On the Map: One Day, One Struggle: A Campaign for Human Rights in Muslim Societies
Today over twenty organizations in eleven countries will hold "simultaneous events and public demonstrations on topics like protesting customary practices such as honor killings and FGM/C, overturning discriminatory and life threatening laws like stoning or lashing of women, and calling for LGBT rights, the right to sexuality education and the right to bodily and sexual integrity of all people." The One Day, One Struggle campaign is a joint effort organized by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), a solidarity network comprised of NGOs and academic institutions in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia that work to promote sexual and bodily rights as human rights in Muslim societies. The CSBR emerged in 2001 from the "Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East and Mediterranean Symposium" organized by Turkey's Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR), a global nongovernmental organization (NGO) interested in gaining legal reforms in Muslim societies worldwide. On the eve of the campaign initiation, I spoke to WWHR campaign coordinators Pinar Ilkkaracan and Irazca Geray, as well as Vizla Kumaresan from Malaysia's Women's Aid Organization (WAO), about the goals of the premiere advocacy event.
What is the purpose of One Day, One Struggle?
WWHR: Issues around sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights display a huge variety in different Muslim societies. For instance, so-called honor crimes continue to be a widespread violation of women's sexual and bodily rights in the Middle East, but it is almost unheard of in Southeast Asia or the Sub-Saharan Africa. And homosexuality, for instance, is punished as a criminal offence in many countries of the Middle East, but it is widely accepted in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Despite all these differences, there is a common fact shared by all participants of this campaign: the attacks on sexual and reproductive rights are escalating, which is a result of rising conservatism that is fueled by militarism, increasing inequalities, the politicization of religion, and Islamophobia in the post-9/11 context. All this has strengthened the patriarchal and extremist religious ideologies that use sexuality, especially women's sexuality, as a tool of oppression.
Our efforts to reverse this tide constitute the basis of the One Day, One Struggle campaign, which aims to make the struggles of sexual and reproductive rights advocates in Muslim societies visible at the international level.
Why is it important to have a coalition of people organizing for human rights across Muslim societies?
WWHR: Coalition building across various regions and between NGOs and academic institutions on various themes related to sexuality has been extremely useful for our struggles. We have been able to inform and update each other on how human rights violations in the domain of sexuality are being legitimized in different countries. This gives us the information and experience needed to build the necessary strategies against the misuse of religion as an instrument of control and sexual oppression in our individual contexts and regions. We have been able to support each others' work by producing and disseminating reports and publications on the legal reforms in our own countries and by holding the very first high-level, international meetings on sexual and reproductive rights in countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, where previously sexuality had been a taboo.
The CSBR is not a coalition working for the rights of only Muslim women, it is not a religious or faith-based network, and we are not working only in Islamic countries. The coalition also does not just have Muslim members. It includes people who are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and other religious minorities from Muslim-majority countries, as they are also affected by various practices that violate human rights related to sexuality. The CSBR includes both women and men and has a very diverse membership ranging from women's human rights NGOs to LGBTQ organizations to groups that work on HIV/AIDS to academic institutions and departments.
What do you hope to achieve with this event?
WWHR: We hope to show that even if we are in different countries and even on different continents, when working on issues related to sexuality, we are united in our struggle to realize sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. The One Day, One Struggle campaign aims to raise public awareness on sexuality and sexual rights in our national contexts and to draw international public attention to issues around sexual and bodily rights in our regions. In each host country, the CSBR members are focusing on the pertinent issues within their own context.
For instance, CSBR member organizations in Tunisia are focusing on the urgent need for sexuality education, while in Indonesia they have come together to make the public, media, and health care providers aware of the fact that the practice of female circumcision is a form of violence against women. Another CSBR organization in Indonesia is trying to mobilize against the recently passed law on stoning as a punishment for adultery in Aceh. In Palestine CSBR members are holding a week-long campaign against femicide and the impact of the Apartheid Wall and house demolitions on women. In the Sudan they are coming together with public figures and Ministry of Health representatives to discuss how to work towards women's empowerment and also contribute to campaigns to end female genital mutilation. Campaign activities are also varied, ranging from conferences to artistic performances to book launches.
WAO: The Malaysian campaign to abolish Section 498 of the Penal Code involves the participation of four organisations--namely All Women's Action Society (AWAM), Empower, Sisters in Islam (SIS) and Women's Aid Organisation. We joined this campaign to draw attention to the increased "successful" attempts to control women's bodies in Malaysia, thus restricting their bodily autonomy. This campaign allows us to highlight our cause and to garner international support for it.
The Malaysian media campaign will start with a press conference to draw attention to our call to abolish Section 498: "Enticing or taking away or detaining with a criminal intent a married woman." This law is offensive and violates a woman's right to sexual and bodily autonomy. We aim to generate public discussions through the media around the issue of women's bodies, marriage, and sexuality.
What challenges have you faced organizing One Day, One Struggle?
WAO: Part of the challenge for us is the lack of understanding of how Islamophobia, which took a nasty turn post-9/11 and whose effects continue to have ramifications today, influences our work and how we understand what kinds of challenges Muslim women face. Muslim women, like non-Muslim women, face challenges on a number of fronts and discrimination occurs on multiple grounds, not all tied to one's religious identity. We know all women experience similar controls and misogyny by religious right elements within their communities.
WWHR: It's been a challenge to get the press not to interpret "Muslim societies" simply as "Islamic countries." Stereotyping of Muslim women has been a big challenge as well, but this is also why we are doing this campaign: to show that even though it is not covered as such in the Western media, there is not one single definition of what it means to be a "Muslim society." Practices and issues are very diverse and a lot of courageous work is being undertaken by the sexual and reproductive rights advocates in Muslim societies.
Logistically, it was not easy to organize this campaign in eleven countries spread across such a wide geography. Things that may seem like small details--such as time differences and the fact that all organizations have different capacities to access internet--can be very problematic. It was definitely very encouraging to create such a link across boundaries, languages, and themes.
Will this be a one-time event or do you plan to repeat it annually?
WWHR: We wish we could say this will be a one-time event that will help achieve all our aims, but obviously the likelihood of that happening is slim. Depending on the outcomes of this campaign, the CSBR will decide if and how to turn this collective effort into an annual campaign.
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