Asian Women in Muslim Societies: Perspectives & Struggles

Key note address at the Asia-Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing+10 by Farida Shaheed of WLUML.
First, let me extend my very special thanks to the organizers of the AP NGO Forum who, when I expressed my reservations and concerns about a session on Women from Muslim Societies, gave me this opportunity to explain my unhappiness at the singling out of one category of women on the basis of a religious identity even though I am part of an international network called Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
Let me start by asking when you last heard a talk or attended a seminar on: ‘Birth control in the Hindu world’ or the Buddhist world, even the Christian world? How about ‘Shelters in Atheist Societies’? Let’s try Women’s Rights in Judaism? How about ‘the women’s movement in the agnostic world’? No, never? So why do I get invited to events called "Refuges in Islamic Societies", "Birth Control in the Islamic World", "Islam, Women and Development".

I am always flummoxed when asked to speak on "the women's movement in the Muslim world" or to elaborate on "the position and status of Muslim women", because the question is: Which women? Bosnian or Iranian, Afro-American or Fijian, Uzbek, Chinese, Algerian, South African, or Afghani? And where? In secular Turkey, in Senegal with three official legal codes: civil, customary and religious, in Sri Lanka where the Muslim minority is denied some rights granted other citizens, or migrant communities in Europe, South America, Austral-Asia?

Why suggest that when it comes to women – regardless of whether it’s a matter of health, employment, crisis shelters or some other issue - the mere presence of Islam automatically and definitively separates women in Muslim communities from all others. Why suggest that – unlike everyone else, Muslims somehow manage to live in a world that is defined solely by religious identity, is exclusive of all non-Muslims and that is insulated from any other social, political or culturally relevant influences such as structures of power, the technological revolution, the culture of consumerism, etc. This simply doesn’t fit my reality, or the reality of any other woman I know living in societies of Muslims.

The 1.2 billion persons – half female - who make up the "Muslim world" are divided by class and social structures, by political systems and cultures, by ethnicity and race, by natural, technological and economic resources, and differing histories. They are also divided by sect and understanding so that Muslims in Asia - as elsewhere - cannot even agreed on the basic fact of who is a Muslim and who is not. Most Asian Muslims are shocked by the practice of FGM, most have never heard of this practice but it is promoted as Islamic in some African and a few Asian communities. For their part, Arabs are shocked to hear of wide spread dowry in South Asia – a practice they consider absolutely unIslamic. Diversities are so pronounced that one has to ask whether the term 'the Muslim world' is at all meaningful if it refers to such an amorphous, divergent, shifting composition of individuals and societies who are not infrequently in conflict with one another.

I am unhappy because to speak of ‘a Muslim world’ buys into the myth of one homogenous Muslim world – a myth deliberately promoted by political groups with vested interests who by this myth attempt to deny me the space to be different, in my political choices and in my personal preferences; by entities who want to impose their brand of Islam – which means peace – by force; who want to present to the world a false dichotomous choice: either you’re a Muslim and therefore x, y, or z. Or you don’t behave in a, b, or c manner and are therefore beyond the pale, an outcast, even a traitor. I reject such dichotomous choices – whether posited by right-wing forces within our countries and societies or from outside by the likes of George W. Bush who also says ‘either you’re with us or against us’. I refuse to be part of such definitions and insist on the right to chose and define not only my individual identity but also my collective identity.

I am unhappy because the singling out of ‘Muslims’ is part of a political construction of Muslimness; is part of a perceived threat (to stability, the international world order, or women’s rights) posed by militant groups who present themselves as Islamic. The threats are real. My unhappiness is that these groups should be accepted as the ‘true authentic’ voice; that little consideration is given to other voices asking to be heard: to secular voices, to progressive Islamic voices. I am unhappy because The projection of Muslims as ‘the other’ to be feared and countered is fueled by the likes of Samuel Huntington who posits a supposed ‘clash of civilizations.’

Let’s be clear that politico-religious parties and militant groups who present their agendas in a religious idiom and project themselves as the only true mantle bearers of Islam, are NOT religious movements. These are political movements aiming to gain political power at the community, national or international level. In this power game, a major strategy is to monopolize the religious discourse and impose this as the only legitimate framework for all political and social discourse. They CONTROL people by silencing all dissenting voices, including other religious voices; they blackmail people into silence by equating any dissent to their proposals with an opposition – even betrayal - of people’s religion and faith - and by crushing dissent through violence. We hear of their violence v.a.v others, but rarely about the violence against their own community.

In the 2/3rds World, including Asia, these groups thrive on the inability of the state to fulfil its promises to its citizens, on the curtailment of spaces for discourse, debate and dissent, on people’s exclusion from decision-making. (Conversely, as migrant communities they use available democratic spaces to advance their project.) Politico-religious groups are strengthened and legitimized when other forces buy into the political use of Islam - be it military regimes or more democratic political parties. In all cases, the political use of Islam - whether by those in power or those in opposition - is part of the political power game and needs to be understood as such.

The political use of religion is part of a wider global challenge: that of identity based politics replacing ideological political agendas. Unlike ideological agendas that aim to change underlying structures and systems, identity politics simply promise a better deal for a particular group - defined by religion, ethnicity or language –-- but only if you give up your agency and let them appropriate your voice, and only if you divest yourself of all other markers of identity, and only if you buy into the proposition that your interests are threatened by other identity-based groups.

Though the term generally used for these movements and projects is ‘fundamentalism’, I find it problematic. There is no return to any fundamentals – these are new political movements bent on forcing people into accepting ever more narrow definitions of self in which their multiple, non-antagonistic identities based on gender, citizenship, class, religion, ethnicity etc. are reduced to one single identity imposed by those who have usurped the right to speak for the willing or unwilling “members” of that group.

The ascendancy of identity politics has deepened divisiveness in both the body politic and within civil society. It has led to the targeting of all those people who refuse to accept the identities imposed by them. This is not exclusive to Muslim contexts. Religion seems to be gaining legitimacy as political currency everywhere. You’ve all heard of the controversy over Muslim girls wearing the headscarves in France. But did you know that at the same time some Jewish groups were demanding the closure of state schools on Friday afternoons to observe the Sabbath? And, everywhere that religion is used in the political arena, women become special targets. It is not without reason that we have the Catholics for a Free Choice in the USA, or Women Against Fundamentalism in UK set up by women confronting Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalisms. The religious right is a visible player everywhere, including in its support for the new imperialism led by the United States – an imperialism that puts many Muslims on the defensive.

Fundamentalist groups reinforce each other through collaboration and confrontation. Remember the Vatican and conservative Catholic groups joined hands with conservative Muslim forces to oppose women’s rights in the 1994 ICPD in Cairo – continuing their alliance in Beijing. In conflict situations, the presence of fundamentalists on one side strengthens fundamentalists on the other. In India, for instance, communal violence by Hindu fundamentalist groups can only reinforce fundamentalists within the Muslim community.

Women bear the brunt of identity politics in terms of violence and control over their life choices. In many Muslims contexts, definitions of collective identities are increasingly hinged on the construction of a "Muslim woman" that is integral to the construction of "Muslimness".

A simple truth I learnt from a Latin American anthropologist is that every society has to deal with three inescapable facts: birth, death, and the reality of two sexes. Gender definitions are therefore intrinsic to all cultures and group identities. So, when we seek to expand our spaces as women by rejecting and re-defining the roles designated for us, we challenge more than "just" the contours of our lives. Our actions demand a readjustment of the broader culture and group identity, whether the society in question is dynamic or stagnant, ancient or contemporary, atheist or religious, and of course, Muslim or non-Muslim.

The essential components of patriarchy are the same in Muslim societies as elsewhere - women's subordination occurs in the immediate family and kinship structures, in state-building projects, and in international policy-making. But articulations of patriarchy are culturally specific and, despite the many factors that differentiate and divide women in Muslim societies, the “Muslimness’ of this articulation is similar.

References to Islam woven into – or alternating with – references to eastern culture are used to justify all sorts of discriminatory policies; personal status laws are almost invariably classified as Muslim and justified by reference to Islamic doctrine or culture. In the community, customs and practices having nothing to do with Islam - sometimes diametrically opposed to Islamic tenets - are also presented and internalized as having religion sanction. The net result is that in any given context, the identity/space defined for women translates into the only possible way of being a ‘Muslim woman’. Challenging any aspect of this imposed socially constructed identity is equated with challenging Islam; women who do so risk being ostracized and/or physically punished. This is a daunting task for women who live isolated in their community with no source of support.

It is in response to the growing use of religion to deny women rights and agency that the international solidarity network "Women Living Under Muslim Laws" was established in 1986. It focuses on women affected by laws, customs and practices said to be Islamic and not on Islam or religion. It encompasses women born into Muslim societies – practicing as well as non-practicing; women who are not Muslim but have Muslim laws applied to them through marriage or their children, or because they live in Muslim majority areas and to women who do not identify themselves as Muslim but are labeled such. The network recognizes that women (and men but we are concerned about women here) are ignorant of the sources of both customs and statutory laws, rarely know rights under formal law, and – often – have to wage their struggles in isolation.

WLUML seeks to break this isolation and to shatter the myth of one homogenous Muslim world by sharing information on how laws said to be Muslim vary from one place to another; by making known the different lives and strategies adopted by women - in different Muslim contexts but also from outside Muslim contexts. WLUML links diverse women’s initiatives within Muslim countries and communities to each other and to the global women’s movement.

WLUML knows that women suffer all manner of oppressions in the name of identity. But it believes that the single worst form of oppression we suffer is not the silence imposed on us or the silence we impose on ourselves for fear of betraying our community; it is not even the violence to which we are subjected. Though all this happens. The most debilitating oppression we suffer is not being able to even dream of an alternative reality to the one imposed; to the one we know. So we encourage women to dream. By our very existence and by the choices we formulate for ourselves in personal and collective spheres, networkers provide alternative reference points of women in Muslim contexts who live and think and act differently. We are living proof that alternative realities can and do exist.

We provide a safety net for those who dare to challenge the parameters imposed on women’s lives by their families, communities and states, by undertaking solidarity interventions when the rights of an individual woman are violated or threatened and by running international campaigns for collective rights.

Women are neither uni-dimensional - defined only by gender or religious identity - nor silent and passive victims. Therefore women's strategic responses to the complex web of influences that modulate their lives are as diverse as their realities. Strategies range from theological interpretations to a radical rejection of religion, from individual strategies of personal assertion and career development to formal lobbying and – sometimes - armed struggle. Some put primacy on class struggle, others on other factors. Many women identify with the larger global women's movement that, itself, consists of multiple strands and tendencies; others reject such integration.

WLUML recognizes that living in different circumstances and situations, women will have different strategies and priorities. We believe that each woman knowing her own situation is best placed to decide what is the right strategy and choice for her. The network is therefore NOT about presenting a blueprint for gender equality/feminism in the Muslim world. It is about strengthening our local struggles by providing information and linkages, and by working on collective projects such as cross-cultural exchanges that explode the myth of one Muslim world; research and capacity building around Women & Law but also on Qur'anic interpretations, especially by women.

We oppose the ghettoisation of women in and from Muslim societies – both the ghetto mentality adopted by some Muslims and the separation of women from Muslim societies by others. The network consciously builds bridges across identities - within our contexts and internationally. We are especially concerned about marginalized women: about non-Muslims in Muslim majority states, especially where religious discourse is so predominant that it leaves no space for religious minorities at all; about Muslim minorities facing discrimination or oppression, or increasingly, racism in some parts of the world; about women whose assertions of sexuality – including but not limited to sexual orientation - are either criminalized or who are socially ostracized.

We are conscious of the urgent need to understand the context in which as women we wage our struggles so we can forge effective strategies. We recognize that apart from patriarchy, globalisation, i.e. the internationalisation of capital, marked by structural adjustment programmes, relentless privatisation and the growing power of trans- and multinational corporations; the selective roll-back of the state; militarization and imperialism; and, of course identity politics all impact on our lives and struggles. We firmly believe that the lure of the religious right, identity politics and extremist political groups cannot be undercut unless we address:

The failure of states to close or even narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor, to provide jobs for burgeoning numbers of unemployed, and to provide basic social services;

The abdication by states of their obligations to meet the basic needs of their citizens while aggressively asserting state control over society and repressing democratic rights and freedoms, not only to ensure the state's grip on power but also to fulfil the obligations outlined in the new trade, finance and re-structuring agreements;

The growing sense of insecurity amongst people thanks to (a) the locus of decision-making shifting further and further away from their control and (b) deepening poverty and widening inequalities that fuel competition for limited resources, and that push people into finding new ways of coping; one coping mechanism being identity politics.

We are concerned at the diminishing space available for secular voices striving to be heard in Muslim contexts; that secular space has completely disappeared in some places.

Daily we are confronted with the way in which concepts of "Muslimness" are constructed, legitimised and imposed. Much of the dynamic involved in the construction of "Muslimness" is generated from within Muslim societies themselves - albeit with reference to the threat of external forces. One consequence for women and activists who work either across imposed boundaries or outside the framework of religion, is being accused of betraying our community, ethnic group, country or religion.

But, "Muslimness" is also built through images and through social/political forces operating from outside Muslim societies, including from unexpected quarters and sometimes inadvertently.

Development agencies strengthen and legitimize a conservative construction of Muslimness by financing schools, hospitals, and social services run by the religious right while ignoring the conditionalities imposed: the pressure for the men to attend mosques, for women to cover themselves, the end of coeducational schooling, the banning of girls from sciences, sports and arts, educational programmes that promote a hatred of others and forcibly impose a particular brand of religion on all. The pressure from international financial institutions to privatise state services also gives such groups greater scope to intervene.

Media, pivotal in forging and legitimising identities, presents a major challenge. Not only are conservative politico-religious groups far more effective in using the new information & communication technology than progressive forces, media buys into the false dichotomy posited by self-proclaimed politico-religious groups too easily. There is enough Islam-bashing and stereotyping of all Muslims as inherently fanatic fundamentalists or terrorists in mainstream media to put on the defensive all those, including migrants, struggling for human rights and against fundamentalism. The stereotyping only alienates progressives forces and can lead to a silencing of other voices and constructions of Muslimness.

Even well meaning media too often construct Muslims - or those so labelled Muslim - as ‘the other’, treating this group as radically different from other people engaged in similar struggles against fascism and patriarchy. Because women's human rights activists so blatantly challenge the stereotypes promoted about Muslim women, media people react much like fundamentalists do: they worry about our legitimacy, doubt our analysis, question our premises and challenge our conclusions. We are presumed to be “westernized”, not authentic enough, not really "Muslim". Meanwhile, fundamentalists who fit into the stereotype of “otherness” can be heard loud and clear.

Let me ask you who you saw when I reached this podium: a Muslim or an Asian, more specifically a South Asian? Would I have appeared more Muslim if I was like this? (takes the duppatta and wears it) But South Asians would see a traditional Punjabi woman who could be a Sikh, a Hindu, and yes, also a Muslim. But at home if – in addition to my national dress - I take a scarf (puts on a separate scarf), this is badge of my belonging to a new identity that is not traditional at all. [Certainly I feel I have more in common with other South Asians than with other cultures and geographic locations. But I have many identities and I want to keep them all.]

Let me conclude by repeating that we need to reject - as loudly, as consistently and as energetically as possible - the false dichotomous choices being forwarded of “either you’re with us or against us” whether is it by groups called fundamentalists, or by Mr. Bush – or indeed any others. [Monocultures, ecologists warn us, are not only doomed to failure, they destroy their entire environment. We need to control the tendency towards any form of hegemony be it economic, military, religious or cultural.]

Let us not allow our ideas, our music, our poetry, our dances or our dreams to be boxed into the false equations of Asians vs. Muslims, Islam vs. Christianity or Hinduism vs. Islam; or of a civilizing and democratizing US-led west vs. the autocratic misogynistic Muslims, or anyone’s definition of good and evil. These constructs do not serve the women’s movement. They only serve to divide us and to detract attention from the real issues at hand.

Five years ago our dear friend, Yayori Matsui, said the only answer to globalisation is the globalisation of solidarity. Surely solidarity is what this meeting is about. So in her memory, that of Kim Soong Dok, my friend Salma Sobhan and all those who are no longer with us, let us pledge solidarity in all our colourful diversities and differences; let us collectively dream up another world as the first step to changing the present, and commit ourselves to make it happen ‘another world. A world that is not yours or mine but truly ours.

Thank You

Note: The text within brackets - [ ] was not read due to shortage of time.