to support themselves, whether they dance for entertainment, beg for money at traffic signals, or even if they are sex workers.

People were skeptical in the beginning about us (transgender people) getting involved in social work and they made fun. Everyone works for the good of their own communities — women have their own organizations to support their rights, as do men. So why shouldn’t we work for our community’s rights as well? The first step we took was to go to interior Sindh and Balochistan and set up free medical camps for women and children. We believe that if someone is even worse off than you are, you should help them out. We encouraged other people, and organizations as well, to come to these neglected areas. Working there helped us gain experience and confidence in what we were doing.

With the new rights you now have — a National Identity Card recognizing the “third gender” and the ability to vote and run for public office — do you think much has changed in the way society sees and interacts with the transgender community in Pakistan?

We used to think that maybe in 15 or 20 years people will start understanding the needs of transgender people and we will be given more rights. But God answered our prayers much quicker than that, and within two years the Supreme Court announced the decision to allows transgender people to get National Identity Cards, register for elections, be allowed to work and get a share in family inheritance. When the Supreme Court decision came, it seemed to me that now darkness is about to end and we will see a new beginning. That is when our real work began.

It’s such a shame that the Supreme Court has announced these decisions, but no laws have been made in our favor, nor has anyone acted on turning the free education, health care benefits, skills training and 2% employment quota into a reality. We were happy with even the 2% quota, and it would mean that some people of our community will be saved from degrading themselves by begging on the streets, dancing, singing and sex work (always at risk of HIV/AIDS). Despite the changes in government leadership since then, none of the Supreme Court orders has been implemented as yet.

As far as Pakistani society is concerned — they don’t treat transgender people with respect. Transgender people are capable of doing respectable work as domestic helpers as cooks, cleaners and chauffeurs. It’s a pity that no one hires them. They are willing to work in offices, mills and factories as well, but no one is willing to hire them out of prejudice. People don’t understand that there is a whole spectrum of transgender identities. They refuse to understand that even if some of us look like men, they do not identify as male. They continue to look down on the transgender people who appear to be men and are forced to beg on roads.

Our society doesn’t have the capability to tolerate. We hesitate in giving other people their rights. If I talk about transgender rights, people will shy away from associating with me because they worry about how they will be perceived by others. I’m Muslim, as are many other transgender people, but more than religion we believe in humanity. It doesn’t matter what anyone’s religion is in the transgender community, we don’t ostracize them based on their beliefs. Many people around us use religion as an excuse to discriminate or put limitations on how others can behave. Islam teaches peace, love and oneness with mankind, it doesn’t teach you to hate.

Why did you decide to run for office in the 2013 elections? What was your experience like — and would you run in the elections again?

Now that I have had some experience in politics, I run in the elections again in five years. The three months of election campaigning will have an impact on my life for years to come. I had no political experience nor was I passionate about running in the elections. Many political parties reached out to us before the elections and we asked them what they would do for transgender people if we voted for them. They all had their manifestos and after reading their lists of things, we were very angry because they had not even mentioned transgender people. Why should we support and vote for people who had left us out completely? We then decided to participate in the elections ourselves.

During the elections and even now I continue to get death threats. I had to go with a police escort to campaign in my electorate district. I couldn’t sleep at my own home for fear of being attacked during the night. After being abandoned by some of my friends and organizations that we had worked with, I finally reached out to the head of the sex workers’ group who I call amma [“mother” in Urdu]. She gave me shelter despite the fact that my presence could have been a problem for her as well. So you shouldn’t think that a person is beneath you just because they are sex workers or laborers, everyone human being has his own quality. And someone you don’t even expect may help you out in your time of need. Even now when I go back to visit my district, I am always afraid for my life. I still get death threats over the phone from public phone booth numbers. The police don’t do anything about it, they just ask you to turn your phone off.

We won the day our nomination papers were accepted — my papers were rejected, which I appealed in Election Tribunal of the Sindh High Court. My second win was when Sindh High Court overturned the rejection and accepted my nomination papers. Many of the transgender candidates who were running in the elections were forced to quit the race under pressure from other parties, but a handful of us remained steadfast.

We could see clearly that other candidates and parties were spending large amounts of money on campaigning. And we did not have enough money to spend on campaign materials. We used homemade glue to stick our small posters ourselves on walls and doors of the electoral district. And every time we posted a few of our leaflets around one block, the next day we would see the entire block decorated with endless rows of leaflets in support of our opposing candidates.

I wish [that] rather than spending hundreds of thousands of rupees on banners and stickers, they had spent the money on the welfare of the people of the electoral district. When people are more aware of the fact that you shouldn’t vote based on who has the biggest events, and when we have a computerized voting system, the electoral process will be much more transparent.

Interview: Novelist Mohsin Hamid Wants You to Get ‘Filthy Rich’ in a Rising Asia

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]


L: American cover art for “How to Get Filthy Rich in a Rising Asia,” the forthcoming novel by Mohsin Hamid (R), shown here at an Asia Society India Centre event in Mumbai in Dec. 2012.

KARACHI — Among the many authors, artists, poets, performers and activists convened here by the fourth annual Karachi Literature Festival last week, one of the most prominent was Pakistan’s own Mohsin Hamid, on hand to introduce his latest book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Named one of the “most anticipated” releases of 2013 by literary site The Millions and already excerpted in The New YorkerHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia purports to be a self-help book with unnamed characters set in an unnamed place that is loosely based on Lahore, where Hamid lives. In another departure from novelistic norms, the book is written in the second person. “You are the central protagonist,” Hamid told Asia Blog, “you the reader are also you this character who is a young boy, initially dirt poor, in a village [who] moves to the city. It follows him from birth until death as he tries to get wealthy and falls in love with this girl he is sort of pursuing his whole life. We end with him in old age.”

“It’s not based on any person as such and he doesn’t stay a boy. He’s 80 years old and decrepit by the end of the novel, so each chapter follow him five or seven or ten years further on in his life and he’s you. He is the vehicle for the reader who is reading this self-help book/novel to learn how to get filthy rich in rising Asia supposedly but actually perhaps to learn something else.”

Speaking about the intended audience for English-language novels by Pakistani writers, Hamid said, “in terms of who I write for, I don’t think of it as a geographic thing so I write novels that i would like to read. I write novels about stuff that I care about. So, whether it’s a housewife in Chile or a college student in America or one of the young attendants here who just told me that she just picked up my book at local Karachi library, those are all equally valid readers as far as I’m concerned.”

Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke, has been translated into 30 languages. He doesn’t see himself as someone who can write in languages native to Pakistan, however. “I have thought about getting my books translated, and the chapters in Moth Smoke have been translated and I think that makes sense — the idea of trying to find a greater Urdu-language connection for the writing is probably important,” he said. “My first novel came out as an Urdu telefilm on GEO Tv and is hopefully now being made into into a film by Rahul Bose. The second one [The Reluctant Fundamentalist] came out as a movie as well so they have ways of working in to the popular culture.”

“For me, I don’t write in Urdu, I studied Urdu through high school so I can read it and write it very badly, but I cannot write a novel in Urdu. I couldn’t even write a decent essay in Urdu. It’s like saying you’re a sculptor, but people like paintings, why don’t you paint? I’m just an English-language writer. I don’t have another language to write in.”

With two of his books being made into films, Hamid admitted that he writes with the consciousness that his work might be adapted for the screen. However, he intentionally tries to write novels that do things that films can’t do. He believes that makes it difficult for anybody who wants to make his novels into films, as Mira Nair has discovered with her adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as he thinks Rahul Bose is probably discovering right now.

Moth Smoke is sort of this surreal trial where all these different characters are talking and you can distill out of that the story of a guy who smokes pot, falls in love with his best friend’s wife and becomes a heroin addict, but that story is only part of what Moth Smoke is,” explained Hamid. “Similarly, with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, you can take the story of a man who goes to America and comes back, but the novel actually is a half conversation where you hear one side of two people talking, and doing that cinematically is next to impossible. You don’t want to see just a guy sitting there talking at the camera for two hours.”

“The new novel is a self-help book told about ‘you.’ Again, you could make it into a movie about a young boy who grows up and falls in love and gets old, but they are intrinsically novels. I try to write novels that do things that only novels can do. If I’ve learned anything from being involved in making films, it’s that there are certain things that films do well and there are certain things that films can’t do, and the things that films can’t do interest me.”

Hamid wants to write novels that are unlike anything he has read. The best novels he can imagine writing are those that push the form and reinvent what the novel does.

“When I wanted to write Moth Smoke, it wasn’t just that I wanted to tell about this urban youth that I hadn’t seen in fiction, in this sort of magical or traditional fiction of South Asia. It’s also that I wanted to write a novel that structurally did things I hadn’t seen done before. That has been my project throughout, The Reluctant Fundamentalist does that and this book I think probably more than either of the two. The reason to do that is because form is how you get your story into a reader’s mind. It’s how you cross over from writer to reader and unless you think people haven’t changed and the human context hasn’t changed at all, that the basic storytelling form that we’ve had for thousands of years are still the only form. Unless you think that, you have to find new ways of telling stories. In today’s world, where people are watching TV, they are on Twitter, and they are absorbing lots of different types of things, we need new kinds of novels. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The author cautioned, though, that he doesn’t want to experiment solely for experimentation’s sake. “Ideally, many readers will just read these books and say that was a great story and not even realize that it was formally experimental. Other readers might find that it is experimental.”

In Hamid’s earlier novels, the protagonist is a young man who isn’t that different in age from him. In the third book, he wanted to take on a broader canvas, which is why he built the story around the character’s journey from poor village boy to destitute city kid all the way up to corporate tycoon on the verge of death. “I wanted to get outside of personal experience and just write purely imaginatively,” he said. However, Hamid points out that in Moth Smoke as well there were chapters written completely from a woman’s perspective, and he can certainly imagine writing a whole novel from a woman’s point of view — although he hasn’t done it yet.

The storyline of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid agreed, is a popular Bollywood story, but he believes that it is a popular human story as well. “What’s interesting to me about it was that I was less concerned with how do you get rich. Although, I’m interested in that and the violence and the cruelty of the process. But it was more that if I followed him through all these different slivers, I would have a way of writing about many different social classes from really poor to middle class to wealthy. For me the beauty of writing this kind of a story is that you can break outside of single class restriction and go across the society.”

Hamid has been conscious of visible class difference from a very early age. At age nine, when he moved back to Pakistan from California, he was shocked by the presence of servants in his grandfather’s house. Hamid described his grandmother, a chairwoman of All Pakistan’s Women Association, as a real crusader for workers rights and women’s rights, therefore he found it strange to have servants in the house. He recalls asking his mother if they were slaves. Although, she explained to him that they were not slaves, Hamid claimed that he never recovered from the shock of servants as a concept. “I still look around me and when I travel in India and Pakistan, I’m always sort of shocked at the different levels in our society, it never goes away.”

Finally, Hamid expressed his disappointment that writers from India were unable to be part of this year’s Karachi Literature Festival. Some of the Indian literary figures who were expected to be present were unable to attend for various reasons. Indian poet and lyricist Gulzar returned home before the festival started due to a feeling of “discomfort” after a visit to his birthplace and his mentor’s grave. Shobha De, another renowned Indian writer, had to cancel her trip at the last minute due to a visa delay. There has been some speculation, however, about security issues and political motivations.

“I think it would be a terrible shame if the Indian writers who were going to be here aren’t here,” he said, “because I do believe that there is a opening up of India and Pakistan to each other — it is happening almost despite the entrenched right wing lobbies on both sides. I have an Indian publisher, I’ve collaborated on two movies with Indians, I have readers in India, I’ve travelled to India and Indian friends came for my wedding in Pakistan eight years ago. I have friends who are musicians and actors and they are all collaborating. I have friends in business and there are a lot of opportunities in business across the border for both sides.”

“For all of us who believe that this ridiculously antagonistically divided sub-continent needs to heal itself, which every writer I can think of feels that way, these are great chances to do it. Not that necessarily suddenly the wall will tumble down because Shobha De is reading here, but many of the people here will never have seen an Indian pubic figure talk about anything in real life and if you have 15,000 people here exposed to that, then that matters. It also matters symbolically that people can see from India that their writer can come here and that they are treated with respect and admiration and they go back. It’s a shame if it’s not happening.”

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is published in the United States on March 5 and in Pakistan and India at approximately the same time. It will be released in the United Kingdom on March 28.

Annie Ali Khan contributed reporting for this article.

Interview: Pankaj Mishra’s Eye-Opening Asian Perspective on Modern History

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]


Pankaj Mishra (L), author of ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.’ (PankajMishra.com)

Versatile Indian critic and journalist Pankaj Mishra expands his portfolio significantly with his latest book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, a wide-ranging and frequently pugnacious history of the intellectual currents underpinning nationalist political movements in China, Egypt, Japan, India, Iran, Turkey, Vietnam and the rest of Asia from the late 1800s through the present day. 

From the Ruins of Empire begins with the Japanese victory over the Russian navy in 1905, which Mishra considers a turning point in the history of modern world, one whose ramifications echoed throughout Asia and the Middle East. Russia’s defeat, writes Mishra, proved to the subjugated peoples of the Middle East and Asia that the Western colonial powers were not invincible. From there, Mishra gives an alternative perspective on the making of the modern world through the intellectual and political journeys of three itinerant Asian scholars: the Persian Jamal al-Din al-AfghaniLiang Qichao from China and Rabindranath Tagore from India. 

Published this week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States, the book highlights a variety of Asian responses to Western imperialism, ranging from the idea that Asia’s subjugated peoples could be powerful again if they held true to their religious and cultural traditions to a belief in radically changing the old ways of thinking. As the book’s latter pages make clear, these diverse anti-colonial responses spanning the past two centuries continue to shape contemporary changes in power dynamics throughout the Middle East and Asia.

frequent presence at Asia Society events, Mishra will discuss his new book at Asia Society Texas Center in Houston on September 26 and at Asia Society Northern California in San Francisco on October 2. Mishra responded to Asia Blog‘s questions via email from London.

What motivated you to write an Asian perspective on recent history? Is there still a need, in 2012, to counter a dominant Western narrative of modernity?

It’s not just an intellectual need. You only have to look at the bewildering transformations in the non-West today to realise they don’t conform to a Western sense of the past or the future or meet Western expectations as reflected in newspaper commentary and foreign-policymaking of the last two decades. History has not ended, as was widely assumed after the collapse of communism. And globalization has not led to a New World Order organized around Western-style capitalism and democracy.

Parties with an explicitly Islamic orientation run Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Tunisia; they remain popular in large parts of the Muslim world; the extremist Taliban are making a comeback in Afghanistan. The Chinese have achieved some astounding economic growth through state capitalism. India, which is often showcased as a Western-style democracy in Asia, is facing huge challenges of socioeconomic unrest and religious-ethnic secessionism. There has never been a greater need for multiple perspectives on global history — an alternative view to the conventional and narcissistic one created by Western interests, concerns and preoccupations.

You focus on two intellectuals who are less well known in the West, the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and China’s Liang Qichao. How did you first become acquainted with these two, and at what point did you know you wanted to develop the book around them?

I had come across these two in various books over the years, but it was only when I started reading monographs about them that I realized they offered a unique perspective on their worlds — those of late 19th-century- and early-20th-century China and the Muslim world. These were unknown not only in the West, where people like Gandhi, Ataturk and Mao Zedong are much better known, but also to those of us in Asia who had grown up on nationalist histories.

Were the anti-Western ideas of these intellectuals always well received within Asia itself?

They were not anti-Western in a parochial sense. Both these thinkers and Tagore stressed the great need to learn from the West and were full of admiration for its manifold achievements in the arts and sciences. What they protested against was the idea of coercion built into Western imperialism and capitalism. What they were unwilling to do is overhaul and upend their societies according to Western dictates, or do so in order to match the specifications of their more Westernized colleagues who, while distrusting and despising the West, wanted to borrow the secrets of Western power — heavily armed and homogenous nation-states, for example. So they had to enter very fraught debates within their own societies about how to respond to the power of the West.

You quote Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s 1879 speech in Alexandria where he argues that colonized peoples will find it “…impossible to emerge from stupidity, from the prison of humiliation and distress, and from the depths of darkness and ignominy as long as women are deprived of rights.” Do we know if al-Afghani returned to or developed this theme later in his career? Was it taken up by any of the succeeding thinkers he influenced?

Yes, this was a very important strand in the thinking of almost all the major Chinese, Muslim and Indian thinkers of the time. It was a very important part of their preoccupation with creating a self-aware and productive citizenry — one that could engage in a collective endeavor of self-strengthening against the West. And this had important ramifications. The Chinese Nationalists and Communists empowered women and campaigned against many oppressive practices such as foot-binding. Women participated in large numbers in the anti-British Egyptian revolution of 1919.

Do the ideas of al-Afghani, Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore continue to resonate in our world today? Or has the struggle metamorphosed to a point where their relevance is tenuous or arguable?

Their ideas of a cosmopolitan, non-sectarian Asia have never been more relevant, as we witness the decay of the old model of the nation-state and the enrichment of small transnational elites at great cost to vast majorities everywhere. Their great insight was that we live in an interdependent world and have to accordingly devise a profoundly ethical political and economic outlook rather than embrace and adopt the “organized selfishness,” as Tagore called it, of nation-states. The major rivers of Asia originate in the Tibetan plateau, and sustain the lives of hundreds of millions in Asia, so glaciers melting there affect not just the Chinese and can’t be solved by them alone. Climate change is one of the most important issues before the world today, and we know that it cannot be solved by any one nation-state.

We need a different idea of political community and citizenship, and these thinkers in their own way were trying to articulate that, and say that political and economic ideas deriving from the colonialist and expansionist societies of the West were mostly unsuited to Asia, and, if adopted by Asia, would lead to vicious conflicts of the kind that had ravaged Europe. We can already see the alarming potential of European-style wars over territory and resources in the growing disputes between China and its neighbors.

Interview: New Website Lets Peshawar, Pakistan Tell Its Own Stories

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]


The Qissa Khwani Bazaar in the old city of Peshawar, Pakistan. (Iftikhar Firdaus)

Zalan Khan is a British Pakistani with more than 10 years’ experience as a freelance writer and blogger focused on history and politics. Khan spent a part of his life in Peshawar, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, a part of the globe that typically comes to the rest of the world’s attention as the site of bombings and other political turmoil. Khan recently became so frustrated by what he saw as mainstream media’s narrowly-focused coverage of the region that he decided it was time to get local voices heard globally. He founded a blog, Qissa Khwani: The Storyteller’s Bazaarexpressly for that purpose in April 2012.

Committed to showcasing a wide range of local perspectives on history, culture, gender, religion, and politics as well as on the conflict plaguing the region, the blog takes its name from the Qissa Khwani Bazaar (Market of Storytellers) in Peshawar. Once a crossroads whose teahouses bustled with professional storytellers and artists from different parts of the world traveling along the Silk Route, the Qissa Khwani Bazaar is still a busy part of Peshawar’s old city.

Khan responded to Asia Blog‘s questions about the Qissa Khwani blog via email.

What does Qissa Khwani mean? And who are the people behind this site?   

The blog is named after the storytellers’ bazaar in Peshawar’s old city. It was inspired by the realization that there was a vacuum in the narrative about the region. To put it simply, people were writing and talking about a region without actually letting the locals write and speak for themselves. The idea was to create an inclusive blog which offered a platform for a generation of writers from the region who would look at their region and the world with their own distinctive perspective.

Historically, Qissa Khwani was an appropriate name for the blog because it has been a transit point for traders on the Silk Route, a point where travelers and traders plying their wares across India to the east and as far as Central Asia and Turkey to the west would meet to exchange stories, rumors and information. We have attracted a variety of writers, ranging from people living as far apart as Kabul to Delhi and the Middle East to Canada. The site is a collaborative effort, with people contributing articles and pictures and others contributing time to improving its profile on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

To give an example of the unlikely collaborations this has led to, we had two writers work on a story titled The King, the picture and the water carrier which gave two perspectives of the ouster of the reformer Afghan King Amanullah Khan in 1928. One perspective by an Afghan writer based in London explained how a fake picture was circulated to be used as propaganda against the King. The other perspective, shared by a Peshawar-based writer, gave insight into the possiblity that the British Raj had supported this ouster because of the King’s independent tendencies. When you consider that both authors wrote with insider information on events they had heard from members of their family who were politically active in those days, it gives you an idea of the possibilities.

Another example is this story, For the love of India and in memory of Tirah by Sabah, an Indian Muslim of Pashtun descent living in the Middle East, writing about how her family were holding onto traditions from their ancestral home of Tirah in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

We also reflect on the ethnic problems of the region — we have Dr. Mohammad Taqi’s series on the false histories used to discriminate against the Hazara community of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Do you have a global audience? Is Qissa Khwani mainly an attempt to bring a better understanding of the region to people in the West, or is it meant for a local audience? 

In modern society, I think the answer is, by default, both. The site offers an insight to others into what is going on in everyday life, a reminder that amidst all the violence, displacement, floods and other tragedies, there are people who are getting along with life. They live, love, care and struggle as much as anyone else. For the locals, with a youth bulge in the region it gives an opportunity for the curious to learn about parts of life and history they might have not been taught or not been aware of.

What kind of narratives does Qissa Khwani highlight? And why do you believe it is important to tell them? 

Since I was a child I have always been interested in stories: I think proverbs, tales and fairy tales are ultimately parables of real life. When done right they inspire and give us hope, they challenge stereotypes and those sweeping brushes of bias and prejudice. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

In terms of the modern narratives, they are all over the newspapers and perpetrated by both the local elites, national media and international media. They promote myths like how the region is the graveyard for empires and not how the empires make the region a graveyard for its people. They explain how important it is to negotiate with the Taliban, implying that all locals are by default Taliban or, worse, how they are regressive “tribal people” who oppose modernity.

By giving in to these simplifications, they forget the large political and legal vacuum in the region, they forget the criminal underinvestment in jobs and education, they forget the international brigade of people from all over the world who have landed in the region and the massive sums of money pouring in from sympathizers. They also forget that the vast majority of victims of violence and brainwashing are in fact those same locals.

What place does traditional storytelling hold in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan?

It is a difficult time for the story teller and those who challenge narratives in both countries. Reading is considered a luxury and not useful in day-to-day living, they face harassment, threats and extortion if they push the boundaries of debate. Well-educated people would rather take as an accepted truth what others have to say about them than analyzing and challenging it, in fact, you would be surprised to know that senior bureaucrats posted in parts of Pakistan are known to use books written a century ago during the British Raj. This is despite hundreds of thousands of people from this region living all over the world. So to say traditional storytelling is not under threat would be an understatement.

What’s your vision for the future of Qissa Khwani? 

I look at it as a home for established and budding writers — hopefully, a place where a global audience can connect with them and share their humanity, share their stories. A place from which they move on to an even bigger world audience and remind the world that we are very much part of it.

For the people of the region, I hope peace is restored and that the locals reconcile the modern world with a rich culture and mythology. And perhaps one day, they can let everyone know that they have vanquished the dragons that stalk their land — but that is perhaps a story yet to be told.