Think of the devil, they say, and the devil appears. Just when Ram Sena earned the obloquy of ‘Mangalore’s Taliban’, the Taliban fighters actually appeared on the centre stage of our television screens and global geo-politics. This time, they came with a peace deal which instead of providing relief has sent jitters across the world. Peace in exchange of Sharia, as interpreted and imposed by Taliban, sounds like a no-win bargain. Though the Taliban has always attracted attention from the international community, their signature-style barbaric treatment of women has somehow not received the share of alarm and response it deserves. The world is witness to how women under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan became mere war booties only to be subjugated and exploited under draconian laws. Though Taliban’s ‘gender apartheid’ may sadly have gained more territory in Pakistan, women in other beleaguered states of South Asia have been facing a backlash from the growing influence of fundamentalist groups in the region. It is time to do more than just gape at the horror.
The region of South Asia has shades of democracy but women’s rights have been jeopardized more or less by all. In most South Asian countries, the biggest culprit has been fundamentalist ideology, especially of the religious variety. History is replete with examples where in the wake of religious fundamentalism, women’s rights have been the first to be squashed. Religious fundamentalism, stemming from not one but many different religions, essentially emphasizes a unique and specific interpretation of a religious text. Such an ideology claims to be the only true interpretation, and thus vehemently opposes any other, especially one with plural interpretation. Religious fundamentalists often use propaganda to impose their version on other members of their religion. Yet, at the heart of all varieties of religious fundamentalism is the patriarch as the central agent of ultimate control and decision-making in the family and outside. Among all these, women are made to follow strict codes of behaviour that essentially reduce her to a slave at home yet also elevate her to the moral guardian of honour.
Taliban is the best illustration of such hard line religious bigotry. With their overt display of brute misogyny that almost places women under house arrest, Taliban has come to be seen as the flag-bearer of women’s oppression. Soon after their 1996 take-over of Afghanistan, Taliban deprived women of their identity, voice and mobility through strict edicts such as their banishment from schools, colleges and the work force. Women were prohibited from leaving their houses unless accompanied by a male relative. The burqa or chador with a small air grille by the eyes was the only permissible clothing a woman could wear. Girls and women could not be examined by male doctors, while female doctors were anyway not being allowed to work! Public flogging and execution for violation of Taliban decrees ensured most women, and men, toe their line. Taliban justifies its policing of women in the name of a pure, fundamentalist Islamic ideology. However, many religious scholars have stressed that Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia has no basis in Islam which actually allows women’s participation in public life. Apparently, the 55-member Organization of Islamic Conference refused to recognize the Taliban. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, known for their ultraconservative views, too condemned Taliban's decrees.
Other countries in South Asia too have their share of tryst with zealots. Besides several incidents of young women being stoned to death or publicly flogged for ‘crimes’ such as re-marrying, the one that became Bangladesh’s shame was the Taslima Nasreen affair. She invoked the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists with the publication of her book Lajja where she exposed the persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh as well as the oppression women face in the name of religion. They issued a fatwa against Nasreen, promising to reward anyone who got them her head! Under pressure from the fundamentalists, the Bangladeshi government issued an arrest warrant for her, citing ‘religious sentiments offended’ as the reason. She was even threatened and attacked in India by Indian Islamic groups that claimed to have been hurt by her views. Talking of India, the country has seen many Hindu right-wing groups display their fascist behaviour towards women. The attack on women in a Mangalore pub is the most recent and vivid example. Apparently, these women were attacked because they were found in the company of men, drinking alcohol and dressed in western clothes, all signs of ‘wanton women’ who deserve punishment. That they were compared to the Taliban is only an apt parallel.
Yet, outside the ambit of religious doctrines there exists a much larger cultural narrative that controls women in South Asia—patriarchy. Patriarchal violence against women is common among countries and cultures in the region. For centuries now, different customs, traditions and religious sources have been cited as reasons to create deep-rooted biases against women, along with marginalized roles and lowly identities. Despite the wave of globalization and multiculturalism that has swept the region, the grip of patriarchy has not loosened. Cultural biases against women continue to flourish across varying class, caste and ethnic groups. Simultaneously, domestic violence, rape, dowry, sexual harassment in the workplace and other forms of sexual violence are all well prevalent. In fact, these are but overt manifestations of retrograde perceptions about women. South Asia is also notorious for sex trafficking of girls and women and for human rights violations of women. The South Asia Human Rights Index 2008 finds that though Sri Lanka is the worst human rights violator in South Asia, Pakistan has the most unfavourable record for ‘violence against women’. Honour killings and rape of women at the order of the jirga (traditional courts comprising village elders) continue till this day for offences such as Zina (extramarital sex). According to the Index, between January and December 2007, at least 1,305 people including 792 women and 34 minor girls were victims of honour killings. (The Mukhtaran Mai case was just one that made it to international headlines). Even though civil rights of women may be legally guaranteed by democratic or quasi-democratic governments, the gap between the ideal and reality is clearly quite wide. Inherent cultural discrimination has managed to made inroads into the delivery of justice to women and protection of their rights.
Across the globe, women’s rights have been gained after years of political and social struggles. Various international blueprints such as the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women have been prepared to protect women from violence, ensure their right to life and liberty, and freedom from violence. Yet these treaties are easily disregarded by the State as well as fundamentalists, both invoking local customs and religion, which really are the founts of patriarchal norms. South Asia is fast emerging as the global epicentre of a backlash against women’s rights and liberties. It will be a real tragedy if millions of women across South Asia continue to lose their identities because of creeping fundamentalism. We need to check the tide before it causes havoc.
Amrita Nandy-Joshi is the Coordinator of the South Asian Women’s Network