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No. 3, 2001
Cover artwork is
designed by Janea
Llave of SCM
Philippines, depicting
the reality of genetic
engineering where
God’s creation are all
being manipulated
in the name of
greed and profit.
Editorial Team:
Rev. Shin Seung Min
Ms. Wong Yock Leng
Ms. Wong Yick Ching

Praxis

Issue No. 3, September–December 2001

 

Contents:

 

Editorial  •  Perspective  •  Women Space  •  Solidarity

Editorial:

Christmas is coming soon again this year, in spite of the September 11 tragic accident in the US. The reason why we celebrate Christmas is that Jesus has come to this world to proclaim true peace among us, liberating us from all kinds of sins. The central message of Jesus was to proclaim ‘reign of God’, and in the center of the proclamation of reign of God, there was the concept of peace. In the biblical tradition, justice has been always fundamental in sustaining peace. As the Psalmist proclaims “righteousness and peace kiss each other” (85:10), justice and peace is closely interrelated. Jesus also challenged the Pax Romana maintained by the injustice, the violence of military power.

God completes the peace, shalom through the reconciling death of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in Colossians “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:20), this peace includes not only human beings but also all creations. This new shalom has never been achieved by any political power whether it’s Greeks, Romans or Americans...

In this issue of Praxis, we have tried to articulate the meaning of peace, the peace among people and the peace with God’s creations (nature). Particularly, Ven. Sulak Sivaraksa’s article encourages us to open up an ecumenical dialogue between Buddhist and Christian for ecological issues. In the Solidarity, Fr. Timm’ article challenges all forms of religious fundamentalism, whether it is from Christianity or Islam, from the human rights perspective.

Finally, the Asia-Pacific office would like to send our sincere Christmas greetings to all Praxis readers.

Shin Seung Min
Regional Secretary

 

Editorial  •  Perspective  •  Women Space  •  Solidarity

Perspective:

Ecology and Sustainable Development

by Ven. Sulak Sivaraksa

The environmental crisis is evident to anyone who cares to look. There is an overwhelming amount of information detailing the disastrous impact of human activities on the biosphere. Human activities are changing the global climate. Natural resources that have taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate are being used up in a few centuries and for what purpose? Most of these resources are being used for wasteful, utterly useless ends.

One of the Buddha’s most important teachings is interdependent co-arising. Nothing is created or exists in isolation and like the Jewel Net of Indra, each individual reflects every other living being infinitely many times. Things do not exist in and of themselves; Thich Nhat Hanh says things inter-are. This is also the understanding of the science of ecology. Life is not made up of independent organisms existing in isolation, but is in fact a complex web of interactions where each organism forms part of a greater web of life. With a proper understanding of this one cannot unsustainably exploit the Earth’s natural resources or continually pollute the Earth. One would know that because things are interconnected that acting in such a way is foolish.

Humans and nature are interconnected. However, consumerism and modern, urban life cuts people off from experiencing and understanding nature. While people might be able to see wildlife from Africa on their television screens, they probably remain unaware of the wildlife in their own backyards. If people are able to better understand nature then they can live in harmony with it rather than trying to dominate and exploit it.
In recent times capitalism and consumerism have come to dominate the world. Capitalism gives value only to the accumulation of material goods and monetary profit. It promotes greed and individualism at the expense of sharing and community. People come to see their value as individuals solely in terms of the money they can earn or the products they can buy. Instead of seeking to help their neighbours, people try to get ahead of their neighbours and they will employ whatever means necessary to achieve this. The idea of development being merely focused on material progress is at odds with the Buddhist idea of development. The ever-increasing accumulation of money, material goods and power is dependent upon fostering greed and hatred. Instead the idea of development in Buddhism is overcoming the three poisons of the mind: hatred, greed and delusion. So Buddhism offers an alternative view of development. While consumerism nourishes greed and desire, Buddhism promotes the antidotes to these emotions.

I would like to give some examples of how Buddhism can promote development that is truly beneficial and sustainable. In Surin province in the northeast of Siam an abbot recalled that when he was young the people seemed happier. The villages were surrounded by jungle and elephants roamed freely. Although the people were poor they managed to produce enough food for their families and the monks. They had the four essentials of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The abbot witnessed that over the past forty years there had been constant development and construction, the jungle and the elephants had disappeared and the people were suffering. He saw that local products were going to Bangkok to be exported by multinational corporations.

He told the people that meditation must not be just for personal salvation but for the collective welfare of all. Initially people just listened out of respect. He said to the people that they need to try alternative ways and look to the old traditions that supported the community for many centuries. He used words like communal farming which were very controversial because of strong anti-communist feelings that prevailed at the time. However, when a monk who is pure in conduct spoke this way, he aroused the interest of the people. He encouraged people to farm together and share their labour. He explained that ambition and competitiveness had only bought them more suffering.

He suggested starting rice banks. Whatever was cultivated that was left over was given to the temples. The grain was then kept to give to anyone in need, free of charge. He also established a buffalo bank. The only conditions were that the buffaloes had to be treated kindly and that fifty percent of the offspring had to be returned to the bank. This abbot’s approach to development based entirely on traditional values and practices is innovative and exemplary.

The efforts of Thai monks to protect the forests are also of note. For example, Phra Prajak who took the radical action of “ordaining” trees. This challenged people to change their thinking about the value of the trees and the forest and out of respect for the sangha people refused to cut the trees down. Phra Prajak also took time to educate the villagers about the value of the forest and alternative methods of development.

Another example of the effects of material progress is Ladakh, in the north of India. Helena Norberg-Hodge, an Englishwoman, lived with the Ladakhi people for more than twenty years. When she first went to Ladakh in the 1970s the people there had had little contact with the outside world. They were poor but they were self-sufficient and the people were happy. When the Indian government built roads up there, tourists began to arrive, and Ladakhis tried to imitate their ways of life. Whereas previously the people had been content with their way of life, they began to see themselves as poor.

Helena Norberg-Hodge wrote a play about some Ladakhis who went to New York and then returned to Ladakh. When they returned people asked what it was like, and they reply that in New York the poor people want to dress fashionably. They eat white bread like the Indians sell to the Ladakhis. But the rich people like to eat natural foods like our forefathers did. They wear cotton clothes, buying a lot of it from this part of the world.

This demonstrates that development is a two-way street. The educated, more enlightened people in the West are beginning to realise that development is not purely material; they reject many of the things promoted by the consumer culture. They feel respect for nature. These things can be found in the traditional culture of countries like Siam, but many people have been brainwashed by advertising. The most important thing is for us to help people get back in touch with their roots.

The mainstream education system encourages cleverness but it does not teach people to think holistically. It promotes monocultures of the mind and indoctrinates people with the values of consumerism. There is a real need to encourage and promote alternative forms of education. Education that develops the mind and the heart and is holistic rather than compartmentalised. I would like to talk about the work of the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) in Siam and how it seeks to counter the culture of consumerism and instead educate people to be compassionate, productive members of society.

The Children’s Village School in Siam is an alternative education community for children who have been orphaned or come from very poor families, some of which are abusive. The founders of the school believe that each child can thrive and blossom when given enough love, attention, freedom, and the assurance that their basic needs will be met. Instead of a narrow focus on intellectual reason and skills for employment, alternative education engages the whole child, including will, heart and mind. The capacity for intellectual reason is only meaningful within the context of understanding and compassion for one’s community and the environment. The children at the school learn about self-government and environmental education through hands-on activities. The self-government system allows them to settle their own disputes, to propose, amend or annul rules and to decide on everyday matters of living together. Through natural and organic farming they learn about the balance of nature independent of any attempts to control and mismanage nature. The teachers at the Children’s Village School live, work and play with the students in a cooperative environment.

Another activity of SEM is the Grassroots Leadership Training (GLT) courses. These courses aim to empower communities to be self-reliant, to maintain their cultural integrity and protect their environment. They aim to give community leaders from marginalised communities the skills and knowledge to help their communities resist the negative effects of globalisation. Few of these community leaders would otherwise have the opportunity to obtain a higher education. The GLT courses offer appropriate in-depth education, with substantial follow up and community support.

The top-down model of development is a form of violence. It destroys both the environment and the community. It is only really interested in maximising economic growth and it externalises social and environmental costs. In no way is it sustainable. Instead it is necessary to promote a bottom-up model of development. Such a model of development is nonviolent and promotes harmony, both socially and environmentally. Working at the grassroots and local level communities can be empowered to find appropriate forms of development and resist the impacts of consumerism and globalisation. Education is a very important part of this process. We need people who can think in alternative ways to the Western paradigm and also have confidence in their own traditions.

We need a vision for the future that is spiritual and ecological, not just economic. If we can develop in this way the future will be bright.

(This article was first presented in the WSCF/CCA joint program, SELF, in Chiangmai 2001. Sulak was the resource person for the module on Ecology.)

 

Editorial  •  Perspective  •  Women Space  •  Solidarity

Women Space:

Ecofeminism

by Trudi Bennett
Australia SCM

Ecofeminism is a weaving of feminism and ecology. It holds that both women and nature are oppressed in our society and that the two are linked. Ecofeminism grew out of a Western framework during the early 70’s, as Western women were Ecofeminists becoming disillusioned with the ideologies of the day.[1]

“Feminists are interested in why women are treated as inferior to men and why they have only been partially included in the sphere of culture. Environmentalists are interested in why nature is treated as inferior to culture and why humanity has not commonly been included within the definitions of nature.”[2] (Maria Iriart, 1997)

Ecofeminism is a movement which seeks to construct new practices based on non-domination. A famous ecofeminist, Warren, explains the western hierarchy as organised in value dualisms. For example, culture/nature, reason/emotion, man/woman, mind/body, human/animal, matter/spirit, action/theory. Western history has seen these dualisms as opposing and where one is inferior to the other. In the history of the West—culture, reason, man, mind, human, matter and action have been seen as superior and therefore the West, and many other parts of the world have become a society of domination and oppression.

Part of the Judeo-Christian culture has been a desire for dominion and control over the universe. During the enlightenment period, science allowed men to recover some of this lost dominion over nature.[2] Things were there to be conquered, mountains, the great depths of the sea, and space. Conquer in this sense is to explore that which is unknown to see how humanity may control it.

This desire for control and domination has led to environmental degradation and the oppression of women. Famous Indian ecofeminist, Vandana Shiva explains it in the following way:

“The Age of Enlightenment, and the theory of progress to which it gave rise, was centred on the sacredness of two categories: modern scientific knowledge and economic development. Somewhere along the way, the unbridled pursuit of progress, guided by science and development, began to destroy life without any assessment of how fast or how much of the diversity of life on this planet is disappearing. Throughout the world... a new awareness is growing that is questioning the sanctity of science and development and revealing that these are not universal categories of progress, but the special projects of modern Western patriarchy... [In India] the everyday struggles of women for the protection of nature take place in the cognitive and ethical context... of an ancient India world-view in which nature is ‘Prakriti’, a living and creative process, the feminine principle from which all life arises.”[3]

‘Nature’ is seen as a feminine image with two sides, either the wild, mysterious spirit, temptress that men desire to tame or the mother, nurturer who is respected and revered therefore constraining abuse. Women are seen as closer to nature because of their physiological processes of reproduction, nurturing, childbearing. This automatically places women with nature—beneath men.[2]

Women are half the world’s people, they do two-thirds the world’s working hours, yet receive one tenth of the world’s income and own only one hundredth of the world’s property.[4] No wonder women do not hold much power. Even decisions such as family planning are made by men in many parts of the world, and this is especially the case where contraception is not readily accessible to women. Handing this control over to women would help lower the population rate and therefore limit many effects this has on the environment.[5]

Over-consumption and production also have huge effects on the environment, tiring resources and destroying natural habitat. Francoise d’Eaubonne suggests that women, as procreators have a deeper concern for future generations than men and therefore would minimise consumption. A story from an Australian indigenous woman, Magdalene Williams reflects this in the story “Enough for their families”.

“Women were also very important in food gathering and they made digging sticks for getting to the roots of plants and to help them in their walks around in the bush or to defend themselves from wild animals. They sometimes used the sticks to dig for snakes that had hidden themselves underground in holes or for lizards that buried themselves like this too. The people were very careful not to waste food and no matter whether it was caught in the stone traps or in the bush, they only collected enough for that day and they would come home to their camp and cook it all up in a great big fire.”[6]

Ecofeminism also has a spiritual element. “All spirituality was originally earth-based and centred on a oneness with nature.”[1] Many ecofeminists relate best with spiritual movements such as Wicca, Shamanism and New Age. These ecofeminists see organisational religions that are based on monotheism (a single, male God) as contrary to the ecofeminist philosophy that sacredness is interwoven through all of life.[7]

During the Calvinist Reformation, ‘nature was totally depraved’ of the divine.

“Populist Calvinism was notable for its iconoclastic hostility toward visual art. Stained glass, statues and carvings were smashed, and the churches stripped of all visual imagery. Only the disembodied word, descending from the preacher to the ear of the listener, together with music, could be bearers of divine presence.”[7]

Up until recently the Church has seen acts of revering the divine in nature as pagan and throughout our history many women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft. However, one of the first experiences of the divine that people encounter is one of awe at God’s creation.

Can we weave ecofeminism with Christianity? Is it possible? There are Christian ecofeminist theologians that strongly support that we can. Heather Eaton suggests that religious ecofeminists believe that the earth is sacred and desire to heal the wounds caused by the splits in our dualistic society. “Many Biblical texts are ‘androcentric’ as well as ‘anthropocentric’, meaning that the Earth is quasi-absent as the drama of human (male) life takes centre stage.”[8]Christian ecofeminists explore different ways to interpret the scriptures highlighting the involvement of both nature and women.

Both religious feminists and ecofeminists have drawn attention to the imaging and naming of the divine and sacred. In the following paragraphs we’ll look at two words used in the scriptures that have previously had human, male images attached to them—’righteousness’ and ‘kingdom’.

Michael Crosby notes that ‘righteousness’ in its broadest sense implies the ‘right ordering of the universe’.[9] Using this translation an ecofeminist reading of scriptures sees God’s dream for the Earth including a restored humanity and a restored world. An example of the link between the two can be seen in Isaiah 35: 5-7, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water...” Jesus Christ is continuing the work of reordering creation through a reordered religious and economic base, here there are overtones of an ongoing ‘Jubilee’.[9]

Ecofeminists view hierarchy, especially monarchy, as damaging to both women and nature. Hierarchy encourages the domination of men over women and humans over nature. This power can be used to oppress those on the bottom of the rung. Jesus talks about God’s ‘kingdom’ or realm as liberating those who are oppressed. Yet is the word ‘kingdom’ sufficient to explain God’s relationship to us? Ecofeminist theologians, Elizabeth Johnson and Elaine Wainwright, suggest that the word ‘Kingdom’ may explain the relationship with more truth.

“If separation is not the ideal but connection is; if dualism is not the ideal but the relational embrace of diversity is; if hierarchy is not the ideal but mutuality is; then the kinship model more closely approximates reality.”[9]

This kinship can also be extended to the earth or more accurately the earth to humanity. In Genesis 2, humans are formed from the ground; we are ground’s kin.[10]

Perhaps with the ongoing work of Christian ecofeminism, nature will be given back her sacredness and Mother Earth will be respected; and women around the Earth will be brought into the kinship of God and be valued and respected in our societies.

Bibliography
  1. Eve Online: Ecofeminist visions emerging. www.eve.enviroweb.org
  2. Maria Soledad Iriart. “In the shadow of enlightenment: from Mother Earth to Fatherland”. www.ecofem.org/journal, 1997.
  3. Vandana Shiva. Staying Alive, 1989.
  4. “Women – the facts”. New Internationalist, July 1980.
  5. Francoise d’Eaubonne. “What could an ecofeminist society be?”. www.ecofem.org/journal, 1990.
  6. Magdalene Williams. Ngay janijirr ngank: This is my word. Magabala Books, Broome, 1999.
  7. Rosemary Radford Reuther.”Ecofeminism”. http//www.spunk.org/library/pubs/openeye/sp000943.txt
  8. Heather Eaton. “Ecofeminist contributions to an ecojustice hermeneutics”. The Earth Bible, vol 1, Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, Sheffield, 2000.
  9. Elaine M. Wainwright. “A transformative struggle toward the divine dream: and ecofeminist reading of Mathew 11”. The Earth Bible, vol 1, Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, Sheffield, 2000.
  10. Shirley Wurst. “‘Beloved, Come back to me’: Ground’s theme song in Genesis 3?”. The Earth Bible, vol 2, Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, Sheffield, 2000.

 

Women Space:

Reflections

A Reflection by Kerensa McElroy, Australia SCM

My parents brought me up to believe I could achieve anything. I took it for granted I would go to University, they took it for granted that I would study either Science or Engineering. Thus I guess it was assumed that I would earn my own living and have a career—things which 50 years ago in Australia would have been considered only options for men. At the same time, however, I was raised to be a domestic success—my mother taught me to cook, clean, sew, garden, and yes, to want a family. I think this exemplifies the situation of many young Australian woman—we’ve been privileged enough to have an excellent education, have had a taste of career success, but still find child rearing and homemaking ingrained in our nature. Unfortunately, we can’t be Superwomyn and do everything. My childhood and teenage years were spent in rural Australia, living in towns ranging in size from 100 to 3000 citizens. Sexism in the country is prevalent; I remember my high school maths teacher advising me not to take advanced maths, because I would be the only womyn in the class. In religious education I was taught that I must marry a Christian man and let him be the leader of my life. A large number of the girls in my year left school at the end of year ten to work in the local supermarket or saw mill. Quite a few of them are now married, and will probably never leave Kyogle. In my late teenage years I became involved with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This is now my spiritual home and the community in which I worship. Quakers believe in ‘that of God’ in everyone, and as such have recognised womyn and men as equals for the past 350 years. Many churches in Australia have been struggling with the issues of ordination of Womyn—as Quakers doesn’t have formal ministers or priests, thus this is a question we don’t even need to ask. Gender is rarely an issue, however there are some ways in which mainstream denominations may be a step ahead; for example, the use of gender inclusive language. The Uniting Church in Australia has rewritten both its prayer and hymn books to include womyn in the religious experience; however it is still common to be expected to read ‘man’ as a synonym for all people in historical Quaker literature. Perhaps because Quakers have not had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards the acceptance of Womyn, we have failed to recognise that our practices could sometimes fall short. Despite my troubles in high school, I went on to University and after several years studying music I am now enrolled in a Bsci/BEng degree. Womyn are well represented at University—to an extent that is easy to forget sexism still exists. In fact, this is one of the problems I face as a womyn in my society. There seems to be great apathy among Womyn towards feminism, sometimes even outright hostility, many Womyn seem to think all the battles have been won, whilst others claim the sole point of feminism is hatred for Men. If this is so, then why do we still earn less than men for the same kind of work? Why are there only 8 womyn in fourth year engineering (out of hundreds of students)? Why have nearly all my tutors been female and all but one of my lecturers been men?

A Reflection by Vanda Lengkong, SCM Indonesia

I was born in a small village in North Suleiwesi and grew up in a small but great family—I have very understanding parents and siblings who really support what I am doing now. One of my most unforgettable events in my own journey as a woman is a struggle I have to face in my late teenage years. My father did not allow me to continue my studies after graduating from High School. At that time, I really wanted to further my studies as I have the ambition to go into University. However, my father was very much influenced by my society and culture’s patriarchal ideology that young women do not necessary need to attend University as all previous years of education in junior or high school is sufficient for them because at the end, women would be just working in the kitchen (according to my father, a domestic area of responsibility). Hence I worked very hard in my studies to prove to my father that women and men could attend University if they work hard, and that both women and men are the same, a creation of God, they have equal rights to live and learn. With the support of my mother and my hard work, my father finally realised my struggles. I would just like to say that the creation of women was a blessing from the Almighty Creator. Women should be proud of this creation and be actively participating in all forms of life systems such as education, social, politics, economy and so on. The identity of women will be recognised if women ourselves are not shy to demonstrate all kinds of creativity and skills we possess. Some of the women’s issues in Indonesia that I would like to raise are:

  1. Indonesia is a male dominated society. Indonesia is a country with many islands and each different island has a unique characteristic, one will find one island is totally different from the other in terms of sub-cultures, perceptions, way of working etc. But one common feature you can find in all parts of Indonesia is its male dominating society, and the wide distinction of roles and responsibilities between women and men.
  2. Violence against women (domestic violence and sexual abuse). There are many cases of violence against women in Indonesia, both physical and mental. Violence against women is very much influenced by the Indonesian culture that sees women as secondary human beings. Sexual abuse or harassment is very rampant in the society and the laws do not protect the women who experience these violence. For example if a woman was sexually abused, she needs to produce two witnesses if the report is to be accepted by the police. This is a total humiliation for the woman who is already undergoing other consequences of the sexual abuse. In a survey made in 1996, 68% of reported cases of domestic violence ended in fatality, and there was a reported number of 829 sexual abuse cases. This was only a reported figure which does not tell of those who are not being reported or documented. In local areas like Manado North Suleiwesi, there are new cases of sexual abuse every week.
  3. Women migrant workers. There are many Indonesian women migrant workers found in all over the world. One of the main reasons is poverty. However, these women migrant workers do not receive much support from the Indonesian government when they are being exploited and abused. The government does not, first of all, provide training to the women workers, and the lack of skills makes it difficult to for them to bargain for the right wages and working environment. Also, the government does not help the women workers when they are faced with wage cut or other exploitations. This is ironic as these women migrant workers help keep the Indonesian economy alive!
  4. Church and Women. In the church’s bureaucracy, women are usually seen to be in a level below men (in terms of decision making). But lately women’s issues within the church have been raised often and there has been some small improvement. In some churches, women are seen to be on the same level as men, and they are able to demonstrate their creativity and leadership.

A Reflection on the Indigenous Women in Taiwan by Chang Chung Chih

After more than 400 hundred years of colonisation by many countries or political powers (China, Portugal, Holland, Japan and Kuo Ming Tang [KMT]), the continuity of the Indigenous people in Taiwan becomes a big challenge. Indigenous people, forced to adjust to the new culture, life-styles and values of other countries or big political powers, are losing their traditional life values, their culture and languages are slowly ebbing away from the effects of these colonial policies. The traditional social system has been disintegrated and there is now a huge gap between young and old generations of Indigenous people. Before the Han people’s (the dominating ethnic group that is also known widely as Chinese) perspective came into the lives of the Indigenous society, the original family system was of Matriarchy. But now, the situation is reversed and ‘Men’ is the focused gender. In the family, a baby boy is more valued than a baby girl; in work, men receive higher wages than women. Although some situations may have improved slightly in terms of gender equality, the Indigenous women still need to face the pressures and expectations from the society as well as their tribes. The difficulties that are experienced by the Indigenous women are:

  1. The predicament of moving into the city
  2. The problem of marriage with the Han people
  3. Prostitution
  4. Family’s ostracising
  5. Neglect of social issues face by Indigenous women

One of the main problems is communication. This results from the inconvenience of transportation between the villages and cities. As the villages are far away from the cities, Indigenous people have much difficulty in getting resources or information quickly and abundantly, especially for the Indigenous women who have to stay at home to take care of the family or young children, they do not have many opportunities to receive resources or information. Hence the Indigenous women could hardly do anything to alleviate any difficult situations or problems, but incurring more pressure from their family.

As a child of an Indigenous woman, I am proud of my mom. She was a beautiful woman with deep, charming eyes. She taught me how to sing, cook and drink! But because of the discriminating government policies of Taiwan, she could not teach me her mother tongue. When my mother talked to me in Puyuma (her tribe’s name and language), everyone looked at us with discriminating eyes and said, “see, they are Indigenous people”. We usually receive such words and stares like this. My mother never said anything bad towards them but instead, just smiled back at these people. This may be one of the reasons why I am so proud and happy to be seen as an Indigenous person! But for my Han father, patriarchy runs deep in his heart and mind, and for a long time too. As I am the third child and a girl at that, in the Han culture, this is pure bad luck for the family and especially for my father. He had wanted a boy at that time, thus, I am given a name that is very boyish. Many people have always mistaken my gender and called me Mr. Chang! But I like this name, it is a name that displays bravery and creativity, and it’s a very easy name to remember too.

Apart from the above experience, I used to be a very shy, timid and introvert person. I was extremely affected by my father’s display of patriarchy, hence I have a lot of difficulty to say ‘No’ to a man because I was always afraid and thought that I would get into trouble if I say ‘No’. But now, I am trying to do it! I am also trying to explain why I would say ‘No’ to a man. I found that besides saying ‘Yes’, we women can express our opinions, make our own decisions and make our lives as WELL and GOOD as men!

A Reflection on the Women’s Situation in Bangladesh
by Monika Biswas, Bangladesh SCM

It all seems like women are coming out and are enjoying all forms of human rights and many are leading a better life than before. They are holding jobs, have rights to education, access to health care and even participate in politics. It does seem that women are in a good position today. But this is not entirely true. Women are marginalized in all levels in both class and gender because “a woman is a woman” so the saying goes and this is the source of women’s sufferings in the real society. Certainly the degree of marginalization varies in intensity, shape and shade from class to class, society to society and culture to culture. The position and status of women have hardly moved.

Bangladesh is situated in South Asia. It is characterised by a very high population density of 920 persons per square kilometre, a high population growth rate at 1.8% with a total population of 127.7 million people, a very low per capital income of GDP per capital at USD330, a very low literacy rate at 35% and a widespread of underemployment. However, some of the brightest hopes for Bangladesh in future rest with its women. A society that has traditionally organised itself around the needs of the men has to gradually work up new perspectives and new possibilities. However, this realisation is drawing very slowly and only in certain pockets of the society. Most women in Bangladesh still suffer discrimination from birth to childhood and beyond. Women do not have equal rights and opportunities and the evidence is everywhere.

The literacy rate for men is 49% while for the women is 26.5%. Women earn less than men, the average wage rate of a day’s labour for men is Taka 46 while for women is only 26. Women receive less medical care, for instance, of children under 5 years of age with respiratory infections, of those who receive treatment, 37% are boys while only 29% are girls. In Bangladesh, female children have a lower infant mortality rate than male children, but this biological advantage is soon out weight by gender discrimination. For children aged 1-4 years old, the mortality rate for boys is 91 per ten thousand but for girls, it is 102.

Early marriage is also another main problem for women in Bangladesh. It is a traditional custom among Muslims and Hindus to marry their daughters and sisters before they attain puberty. The women are married off even before they understand what exactly their duties are and would often become mothers before their childhood is over. A good number of women also died during childbirth and many of them suffer from unwanted diseases. Less than 5% of women with obstetric emergencies get appropriate medical care and the maternal mortality rate is 450 deaths per 100 000 births.

Girl child is also often treated as a temporary guest in the family who will eventually leave the household after marriage and even their marriages would cost a hefty dowry. Thus the status of daughters are very low in the family and this status is carried on to the family they are married into.

In conclusion, women remain very invisible in the Bangladeshi society and they are subjected to increasing levels of violence against them. Many cases of sexual abuse are reported every year and the horrifying trend that has developed lately is the throwing of acid onto the women if they reject the advances of the men. Hence, we can see, the situation of women in Bangladesh is still very unfavourable and we need to work very hard to reverse the oppression and marginalization towards women.

 

Editorial  •  Perspective  •  Women Space  •  Solidarity

Solidarity:

Human Rights and Religion

by Rev. R. W. Timm, CSC

One of the main phenomena we have observed in the past several years is the rise of fundamentalism, accompanied by gross violations of human rights, in several countries of Asia. The term religious fundamentalism originally was applied to Christians who interpreted the Bible literally, e.g., who believed that God created everything in six days and that Jonah actually spent three days in the belly of a great fish. When I was young, we were all fundamentalists in this sense. The literal interpretation of the Bible began to be replaced by literary form criticism in the late 19th century by Protestant scholars, who were regarded with great skepticism. This means that every book of the Bible is written in a particular literary form, such as history (Exodus), poetry (Psalms), prophecy (Isaiah), fable or parable (Jonah) or apocalyptic literature (Book of Revelations). The author’s aim is revealed through the literary form that he uses.

It was as late as 1964 that the Catholic Church formally accepted the literary form criticism of the Bible. Before that, in the transition period, the majority of believers were religious fundamentalists. When I studied Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1940s we learned that human evolution is impossible because no form of life can raise itself to a higher form of life through its own power. At the same time, I was learning in Zoology class that there are abundant proofs for human evolution, enough to force a reconsideration of the creation account in the book of Genesis. Most Christians of Bangladesh have remained fundamentalist simply because they never had the literary form theory of interpretation explained to them.

Islam, on the contrary, has never modernised its interpretation of the Quran. One reason is that the madrassas, which are the religious schools where the imams of the mosques are taught, do not teach any modern physical, biological or social sciences and the religious teaching is straight out of the 7th century. Since there is no central authority in Islam to give an authentic and binding religious interpretation, the sects with the greatest power and influence can impose their views on the majority, who are in danger unless they comply. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the ulemas in Pakistan, who enforce a rigorist interpretation of Sharia Law, are two current examples of fundamentalism imposed by law. The Organisation of Islamic Countries, a mini-UN for Islamic nations of which Bangladesh is a member, has as one of its activities “to face, combat and defeat” Christian missionary activities in member countries. They had decided to eliminate all Christian missionaries from member countries by the year 2000.

Only 25 years ago there was a far more tolerant situation in our Asian countries, perhaps because of a lingering legacy of colonialism. In Bangladesh the four main religions lived together in peace and harmony. They had attained independence and set up a secular government and the minorities were no longer second-class citizens. But Bangladesh began a turn toward fundamentalism with the adoption of the 8th amendment to the Constitution in 1988, which established Islam as the state religion. However, political fundamentalism was rejected at the polls because the war of independence was fought against it and because of barbaric displays of conduct by fundamentalists in attacking women through fatwa and attacking NG0s which promoted the empowerment of women to escape the clutches of a medieval feudal society. However, in the coming election two fundamentalist Islamic parties are allied with the BNP and they want to make Bangladesh an Islamic Republic like Pakistan. They physically attacked and desecrated churches, missionaries and their homes during the Middle East war and on other occasions. In 1994 the Bangladesh Anti-Christian Organisation was begun in Dhaka by Islamic fundamentalist activists to counter the activities of Christian social workers. Though political fundamentalism has not been successful so far, yet there is a creeping social fundamentalism which can have a subtle influence without being detected, as in the early days of advancing fundamentalism in Pakistan.

Fortunately for us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is strongly antifundamentalist. It gives a strictly universalistic interpretation of human rights. Human rights apply to all people of every culture, religion or race. It is also fortunate that civil society has arisen against the religious fundamentalists. This year the United Citizens Movement has collected two core signatures in a campaign to press the political parties not to nominate fundamentalists and razakars (collaborators with the Pakistan Army in 1971). Though political fundamentalism is not in danger of succeeding in the near future in Bangladesh, creeping fundamentalism is moving ahead all the time.

In India the revival of Hindu fundamentalism has cast aside the traditional tolerance and accommodation of the Hindu religion in favour of an all-out attack against Christians for making so many converts and against Dalits for daring to assert their common humanity with caste Hindus.

In Indonesia 25 years ago one could scarcely distinguish between Muslims, Hindus and Christians. They employed the same dress, names and customs, e.g., in the marriage ceremony. Outsiders influenced them to become “true Muslims” by stressing their unique Muslim identity at the expense of their tolerant national culture.

In Malaysia, in order to strengthen national unity in the struggle against Communism, government emphasized the bumiputra policy to bring up the Malays economically, followed by the one-culture policy, which meant Muslim culture. One would scarcely imagine that Muslims are only little more than one-half the population, judging by their predominance in government and society.

Except the Taliban in Afghanistan, the worst manifestation of fundamentalism in recent years has been in Pakistan. Currently a Christian stands condemned to death for blasphemy and the decision has been upheld by the High Court, with crowds of fundamentalists present at the judgment and shouting threats against the court if the man was released. In a previous case when the Judge ruled two Christians innocent of blasphemy he was shot to death and one of the Christians was shot right outside the court. The condemned man was accused by only one person, who had seized his land, and this person shot at him in open court without any action against him. A well-known Pakistani doctor and outstanding peace advocate has been in jail since last year, accused of blasphemy by persons who were not even witnesses to the supposed act. The courts and lawyers are so threatened that they cannot give impartial judgment and have condemned the doctor to death.

After all this pessimism over fundamentalism, let me inject a ray of light. In our own subcontinent we have long ago had two outstanding practitioners of tolerance—Ashoka and Akbar the Great (1556-1605), the Mughal Emperor. He tolerated various kinds of human rights and social and religious behaviour, including the right to worship. “No man should be interfered with on account of religion and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion he pleased.” (Quoted in Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 2000; Sen also notes that Akbar was showing such magnanimity the Inquisition was going on in Christian Europe).

Besides fundamentalism, which attacks minorities, there are many other major violations of human rights which discriminate against minorities and harm them indirectly. There is a law in Bangladesh called the Vested Property Act. It began as the Enemy Property Act during the first war between India and Pakistan in 1965. Properties and businesses of Hindus who fled to India were taken over by government. After independence the name was changed in 1974 but the act was not repealed. No new names were to be added to the vested properties list but in 2000 a professor of Dhaka University published a book in which he states that 21 lakh acres, mostly taken from Hindus, were illegally seized, largely by influential persons of the leading political parties. The last government, supposedly favourable to the minorities, repealed the Vested Property Act in such a way that few people could make claims to get their property back.

There have also been many attacks and acts of discrimination against Christians, but we do not want to emphasise the negative side too much. The Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Council published three books on atrocities against minorities. One of them was confiscated by the Special Branch of police and when a written petition was brought to the High Court it was never heard. Isaac Baroi, who was editor of a popular ecumenical Christian monthly called Shorgamorta and who gathered into book form (two editions) many incidents of atrocities and discrimination, had to seek political asylum abroad because of threats against him. Four years ago the most serious incident occurred when Muslims who run a mosque in Luxmi Bazar next to the St. Francis Xavier School and Convent claimed part of their land. Even though defeated in a court case, they raised cries one day on the loudspeaker that the Christian-Jews were attacking the mosque. A mob quickly gathered and did much damage, including destruction of a statue of Jesus and at least one Bible. They also did damage at the Anglican church and Baptist center nearby.

Publication of deliberately false information about other religions indicates pure malice but many of the discriminatory actions have been through pure ignorance. For example, a history book was published by the Bangla Academy, in which it was written that Buddha was born first, then Jesus and lastly Mohammed. In Narayanganj the Catholic church was attacked because of this alleged insult to the prophet. The Academy had to withdraw the book.

Dr. Chandra Muzzafer, Director of the International Movement for a Just World, with headquarters in Malaysia, has written: “The first and most important task confronting individuals and groups committed to dialogue between religious civilisations in the midst of religious conflicts is to analyse these conflicts to show that religion may not be the sole or even the most significant factor in a certain conflict. Our next task is to address the other causes behind a conflict—be they political, economic or social—and propose appropriate remedies.... Only after we have come to grips with the real issues behind a conflict should we draw out the universal values and ideals in each and every religion and try to initiate inter-religious communication on the basis of these values and ideals.” (Commentary 1:8, Aug. 2001)

Muslims and Human Rights

While there are several Christian organisations dedicated to human rights in Bangladesh, there are no religion-based Muslim NG0s working in the field of human rights. Human rights is one of the many subjects lacking in the training of imams for mosques. However, we find a great sympathy for the cause of human rights among Muslims, and ecumenism with Muslims can take place most easily in this area. In a practical manual Working for Justice and Human Rights I included an appendix on the teachings of the four main religions of Bangladesh on justice, peace and human rights and dignity. We attempt to advance Kingdom values or Gospel values as universal human values, embraced by all religions (this, of course, ignores the claims of fundamentalism to a strict or inhuman interpretation of religion). The appendix also included quotations from the Organisation of Islamic Countries from their Declaration of Islamic Rights.

I also took part in a training for the imams of mosques with Professor Mizanur Rahrnan of the Dhaka University Law School. I took the position that justice is concerned with morality and that love and justice are the two main virtues of religion. The imams were fascinated to hear about human rights and the duties which are necessarily attendant on them. They stated that the imams of all mosques should have the chance of such a training.

Professor Rahinan also conducted an annual training in human rights for young lawyers at BARD in Comilia and I was one of the resource persons for this training. Most of these lawyers were Muslim, so it was a good opportunity for people of different religions to live together and learn together about the meaning of human rights.

Occasionally important events bring together the representatives of various religions, especially on their main festivals, to celebrate in common and to bring out the common universal features of the various religions. Recently I was on the stage with Hindu and Buddhist monks and a Muslim scholar to celebrate the 155th birthday of a local Hindu saint. Since religious tolerance was one of his outstanding virtues, it gave us the opportunity to contrast him with present-day attitudes, even of some so-called religious leaders. Next month on October 29th a symposium will be held at Dhaka University on the occasion of the visit of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, who occupies the Hesburgh Chair of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is an outstanding Islamic scholar and helps to bridge the gap between Islam and Christianity because of his acceptability by all Islamic scholars.

The areas in which the Islamite differ from us in the interpretation of human rights pertain particularly to women and children, who are not considered as mature enough to make decisions for themselves. The UN Conventions on Child Rights and on Women Rights both have restrictions put on them by government, in keeping with common Islamic interpretation of limitations of human rights, e.g., although the UN considers below 18 as the age of a child and also considers that children have the right of freedom of thought conscience and religion, this right is not accepted in Bangladesh, as well as the right adoption.

Solidarity is another part of the theme of this workshop. If advocacy of human rights means supporting victims of injustice and oppression, its predominant virtue is solidarity—oneness with the oppressed and with each other in the support group. “Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a weak capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our ‘neighbour’, a ‘helper’ (cf. Gen: 18-20); (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul 11).

(This article is the keynote presentation for the Human rights and Solidarity Workshop 2001 of the WSCF AP which was held in Bangladesh on September 17-23, 2001.)