Yemen & UAE, Ukraine, France hijab ban & Lauren Smith-Fields— Julie’s Juiciest Conversations of January

TW: This piece discusses sexual assault, rape, gender-based violence which some readers may find upsetting.

Just like any other month in the world of politics, January 2022 has been busy and maybe somewhat confusing. Today we’re recapping some of the top news and events to take place throughout the month.

Source: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Starting off our wrap up in the Middle East as throughout January, several attacks took place between Yemen and the United Arab Emirates opposing the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition military group.

It all started on the 17th January when Houthi rebels, a Yemeni Islamic political and armed movement attacked the UEA in a drone strike blowing up fuel tankers. The attack resulted in three deaths and six injuries. This is far from being a one-off attack as the military group had targeted the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia many times before.

This attack was in response to a series of offensives led by the Yemeni military, who are supported by the UAE, that took place a few days earlier. The Houthis, who have been at war with the Saudi-led coalition for almost a decade now, had indeed, for months been making serious territorial gains but recently, tensions had been escalating as the rebels were losing power and influence. The series of 39 offensive operations into one of the regions where most fighting took place ended up killing 230 fighters and destroying 21 military vehicles, representing a consequent loss for the Houthi militia and completely shifting the momentum of the war, causing their retaliation on the 17th of January.

But, as mentioned above, this conflict has been going on for years, starting with a civil war in the 2010s. The country had grown increasingly tired and frustrated with the undemocratic ways of the 20-year running former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2011, during the Arab Spring, Yemenis rebelled against their government and with the help of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), succeeded in forcing Saleh out. He was replaced by the former Vice-President of Yemen: Abdrabbuh Mansour Had and a completely new government was put in place. Unfortunately, Had did not bring much positive change to a country that essentially, continued to be led by a corrupt elitist old man. The difference here is that this man was supported by the GCC and Saudi Arabia, the Council’s most influential member. And this is where the real trouble began.

In 2014, many Yemenis groups started to lose patience, the marginalised Houthis — Shia Muslim group from Northern Yemen — being one of them. They decided to join forces with some of former President Saleh’s allies and rebel against the government, leading Abd-Rabbu Mansour Had to flee when the rebels took over Sanaa, the capital, that same year. However, Had, the current President, had Saudi-Arabia as an ally, and they took military action in Yemen to restore Had’s government. Amongst others, Saudi-Arabia counts the UAE as its ally, so they soon joined the conflict, creating more tension between them and the Houthi-led rebel group, explaining the continuing tensions and conflict between both parties today.

Back to 2022 now, the UAE and its allies did not wait long before retaliating and on the 21st of January, airstrikes led by the Saudi-led military coalition on northern Yemen in Houthi-controlled territory killed at least 70 people and138 wounded. 50 people are still missing today, and the strikes knocked out the entire country’s internet for a few days and reportedly hit hospitals, airports, a water facility and a school.

Finally (for now), on the 24th of January, an American airbase in Abu Dhabi where 2,000 Americans were stationed was targeted as Houthi rebels fired two missiles, but the attack was prevented thanks to American intervention that helped intercept and destroy those. International efforts in attempting to defuse the conflict have been unsuccessful, especially given Yemen has been at the heart of war, violence and tensed international relations for years. The main worry, and this has been the case since the start of the civil war in 2010, is that civilians are trapped in the middle of a conflict that involves many parties. Yemen has often been said to have become an international battlefield, at the cost of many innocent Yemenis who face more physical, economic, social, educational and cultural loss year after year.

Source: Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina via AFP

Next up moving to Burkina Faso where on the 24th of January again, soldiers from the military announced they had seized power after their successful coup. Former President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré announced his resignation in a hand-written letter and has allegedly been detained by the Burkinabé military, on house arrest, since. The UN reports he is well and safe.

This military coup, which is the 5th successful attempt at toppling a government in an African country in the past 18 months, is said to have been motivated by the rising criticism against the President’s failure to counter terrorism attacks from Islamist groups within the country. This is an opinion that so far, the majority of citizens seem to agree with as, for example, the capital saw its streets flooded with residents celebrating the coup, considered by many as the solution to Burkina Faso’s security problems. Russia has also been a major topic of conversation as citizens are fed up with France’s military cooperations’ lack of success as well and salute Russian intervention in several African Nations such as the Central African Republic.

France, and other countries as well as the UN, African Union and Economic Community of West African States have criticised the coup as they condemn the group for forcibly seizing power rather than democratically. Many leaders and NGOs fear what Burkina Faso’s future may look like and how strict the new government could be. The AU and ECOWAS also added that the country had been suspended from their ranks and any participation within their activities and this until they restored constitutional order. They also warned sanctions would be imposed depending on how the situation evolved and how cooperative these the military, who now want to be recognised at Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration (MPSR) showed to be.

So far, after imposing a curfew between 9pm and 5am, closing its borders, suspending the Constitution and dissolving the national assembly, which is what raised initial concerns that a dictatorship was slowly but surely being put in place, the constitution has been restored and a temporary President, coup leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was appointed, as they announced through this, that the country had officially entered a transition period. This lift came as a relief as it restored essential values such as judicial independence and liberties such as freedom of speech and movement. However, citizens, diplomats and the international scene are still very unsure as to what this transition period will look like or how long it could last.

Although a coup is always condemnable, Burkina Faso, as mentioned, was the fifth African nation where the military successfully toppled their government, joining Mali, Chad, Guinea and Sudan. This does raise the question of why this keeps happening, if it is going to continue to happen and more importantly shines light on how many African Nations struggle to keep their citizens satisfied and safe whether that is physically, economically or socially. Indeed, all five Nations above had expressed great discontent either at the economic situation of their country, at how much corruption was present within the government, at their lack of prospects for the future and at governments’ failure to protect their people from rising terrorism indoctrination, threats and attacks. Many are also fed up with former colonial powers, especially France and want to see power restored to their government. And although in none of those countries do a vast majority of people support the military groups and coups, there is still, apart from in Sudan, a significant part of the population that either outright support these, or are so fed up that they don’t care. This shows that, in many parts of Africa, there is still an obvious leadership problem within governments and their institutions.

Source: Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters

On to Kazakhstan now where, at the very start of the month, protests erupted in the country as the government announced a sudden rise in gas prices. This soon became the biggest political crisis to hit the country since 1991 when the country gained independence.

The protests were quickly violent, with streets, airports, and many public spaces occupied as well as police vehicles and government buildings set on fire and heavy confrontation between armed forces and protesters. Indeed, citizens have had enough of the poor living conditions, of the disguised democracy plagued by corruption that is their government, which links to many of the economic but also social and political issues within the country. Many also consider that given Kazakhstan’s natural riches and potential, the socio-economic state of the Nation should not be what it currently is, and resources need to be more fairly spread. Protesters finally wanted more political liberalisation with, for example, the opportunity to elect regional leaders, rather than them being appointed by the President himself.

At first, the government responded in what could have been deemed a positive way as gas prices were cut. Later, the government was dismissed entirely and a state of emergency declared in several parts of the country and the situation started escalating seriously.

The President declared protesters were terrorists under foreign influence and demanded that armed forces, whether it be police or the military retaliate and use violence to bring these protests to an end, also giving them permission to “fire without warning”. And to make things better, the President also requested that the Russian-led alliance intervene as well. Along with this, the country experienced several internet shutdowns and most social media apps were blocked, including Chinese app WeChat, a first in the history of internet shutdowns.

Since this started, we have seen a total of at least 227 deaths of which 19 were law enforcement officers and military personnel, more than 2,600 people injured, 67 of which remain in critical condition and over 10 000 people arrested, most of which have since been released. According to Human Rights Watch, many of those arrested were beaten, tortured, and refused lawyers through their detainment.

This crisis also raises a lot of geopolitical questions when it comes to Russian and Western involvement within the Middle-East and Africa in general. Of course when we see what unfolded in Kazakhstan, it raises the point of whether Russian intervention in Burkina Faso really is the best call but it also raises the general question of how much can Western involvement, Russian or other, in all of those countries that have a very heavy colonial past and complex ties and power dynamics with the West really do? Because although here to help, many scholars, citizens and activists within or outside those countries have tended to argue that the corruption that so many citizens are fed up with is strongly tied and motivated by those countries’ political and economic ties with the West, specifically their former colonial powers. And when what people want to see is better management of some of these countries’ internal economies and social issues, it seems many governments are more worried about their overall weight on the political scene.

Source: Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

Finally, before moving on to less heavily-political and more societal topics, let’s talk about the situation in Ukraine.

Although we have seen, in the past month especially, intense escalation of tension, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is far from being new or recent. Indeed, Ukraine and Russia have more or less been at war since 2014, and basically, it all comes down to power and influence.

The main thing to remember here is that Russia does not want Ukraine to join NATO, a military alliance between North America and 28 European countries created in 1949 at the start of the Cold War. Inevitably, of the 28, some of them were formerly part of the Soviet Union, and this is something Putin does not, and has never liked, as he claims since its creation, NATO through their expansion in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, has caused Russia to lose influence and power within that same region.

Ukraine belonged to the Russian empire for hundreds of years, and throughout the 20th Century, the former was part of the Soviet Union. Their political and historical ties are extremely strong and since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the latter has been torn between allying with the rest of Europe — and by extension, North America — or to stay allied with Russia.

The final historical point starts in 2013–2014 when massive protests erupted in Ukraine after the former government rejected the EU in favour of strengthened ties with Russia, a decision that was not backed by most of the general public and led to a revolution that saw Ukraine’s former leader overthrown. When this happened, Russia started financially and militarily supporting Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist groups, especially in Eastern parts of the country near the Russian border, and also invaded and seized the region of Crimea down the south of the country.

In the last couple of years, there has been talk of Ukraine joining NATO, and this possibility was considered a “red line” for Russia, as Putin stated himself. In response to what the Russian President considers a threat, about three months ago, Putin started deploying military forces all around the Ukrainian-Russian border, and more soldiers were deployed around the Belarus-Ukrainian border at the start of January to apply pressure to both Ukraine and NATO.

Today, about 100 000 soldiers are stationed at the borders, and the United States fear an invasion could take place by mid-February. NATO has been sending military ships, planes and weapons to Ukraine but also surrounding countries like Lithuania, Bulgaria or Romania, 8500 US soldiers are also ready to intervene if the situation escalates, as world leaders in the United States but also in France and Germany try to negotiate and defuse the situation on both sides. Throughout the month, the former, as well as the United Kingdom ordered for diplomats and their families to fly back to their countries of origin whilst France advised that non-essential travel to Ukraine be suspended.

Vladimir Putin continues to claim to be protecting his people and that the West is applying this pressure, not him, hinting that the ball is in Western Nations, more specifically the EU and US’s court.

Source: Reuters

Unfortunately, no news wrap up can be done without mentioning COVID-19 anymore. But it seems we are entering a very interesting phase of the pandemic as many countries are completely changing their response to the virus. When in a lot of countries, especially in Europe, we saw preparation to close up again, a rise in restrictions and lockdowns in early December with the rise of the omicron variant, it seems that just a month later, the strategy when it comes to tackling this has completely changed.

The UK for example, has attracted a lot of attention as the government seems to believe it is time we start learning to live with the virus. Indeed, almost all measures were lifted on the 27th of January, with covid-passes and mask wearing not a legal requirement anymore, work from home orders lifted and self-isolation period reduced considerably. The government also hopes to lift the legal-requirement to isolate if you test positive by March. But, there has been a lot of criticism of these decisions, especially the final one, as people claim these to be extremely ableist and inconsiderate of the vulnerable part of population, who in a lot of cases cannot simply learn to live with a virus that is still potentially life-threatening to them. Many also questioned the timing of this as Boris Johnson announced the changed measures just as the government has been at the heart of many scandals as it was revealed the Prime Minister himself and other government officials and staff hosted and attended illegal social gatherings throughout several points of the pandemic, even at points when the rest of the country was in hard lockdown. Johnson ironically claimed it was time to “trust the British public” at a time where the British public certainly does not trust him.

Despite those claims though, many European countries are following in the Uk’s footsteps. Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden who decided notably to get rid of covid-passes in Sweden and Switzerland, restrictions on alcohol serving and numbers in a group allowed to mix in Norway even though some of those countries are still breaking case-rate records. France plans to lift a number of measures as well, with work from home no longer required either, clubs and concerts reopening mid-February and lifting of attendance limits in theatres and stadiums. However, wearing a mask indoors and the controversial COVID-pass are still required in the country, even though many European countries have chosen to get rid of this requirement. Italy and Ireland also seem to be following in similar footsteps.

The Netherlands however for example, still have very restrictive measures in place with bars and restaurants only having started reopening on the 26th of January. Germany, is another European country staying very cautious when it comes to lifting restrictions as mask-wearing remains mandatory and COVID-passes as well. In Belgium, most of the country is still in what is described as a red zone, zones in which mandatory work-from-home rules and limits on restaurants and bars are imposed. These rules are set to change later in February. Finally Austria is going one step further with mandatory vaccination going ahead and potential fines being put in place against people refusing to get vaccinated soon although restrictions on them accessing bars, shops and restaurants are set to be eased.

Moving to China, which due to their hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics has had to open up the country a little bit more. But, the sanitary protocol still remains insanely strict: foreign spectators are barred from attending any of the events, with no tickets sold and only a minority of local spectators invited to attend. Travel to and from Beijing has been discouraged for the whole period , media, athletes and observers are in distinct bubbles, bubbles in which everyone must be fully vaccinated or spend 21 days in quarantine. Daily covid tests are imposed and mask wearing is compulsory everywhere, for everyone. Local support workers, including volunteers, cooks and drivers, are also part of those bubbles and wear full bodysuits topped with protective boots, gloves, goggles and face masks. They can have no physical contact with the outside world, including their loved ones. In general, travel to and from the country as well as in the country is still limited, hotel-quarantines of at least 2 weeks are still imposed, and within the country, rules are strict, with non-essential travel still banned and mask-wearing compulsory.

Many are questioning if learning to live with the virus is the best way to go, if vaccination should become compulsory or if it is fair to limit or sanction those that are not vaccinated. These are still very divisive questions that nobody has been able to bring an official right or wrong answer, although many governments around the world seem to be getting stricter with this.

Artist: Victoria Mavarez

For decades now, and even more in the last 10 years following the wave of terrorist attacks that hit France between 2015 and 2016, the country and its governments have been accused of being more and more Islamophobic, most recently when they introduced what their “separatist bill”. And it seems the government has once again potentially validated all those claims. Indeed, on the 18th of January, the Senate, one of the two houses that constitute the French Parliament voted in a few amendments to a bill which overall aims to ‘democratise and facilitate access to physical activity and sport for all French citizens’.

The amendment in question? Citizens would not be allowed to wear religious symbols of any kind during sports competitions, and the amendment did explicitly mention that one of its goals was to prevent the rise of religious communitarian teams and sports groups that could lead to the promotion of certain religious values and ideas. Many have since argued that this would have disproportionate impacts on Muslim women.

This has often been the argument behind any bill that is introduced, whether they have been voted in law or not. The argument is always that the government’s decision to reduce French citizen’s ability to show and promote their religion within public spaces is for their own safety as they want to prevent religious communitarianism from rising, and potential radical groups from forming. Although bills and amendments to bills more often than not refer to all religions, the government and government officials have had no trouble expressing the fact that these were measures that were being put in place notably to reduce the spread of radical-islamism from spreading across the country.

But many have claimed that these arguments that these are bills voted in to protect France from terrorism, to unite us, along with the constant use of the secularism principle, which separates religion from the State and therefore, governmental institutions as well as schools and education from these as well, are starting to just look like an excuse and cover up for their growing islamophobia.

Before it was security and terrorism, debates surrounding hijabs and headscarfs were still a major concern in French politics, and it was previously considered a women’s right issue. Many non-Muslim men and women claimed that hijabi women were stripped from their rights and forced to submit to the Muslim men, and that hijab bans were therefore put in place as a favour for them, to liberate them. The issue is that for one, these are questions that concern these women, and they should be at the centre of the debates, which they never were. The second issue is that France seems to slowly be associating hijabs and headscarves as symbols of extremism and radical-islamism rather than just a symbol of Islam. Not all hijabi wearers are radical Muslims, belonging to terrorist groups or themselves future terrorists and they should not have to face the consequences for acts they are not responsible for. Just like not all men who share their lives with hijabi women are not all oppressive patriarchs or terrorists themselves either. And countering sexism, oppression or whatever it may be should not be done by oppressing others.

TW: murder, rape. References to gender-based violence, sexual, physical assault and rape.

Speaking of how women who do not get the same treatment due to aspects of their identity, this brings us to the topic of Lauren Smith-Fields. This has blown up on social media but what we would really want to see is for it to blow up within the legal institutions that are supposed to be in place to protect her.

Back on the 12th of December, Lauren Smith-Fields was found dead in her apartment after going on a Bumble date with a man the night before. The person who claimed to find her and called the police was indeed, Matthew LaFountain, the man she had spent the evening with the night before, and last person to see alive.

What led this tragic event to come back to go viral is the fact that LaFountain was not arrested, or even questioned following his call, and Smith-Fields death was ruled a tragic accident caused by intoxication from several drugs and alcohol. Her family decided to sue the Bridgeport police department for their lack of cooperation and their mishandling of their investigation. Because not only did they not question LaFountain, Bridgeport police also: failed to contact the family about her death, did not collect several items that could have been evidence such as a used condom, or sedative pill found in the apartment, were reportedly rude and dismissive to the family when they did come back to the department to find out more information and later justified not formally investigating LaFountain because he looked “like a nice guy”

Not only did this case raise one first major problem which is how seriously the police, and legal institutions in the United States, but all around the world, treat cases of gender-based violence, including sexual and physical assault cases, but it also raised the question of what role race had to play in this.

In general, it is statistically proven that it is insanely hard for women around the world to be believed and supported when reporting a crime: whether this is cases of domestic abuse, rape, physical assault or murder. In the United Kingdom for example, in 2020 in England and Wales, less than half (43%) of estimated rapes were reported. And out of those that were reported, only 3,57% led to prosecution. But, over the past 2 years, we have seen cases like most recently Gaby Petito’s, where, within hours, a literal manhunt took place, with budget and resources deployed without hesitation, as they should, to get to the bottom of the Youtuber’s death. Many have raised following this how when women of colour went missing, especially at the hands of white men, the same level of effort was never observed.

Statistics also show this argument that black and indigenous women of colour reported missing do not get the same attention. Again, at the time of Gaby Petito’s disappearance and death, a report came out detailing how 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the same region Petito’s body was found between 2011 and 2020, and that indigenous homicide made up for 21% of all homicides in that same region, despite the fact Indigenous people make up for only 3% of the Wyoming population. None of those cases received close to as much, if any coverage. On the same day Smith-Field’s body was found, in the same town of Bridgeport, another black woman died in mysterious circumstances with no investigation opened or notification to the family from the police.

In Smith-Fields’ case, the investigation has since been reopened and is now being treated as a crime, but what got us to this stage is not the police re-opening the case on their own accord. It was the family deciding to press charges as well as social media doing the justice system’s job and talking about the case so much that there was no other choice but to re-open it. This shines light on many of the points that were raised by activists during the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 where people wondered if Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s murders would have been treated the same if it wasn’t for the general uproar witnessed on social media and in the streets.

Source: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

On the 27th of January, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his plans to retire by the end of the summer. This announcement immediately reminded the general public that one of President Biden’s campaign promises was to nominate the first Black female justice. Now although this is to a certain extent, great news, due to what this symbolises, there are still a few things to keep in mind.

The first is to do with the idea of the token black person. It is great to see more black people within legal institutions, the media, creative industries, arts and any positions of power as well as the forefront of society in general. But Biden’s pledge is not enough. Just like you can’t justify not being racist by the simple fact you have a black friend, it is not enough to rely on this simple act as proof that the Biden’s government is inclusive and intersectional. Form that point, what we need to see is the government actively working on making sure that the legal world is just as accessible and fair to women, women of colour, queer women of colour as it is to white cisgender, heterosexual men. And then this issue needs to be tackled in all industries, professional paths and parts of society.

The second point is that it is not just about putting a woman of colour in that position but also choosing someone that is competent, knowledgeable and has strong morals, someone that will be able to carry out their duties fairly and efficiently. This argument shines light on the problem feminists identified with girl boss feminism. Women have been encouraged to support and celebrate each other in an attempt to liberate all of us and push us to do more. Often, women who are successful, especially financially and professionally, are considered girl bosses and inspirations but, there have to be limits as to who we celebrate and for what. Any woman’s success should not be celebrated just because she is a woman. If you are, for example, a woman at the head of a harmful business, it is still as condemnable as a man at the head of that same business. Therefore many are still waiting to see who is appointed in that position and what they do with that responsibility before shouting victory.

TW: physical assault, sexual assault and rape. References to gender-based violence and domestic abuse.

In the UK, Manchester United striker Mason Greenwood was arrested on suspicion of rape and assault on the 30th of January after a woman took to social media to share disturbing images and audios in which she claimed to have been attacked by the player. These show the woman, with visible wounds over her face and body. Since then, more allegations of assault, sexual assault and making threats to kill have been made against the player leading the police to extend their investigation.

Something to consider with this is that although it is many’s main concern, the least of our worries here is how this incident and crime will affect Mason Greenwood’s career. As it is often the case, victim-blaming and discrediting has been the first reflex for many of the player’s supporters, which again shines light on how society treats gender-based violence. And of course, no one should be looking at things from Greenwood’s perspective as he is the last person to feel bad for in this situation.

Because of how unfair certain supporters were towards the victim, many have encouraged those people who think the woman is ruining Greenwood’s career, lying or asked for it, to envision their reaction if it was a woman they loved (mother, sister, daughter, partner etc) in that situation. This is also extremely problematic as we should not have to apply such a scenario to a person we care about to feel empathy or understand how normal it is that someone who allegedly physically assaulted, raped and threatened another is forced to face the consequences of their actions.

Baby: We’ve all seen it, Rihanna yet again broke the internet with her pregnancy announcement. Congrats to her and A$AP Rocky, and it was interesting (and very satisfying) to see how although the rapper is a very successful artist and businessman himself, all headlines simply referred to him as “Rihanna’s boyfriend”, when more often than not, women, no matter who they are, what they do and how successful or famous they are, are instantly referred to as “the girlfriend”, “the wife”, “the partner” of whoever they get involved in, be they less, just as or more famous and successful than them.

Environment: Rihanna’s pregnancy news is obviously amazing, but it is great news for them 2 more than any of us. But Rihanna also made headlines this January when it was also revealed days before she announced her pregnancy that she would be donating $15 million dollars to 18 climate organisations working in Barbados and 6 other Caribbean nations as well as across the United States. Those grants will reportedly in parts focus on groups with female, LBGT and black or indigenous leaders as Rihanna recognises the importance of intersectionality.

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Julie Ngalle

Journalist passionate about social issues, change and spreading awareness. Host of Juicy Conversations podcast. https://linktr.ee/juicy_conversations