Advocacy groups, Government officials and individuals from across Nepal gathered on the morning of March 8th at Bhrikuti Mandap, Exhibition Road, to march together to Ratna Park at the City Centre in recognition of International Women’s Day. The theme for this year is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality, reflecting the Sustainable Development Goals which address gender equality issues, specifically in education and health.
Reflecting on positionality /self-locating
As some of my CAPI peers have written, the question of privilege and it’s complex intricacies come up often when traveling to a new place. Even before we left, our pre-departure contained numerous readings and conversations on the topic. Situated biography, positionality, and self location are all terms used to describe a process of understanding how a person occupies a place in relation to other people and groups of people. This process posits that every person’s experience in the world is influenced by identifiers such as race, sexual orientation, gender, class socio-economic status, physical and mental ability, age, language and other factors, and that these identifiers create positions for people to exist in, and relate to each other from. The term privilege is often used in relation to positionality and highlights the ways that some people benefit in ways that others do not.
The focus of ARROW is to further women’s access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). Privilege and positionality plays into this when we look at the different ways in which women enjoy their access to SRHR. My own privilege and position in the world have often led me to seek clarification from someone discussing their experience, because it is unrelatable to me.
A recent example of this came from conversation that I was having with one of ARROW’s partners. Casually she mentioned that one of the barriers for her work was communicating with women, because of the ‘cellphone problem’. At first, I assumed that she was referring to problems with a lack of services or economic means to afford cell phone services. It was later, when she again referred to this problem, specifically in relation to speaking with women, that I was compelled to ask what exactly the cell phone problem was.
She explained to me that although many women have cell phones, in her experience the use was highly regulated by their husbands in the contexts and communities she was working with. This provides barriers for ARROW’s partner organization, because many of the women they work with were unable to consent to meetings or answer calls or messages, without approval from their male counterparts. This regional context for women was something that I had trouble to relating to in my Canadian contextual experience.
I thought of my own experiences of being a woman in Canada, and how they led me to identify as a feminist, and work for a women’s rights organization. I also wondered about the experiences that led my colleagues at ARROW, who come from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Fiji, Nepal, India, and The Philippines to identify as such and work for women’s rights.
I asked one colleague what influenced her to work for women’s SRHR, her story follows.
“In 2005 I went to Indonesia to attend a short course at the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta. The program was an annual scholarship provided by Ford Foundation. This was where I met Fatimah, a Tsunami and civil conflict survivor from Aceh. Somewhere in the middle of the course, participants from around the Asian region were made to give a report on the gender situation of their home country. Fatimah didn’t speak English, and had requested for me to translate her presentation to English from Indonesian. Nothing prepared me for what I thought was a simple assignment to help a course mate. Fatimah recounted the days after Tsunami, how pregnant women’s needs were ignored, women who have lost their husbands were not given a food ration card so some were forced to perform sexual acts to be able to feed their families. Rape was still a rather complex situation to report, because the perpetrators were the authorities, and the rape survivors were not able to confide in medical professionals in fear of confidentiality being broken – which happened all the time, because they were in resource poor settings. She held my hand and I could feel it tremor as she spoke. There was not a dry eye in the audience, and I had to choke back my tears to be able to continue helping her translate what she had to say. After her presentation ended, I had to step outside the lecture room from the intensity of the whole experience. Fatimah came outside, hugged me and she said “Thank you for helping me. You were my voice”.
The story from my colleague, and experience of Fatimah, is one of many stories of women’s rights being violated. I realized that each of us at ARROW, and women everywhere, have had very different experiences, but that within these varied experiences, there is also a sense of camaraderie with women everywhere within the movement for equal rights.
Working at ARROW opened my eyes to the realities of women in many countries and contexts. I was often flooded with emotion after hearing stories, even without being able to relate to, or even fathom them. One such story was from Malaysian gender activist and International Development consultant, Nabila Nasir. As promised in my last blog, here I have asked Nabila some questions regarding FGM.
Can you please describe your experiences with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
I experienced type 2 FGM, which is the removal of the clitorial hood at the age of 4, when my grandparents brought me to see a traditional birth attendant. It is one of my most vivid and painful childhood experiences that I carry with me until today. I didn’t know what I had gone through until I attended a short course on Islam, Gender and SRHR at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Talking about the issue with my own mother and grandmother is a very difficult conversation I continue to have as they still believe that it is part of the Quran and Islamic teachings.
Can you speak to FGM in the South East Asian context? And in relation to Africa?
In South-East Asia, there is an insistence to call it “female circumcision” to water down the effects of the practice. This is because only Type 1, 2 and 4 of FGM as per WHO’s classification is practiced, and it’s a much newer practice as compared to Africa. Due to the lack of severity compared to the FGM in Africa, the practice is more trivialized in the Southeast Asian region. Also, in Africa, it is not confined to the Islamic community, as it is in this region. FGM is like an “open secret” that everyone knows is happening, but doesn’t talk about. Dialogue on the issue is scattered, and there is no concrete data to be analyzed and reacted to. It is not near enough to the level of conversation that is happening in African region, to start campaigning for the criminalizing the act or have it included as part of legislation.
In Indonesia, the discussion has centered around including female circumcision as part of the medical syllabus to make it more sterile and hygienic, and in Malaysia the practice has been made compulsory and legal as per the 2009 National Fatwa that was issued by the Federal Islamic Institution of Malaysia. Even though fatwas are not legally binding, but it is often taken quite seriously when it comes to policing women’s bodies and sexuality in the country. That, and there is a codified law in Malaysia preventing people from challenging fatwas and what is perceived to be an Islamic practice.
How does one navigate cultural rights, traditional rights, religious rights, and women’s rights?
Cultural and religious rights have always been used to protect the “sanctity” of FGM, but it is now becoming a public health concern. These rights do not take into consideration the issue of consent by the child, as more often than not, FGM is performed on the girl child at a very young age. There needs to be more outspoken voices within the community itself, for the campaigns to be taken more seriously. And by men of the communities too, as per in Africa.
What, if anything- do you see/suggest that non-community members do? Is there any level of awareness raising or ally-ship possible?
Speak to as many FGM survivors as possible, get testimonials of the ones that are opposing the practice and try to be neutral when conveying the issue. Try to make the issue a very human one and not too clinical either. Focus on the side effects and no health benefits of the issue. Do not disregard the cultural rights angle that the opposition always use.
Do you think that experiencing FGM has influenced your role in women’s rights activism?
Yes definitely. Having gone through the practice myself makes me understand first-hand the daily struggles and makes me more compassionate and determined to raise awareness so that other girls don’t have to go through it too.
I think that my conversation with Nabila is an important one. I cannot relate to FGM, but I don’t want toignore it. In my opinion, ignoring an injustice is akin to condoning it- and FGM is not something that I want to condone. With that being said, I also think that I am not the one to speak out against FGM. As Nabila pointed out, one of the best ways for me to be an ally is to listen. Through listening, I can ensure that I don’t base my opinion on inaccuracies, and that I don’t take the space for a survivor to speak out.
Thanks for reading, and please do share, what are some other important tenets of ally-ship?
For my final blog post I have choosen to co-write an article with one of my co-workers at Asian Forum, on Human Trafficking in Nepal. We explore human trafficking in the Nepali context and offer some suggestions on how to minimize this crisis. Come, read, reflect and comment. Im interested in your feedback!