Is Bahrain Different? Demonstrators Must Overcome Shia-Sunni Divide

Will the Bahraini royal family be the next Arab domino to fall? As pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain enter a second week, protestors hold fast in the face of brutal army repression.

Young protester in Pearl Square
Young protester in Pearl Square
Laure Stephan

MANAMA – Like a river that has burst its banks, the flood of words is relentless. On the Pearl Square roundabout, the meeting point for protestors in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama since February 14, a young man talks about the ongoing uprising, and its repression. Others gather around him. Everyone wants to explain something, add a detail. Most of the protesters are young, between 20 and 35 years old.

They feel compelled to talk. Because "the kingdom of Bahrain is going through a historic moment, and without the foreign media our movement will be suffocated," says Ahlam, a 32-year-old teacher dressed in the traditional Abaya, trendy jeans and shoes poking out the bottom. Because they see themselves as heirs to the revolution coursing through the Arab world: "If the regime falls, the uprising will spread to neighboring gulf countries," says Ahmad, a young businessman. Because they feel they have been cheated by the authorities when the state television channel doesn't show any footage of their protests.

But while their protests are not being shown on Bahrain TV, young Bahrainis are documenting them with their own cameras. Those who were not present at the bloody expulsion of protestors from Pearl Square by the army overnight on February 16, have downloaded images of the approaching tanks and shared them on the Internet.

These young people are the lifeblood of the protests on the square, which they reoccupied on February 19. They parade around the roundabout, waving pictures of "martyrs' -- the people wounded or killed in the uprising. Six people have died since February 14. They gather around a makeshift memorial: flowers, candles and a Koran have been placed beside blood stains. The blood belongs to Rida. The 32-year-old was shot in the head on Friday night. He's now in intensive care, but clinically dead. They drink tea next to their tents dotted about the square. Some of them act as volunteers, supporting the team of first aid doctors or distributing food. Their motto: silmiya (pacifism).

To justify the heavy military crackdown, an official says "arms were found among the protesters'. A member of the security forces even claimed that "blood supplies were stolen from hospitals and emptied onto the square to suggest the army killed people." The young protesters adamantly deny such accusations.

Most of the demonstrators are Shia, like the majority of this small country's population, which consists of 700,000 residents living on just 700 sq kilometers of territory. They deny any tensions with the country's Sunni population, to which the Al-Khalifa royal family belongs. "Sunnis and Shias, we are all brothers," they chant. It is of course a call for unity but it can also be interpreted as a request: we would like to all be brothers, but that means, for the young Shias, "no longer being the object of discrimination when, for example, it comes to access to certain state jobs."

The anger isn't directed at Sunnis, there are even a few present on the square. It is aimed at the royal family, who they would like to see "clear off to Saudi Arabia," a staunch regime supporter and Sunni giant in the region. Riyadh is following the situation in Bahrain closely. On Sunday, it called on protesters "to be reasonable in the way they express their ideas' and "to accept the offer the government has made" to dialogue.

For the opposition this is not an option: dialogue will only be possible once the leadership resigns. It has also called for a new mass protest on February 22. The protesters have no intention of moving on either: "the people want the regime to fall" is one of their leitmotifs.

It is no longer only about the demands made in the early days of the protests for measures against the rising cost of living and a revision of the constitution giving more weight to popular representation embodied by the elected Parliament. At present the upper house – the Shura – and the government are appointed by the king. "Our requests have changed because of the army's use of violence. The authorities have to take responsibility," says Ahlam, the school teacher.

The young protesters' priorities differ according to their social status. For Zouhair, 34, expectations are essentially political: "I hope for independence and the end to a system where one family decides the destiny of our country." Mariam, 35, would like "a decent life, not to live with her family packed in one room because the rents are too high." Hussein, 32, believes "Bahrain can be summed up in two words: tourist attraction." "The royal family are champions at impressing foreigners with ostentatious luxury. But it does nothing for its people. I'm unemployed although I've got a good degree." For Hussein, social reforms implemented by the regime in recent years have had no effect.

One placard brandished by a demonstrator shows a photo of former Tunisian President Ben Ali next to a number 1, a photo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beside a number 2, and number 3 with a question mark. For young Bahrainis, there's no doubt: the Al-Khalifa family is next on the list of fallen leaders.

An older man, sympathetic with the opposition, is less convinced: "Young people think that by gathering on the square they'll get change like in Cairo. Insha'Allah (God willing). But the situation is very different. Egypt's Muslim population is much more homogenous, almost exclusively Sunni; here the fact that there are both Sunnis and Shias makes the situation potentially explosive. Added to this, Egypt's army is Egyptian. In Bahrain, a lot of the army is foreign, and of Sunni extraction. That's why they opened fire: they didn't feel like they were firing on their own people."

Security forces left Pearl Square on Saturday. But the helicopter flying over the square day and night reminds protesters that while the authorities have backed off for now, they are still in control.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Al Jazeera

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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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