CHIANG MAI: A virtual conference on ‘The Impact of Growing Religious Extremism on Women in Asia’ organised by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) observed, “The menace of religious extremism and intolerance has once again reared its ugly head as extremist and fundamentalist groups create dangerous fault-lines within communities in Asia.”
The panellists representing the United Nations (UN), the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), as well as leading human rights defenders, activists, and academicians from different countries further opined, “In recent times, there have been severe affronts to the wellbeing and dignity of religious minorities in many Asian countries, where violence and discrimination have been justified in the name of ‘protecting’ certain religious tenets. A strong tendency towards patriarchy is dominant in extremism, irrespective of the religion.”
The panellists elucidated examples of how women from minority groups in different Asian countries have been victims of physical violence, sexual violence, psychological abuse, abductions, forced conversions and marriages, and honour killings.
“Paradigm shifts in the meaning and performance of femininities and masculinities are key to transforming religious communities into strongholds of peace and harmony. To combat violence against women wrought by religious extremism, it is necessary to articulate and challenge the patriarchy inherent in such ideologies. Protecting and promoting the wellbeing of women will entail collaborations and partnerships of governments, civil society organisations, and faith communities,” affirmed the expert group of panellists at the eighth virtual conference.
The virtual conference, held on 15 December 2020, was organised as part of a series of webinars hosted by the CCA in light of the emerging issues and challenges in the Asia region and also in keeping with the CCA’s ongoing commitment to protecting the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable in society.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, was the moderator of the webinar.
“The increasing inclinations towards religious extremism and violence in the Asian context is a critical issue. Although the constitutions of almost every Asian country emphasise the equality of men and women, there exists a great chasm between theory and practice. The relationships between men and women within communities are governed not by laws but by systematic subordination, all-pervasive patriarchy, and economic disparities. The rise of extremist movements is creating dangerous fault-lines within communities, with terrible implications for women,” said the CCA General Secretary in his opening address, wherein he outlined the necessity and urgency of the proposed theme. Dr Mathews George also added that extremism was not a feature inherent to any particular religion itself, but could be seen in all religions where certain tenets or principles were distorted or manipulated. He said that such distortions were used to justify the ill-treatment of women and that doing so only intensified intolerance and violence.
Lesli Davis, a Governance, Peace, and Security specialist from the UN Women Asia Pacific Regional Office shared insights from the research undertaken by the organisation on violent extremism.
Ms Davis said that regional trends demonstrated how extremist ideologies were often underpinned by gender stereotypes and that core values of extremist groups included “specific and rigid ideas about what it meant to be a man or woman, and how this masculinity or femininity was to be exercised.” She also said that extremist leaders exhibited a proclivity to patriarchy, maintaining the male-dominated status quo in society, and curtailing women’s rights in the process.
Ms Davis reported that extremists used stereotypical gender roles to recruit men and women who were ‘threatened’ by the norms of equality in the larger society. Restrictions on the movement, appearance, and reproductive rights of women were imposed by men who claimed to take on the roles of ‘protectors’ and ‘enforcers’. The second trend observed in the region was the close linkages between misogyny, the fear or hatred of women, and extremism and violence. Qualitative research had shown that those who espoused sexist attitudes were most likely to support violence as well. This bore worrying implications, as the third trend showed a recent spike in the volume of, and interest in, online misogynistic content, especially among young men.
The UN Women official further stated, “Women’s empowerment itself is a preventive factor against extremism; when societies are more gender-equal, they are more peaceful.” She noted that although women were influential drivers of change in their own communities, they needed support, platforms, solidarity, and advocacy to push back on the threat to their rights.
She called for initiatives to harness the potential of the youth—empowering young women in religious congregations to lead and set the agenda and engaging young male champions to embody positive masculinity and end violence. “Give men alternate ways to express their identity and power; help them make the transition from hegemonic masculinity to positive masculinity via advocacy and role modelling,” she concluded.
Basil Fernando, a prominent Asian human rights defender and Director of the AHRC spoke of the need to “transform the articulation of the law into the implementation of the law.”
He observed, “Law without law enforcement capacities is even more damaging to the wellbeing of women,” and pointed out the differences in the human rights narratives of developed and developing countries, calling for stronger institutions and protections.
“Religion is about love, compassion, and embracing the other. Violence, the antithesis of religion, is perpetrated under its pretext,” he explained, adding that the causes of this violence included territorial expansions, petty political advantages, or unfair competition.
Mr Fernando further stated, “True empowerment is in deeds, not in words. Empowerment implies fighting against practical obstacles—it means training volunteers on the ground, helping women victims, reporting, and monitoring of courts, police, and prosecutors. Therein lay the difference between surface activism and in-depth activism,” he said.
The prominent Asian human rights defender also called the attention of the participants to the manner in which communication networks and the media, the fourth pillar of democracy, were being misused for nefarious purposes. He said that the mainstream media had deprived genuine voices and had “infiltrated our homes,” inundating people with news and ideas that diverted attention from critical issues. “Use communication networks to talk about actual problems, about what really happens when you go to protect your rights. Only then can public opinion be influenced,” Mr Fernando told the participants.
Prof. Dr Sarasu Esther Thomas, the Registrar of the National Law School University in India, said it was vital to remember that women were first and foremost oppressed by their own communities.
She spoke of the oppression of women under Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and shared five major stereotypes that impacted women in India. These included—the assumption that women were “tricked” into converting into a minority faith and the subsequent denial of their agency; that minority men “lured” majority women into marriages to convert them; that the values of the majority were being threatened and needed to be protected at all costs; that women from marginalised groups obscured and lied about heinous crimes against them; and that minority women needed to be protected from the men in their own communities.
Dr Thomas also observed that the current pandemic context had increased the vulnerabilities and repercussions faced by women in India. She said that there was a visible increase in the number of child marriages being reported as well as a rise in the number of forced or arranged marriages along with the prevention of genuine and consensual marriages. “Given the falling sex ratios in the country, women are being treated as ‘scarce’ commodities in some communities. They are being policed to ensure they do not ‘defect’ to other communities in the form of marriage,” said the eminent academician and family law expert from India.
When sharing her suggestions for the way ahead, Dr Thomas said that there was danger in resorting to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. She emphasised that any form of redress had to be designed keeping in mind the intersectionalities and identities of women from different communities. She also called upon all to foster a “human rights culture” that was founded on education, awareness, and reform.
Asiya Nasir, a former Member of Parliament in Pakistan and currently the Chairperson of the Pakistan Christian Forum, spoke of the worrisome status of women in her country. She highlighted the contradictions inherent in the Constitution itself—while on the one hand, it claimed men and women were equal before the law, it, on the other hand, said that only a Muslim man could be the Prime Minister/President/or hold other key positions. Thus, she asked, how equality could be guaranteed when discrimination was enshrined in the Constitution.
The seasoned politician and human rights activist lamented the loopholes in the implementation of protection mechanisms. Although mandated by the highest court in the land, they were often poorly executed. She said that minority women, especially Christian women, suffered discrimination both externally and within their own communities. “Women are considered soft and easy targets; often subject to forced conversions and forced marriages. As perpetrators enjoy impunity under the law, they get away with victimising minor girls under the age of 15,” she reported.
Ms Nasir highlighted the reluctance of different Christian congregations within the country to come to a common consensus and to ensure the legal protection of their women. “Our religious leaders must come forward and fulfil their responsibilities in responding to the pressing needs of the women in their congregation. It is critical for churches to affirm the dignity of all women and also to ensure the protection of the youngest in our midst,” she said. She also called upon the UN to take affirmative action and review their policies, especially those pertaining to the forced conversion and marriage of women.
Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah, the Country Director of the Asian Muslim Action Network in Indonesia, said that growing intolerance provided “fertile ground for extremism” with grave consequences for harmony if not immediately addressed. She said that false notions of superiority and disagreements over differences shrunk the space for exchange learning and prevented beneficial dialogue.
“The belief in the exclusivity of one’s own ‘truth’, coupled with the misogynistic interpretation of the role of women and demeaning propaganda against women’s rights and feminism hinders efforts to tackle gender-based violence, prevents the public participation of women, and undermines the dignity of women in every manner possible,” was how this writer and human rights champion emphatically put it. She called for a shift in the perception of extremism to understand why people were drawn to such discriminatory ideologies.
From the interfaith perspective, Ms Kholifah shared examples of empowerment within the Indonesian Shia Muslim community. “Compared to other faith minorities, the Shia community has low rates of women leadership and also low literacy. This was addressed at the very grassroots through programmes aimed at teaching women to read, write, and understand their situation and rights, by showing them the importance of not easily signing documents that could be detrimental to their wellbeing and by facilitating their employment,” she explained.
Amirah Ali Lidasan, a Moro leader and General Secretary of the Moro Christian People’s Alliance and spokesperson for Suara Bangsamoro, explained the causes and consequences of the resurgence of extremism in the Mindanao region in Southern Philippines. She said that inconsistencies in the interpretations of Islam led to certain strands of extremism. She also explained the power of the community, saying that the majority in the Muslim community did not recognise such extremist views but valued a harmonious history of coexistence with other faith communities in the region.
The spirited activist also highlighted the damage wrought by the combative and unwarranted military heavy-handedness of the government. Although the country was a signatory to various agreements and charters that affirmed all human rights, the defensive actions of the government against its own citizens had caused further polarisation and divides in society, with women being caught in the crossfire.
Nandita Biswas, the Youth Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh, shared the daily reality of discrimination faced by the women in her country. She said that although the government had adopted a variety of initiatives and had passed significant legislation to address violence against women and girls, the socio-cultural milieu in the country was still acutely shaped by the doctrines of the majority religion. As a result, she reported that there were significant gaps in enforcement, coordination, and awareness.
The young women’s rights activist also shared the social pressure on women that led to underreporting of instances of violence. The politicisation of religion and the ‘religionisation’ of politics had undermined all efforts to protect the interests and wellbeing of women. The imposition of a slew of religious practices was aimed at curtailing the autonomy of women and aggravated intolerance among communities.
A liaison member of the Christian Personal Law Amendment committee on the Bangladesh Law Commission, Ms Biswas stressed the need for increased attention to the education and social uplift of Bangladeshi women. “Laws alone cannot communicate ethics and norms, or erase the prevailing misogynistic social order. Collaborations among the government, religious organisations, women’s groups, and other movements are critical to challenge existing beliefs and behaviours and to reinforce the equality and inherent worth of all women,” she said.
In his closing remarks, Dr Mathews George Chunakara said that the webinar offered key insights into the overlapping complexities faced by Asian women in their daily lives. He emphasised the need for developing a human rights culture in addressing the issues related to growing religious extremism and violence against women and affirmed the need for stronger linkages and networks to ameliorate the plight of women in the region. “The CCA will continue to engage its constituencies in addressing gross violations of the rights of women and combat growing religious hatred and intolerance,” the CCA General Secretary concluded.
The Reports of the CCA’s previous webinars on COVID-19 issues: