This Hard-Partying, Cross-Dressing Explorer Lived the Writer’s Life

  • Isabelle Eberhardt abandoned her European upbringing to lead an adventurous — albeit short — life as a writer in North Africa.
  • She left a legacy not only as a writer but also as a cross-dressing pioneer.

The French colonists in Algeria didn’t know what to make of Isabelle Eberhardt. The Swiss-born explorer and writer had multiple affairs, drank and smoked kef, a potent form of hashish. In her journal, Eberhardt wrote, “I’ve often been criticized for liking too well the ordinary run of people. But where I ask, is life, if not among the people?”

Eberhardt packed a lot of adventure into her brief life — she died at 27 — dressing as a man when she abandoned her European upbringing to devote her life to Islam and roam the deserts of North Africa, writing both fiction and nonfiction about her travels.

“Imagine Prince, Bowie: They all enjoyed ambiguity and a certain amount of exhibitionism,” says Annette Kobak, author of Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. “A millennial generation would appreciate that a lot [about Eberhardt]. She was a pioneer and she was genuinely trying to live her authentic life.”

When Eberhardt liked a man, she would “beckon him over and off they’d go.” 

Eberhardt was born in 1877, in Geneva, to a Russian mother who had ditched her husband, a general, to run off with Alexander Trophimowsky, her children’s tutor. Rumors that Isabelle was illegitimate abounded, bolstered by the fact that her mother had registered her as a fille naturelle, or illegitimate child, and that she bore her mother’s surname. That uncertainty, and the attendant gossip, bred a melancholy streak in young Isabelle. But Trophimowsky raised her as his own, and historians believe she was most likely his biological child.

The restless Eberhardt was described by neighbors as a “little wild animal” who did whatever took her fancy. Besides Russian and French, Trophimowsky taught her Latin, Italian and Arabic. By the time she was 16, Eberhardt had read the entire Quran. Captivated by the stories of “the Orient,” Eberhardt decided to travel to see these lands. She published her first short story, “Vision of the Maghreb,” at age 18.

Eberhardt started dressing as a man, cutting her hair short and wearing trousers. Trophimowsky supported her decision, remarking that pants were more practical when riding horses and chopping wood.

Isabelle Eberhardt, Swiss Cross-Dresser and Writer

Isabelle Eberhardt

Source Alamy

After her parents died, the 22-year-old Eberhardt started traveling the deserts of North Africa. She dressed as a man because women weren’t allowed to travel alone and renamed herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She slept in tents alongside soldiers and hung out with men and mystics. A friend was once quoted as saying that when Eberhardt liked a man, she would “beckon him over and off they’d go.” 

Eberhardt fell in love with an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni, whom she later married. She continued traveling and became a war correspondent, chronicling the Moroccan-Algerian border clashes. She was the first woman ever to take part in the fantasia, a traditional desert horse race done at a gallop while firing a rifle.

A failed assassination attempt left Eberhardt with one arm almost severed, and she lost all her teeth. (Legend has it that she traveled with a gun, not a toothbrush.) As she wrote in her journal, “No one ever lived more from day to day than I.” 

By late 1904, Eberhardt hadn’t seen Ehnni for almost eight months. When the couple reunited, they decided to spend the night in a small mud house. Unfortunately, their reunion was short-lived. The next morning, a flash flood destroyed almost half the town. Ehnni survived; Eberhardt did not. The waterlogged pages of her manuscripts were found strewn about.

Melania Loves It. Will the World Now Embrace Delhi’s ‘Happiness Curriculum’?

  • The Indian capital’s 1 million schoolchildren take part in daily 45-minute classes starting with meditation sessions, after which they read and listen to one another’s stories.
  • Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Colombia are among the countries eager to borrow the curriculum, aimed at reducing stress and building life skills.
  • With the pandemic spawning a mental health crisis, experts expect the curriculum to have even greater relevance.

In late February, as U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed multimillion-dollar helicopter deals and China in a colonial-era New Delhi mansion, Melania Trump went to school.

The first lady was attending a “happiness class” at a government-run school in the South Delhi neighborhood of Moti Bagh. Introduced in 2018 by the Delhi state government of the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which trounced Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in recent local elections — the so-called happiness curriculum aims to equip students with skills so that they can better deal with anxiety and stress while thinking critically. The 45-minute class starts with a meditation session, after which students read and listen to one another’s stories. In addition to textbooks, street plays and yoga serve as teaching tools. “I cannot think of a better way for all of us to start our day,” Melania Trump said of the class she attended.

The approach has parallels with the mindfulness philosophy that several schools in the West have adopted. But Delhi’s curriculum — which has won the state government several awards — is more than an Indian adaption. It’s a test unlike any the world has seen before of whether this education strategy can work on a large scale. The curriculum has been implemented in at least 1,024 Delhi government-run schools, affecting more than 1 million students — the size of the entire New York City public school system.

Delhi’s curriculum is becoming a model that other governments are promising to replicate in their countries’ classrooms. Bangladesh’s primary and mass education minister, Zakir Hossain, has invited Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, to visit Bangladesh and share the happiness curriculum. Afghanistan has already vowed to adopt the curriculum. Nepal, the United Arab Emirates and Colombia have also reached out to the Delhi government and its partner nonprofits about the curriculum.

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia Visits A School To Inspect A Happiness Class

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia (left) visits a happiness class at the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Delhi.

Source Raj K Raj/Getty

Experts say its relevance has only increased amid the coronavirus pandemic and the associated anxieties that children are likely witnessing at home, as parents struggle with economic uncertainty. The Delhi government has made these sessions part of the online lectures its public school system is offering to the city’s students during the shutdown of in-person classes.

We have children coming forward and saying, ‘I look forward to coming to school.’

Vishal Talreja, co-founder, Dream a Dream

The Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution is assessing the efficacy of the approach in Delhi’s schools, by tracking changes in student and teacher behavior. Vishal Talreja, co-founder of Dream a Dream, a nonprofit working with the Delhi government on the curriculum, says there are already signs of success.

“In a year and a half, we have already started observing minor but beautiful, positive changes in the relationship of the child and the teacher,” Talreja says. “We have children coming forward and saying, ‘I look forward to coming to school.’” 

That positivity in education doesn’t come easily in South Asia, the world’s most densely populated region, where the race for limited opportunities means that, for most, school is a competition, not a chance to learn. “Learning has to be joyful,” says Ashok Ganguly, former chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education, India’s largest school regulatory body. “In a classroom that is full of competition and pressure, the joy is lost. Children are stressed.” 

Experts hope the curriculum will also do something more fundamental — keep kids in school. According to UNICEF, more than 11 million South Asian students at the primary level have left school.

To be sure, the idea behind the approach isn’t completely new. India’s 1986 education policy mentions “joyful learning.”

Some experts are critical of what they see as an attempt at a sophisticated political advertising strategy for the AAP. Kiran Bhatty, a senior fellow at New Delhi–based think tank Centre for Policy Research, also questions the curriculum’s emphasis on obedience — including respecting elders and bowing to touch their feet — rather than encouraging students to challenge authority. “Is it really about the kids and education?” Bhatty asks.

A senior teacher involved in developing the curriculum, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says it’s unclear just how much one class can help children “when you know you have acute competition in the rest of the classes.”  

But even if the curriculum makes only a small dent, it’s worth it for several countries, especially those torn by conflict like Afghanistan, Nepal and Colombia. It’s a crisis that Mohammad Mirwais Balkhi, the then-acting education minister of Afghanistan, referred to while visiting New Delhi in 2018. “We believe that the happiness curriculum is indeed a positive step toward making the school a happier experience for learners,” says Suchetha Bhat, CEO of Dream a Dream.

Other Indian state governments — Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Telangana — have approached Dream a Dream to implement the curriculum.

That’s not surprising. India might be the world’s largest democracy, but it’s also one of the unhappiest. In the 2019 World Happiness Report, India ranked 140 out of 156 countries, behind neighbors Pakistan (67), China (93), Bhutan (95), Nepal (100), Bangladesh (125) and Sri Lanka (130).

There’s no better place than school to start changing that.

The Next Big Data Battlefield: Server Geography

At the G-20 summit last June, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a resolution endorsing the free flow of data across borders, India, South Africa and Indonesia refused to sign it. India’s then foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described data as a “new form of wealth” to explain the country’s reluctance to part with it.

It wasn’t an isolated standoff. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China and tariff battles with India and Europe dominated the global financial discourse in the months before the coronavirus crisis. But the next trade conflict after the pandemic eases is already brewing, and it won’t involve only tariffs on products. It’ll be focused on territorial control of data.

A growing number of emerging economies with giant populations, like China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia and South Africa, are leveraging the markets they offer to demand that foreign firms keep the data they gather from these countries within their borders, and not on servers in the West. That’s leading to rising tensions over “data localization,” especially with the U.S., which has an overall global trade deficit but enjoys a massive trade surplus in digital services — in good measure because of its control over global data, say experts.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dangled his country’s 1.3 billion-strong market during a visit to the U.S. last September, calling data the “new gold.” China has 13 data localization laws that span all sectors of life — all data on Chinese nationals and infrastructure must be stored within the country. Nigeria has a similar requirement. An Indian government panel has meanwhile recommended that New Delhi do the same.

There’s very much an imbalance in the direction of the flow of the data.

John Selby, Macquarie University, Sydney

U.S. senators and tech giants are fighting back, lobbying their governments and the administrations of nations that are tightening data control regulations. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and the European Union have publicly criticized India’s proposed data localization plans, for instance.

“With technological advancement, countries across the world have realized the power and value of data as the new oil and are making efforts to preserve its value to their own advantage,” says Munjal Kamdar, a partner with consulting firm Deloitte. 

Server Center

Close-up of cables and LED lights in a server center.

Source Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty

This battle over the global data market — and especially in fast-growing and populous markets — will only sharpen, say experts. India’s data generation is expected to grow at twice the global rate in 2020. Yet the emerging data wars remain “an underappreciated subject,” says Rohinton P. Medhora, president of Waterloo, Canada-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. Concerns over who controls data range from questions of personal security and privacy to national security and national sovereignty.

The battles are likely to be most intense in fields that are most sensitive — such as health or financial records. The U.S. is already accusing China of trying to steal data related to clinical trials of potential vaccines for the coronavirus. But the data localization debate is distinct from efforts like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation — which lays down data protection standards for all foreign companies, but doesn’t insist that they locate their servers in Europe.

Kamdar says the concept of data localization represents an inherent contradiction with the free flow of information on which the Internet is based. “We have witnessed nation states implementing geographical firewalls that effectively contain the flow of information about and to their citizens,” he says. “We are likely to witness a slew of legislation that will curb the flow of information across the globe.”

But John Selby, a lecturer at Sydney-based Macquarie University whose research has focused on data localization, says several countries are concerned that “the free flow of data is not an equal flow of data around the world.”

“If your data is in the U.S., owned by U.S. companies or hosted using servers located in the U.S., they are the ones extracting the value from that for their shareholders,” says Selby. “There’s very much an imbalance in the direction of the flow of the data.” That’s why countries are willing to fight it out with the U.S. As the U.S. has a rare trade surplus in digital services, it won’t give in easily, he says. American tech giants like Amazon and Google are also using a variety of tax strategies including transfer pricing to minimize the taxes they pay to governments in their users’ home nations, Selby adds. All of this means that the free flow of data creates trade deficits in digital services for India, China, Russia, Brazil, Australia and other major markets for U.S. tech firms.

Data localization could bring other concerns though — leaving aside questions over the global trade regime. Medhora says activists in several countries with authoritarian regimes have articulated concerns that data localization might lead to mass surveillance or abuse of individuals, dissidents and minority communities. At the moment, the absence of local data offers a challenge for intelligence agencies in these countries. 

Implementing data localization isn’t easy, either. Data centers are energy intensive and several emerging economies such as Nigeria struggle with providing reliable electricity to their populations. “Building new data centers, which consume massive amounts of electricity on inadequate infrastructure that … prevents people cooking their evening meals, may not necessarily be the best policy choice,” says Selby.

The Information Technology Industry Council, a U.S.-based tech industry lobby group, asked India to rethink its plans. At least two senators in the Senate India Caucus have written to Modi to dissuade him.

But with the pandemic underscoring the risks of depending on other economies across oceans and continents, the fight over where data makes its home is just getting started.

She’s Shining a Light on These Forgotten Caregivers: Working Daughters

Liz O’Donnell was in the parking lot of a geriatric psychiatric facility where her father had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she received a call from her mother’s doctor, who informed her that her mother had ovarian cancer.

A busy PR professional and the mother of two children, O’Donnell felt unprepared to almost single-handedly care for both her parents. “It was real hands-on care,” she recalls: She helped with their grocery shopping, housework, sorting their pills and getting them to doctor appointments. She felt alone and overwhelmed. “I decided that I didn’t want others to go through the same pain,” she says.

Today, O’Donnell is driving a national conversation to help other working women prepare for the challenges she faced six years ago — and her work has never been more critical than amid the heightened fears around elder care spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, and many of them require care. And the latest census figures show that more than 40 million caregivers for the elderly — a majority of them women — are unpaid. A 2011 MetLife study found that women who leave their jobs to serve as family caregivers effectively lose, on average, $324,044 in earnings. To address those issues, O’Donnell is building support systems and resources for caregivers choosing a different path: working daughters.

LizODonnellheadshot2017

On her podcast, Working Daughter, the 52-year-old brings together medical experts, researchers, financial advisers and entrepreneurs to help guide women on balancing their jobs with caring for their parents. Last year, her book on the challenges around elder care, also titled Working Daughter, was published. She also hosts monthly virtual meetups “for working daughters who want to connect.” And her website offers tips and advice — much of it these days aimed at caregivers worried about the coronavirus.

You might feel like ‘I don’t think I can do this one more day,’ and other times you might feel glad to be in a position to help them.

Liz O’Donnell

Her advice columns — “What to send to the hospital with your elderly parent” and “Navigating COVID-19, a working daughter’s guide,” among them — are also available in O’Donnell’s private Facebook group, Working Daughter. Its 3,000 members caring for elderly parents ask questions and share concerns. It’s a group that experts are recommending to family caregivers, particularly in these uncertain times.

“There are resources available for single working mothers, but hardly any for working daughters who have to care for their elderly parents, raise their own children, pursue their career goals and manage other relationships and friendships,” O’Donnell says from her home in Dedham, a Boston suburb where she lives with her two teenage daughters.

When O’Donnell started the Facebook group in 2015, she often got the response “Oh, how lucky that you get to care for the people who cared for you.” But she didn’t always feel lucky while caring for her parents, both of whom have since passed away. It was hard work, mentally, emotionally and physically. O’Donnell’s late husband, who died in March 2019 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, was a stay-at-home dad; she was the breadwinner. The Working Daughter community, O’Donnell says, allows women to honestly discuss the conflicting emotions that they often experience as caregivers. “You might feel like ‘I don’t think I can do this one more day’ and other times you might feel glad to be in a position to help them,” she says.  

That’s what makes the Facebook group special, says Beverly DeWitt, a hospice nurse who is familiar with O’Donnell’s work. “Her book and the FB community talk about the uncomfortable aspects of it [caregiving], which is a must for others to feel less lonely.” 

The Facebook group, which has grown by word of mouth, is predominately made up of women, although there are some male members. O’Donnell screens people seeking to join to make sure they’re caring for an elderly family member. At times in the past few years, she says, her work took a back seat while she cared for her parents and her husband.

But that hasn’t affected interest in her work from leading elder care experts. “Liz O’Donnell is shining a spotlight on a key issue we are facing in an aging society,” says William Haley, chair of the American Psychological Association’s committee on aging. “Our society needs to do much more to support working caregivers, and Liz is doing an impressive job of contributing to the recognition of this issue.” 

That’s a view shared by Janet Simpson Benvenuti, founder and CEO of the family health advocacy group Circle of Life Partners. “Join the private Facebook group Working Daughter, where you’ll find emotional support from thousands of women and men who are supporting their aging parents,” she wrote in a recent blog.

With caregivers increasingly overwhelmed and stressed these days, managing the Facebook group is more challenging than ever. “I try and check in on them every morning and evening,” O’Donnell says of the community that has come to rely on her. “It is a heartbreaking situation. They are terrified.” In response, she has created a breakout group focused specifically on coronavirus concerns. Sometimes she suggests fun activities for the elderly: large-print adult coloring books, word search puzzles and jigsaw puzzles.

This wasn’t exactly how O’Donnell imagined her life while growing up in Dedham with an electrician father and a mother who worked in the insurance industry. Young Liz wanted to be a writer. After graduating from Emerson College, she worked as a journalist until the “terrible” pay made her switch to PR. But everything changed in the parking lot that day in 2014.

Liz O’Donnell with her father.

O’Donnell, who still works in PR, has also co-founded SheStarts, an organization that provides a networking and coaching platform for Boston-area female entrepreneurs, as well as the group Women in Democracy-Dedham, which encourages women to get involved in local politics. “Once she is passionate about anything, she goes after that with all her heart,” says Monica Linari, a childhood friend.

Passion alone isn’t enough, though, and O’Donnell knows it. “When they [the media] talk about support to the working parent, I am like, ‘Hey what about family caregivers?’” she says. O’Donnell believes workplaces need to recognize the impact that caregiving has on women and their careers. “We need to create awareness at the workplace,” she states. 

Through her podcast, website, book and Facebook group, O’Donnell hopes to be a catalyst for change. “What we are going through right now matters,” she says. “The role of a caregiver is becoming visible.” 


Behind India’s Lockdown Education Divide

Misbah Ansari, a student at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, stands near the door of her house in the Ajmeri Gate neighborhood, phone in hand. “Hello … hello, hello!” she shouts into it repeatedly. No luck. After a few minutes, Ansari gives up and messages me on WhatsApp: “Am facing network issue.”

It’s an issue that is increasingly defining India’s attempts at pivoting its massive education system — the second largest in the world after China’s — to a digital-only learning experience in the face of the coronavirus crisis. The country’s 1.5 million elementary and secondary schools and 52,000 colleges and universities have shut as part of a nationwide lockdown that started on March 24. Schools and colleges are expected to keep their campuses closed until at least June, even if the broader lockdown lifts earlier. Like their counterparts across the world, most Indian universities have started offering, or are planning to offer, online classes. Many public school systems in the country are also making the transition.

But a deep divide in internet access and quality of phone connectivity is threatening to exacerbate an already existing chasm in education, in the one area that kids from poor or rural backgrounds have traditionally had an opportunity to catch up with their wealthier, city-raised peers: college. Only about 35 percent of Indians live in cities. More than half of the country’s university students — 55 percent — come from rural backgrounds, and while the colleges they attend are mostly located in urban areas, students have had to return home during the lockdown. An urban student is five times likelier to have internet access at home, even if on a smartphone, than a rural student, government surveys show. Even megalopolises like Mumbai and New Delhi have pockets where only third-generation networks are accessible.

That divide is forcing educators and universities to innovate in ways that will at least allow them to continue teaching their curricula. Some are asking students to join livestreamed sessions with their cameras off, to assist reduced bandwidth. Others are using different hacks, including sending lesson details to rural students via text or WhatsApp. At Ansari’s university, professor Bodh Prakash says that livestreamed lectures are also being recorded and emailed to those students unable to attend the virtual classes. “They can download the lecture whenever they have a stable connection,” Prakash explains.

Attending Zoom classes … is impossible.

Misbah Ansari, college student

These bare-bones innovations hold potential lessons not only for other countries with a large digital divide but also countries in the West where educational systems are often more rigid and educators have less leeway to break the mold.

Still, the irony of the moment is hard to ignore. For years, India — and large parts of the developing world — have been sold the promise of digital technology as a potentially transformative bridge across rural-urban divides. Yet in higher education, it is the city-based campuses of India’s top public universities — such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Jawaharlal Nehru University — that have drawn the country’s brightest rural students, and have helped shaped their careers and lives.

The lack of reliable network connectivity on smartphones is a frustration even for urban students like Ansari. “Attending Zoom classes … is impossible these days,” says the literature student. She doesn’t have a computer, and so has to study on her phone. “My family thinks I am just passing my time on the phone,” Ansari complains. 

India Goes Into 21 Day Lockdown Due To Coronavirus COVID-19

In India, an urban student is five times likelier to have internet access at home than a rural student.

Source Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty

That revolutionary potential of digital technologies is still real, says Narayanan Ramaswamy, partner and head of education at consulting firm KPMG. It is the government’s responsibility to provide students with facilities that will let them continue learning, he argues. A recent KPMG report that Ramaswamy helped produce lists technologies like blockchain, 5G, the internet of things, cloud and gamification platforms as pivotal to the future of education in India. “Are digital companies bringing in money to create more digital content? Yes,” he says, clarifying that when universities had to suddenly shift to digital-only teaching, they weren’t prepared.

“Teachers were not ready to switch to a digital mode,” says Ramaswamy. “And also infrastructure is not ready.”

For those from more privileged backgrounds, though, the transition has been a lot easier. Madhavi Mukherjee, a sophomore student of urban sustainability, is in front of her laptop every morning ready for online classes. The internet speed is good for the New Delhi–based daughter of former university professors, and she is able to attend all her classes.

Meanwhile, educators are scrambling to think two steps ahead. Some institutions like Ambedkar University are trying to assist poorer students financially as well, “as much as we can, to help them get the internet connections,” says Prakash. For those who can’t access even recorded lectures, he says, the classes will still be available when the university reopens.

Yet despite all those steps, the students whom Prakash is trying to help will have to struggle much more for their education than their peers like Mukherjee, further widening the opportunity gap.

Back at Ajmeri Gate, Ansari has more immediate challenges. She is unable to email her class project to the teacher and says she’ll wait until there is a “stable network.” She knows that could be hours — or days.

Can Coronavirus Make Online Dating Safer and Global — Permanently?

My friend was clearly — like me — starting to feel the effects of social distancing when she texted me in all earnestness, asking if it was “fatal” to try and date someone during the coronavirus pandemic. “These fuck bois never tell the truth,” she wrote, referring to the recent travel histories of men on dating apps she was using.

Since then, much of the world has gone into lockdown with enforced social distancing, including Delhi, where my friend is based. Physical dates are out. Some, like New Orleans writer and actor Kaitlyn McQuin, have suggested that it’s time for men to reacquaint themselves with traditional courtship. “Now, write me a poem,” she tweeted in March.  

But what about millennials with no time — or skills — for love letters and poems? This is love in the time of coronavirus. And dating and romance are adapting. A growing number of apps and websites are now advertising virtual dating services aimed at keeping you safe, while allowing you to have fun and potentially even find love. And because physical proximity is now irrelevant for dating, services are allowing you to find dates in other parts of the world more easily than ever before.

Many of the features these platforms are offering won’t be easy to roll back if they catch on. The result? A massive health crisis that has cut us off from even our neighbors could ironically be paving the way for online dating experiences that will be fundamentally safer and more global — even once the virus threat fades.

League Live, a video dating facility launched by popular app The League in late 2019, is typically a paid service. It has now added a feature that allows users to message “isoDate” to the in-app concierge and become a member for free for the period quarantine is required in that city or region. JWed, an online dating service for Jewish singles, has explicitly launched a video dates option in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Loko facilitates virtual dates before you decide whether or not to meet the person. Plenty of Fish, yet another dating app, has introduced a livestreaming feature called LIVE! that it plans to make available globally by the end of April.

We are providing users with a way to build deep and meaningful relationships during this challenging time.

Ben Rabizadeh, JWed

While it’s too early to know just how well these services do, even dating giants are changing their approach. Tinder has announced it is making its usually paid-for Passport service free for all users. The service allows users to search for potential dating partners in faraway countries — and is a particularly valuable tool in times when almost everyone is in quarantine, rendering geographic proximity irrelevant. On Instagram, the @loveisquarantine service matches interested users through a Google Doc that sets up date nights — each person where they are. It was created by two Instagram users and is inspired by the Netflix series Love is Blind.

These virtual dating services are convinced they’ve found a perfect match in these times when nobody can touch each other or meet strangers without worrying about getting infected.

“Social distancing can last for as long as 18 months. We are providing users with a way to build deep and meaningful relationships during this challenging time,” says Ben Rabizadeh, founder of JWed.

But they’re also expecting these services to transform online dating in the long run. “Once the virus situation abates, virtual dating with video chat can still provide value as an initial step before meeting in person,” Rabizadeh says. “By providing users the ability to date from home, JWed will continue to help users find their soul mates.”

Other dating apps are also rising up to the challenge. Bumble already has a video calling feature, and Tinder is warning users to maintain social distance.

To be sure, the idea of a virtual or video date doesn’t thrill all singles. Especially if it is for a first date. Grace Wilson, who goes by the handle @gwil17 on Twitter and Instagram, calls video dates a “nightmare.”

But dating experts argue that it’s the best solution. “I think this is a good idea because the video is the next best thing to being in person,” says Camille Virginia, author of the 2019 book, The Offline Dating Method. “You can read into someone’s body language, their tone, their facial expressions, and of course, they can’t lie about what they look like since you’re staring at them.”

That matters, given that romance scams went up 40 percent over the past year, with victims losing $201 million in the U.S. alone.

Dating itself won’t stay online once the virus runs its course. Virginia expects people will once again “want to meet each other more offline in the real world.” And while you’re likelier to get a truer sense of a person’s tone, behavior, body language and appearance on a video date than through text messages, Jeff Tinsley of RealMe, a platform dedicated to cultivating online safety, cautions against assuming that this method is foolproof. “Don’t expect people to be more honest just because it’s a video date,” he says.

Young woman using phone

Dating itself won’t stay online once the virus runs its course.

Source Getty

Still, Tinsley acknowledges that “as face-to-face meetups become less common as we all take steps to ‘flatten the curve,’ video dates have the potential to become the norm for now.” JWed’s Rabizadeh says the firm plans to roll out other features — to use before and after video dates — “to replicate in-person dating as best we can.” 

And while it might sound counterintuitive, experts say that being forced to connect verbally and in the absence of physical chemistry can actually help strengthen new relationships in ways that will outlast the virus.

Dr. Britney Blair, a clinical psychologist at Stanford and co-founder of Lover, a sexual wellness app, recalls how she recently worked with a couple who met online and started a long-distance relationship — one partner in Europe, the other in California. “It was remarkable to see the bond that developed over four months of talking for endless hours over phone or video,” she says. Before they had ever touched one another, “they had developed a deep and strong attachment. I feel they knew more about each other than many couples I have worked with who have been together for years.” 

It’s that deeper connection that couples should focus on while in quarantine, says Virginia. It might be their lasting takeaway from a virus set to change online love forever.

She’s Rewriting Western Fairy Tales for Muslim Children

Fawzia Gilani-Williams, from an early age, was fond of libraries. “I became an independent reader. My selections were predominantly fairy tales, folk tales and international stories,” she tells me. She loved reading Virginia Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales series, which collected stories from different world cultures. But when she became a teacher, following Britain’s national curriculum, she found her Muslim students were often uneasy about those same stories. That was the spark.

“As a teacher, I recognized the discomfort of Muslim children putting themselves in the characters of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty,” Gilani-Williams says. And so she rewrote them as “mirror stories” — tales featuring Muslim protagonists in whom she hoped her students would recognize themselves. According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, only 4 percent of kids’ books published in the U.K. in 2018 had a protagonist from a minority ethnic background, even though 32 percent of schoolchildren in the U.K. fit that description. Still, it’s an improvement from 2017, when only 1 percent of protagonists were ethnic minorities. By comparison, 23 percent of U.S. kids books in 2018 had non-white children as protagonists, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, though that’s still less than the 27 percent starring non-humans or the 50 percent showcasing white main characters. Rather than make Muslim families living in Western countries choose between stories that reflect their religious identities or those that reflect their national identities, Gilani-Williams’ books aim to present Muslim kids with tales they can identify with from every angle.

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From Left: Disney’s Sleeping Beauty; Gilani-Williams’ Sleeping Beauty

The stories — which currently include versions of Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — reflect the lifestyle of their target audience. “They naturally give prominence to daily acts and behaviors that a Muslim child is accustomed to,” she says. “These include the reading of the Quran and being guided by it, worshipping and praising God; kind words, acts of charity and positive values like hard work, persistence, patience and forgiveness.”

In her books, Gilani-Williams often changes the recognized beats of a story to conform to Islamic codes of conduct young readers may be encouraged to follow. Unmarried characters don’t kiss, for example, and Gilani-Williams’ Snow White prays and fasts as part of her religious observance. Oh, and the seven dwarfs she goes to live with are women.

Born and raised in the West Midlands, Gilani-Williams, 52, grew up with a father who loved to read and a mother who loved to tell stories. “At school, I read all the stories about Jesus” — she hastens to add, “Peace be upon him” — “all the parables, the Biblical accounts of God’s messengers.” She was the only Muslim in her class until she was 17 years old, and her state school observed Christian religious holidays and expected students to recite the Lord’s Prayer. She continued with her education, eventually earning a Ph.D. with a focus on children’s literature.

“Her work is most important in the academic world, as very little has been done on Muslim children’s literature, either in the U.K. or internationally,” says Jean Webb, a professor of international children’s literature at the University of Worcester and formerly Gilani-Williams’ doctorate supervisor. “It is important that the study of children’s literature is inclusive. Fawzia brings understanding where there would otherwise be silence.” Currently, Gilani-Williams works managing three school libraries in the United Arab Emirates, though her husband and daughter are based in the U.S.

While fairy tales would seem the most innocuous source material, Gilani-Williams has faced controversy over her work. A non-Muslim editor once criticized her during a conference, she says, telling her the adaptations to traditional stories were inappropriate. Still, her books have been published across the world, from India to Japan to Canada to South Africa. And Gilani-Williams is hoping to reach even more Muslim kids via Ramadan-themed stories disseminated via a YouTube channel. She’s also working on new installments of her series: Islamic versions of Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel will be released later this year, she says — “Insh’Allah.”

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Gilani-Williams (pictured with a kindergarten class) as a guest at The Demonstration School of Silpakorn University (Early Childhood & Elementary) in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, in June 2019.

“I have read most of Fawzia’s stories, and as a mum myself, I can tell you what a breath of fresh air her books are to my kids,” says Zuleikha Seedat, a colleague who has known Gilani-Williams for several years. “Kids are scared or almost shy nowadays to acknowledge that they are Muslim. Fawzia’s books help children overcome fears and celebrate who they are.” 

OZY’s 5 Questions With Fawzia Gilani-Williams

  1. What’s the last book you read? Bear Feels Sick by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. And also Do the Right Thing. It’s one of my stories that promotes positive classroom behavior.
  2. What do you worry about? I’m concerned about the health of the people dearest to me in their old age.  
  3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without? God.
  4. Who’s your hero? The most heroic attributes are love, loyalty and compassion, so the messengers of God and Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, peace be upon them, are my heroes. And anyone who emulates these qualities — they’re my heroes too.  
  5. What’s one item on your bucket list? Promoting the message of peace is high on my bucket list, which I would like to do by visiting children in Jerusalem and reading a story of Muslim and Jewish neighborly love entitled Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam.

First Zero-Waste Chocolate Lets You Eat Guilt-Free

It might be shaped like a regular chocolate bar, but the similarities end there. First, it comes in curious flavors: lavender, coconut and cinnamon, banana, masala chai, red rose. And the packaging is more work of art than the kind of wrap you’d find on a Hershey’s bar. But the most intriguing element of this sweet treat from India is that it claims to be the world’s first zero-waste chocolate. Guilt-free? It’s pretty close. 

Kocoatrait uses a combination of technology and natural ingredients to produce a bar that has minimal impact on the environment –– from production to consumption to disposing of the packaging, which is 100 percent reusable. “It becomes part of the circular economy,” explains chocolatier and creator Nitin Chordia.  

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Kocoatrait packaging is made from reclaimed cotton and cocoa bean husks.

Source Kocoatrait

The seed for Kocoatrait was planted soon after a backpacking trip in Belgium –– a mecca for fine chocolate –– in 2013. Chordia had quit his job as a retail business consultant and was looking “to invest in something of my own,” he recalls. While in Belgium, he met Martin Christy, a leading voice in the fine chocolate industry. A few weeks later, Christy invited Chordia to a one-day chocolate appreciation course in the U.K. He went and came back convinced he had found his calling. He joined the Level 1 chocolate tasters’ accreditation program at the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting in the U.K. Chordia then became India’s first globally certified chocolate taster.   

At home in Chennai, he began with small batches from local cacao beans. To start with, his firm — which is called Cocoatrait; the zero-waste chocolate is called “Kocoatrait” — focused on introducing fine chocolate to India. Chordia and his wife, Poonam, held chocolate-tasting classes and certification courses. By 2018, their students started asking them why they didn’t have their own chocolate brand. The couple decided to take the plunge. 

Take a bite of the coconut and cinnamon, for instance. Let it sit on your tongue, and allow the flavors to seep out.

The challenge? The eco-conscious couple were entering an industry that’s notorious for its unsustainable practices. In 2018, University of Manchester researchers found that a bar of chocolate takes 1,000 liters of water to produce, and that the chocolate industry in the U.K. generates 2.1 tons of carbon emissions annually. That’s the equivalent of what El Paso, Texas, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, produce in total in a year. 

The Chordias decided they would do things differently. It began with the search for a more sustainable and eco-friendly wrapper. “I wanted to make sure that the outer packaging for chocolate is without any plastic or paper,” Chordia says. That’s when he stumbled upon the idea of reclaimed cotton and cocoa bean husks. Not only is the combination biodegradable, it’s also ultra-thin, so the bar occupies less space on shop shelves, and is lighter to transport, reducing its carbon footprint.  

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Source Kocoatrait

This is a revelation in the chocolate industry. But turn the wrappers inside out and you’ll find another surprise. Each is designed with mandala art — intricate geometric patterns that in Asian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Shintoism represent beauty and act as spiritual tools and meditation aids. The wrappers also carry habit trackers — calendar-like tools that let you check whether you’ve stuck with your routine. “It can be used again as a greeting card,” Chordia explains. The idea? To make the wrapper something worth preserving, so consumers don’t reflexively throw it in the bin.  

The chocolate itself is made using unrefined sugar and natural, organically grown ingredients. It’s available in 11 flavors — aside from those mentioned earlier, there’s sukku coffee, pink rose, dark, jaggery, lemongrass and Irish cream coffee. Many of the flavors are Indian, but all ingredients are sourced from local communities and farms. And you’ll want to relish them. Take a bite of the coconut and cinnamon, for instance. Let it sit on your tongue, and allow the flavors to seep out. The spicy sweetness of cinnamon, the creaminess of coconut and the punch of chocolate combine to take your taste buds on a tour de force they’ve never known.   

Each bar costs between $3 and $4. Demand is growing: The chocolates are already available at most sustainable food stores across India, and can be ordered online through the Cocoatrait website (within India, for now). But Chordia has started receiving queries from sustainable and organic stores in other countries too. 

A few other chocolatiers are also offering sustainable and eco-friendly products. Seed and Bean chocolates in the U.K., for instance, insists its wrappers are zero-waste: They’re made from a flexible cellulose film built from eucalyptus wood pulp. But the chocolate’s ingredients travel thousands of miles from the Dominican Republic. Kocoatrait’s use of local beans makes it the sole claimant to a bean-to-bar zero-waste chocolate. “Even though attempts have been made to make chocolate more eco-friendly and sustainable, there has not been an attempt to make it 100 percent zero-waste,” says Chordia.  

It’s another factor that makes this confection even sweeter. Once you’ve sampled one of the unique flavors, you can use the wrapper as a piece of artwork to decorate your walls — a lasting reminder of the favor you’re doing the environment.

The Rise of India’s Protest Libraries

It’s around noon and the February sun is finally warming up. On a stretch of road in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi — the epicenter of recent protests against India’s controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims — it’s unusually quiet. Constantly innovating, the men and women there have today chosen a silent protest, even as posters, drawings and huge plastic sheets with slogans against the citizenship regime line the walls of the Muslim-majority neighborhood. That silence suits Jauzi just fine.

The 24-year-old medical student from Chittor in the state of Rajasthan (who doesn’t want to share his last name) is reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, at the Shaheen Bagh bus stop — now a makeshift library. Every day, Jauzi and other volunteers set up the library by noon, with mattresses and blankets on which visitors sit and read. Named the Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library after two pathbreaking 19th-century Indian women educators, reformers and friends — Phule belonged to a Hindu caste that was discriminated against, while Sheikh was Muslim — it now has more than 1,000 books on history, literature, law, philosophy, science and more, all donated by visitors.

It’s one of a growing number of libraries sprouting up across protest sites in India, promising to reshape the language of popular agitations in the world’s largest democracy. Across New Delhi, violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs over the past two days have claimed at least 20 lives. But these libraries are offering an alternative form of resistance, opening up platforms traditionally reserved for committed activists to waves of first-time protesters — from high school students to homemakers — who have joined hands against moves by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce a religious test for naturalized citizenship.

There’s the Inquilabi Library — roughly translated as the Revolutionary Library — created by the students of Aligarh Muslim University in the northern Indian city of Aligarh. A similar makeshift library has come up at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. The Park Circus Maidan protest site has a library, as does the one at Azad Market in New Delhi. Several of the other indefinite, round-the-clock protests that continue in city after city also have libraries, some of which start out with as few as 10 books.

This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them … This is when libraries become a form of protest.

Mohd. Asif, student protester

These libraries double as classrooms for lectures on the Indian constitution — which Modi’s critics say is being violated through the citizenship law. The Shaheen Bagh Library, for instance, was set up on the principle of “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” propounded by B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, say organizers. Mohammad Umar, a 22-year-old student volunteer there, writes down his message for me on a piece of paper so he doesn’t break his silent protest. The library, he writes, also has “biographies of some of the freedom fighters.”

And in a more fundamental way, these libraries are allowing India’s protesters to reclaim public spaces not just for political sloganeering and marches, but for education and learning.

“It is occupying the public space and saying we’re just going to have the world that we want,” says Sherrin Frances, an associate professor at Saginaw Valley State University, whose book Libraries Amid Protest: Books, Organizing, and Global Activism is releasing in June. “It’s sort of a utopian vision, kind of it comes out of the roots of anarchy, and it has to do with appropriating space and building what you want.” 

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Read for Revolution and JNU is Bleeding posters following the 2020 attack at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Frances says libraries have played a role in other protest movements too in recent years — be it Zuccotti Park in New York City during the Occupy Wall Street protests or at Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. But it’s only now that these sporadic instances are giving way to a surge in pavement libraries at protest sites in multiple cities. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy agitation has also seen libraries come up at protest sites.

And in India, the symbolism behind these libraries is deeper than just the citizenship law. They’re emerging at a time students have come under attack and Modi’s critics are accusing his government of defunding public education. In December, police entered the library of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi and lobbed tear gas shells to drive students out, while they were ostensibly searching for protesters. On Jan. 3, masked goons — since identified as members of the student union affiliated to Modi’s party — entered JNU and thrashed students protesting against a fee hike.

“There is a war that the government has waged against educational institutions,” says Mohd. Asif, a 25-year-old student of Persian. “This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them. Books help us understand our past. Our ideals. They are trying to limit the reach of education now. This is when libraries become a form of protest.”

The books are also a lasting legacy of protests, suggests Frances’ research. She found that after protests in New York, Madrid and other cities ended, “the librarians [who are the activists] kept the books and hauled them around and tried to find permanent places,” she says. “And so the libraries persisted for months and years after the occupations themselves were over.”

Back at the Shaheen Bagh Library, 5-year-old Laiba Fazal walks in with her mother after school and finds herself a drawing book. She is soon consumed by the colors, as her mother looks on happily. The library will stay there until the government withdraws the citizenship law, insists Umar. And if and when the protest ends, he says, “we will shift this [library] to another location, and this will be for the public forever.”

Are India’s Muslim Women Being Driven Out of Politics?

India’s 2019 elections saw a record number of women politicians in the lower house of parliament: 78 were elected, or 14 percent of the legislative body. But it wasn’t progress across the board. The lower house’s representation of Muslim women went way down, from four before the May contest to just one, Sadja Ahmed.

One reason for that may be the staggering amount of harassment visited on female Muslim politicians. A new report from Amnesty International documented online trolling of India’s female politicians, and the news is grim for everyone. But not all female politicians are trolled equally.

Female Muslim politicians in India face nearly double the ethnic and religious slurs that other female politicians do.

The Amnesty International survey encompassed some 7 million tweets, between March and May 2019, mentioning 95 female politicians across India’s political spectrum. The results were not promising: While female politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. face a huge amount of trolling — Amnesty International research in 2017 found that a woman in politics was sent an abusive tweet every 30 seconds — about 7 percent of tweets sent to them were labeled abusive, while for Indian female politicians it was about double that. Women representing parties across the political spectrum were targeted with slurs insulting their race and gender and threatened with rape and murder. Volunteers analyzed the tweets from nine languages, explains Amnesty spokesperson Nazia Erum, and then sent each to be further analyzed by at least three experts before it was labeled abusive.  

It was not just Muslim women who received significantly more abuse than their Hindu counterparts. Women from marginalized caste backgrounds and women from outside the ruling BJP saw far more abuse than the average.

“When it comes to trolling, they look at the vulnerabilities of the person,” says Aqsa Shaikh, a Muslim transgender activist. “If you are a woman, Muslim or from LGBTQ or marginalized castes, you are more vulnerable. They have more ammunition against you.” Islamophobia that has existed in the country over the years is just a part of this, Shaikh says, and its perpetuation via social media is no fluke. Political polarization in India has been widely promoted via social media in recent years, and disinformation spread via WhatsApp is estimated to have caused dozens of deaths in recent years. Before the 2019 election, the lower house of parliament had seen a slow but steady growth in the number of female MPs, with four Muslim women each in the two previous parliaments.

“Many women do not enter politics because of the price of constant online harassment,” Shazia Ilmi, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Amnesty researchers. Though the BJP has promoted Hindu nationalist policies, Ilmi — who worked as a journalist before entering politics — is Muslim. “Only 25 percent of what I get is based on the content of my politics,” she says. “Seventy-five to 80 percent is about being a woman and a Muslim woman.”

While all women faced slurs and harassment online, what Muslim female politicians encountered was significantly worse. Overall, they faced 55 percent more abuse than politicians of other religions, and 94 percent more ethnic and religious hatred. Similar studies have not been conducted on tweets to India’s male politicians.

Former Aam Aadmi Party Leader Shazia Ilmi Joins BJP

BJP Delhi Pradesh President Satish Upadhyay with former AAP leader Shazia Ilmi. 

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This is also playing out in real life: India was recently roiled by protests after the BJP passed a citizenship bill that marginalized Muslim asylum-seekers. As the climate of online abuse has grown and normalized, so too have legislative solutions that exclude Muslims.

For some women, the climate of hatred might not take them out of politics — just off social media. Sadja Ahmed, the only Muslim female MP left in the lower house of parliament, has only tweeted 84 times, compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 25.9 thousand times. Meanwhile, when Hasiba Amin, a social media campaigner for the Indian National Congress party, got into the profession, she “was told that ‘I have no right to speak as a Muslim woman,’” she told Amnesty. She routinely received rape threats and was subject to insinuations about her sexual relationships with older men. Her way out was simple: “In 2019, I have considerably reduced my activity on Twitter.”