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Reclaiming Religion

Deepali Gaur Singh

The 4th Asian Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights threw open doors to the various forms of religious intimidation used to hold women down by the chains of culture, belief and honor.

Two women were burnt alive in Mayurbhanj, a tribal district in the eastern state of Orissa, by a man suspecting them of witchcraft that had caused the death of his seven-year-old daughter. This by far is not an isolated incident . Other women have lost their lives for much less.

Women have been for long used as vehicles for strengthening beliefs and practices related to religion, superstition emanating from religious beliefs or socially sanctioned values and taboos. And women in the poorest and most backward communities are the ones who invariably bare the brunt of all kinds of discrimination and violence. But this in no way means that those who are educated and better-placed in the economic strata have not borne the brunt of this either. Honor killings, which are extremely common in the Indian subcontinent and with several examples even to be found amongst the Indian diaspora settled abroad, are very often used to settle personal scores and even disputes over property.

"Fundamentalism," irrespective of the religion and where and under what circumstances it is practiced, by its very nature impinges on the health and development of women by coercively confining them to traditional moorings and culture. With this as the underlying sentiment of one of the best attended sessions of the 4th Asian Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (4thAPCRSH), the forum threw open doors to the various forms of intimidation used to hold women down by the chains of culture, belief and honor.

The methods might vary from one society to the other but the bottom-line remains the same. From the belief in ritualistic pollution by women during their menstruation (and hence they are literally debarred from any interaction within either the familial or marital home and physically confined to restricted spaces) to the absence of divorce laws in the Philippines — what this means is that access to all kinds of health needs is out of bounds for women.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The Philippines is among the one of countries in the world where divorce is not recognized, the other country being Malta. What exists is the Muslim divorce law meaning that there is no option of a legal divorce for non-Muslim women. (The only manner in which a marriage can be annulled is by proving that the marriage was a charade from the very beginning.) And because the government does not recognize divorce, every year, nearly 750,000 women undergo induced abortion in illegal clinics all over the country with many even dying of infection, hemorrhage and other complications. And with the use of contraceptives also not encouraged, the impact on their reproductive and sexual health and rights is catastrophic.

But it is the experiences of women amidst the throes of extreme beliefs and methods of adherence that makes the extent and scope of the exploitation more poignant. In the Indian context and especially due to the pluralistic social and cultural fabric of the country, the diverse religions, religious sub-groups, sects, castes and sub-castes are also the reason why women are so often the primary targets of hate crimes involving tensions between such groups especially evident during wars and riots. Wars have witnessed the most savage violence against women simply to instill fear and terrorize any opposition – a method that is time-tested and constantly in use in just about any part of the world.

Arranged marriages in Asia and wherever they are practiced are simple and direct methods of ensuring the purity/chastity of religion, castes, groups and sub-groups. In India too Hindu fundamentalists, like their counterparts across religious groups and cultures, oppose the exercising of women's choice in sexual partners because women's sexuality has to be restricted. The self-esteem of women is intentionally curtailed and men automatically become the upholders and protectors of their honor while women have very limited or no agency on such matters. And this is most clearly evidenced in violence between communities. Sexual violence is one of the most potent ways of damaging the fabric — as happened during the partition of a colonial India into India and Pakistan in 1947. The extent and nature of the violence in particular upon the women on either side remains unparalleled. While the two countries continue to talk about the POWs of the various wars they have engaged in, fishermen and farmers arrested from no-man's land are released periodically as goodwill gestures, the stories of women abducted, lost, displaced, eventually found and again rejected have remained largely undocumented.

And external conflict only leads to increased violence inside the "secure" walls of their homes and the personal liberty of women is the first to be compromised. This is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly evident in Afghan civil society as well with boys as young as fourteen being the perpetrators of violence against their older brides. Unfortunately, the 4thAPCRSH seemed to be under-represented in terms of addressing the situation in Afghanistan and especially in the context of religious fundamentalisms this was particularly evident. Afghan women in the past decade have been the victims of one of the most retrograde interpretations of the sharia laws that pushed them from hospitals, clinics and universities into the backrooms of their homes shrouded under their burqas. And so clinical and brutal was the coercion that even after the Taliban are no longer in power the burqas have stayed on as a security blanket. The civil wars prior to the advent of the Taliban were no better with the most heinous crimes committed against the women of rival groups and tribes during the struggle for acquisition for power. Today the very men who ought to be tried for war crimes – the warlords – occupy key positions in the parliament and the most prominent bill they intend to have passed is amnesty against any trial for their past war crimes. These are the men who are going to deliberate on policies on the many widowed, all war weary women and young children of Afghanistan who continue to witness a war of another kind with the continued insurgency in the country. The APCRSH would really have been an important forum to discuss the condition of these women and the region has to be more proactively engaged in the condition of the Afghan women. Afghan women at an average bear seven children in their lifetime leading a life devoted to domestic housework and child-rearing rarely exposed to arenas for employment. And one Afghan woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes with one in five children never making it to their fifth birthday.

While even the term fundamentalism needs to be changed for many by virtue of its underlying tendency to focus on fundamentalist Islam, in more recent years the important issue, as voiced by many young voices at the conference, was the need to reclaim religion from the "fundamentalists" if any real strides in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women have to be made.