In Afghanistan, Looking For Peace Through A Telescope

An astronomer uses stargazing to give young Afghans some much-appreciated perspective, all the while taking care not to tread on anyone's religious sensibilities.

U.S. helicopter under the night sky near Kabul, Afghanistan
U.S. helicopter under the night sky near Kabul, Afghanistan
Julien Bouissou

KABUL â€" When Yunos Bakhshi went to register his astronomy association with the Afghan Justice Ministry, an official there opened the palm of his hand and asked, "Can you read my fortune?"

In Afghanistan, astronomy is often confused with astrology, because people there prefer to use the stars to predict the future rather than to understand the universe. But Bakhshi sees another use for the Afghan interest in astrology.

"Observing the stars and the universe broadens our inner horizons, prompts questions and helps fight religious fanaticism,” he says. Could stargazing really bring a little peace to Afghanistan, a country ravaged by 36 years of war? That, in a nutshell, is Bakhshi's rather daring bet.

The "star fanatic," a short, energetic and smiling man with a piercing gaze, is putting his hopes into practice in his new clubhouse, in one of Kabul's quieter districts. For now, he only has three telescopes â€" one donated by South Korea â€" a few books purchased in Iran, and, most importantly, a good Internet connection. Most Afghans discovered their first galaxies by downloading pictures from the NASA website, well before the arrival of the first telescope in the country.

Walking a delicate line

Bakhshi regularly visits schools with an inflatable tent tucked under his arm â€" for use as a makeshift planetarium â€" and some posters of his favorite stars. But in a country that follows Sharia law, prudence is necessary. There can be no questioning of God’s existence lest Bakhshi suffer the same fate as Galileo. As he is careful to point out, his book on the universe in no way seeks to replace the Koran.

"I explain that the earth, on the universal scale, is no bigger than a grain of sand in the desert," he says. "That makes man's importance, and his certainties, relative. No one individual is better than another, so we might as well accept differences with humility."

At the Marefat middle school, which was attacked by radical Muslims in 2008 for its liberal teachings, students discover another planet Earth, seen from space.

"Now we know our address in the universe," says one student.

“From up there, you feel connected to the whole world, and not just to Afghanistan at war," says another, awkwardly squeezed into his jacket-and-tie uniform.

The boy's father warned him that observing the stars was blasphemous. "You cannot replace religion with astronomy," the teenager was told. But that didn't stop him from secretly reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, translated into Farsi.

Unlike most middle schools, Marefat chooses to teach astronomy despite the risk. "Astronomy allows us to better understand our place in the universe, and thus understand ourselves," the school's director, Hussein Saramad, explains. "We can't just sacrifice scientific knowledge to religious beliefs."

The children ask Bakhshi where God is hidden in space, or how much a star weighs. Other questions are more delicate: A bearded teacher asks Bakhshi to show the line of fracture on the moon, which God is said to have split in two to prove his existence, according to the Koran.

Uneasy, Bakhshi suggests that the teacher look closely at the moon, and notes that those who see the dividing line must certainly be blessed with greater faith than others.

It's not a weapon

Afghanistan's austere Religious Affairs Ministry, which regulates matters such as divorce, has no problem with astronomy. "When you read in the Koran, for example, that the air and atmosphere record every person's acts in anticipation of Judgment Day, don’t you think that this was foreshadowing written memory?" says Hujjatullah Najeeh, a mufti, or Islamic scholar. "Everything we discover in science has already been written in the Koran."

Thus, the ministry lets astronomers go about their business. The same cannot always be said about other authorities. Bakhshi has had policemen armed with assault weapons barge into his house at night. In a country at war, the shadow of an astronomer moving around at night with a telescope â€" which can look an awful lot like a rocket launcher, with its red lights for reading the celestial map â€" is suspicious, to say the very least.

And at every checkpoint they cross, astronomers have to explain to soldiers that a telescope is not a weapon. Some members of the military, nevertheless, forbid astronomers from viewing the stars, out of a conviction that telescopes allow one to see through walls into homes and stare at the women inside.

For the same price as a few rocket launchers, telescopes and books could help fight the Taliban's ideology. But astronomy is largely overlooked by international aid groups. And so Bakhshi continues his quest alone, convinced that one day, he will succeed in "clearing the canon smoke from the Afghan sky and showing all Afghans the beauty and mysteries of the universe."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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