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Politics of hate robbing women of their 'hard-won' rights

Dec 24, 2008

Identity politics and conservative state regulations have led to assertion of radical ideologies across the world like never before, writes journalist Ati Nurbaiti. Activists and researchers came together in Bali last month to address among other things the effects of extremist views on women's rights.

A few weeks before the Mumbai bombings shocked the world, a village family in India confronted their own unspeakable grief.

A school boy had been kidnapped, thrashed and thrown under a speeding train by a mob, as his mother's cries for mercy were ignored. His sin: writing a love letter to a girl of a lower caste.

The report from the poor eastern state of Bihar, India, said the family of 15-year-old Manish Kumar was of a dairy farmers' caste, while the girl's family was of the slightly lower caste of a washer man community.

The day after the report was released, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to his countrymen and women to leave group identities behind, following a spate of communal violence pitting religious groups, migrants and groups of different castes.

"Competitive politics must not be allowed to divide our people on the basis of religion, caste or region," Singh said, likely unaware of Kumar's death. "Stop identifying yourselves in terms of how the past has shaped you."

It was clearly a belated attempt to keep the peace - as the recent bombings showed.

Fomenting hatred

Regardless of whether the perpetrators of the Mumbai violence were homegrown or came from "neighbouring countries," as Singh accused, scholars contend it is the "politics of identities" which has wrought havoc and led to unnecessary victims everywhere.

India's nationalist Hindu party has also been blamed for creating "politics of hate," pitting Indians against each other based on religious affinity.

It is such issues which have brought women activists together, no less because women themselves or their loved ones, like the young Romeo of Bihar, have become victims.

Regulating how women should behave and what they wear becomes a critical part of molding identities

Activists and scholars, mainly from across Asia, were in Bali last month at the Kartini Asia Network Conference held from November 2-5, 2008 to discuss various issues affecting their lives, but mainly the effects of recent trends of "fundamentalism".

This term refers to excesses of extremism stemming from various faiths, and from the need of communities to establish identities based on race, ethnicity, faith, caste or other. They (unwittingly) have one thing in common: picking on women.

Because women's conduct and demeanour strongly symbolise a society's morals, regulating how women should behave and what they wear becomes a critical part of molding identities, the activists and researchers say.

The US-led war between "us and them" added fuel to aspirations of a more clear identity versus the "West, Christian, rich, anti-Islam" part of the world.

Prior to the war on terror, as experts on radicalism say, anxieties in the face of rapid globalisation and a perceived soulless materialistic world also contributed to this molding and reassertion of a distinct identity.

September 11 was a crucial trigger, but activists say they have fought the "politics of hate" for a long time.

The women say the war on terror, coupled with the need to strongly identify with one's roots to overcome anxieties amid rapid globalisation - perceived to be dominated by rich Western countries - has robbed women of their "hard-won rights," reinforcing the "battles over women's bodies," writes researcher Madhu Mehra.

And this is what women activists are watching out for: Similar attempts across countries, aimed at reversing achievements in state policy on the protection of human rights and recognition of gender equality.

The best protection of women in society is in maintaining "many voices" in democratic space

Instead, state condoned regulations are cropping up on morality and conduct, particularly affecting women. These are signs of conservatism which are "traveling with the speed of light" from one country to another, says Turkish activist Pinar Ilkkaracan.

Personal is political

While critics are blaming political Islam, "political expediency" is a better explanation, activists say, as politicians and leaders stand by - while regulations are passed - rules on various private spheres of life which appeal to voters.

Just like the pornography law which President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed this month (to the despair of many), such regulations are attractive as they claim to be passed for the sake of the "protection of women".

But activists only see such laws as a "similar tactic" to moves that have been made in the past in their own countries and elsewhere.

In attempts to affirm group identities, women have seen the same notion - where the ideal member of that community reflects its basic values, and in male-dominated societies this leads to regulations on the conduct of their women or young people. What comes next? The vigilantes, the thugs.

In Aceh province, for instance, men assaulted veiled young women in jeans, cutting their trousers with scissors - just because they regarded the women's jeans as "too tight" and "manly".

It takes a "long, loud and tiring" outcry to stop authorities and thugs from having power over morality, women's sexuality and other private affairs, Ilkkaracan says.

Lawyer Valentina Sagala, who leads the Bandung-based Women's Institute, notes how the ideology of "mother-ism" - the values of the ideal Indonesian woman - was fostered under the New Order.  "But now it's entering state policy," says Valentina.

Asian activists say the best protection of women in society is in maintaining "many voices" in democratic space, and not allowing a powerful few to decide on morality and religious affairs.

This is why women say they speak for others and for themselves when they shout about democracy and acceptance of diversity in their resistance of one major group trying to impose its ways.

Whatever you do, don't keep quiet, they say. "That which is not spoken about can also not be contested," the introduction to the Bali gathering said.

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