The First Man to Say No to the Academy

Since the Academy Awards were inaugurated in the late 1920s, Oscar refusals have been vanishingly rare. First of all, who doesn’t love getting recognized? Only the very biggest stars can afford to shun something as career-making as a golden statuette. Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated 12 times, never attended a single ceremony — but she never said no, either. Marlon Brando’s statement was probably the most memorable: In 1973, he sent Apache actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to refuse the award for him, in a bid to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Native people in the film industry.

But the first person to turn down an Oscar didn’t do so out of self-satisfaction, and he didn’t do it to change the diversity of the industry. No, it was a good old-fashioned beef between unions and management.

Though his refusal didn’t cause the kind of shock waves more modern kiss-offs have — perhaps because the Oscars weren’t yet televised — his refusal to accept the award was revolutionary.

The Oscars were only in their eighth year in 1936 when screenwriter Dudley Nichols got the nod for Best Screenplay. His film The Informer was set during the Irish war of independence, and it was a hot ticket that year. Along with Nichols’ award for writing, the film won Best Actor, Best Director and Best Score.

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was set up in 1927 to honor excellence, “it was also intended to be a union,” explains Dennis Bingham, director of film studies at Indiana University. But it represented the studios, rather than serving the members’ best interests. “[Nichols] refused the Oscar because he didn’t want to cooperate with the Academy at a time when the Academy was trying to represent the studio position.” 

Nichols, who would later gain immortality by penning the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby and proto-Western Stagecoach, was also one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers and a founding member of the screenwriters guild. Though his action didn’t cause the kind of shock waves more modern kiss-offs have — perhaps because the Oscars weren’t yet televised — his refusal to accept the award was revolutionary, and a serious salvo in the fight between studios and guilds in Hollywood’s formative years.

After the ceremony, Sonya Levien, another screenwriter, sent a jubilant telegram to Nichols: “Hooray to you for winning the prize, and hooray to you for giving it up.” The Academy sent the award to his home the following day, and Nichols sent it right back. They sent it to him again, and again he returned it.

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The Oscars were only in their eighth year in 1936 when screenwriter Dudley Nichols got the nod for Best Screenplay.

Nichols was elected president of the Screen Writers Guild — now the Writers Guild of America — the following year. The year after that, when the dispute between the guilds and studios had died down, Nichols accepted his delayed Academy Award and attended the Oscars, alongside representatives from the actors and directors guilds. His side had won a seat at the table. But was it because of his bold, public act?

Maybe not. “Change happens when power acts … But when you’re an individual and you don’t have economic power and you’re not the head of a large movement, you don’t tend to have much of an impact,” says Harry Chotiner, a film historian and adjunct assistant professor of film studies at New York University. While Nichols was respected by other writers, he was no household name.

But to other writers, he was an inspiration. “Nichols saw an opportunity to make a point by turning down his Oscar, which at that time came from the Academy, a company union,” says Bingham. Unions in the film industry were facing an existential threat. But Nichols — both through grandstanding and through old-fashioned leadership — saw his nascent guild through that storm. His acceptance in 1938 was less a capitulation, says Chotiner, and more an olive branch.

Nominees and winners this awards season have been expressing their own dissatisfaction — witness Joaquin Phoenix’s didactic speech about the industry’s responsibility to include people of color when he won the BAFTA this year. But standing up and refusing the award could have had an even bigger impact.

That impact, unfortunately, might be on the careers of the principled. Though Nichols’ best work was ahead of him when he refused that Oscar, and he was nominated three more times, he never won again.

Don’t Call This 8-Year-Old India’s Greta Thunberg

A crowd of men and women walked through the streets of Madrid behind two young girls as they held hands and spoke to each other animatedly. One of the girls was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swede who has become the face of a new generation’s fight against climate change. The other one was Licypriya Kangujam. 

On reaching their destination, Licypriya hurriedly rolled out a placard that read: “Dear Mr. Modi. Please pass the climate change law in the ongoing Parliament session. Save our future! Act now! Act now!” It was December 2019 and the group was on their way to the United Nations Climate Change Conference 25 (COP25), where both girls addressed world leaders and urged immediate action against climate change.

Born in 2011, Licypriya is half Thunberg’s age — but she has in spunk what she lacks in height. The media calls her “Greta of the Global South,” but, she tells me with a confident grin: “Really, I’m Licypriya of India.” 

At this rate, by the time I grow up, Earth will be uninhabitable.

Licypriya Kangujam

Licypriya Kangujam-23

With the help of a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Jammu, Kangujam has created the Survival Kit for the future or what she calls SUKIFU, a symbolic device to curb air pollution. This almost zero budget kit is specially designed from trash to provide fresh air to our body when the pollution rate is high.

Source K.K. Singh

The youngest climate activist in the world, 8-year-old Licypriya has made it her mission to hold Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his words when he says he’s a champion for clean energy. She wants to start by making sure India follows through on the 2015 Paris agreement. “It is already too late,” she squeals, with urgency in her voice.

Her conviction won over even U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at COP25, but Licypriya came away from the experience frustrated.

“I heard many speeches from our leaders. … ‘We will do this and that … we will, we will, we will.’” She stops and looks at her father. Finally, the child in her makes a cameo — she has lost her train of thought and what they had written down prior to our meeting. Her father prompts her in their native Manipuri language. “But in the end, the conference failed. It was such a waste of time and money,” she quickly remembers.

Recently, Licypriya says, she’s been “thinking a lot” about the looming water crisis, and she cannot stop worrying about the 844 million people who lack access to clean water. Getting up from the couch and pacing around the hotel lobby where we meet, she talks about the more than 800 children under age 5 across the world who die each day from diarrhea attributed to poor water. “I demand our government to include climate change as a compulsory subject in our school curriculum. They should also make a policy to ensure that each student plants 10 trees a year,” she says.

India has 350 million students — if each plants 10 trees a year, that’s 3.5 billion trees. Boosting forests, experts say, can be a critical component of curbing climate change and water scarcity.

Born in the small village of Bashikong in Manipur on the northeastern fringe of India, Licypriya is already a veteran of the movement. Her father, Dr. KK Singh, a local youth activist, recalls when Licypriya was just 4 and Singh’s friend K Abdul Ghani (aka the Green Man of India) came over. “She was fixated with him — she kept asking him why he is called the ‘Green Man,’ why is the environment important, what is climate change, etc. She talks a lot,” laughs Singh. 

At age 6, she participated in the Third Asian Ministerial Conference for Disaster Reduction in Mongolia. She came home to start the Child Movement, to call on world leaders to take urgent climate action. She’s become a regular on the global summit circuit, visiting 21 countries so far, and has racked up awards, including the India Peace Prize. At age 7, she organized Africa’s biggest climate protest in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where 50,000 other children joined her.

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Kangujam addresses a rally in New Delhi.

Source K.K. Singh

In February 2019, she protested in front of the Parliament of India every week instead of attending school. In October, nearly 1,000 children joined her in her march toward Parliament, demanding stronger legal remedies against climate change. Then, as air quality dropped dramatically in New Delhi in early November, she walked the streets with an oxygen mask attached to a plant she carried on her back — a symbolic device she likes to call SUKIFU (Survival Kit for the Future) to point to how future generations might need to walk unless leaders act now. For example, in New Delhi poor air quality irreversibly damages the lungs of 50 percent of all children.

She can pack a punch on social media, where she drew global attention last week as she bristled at the comparisons to Thunberg.

It wasn’t the first time she’s sparred with the press. Last April, soon after Licypriya wrote a post on Facebook (now deleted) that she was “selected” to address a U.N. session in Geneva but had decided not to attend, the newspaper EastMojo reported that she’d never been selected at all, according to the U.N. Singh struck back, saying of his daughter: “One local paid media in Manipur [has] killed her career by spreading lies about her.” He has his own history there. Back in 2016, Manipur’s Imphal Free Press reported that Singh had been arrested for impersonating a U.N. official, though no one seems to know what happened to the case.

The family is not afraid to take on India’s leaders. Licypriya talks about how the Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar — who was also at COP25 — “runs away” from her, even as she believes Modi has started to listen to her. Javadekar’s office, for its part, contends that “India engaged constructively in the [COP25] negotiations while protecting India’s key interests,” including making sure developed countries help with the cost burden for implementing the Paris agreement.

Harjeet Singh, global climate lead at ActionAid International, says Licypriya is just getting started, and “especially such a young girl putting out such a message and pressure on the government has a lot of meaning. It indicates how the young generation is waking up to the climate crisis and must be appreciated.”

Even as her activism accelerates, Licypriya plans to return to school in April. “I want to become a space scientist — build a rocket and go to the moon,” she says. Her reason speaks to the urgency of her mission. “At this rate, by the time I grow up, Earth will be uninhabitable.”

Actresses Break With Bollywood’s Embrace of Modi Amid Protests

Wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, her hair neatly tied in a bun, Deepika Padukone, India’s highest-paid female actor, stood next to students on a cold night last Tuesday as they protested an attack by masked assailants at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Padukone, who was on Forbes’ list of 10-most paid female actors globally in 2018, had a film called Chhappak — about an acid attack victim — due to be released three days later. Yet she appeared at the protest against right-wing attacks at India’s premier research university, aware of the risks to the film and to her.

Two years ago, Hindu nationalist groups had threatened to chop off her nose because a film, Padmaavat, had a scene that included a dream sequence of a ‘Muslim’ king wanting to be intimate with a ‘Hindu’ queen played by Padukone. Mobs vandalized the film’s sets, setting back its production schedule. Such attacks have left Bollywood feeling “vulnerable,” says actor Swara Bhasker. That, in turn, has meant that unlike Hollywood, where actors and filmmakers have spoken out against governments, A-listers in Bollywood — the world’s second-best paying film industry — have largely remained apolitical public personas. Under the current government, in fact, many have even queued up to click selfies with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The JNU attack was the tipping point and that is when the Bollywood women started speaking out.

Swara Bhasker, Bollywood star.

Now, as protests spread across India over a controversial new citizenship law and attacks on students, Bollywood women are breaking with that pattern even as the biggest male actors, such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, stay quiet. In December, police thrashed students of Jamia Millia Islamia university and Aligarh Muslim University who were protesting the citizenship amendment law, which discriminates against Muslim migrants. Priyanka Chopra, the other female Indian actor on that 2018 Forbes list, spoke out. “In a thriving democracy, to raise one’s voice peacefully and be met with violence is wrong,” she wrote on Twitter. “Every voice counts.”

Alia Bhatt, Tapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Konkana Sensharma, Nandita Das, Sayani Gupta and Bhasker are among the other well-known actresses who have — on social media or on the streets — spoken out against the law or the attacks on students. And after supporters of Modi’s ruling BJP party called for a boycott of Padukone’s film because she stood by JNU students, some actors have leapt to her defense — a rarity in the cutthroat industry.

“The JNU attack was the tipping point and that is when the Bollywood women started speaking out,” says Bhasker.  

For sure, some male actors — such as Siddharth and Zeeshan Ayyub — have supported the protests, as have a few award-winning directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Anubhav Sinha. But the biggest earners have avoided saying anything. India has a history of banning films deemed provocative. Producers have been forced to apologize for casting Pakistani actors, Bhasker points out. Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan faced calls for boycotts of their films when they spoke about growing intolerance in the country.

Protest Against CAA And NRC In New Delhi

Actor Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub joined hundreds of students to protest the Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens in New Delhi, India.

Source Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty

India is also witnessing a broader “shift in terms of gender relations, which has meant that there is a certain level of male anxiety,” says Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the New Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth. But while male actors are often expected to take on roles that pander to machismo and themes of nationalism, he says, “the market that the women stars are catering to is different.”

The organic, citizen-led nature of the protests makes it easier for female actors to join without appearing politically affiliated, says Bhasker. Like Padukone, many of them have also faced vicious threats and abuses for their film choices or for speaking their minds in the past — they’re familiar with what the protesters are facing.

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Deepika Padukone in ‘Padmaavat’ (2018).

Some like Bhasker have addressed protest rallies against the citizenship law in Mumbai. And on the night the masked assailants went on a rampage at JNU with chants of “shoot the traitors of the country,” she broke down while appealing to her 537,300 Twitter followers to turn up at the university gate to help those stuck inside. The attackers thrashed students protesting a 300 percent fee hike, and the teachers supporting them. “They are attacking teachers’ houses now. Obviously, this is very personal for me because my parents live on campus.” [Bhasker’s mother Ira Bhaskar is a professor at the university].

Others like Padukone — who has a brand value of $102.5 million — have let their presence do the talking. During the attack at JNU, the students union President Aishe Ghosh was brutally injured — she had to get 16 stitches on her head and a cast for her broken left hand. When Padukone visited the campus, she didn’t speak but met Ghosh with folded hands, evidently trying to fight back tears. 

Will her solidarity with the students affect the earnings of her new film? Government ministers and BJP spokespersons have targeted her on Twitter, helping drive #boycottdeepika and #boycottchhappak. But film trade analyst Girish Johar points out that Padmaavat, for which Padukone received threats, eventually became one of Bollywood’s top-10 grossers of all time. “If Chhapaak turns out to be a good film, it will definitely perform well,” says Johar.

Meanwhile, other barriers are being broken. Bollywood actors and directors compete hard against each other for the same screen space and audience adulation. But actors like Chadha have been active on Twitter, defending Padukone, debunking a false rumor that the makers of Chhapaak changed the identity of the Muslim perpetrator of the acid attack to a Hindu name. “Why do ppl [people] come forward to prove their stupidity every day?” she says in a reply to one Twitter user. “Stop lying.”

The rallies across the country are filled with slogans that start with the words “It’s so bad that,” to highlight how people who previously have stayed away from public protests are now joining in. Bhasker smiles and says, “You know what we need …‘It’s so bad that even Bollywood is out on the streets’.”

Worried About Your Data? Ireland’s Got Your Back

The streets of Chongqing, China’s most densely populated city, are filled with more than just 15 million people. They’re also equipped with 2.5 million cameras, panning the faces of everyone who strolls past, to identify and keep tabs on residents and visitors alike. These cameras are part of a pilot scheme to help curb crime.

Police in New Delhi, meanwhile, recently raised hackles by using facial recognition software to screen crowds at a political rally. Britain has more than 6 million closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras, second only to China. And Ecuador recently purchased a massive national surveillance system from China wholesale.

If you’re worried about your privacy and data, is there anywhere to hide? A few states in the U.S. have made moves to protect user data online, but there are serious doubts about their effectiveness. Still, there are some bright spots on the world map:

A survey of 47 countries found that Ireland is the best at privacy and surveillance protection.

Admittedly, the analysis — conducted by consumer watchdog site Comparitech — found that no country in the world achieved a perfect or even near-perfect score looking at constitutional protections of privacy, surveillance, ID cards and data control of citizens’ medical histories, financial records and biometrics. But the Emerald Isle led the pack (scoring 3.2 out of a possible 5), ahead of France, Portugal and Denmark. Unsurprisingly, China is at the bottom of the list. The United States ranked seventh to last.

So what is Ireland doing right? The country is known as a hub for U.S. tech firms in need of a low-tax European base, but its Data Protection Commission has become increasingly aggressive when it comes to protecting user privacy. Éire is currently running 18 separate probes into the practices of big American tech firms that may have violated the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Further, Ireland has resisted an EU directive requiring biometric ID cards and played an active role in overturning the EU’s data retention directive, which required countries to store citizens’ telecommunications data. Ireland’s position outside the Schengen travel zone also gives it an out on some EU data-sharing agreements.

“The Irish government has spent much of the last four years trying to change the perception of Ireland as a soft touch when it comes to data protection and privacy,” says TJ McIntyre, a lecturer at University College Dublin’s Sutherland School of Law and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland. In 2019, the data commission’s budget was increased by 30 percent.

Comparitech privacy advocate Paul Bischoff, who conducted the study, believes even Ireland has room for improvement. “Its weakened protections — for example, data breaches in the medical industry for sensitive data, subsidization of closed-circuit TV cameras and a constant threat to press freedom, a result of the concentrated ownership of media outlets — are some of the reasons why Ireland couldn’t get a perfect score,” he says. On the other hand, some critics of Ireland’s data protection says it’s creating hurdles for smaller businesses, especially nonprofits, which have to shell out more to comply and avoid heavy penalties.

America’s relatively poor performance is largely due to its use of biometric IDs. The Biometric Exit program run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expected within four years to be using facial recognition technology on 97 percent of people departing U.S. airports. The U.S. has also been building a database of biometric information containing digital facial images and fingerprints from more than 200 million people who have entered, tried to enter or left the country. Meanwhile, private companies are largely able to set their own guidelines when it comes to processing personal data, and breaches are common. Even when companies are fined for misusing personal data — as Facebook was last summer — the amounts are relatively small and are widely seen as a slap on the wrist, not a deterrent.

Moreover, there are no federal laws regarding the use of CCTV, meaning usage varies drastically state to state, says Bischoff. Some states have a rule that prohibits CCTV use in areas where people expect privacy — for example, changing rooms — but some do not. Only two states — Connecticut and Delaware — require companies to inform their employees if their emails are being monitored.

Still, even the best is far from perfect. The Irish regulator overseeing the EU investigations into privacy breaches at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter says its decisions will be delayed. That has critics concerned that while Irish citizens may enjoy privacy, Ireland may be letting others down when it comes to its policing violators in the rest of Europe.

The Indian Land Claimed in the Name of a (Baby) God

It’s difficult to defeat a god. But still, it took seven decades of legal fighting for Ram Lalla Virajman, one of Hinduism’s most popular deities, to win the claim he — or at least his faithful on his behalf — made to a piece of land in Northern India that’s been claimed as sacred space by both Muslims and Hindus. The five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India, in their own words, were “tasked with the resolution of a dispute whose origins are as old as the idea of India itself.”

But eventually Lord Ram won his case, which has left a trail of sectarian violence and triggered the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules the country. On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the disputed 2.77-acre site in Ayodhya must be handed over to a trust to begin construction of a temple dedicated to Ram. Muslims, who also lay claim to the site, will be given five acres nearby to build a mosque. That overturned a decade-old judgment that had ordered an even three-way split of the land in question between Muslims, Hindus and Lord Ram himself.

But how can a deity be a legal entity in a country whose constitution explicitly marks it as secular? The Allahabad High Court, which looked at the case before the Supreme Court took over, found that Ram could be considered a “juristic person,” as opposed to a “natural person,” or a regular human being. Previous Indian cases have considered corporations and rivers to be juristic persons. Making Lord Ram a figure in the case gave Hindu nationalist forces a way to stake their claim not just on questions of faith, but in the courts. Going forward, deities are more likely to become litigants in court cases across India, a phenomenon that has already begun, say legal experts.

This case is rooted in a police complaint filed by a resident of Ayodhya, Mohammed Salim, a devotee at one of India’s oldest mosques, in November of 1858. According to Salim, members of a local Hindu Sikh community had gone into the 300-year-old mosque, held a prayer service and left symbols and the word “Ram” written on the walls. The official report the next day verified that Hindus were present in the mosque.

That was the beginning of a court case that would last 161 years, the longest in India’s history, and would have ramifications for Hindus, Muslims, the legal system — and for any other gods who wish to bring a court case.

“The excavation on the site by the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] really helped in the case,” says senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, who, along with legal eagle K. Parasaran, fought the case on behalf of the infant god. While Muslim factions had claimed the historic mosque was built on vacant land, Vaidyanathan explains, “The ASI excavation showed that there was a big, non-Islamic structure, and there were artifacts associated with the Hindus — and that proved to be the turning point.”

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A 1990 photo showing riot police battling rampaging, incited Hindus bent on razing the Muslim mosque Babri Masjid and erecting a Hindu temple to god-king Rama.

Source Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty

Religion was always a big part of this case. But in 1989, gods really got involved: Former Allahabad High Court Judge Deoki Nandan Agarwal added a suit to the already existing legal fight over the sacred ground at Ayodhya, claiming that the land legally belonged to Ram Lalla Virajman, a deity considered a minor for legal purposes because he was supposedly born in Ayodhya and thus laid claim to the land as an infant. The case argued that the whole site must be handed over to his followers for the construction of a new temple.

But how can the hundreds of followers be sure that the petitioner will act in a god’s best interests? He is entitled to one human representative. Hence, in court papers, Triloki Nath Pandey, a devout Ram follower who lives in Ayodhya, was described as the “next friend” of the infant Lord Ram. “To represent God is a glorious job. To think that I was chosen to do this job from among millions of Hindus made me proud and joyful,” he says.

At the time, the three-domed Babri mosque still stood on the site, as it had since the year 1528. But in December of 1992, thousands of ultra-right supporters streamed into Ayodhya, famed as Ram’s birthplace, with chants of “Mandir wahin banayenge.” We will build the temple right there. They demolished the Babri mosque on Dec. 6, triggering sectarian violence that killed an estimated 1,700 people and marked the start of the political rise of the BJP.

Author and former senior advisor to the United Nations Ramesh Thakur estimated that the mosque’s demolition sparked “the worst outbreak of communal violence since partition.”

The verdict is likely to cement the fissures that have deepened in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which help him politically — building the temple has been a BJP poll promise — and rub salt in the wounds of India’s 200 million Muslims.

Hotels Dismantle Taboo of Premarital Sex, One Room Rental at a Time

It was after 11 pm, and Sumit Anand and his girlfriend needed a room for the night. But staff at the north Indian hotel peppered the couple with “bizarre questions,” recalls Anand. “Some were even concerned about the fact we belonged to different faiths.” The biggest sticking point, though, was that the tired couple weren’t married.

That incident, in Jim Corbett National Park in the northern state of Uttarakhand, was when Anand decided things needed to change. India has no law that prohibits consenting adults from booking a hotel room. But deep-seated conservatism and a taboo on premarital sex mean most Indian hotels, apart from high-end four- or five-star establishments, are reluctant to rent rooms to unmarried adults. Hotels generally insist couples either provide a marriage certificate or ID before letting them check in. Hotel management is also worried about police raids under archaic catchall public decency laws, say industry insiders.

A wave of hotel aggregators are emerging across India that provide affordable — a room can cost as little as $15 a night — and safe accommodations for young unmarried couples. These aggregators find and verify partner hotels that are willing to not only rent to unmarried couples but will also ensure they aren’t harassed. The websites are tapping into a growing need: On average, Indians are remaining unmarried a year longer than they were a decade ago. The trend, in turn, is offering a solution to other conservative societies where premarital sex isn’t illegal, yet remains taboo.

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LuvStay is a hotel aggregator that finds rooms for unmarried couples.

In 2016, Anand partnered with a friend, Karan Mago, to launch LuvStay, a hotel aggregator that lists couple-friendly rooms available for a few hours or a few days. In 2015, New Delhi–based Sanchit Sethi and Blaze Arizanov launched StayUncle, an aggregator initially formed to find hotels for travelers who wanted to book rooms for less than a day — most hotels in India charge for at least a day when you check in. Early on in the company’s existence, Sethi and Arizanov looked at their business in a new light. “In the initial months, 99 percent of the inquiries … were from unmarried couples looking for rooms — away from prying eyes. So, we decided to make our business for the 99 percent neglected people,” says Sethi. They’re now starting to also target LGBTQ couples.

In 2016, Oyo Rooms, a popular hotel aggregator, introduced a new feature: Unmarried couples are now able to access 60 percent of 70,000 rooms in 200 cities across India. Awesome Stays, FabHotels and Zo Rooms soon followed suit. Tripvillas, an aggregator, lists rooms in private homes that are available for unmarried couples to rent.

couples need a room, not judgment.

Stayuncle’s tag line

“Earlier, booking a room was frowned upon,” says Sayan Goswami, an Ahmedabad-based digital marketing professional who was once refused a room in the city. “Now, it is easier with the couple-friendly hotel aggregators.”

In some conservative countries — such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Somalia — premarital sex remains illegal. In September this year, Indonesia passed a law barring tourist couples from sharing a hotel room in Bali without a marriage certificate. Unmarried couples can be jailed for having sex.

Daily Life In India

In India, unmarried couples often have to go through harrowing experiences even though the law is on their side — the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that premarital sex is legal

Source Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty

In India, unmarried couples often go through harrowing experiences even though the country’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that premarital sex is legal. In August 2015, a 34-year-old waste management expert from Mumbai — who requested anonymity — had planned a getaway with his 30-year-old Pune-based fiancée in the beachside neighborhood of Madh Island. The couple hadn’t seen each other for a while and were excited to be reunited.

Mumbai police hauled the couple out of their hotel room and booked them under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act — a law that pertains to human trafficking. During that raid, at least 13 couples — all consenting adults — were picked up from hotels in Madh Island and Aksa Beach on charges of “indecent behavior in public.”

“We were also detained in the police stations, given lectures on morality, forced to call our parents and humiliated as though we had murdered someone,” says the waste management expert. “My girlfriend thought I had taken her to a seedy hotel.… Eventually we broke up.”   

Some hotels do act as venues for trafficking or prostitution, and are likelier to be targeted in police raids. But those raids often end up with consenting, unmarried adults also being punished. That’s where the aggregators come in.

LuvStay spokesperson Rahul Taneja says every hotel the company recommends has to go through a vetting process. “We also conduct surprise visits and work with the hotel staff to ensure couples face no problem,” he says. Sethi of StayUncle says the firm “only lists hotels that match its vibe.”

Such precautions don’t always protect couples from police harassment, though. In June, an unmarried couple — both college students — were taken from an Oyo Rooms–affiliated hotel in Tamil Nadu state and briefly detained. In October, staff at a Jaipur hotel listed as “couple-friendly” refused to check in an unmarried couple after learning the man was Muslim and the woman Hindu.

Such incidents are why aggregators have begun coaching customers on their rights in case they face similar challenges. LuvStay emails clients with advice on how to date and how to persuade partners to plan a getaway as “it’s 100 percent legit.” StayUncle has a marketing campaign with the tag line “Couples need a room, not judgment.” The company also provides sexual hygiene kits in rooms.

So far, these hotel aggregators have catered to an estimated 600,000 couples, mostly Indian. International tourists are their next target market. Taneja mentions a couple who regularly use LuvStay when they meet — the man lives in Dubai and the woman in India. And aggregator founders believe what they’ve started in India could spark a trend that spreads to other conservative countries.

“One can only hope we get such good news from across the world,” says Goswami.

The Melting Pot Singer Born the Day the Berlin Wall Fell

Dreams of war are not uncommon for Jamila Al-Yousef: bullets strewn across ruined streets, slowly approaching bombs, strategizing how to hide, impending death. And when she opens her eyes, she works for a better reality.

When she was all of 15 in 2004, Jamila had walked up to the politicians of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to ensure that a Serbian girl did not get deported. That year, she convinced the city councilors to let her host a music festival against racism.

Now, on the cusp of turning 30, she is changing the music landscape of Berlin by infusing Arabic folk with psychedelic rock and neo-soul — and a dash of cultural activism.

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Jamila as a newborn in Berlin to mother Carola and father Mufid in 1989.

Politics runs through Al-Yousef’s veins and oozes out through her music. And why wouldn’t it? She was born to a Palestinian refugee father and German mother in an East German hospital (now central Berlin) the day the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

Of course, she has no conscious memory of it. But the memories of the night shine bright in her life through the stories of her family members and her consciousness of the world around her.

Jamila’s father, Mufid, and mother, Carola, could hear West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper’s speech from inside the hospital. Carola was excited. “Till then, I did not have the right to go to West Berlin. So I wanted to go almost immediately. But there I was lying on the bed.”

“I still get goose bumps when I hear about the fall of the wall or even see movies and pictures depicting it,” Al-Yousef says, fiddling with her curly red hair and taking a break from recording her new album with her band Jamila & The Other Heroes, which features Syrians Bilal Hammour (bass) and Salam Al Hassan (percussion), German Leon Hast (guitar) and Poland’s Kuba Gudz (drums).

I grew up with different identities — and … I will not be bullied for it.

Jamila Al-Yousef

“Part of my identity comes from Palestine, a place shut down by a wall and where people have no freedom of movement,” she continues. “On the other hand, my German ancestors have survived World War II, lost loved ones, lived in abject poverty and have seen the wall go up and come down — and faced the trauma of belonging and not belonging.”

Jamila has always carried that feeling of unbelonging with her. Growing up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — a region known for its growing neo-Nazi scene after the fall of the wall — was difficult. While she didn’t look Arab enough to be bullied by strangers, she was told off by those who knew her. “I knew I had to create a space of my own and for like-minded spirits,” she says with a glint in her eyes.

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A young Jamila, with her father behind her, as they spend time with her Palestinian family in Amman, Jordan, in 1992.

To focus on her music completely, Al-Yousef dropped out of her Ph.D. program at the University of Hildesheim, in which she was researching the problems faced by musicians with refugee experience. She felt hemmed in by government restriction and racism that she faced while working with the refugees right before her PhD. “I thought to myself whether I wanted to succumb to the pressures or touch lives and increase awareness among people through music,” she says. “I opted for the latter.”

With lyrics in a mix of Arabic and English — a message in itself — the music has strong political undertones. But that’s not something she does consciously. Everything in the world is political, Al-Yousef says. “The question is how you want to make people understand that.”

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Skyping with Jamila‘s Berlin-based grandmother Renate, one of the closest people in her life, and mother Carola, after she moved to London to study at SOAS in 2009.

When Jamila & The Other Heroes self-released the EP Change in 2017, they had just started out as a band. They didn’t have a manager, a label, or a booking or promo agency. They sold just 2,000 copies, with income arriving from streaming platforms such as Spotify since.

But the new album is backed by Springstoff, a recognized record label known for supporting political causes through music, which has plans to take them global.

So far, their new single, “Abu Dub,” is getting several thousand YouTube views. They’ve scored radio interviews across Germany, and Spotify curators have added them to four playlists. The band has hit the festival circuit across Germany and has toured in the Middle East and North Africa. They’ll draw 2,000 to 3,000 people to a political event or festival, or a few hundred to sets in Berlin.

In her free time, Al-Yousef loves walking around the canals of Kreuzburg, spending time with her friends and going to concerts — once flying to New York just to see Erykah Badu. She recently started teaching a course on anti-discrimination at the University of Hildesheim, and has been conducting workshops for cultural institutions and groups on “racism-critical cultural work.” 

For the last eight years, she has also been active with her unapologetically left-wing project, Arab Underground, which challenges right-wing ideologies and promotes Arab culture across Germany’s festival and club scenes. “I felt that it’s not enough to have political debates about it, but that actually artistic, interdisciplinary events really open something up in people to be interested,” she says. “Because it’s no longer about living in a bubble and only caring about yourself.”

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Jamila & The Other Heroes

The collective has been operating at a time when Germany has seen a rise in groups like the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Pegida movement, and the far-right political party AfD. Besides, she has also been active in the Palestine Music Expo as its Berlin ambassador.

Thomas Winkler, pop editor of Berlin-based culture magazines Zitty and Tip, points to the success of politically tinged Ton Steine Scherben in the 1970s as evidence that Germany can embrace such acts. “While songs may not directly bring about political change, they do get the conversation going for the better,” Winkler says. “But Jamila needs time to make her voice heard. As of yet, people hardly know her.”

It’s another wall for her to knock down.

OZY’s Five Questions for Jamila Al-Yousef

  • What’s the last book you finished?  Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak, a novel [about] the phenomena of God being aside of religion; and Fruit of Knowledge by feminist writer Liv Strömquist, a graphic novel on the history of the vulva.
  • What do you worry about?  Feeling powerless, when I don’t have things in my hand — e.g., a sickness or death of beloved ones.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? Music and sun. I know those are two things, but I cannot decide between both of them.
  • Who’s your hero? Frida Kahlo.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To experience a partnership in crime with someone as crazy, vulnerable and open as me — to become friends, lovers and creators and learn from and with each other and to share life in a free and connected way.