The cover for this issue of Praxis is entitled, “Struggle for Equality”. The last century witnessed many important changes to the struggle for women’s call for equality—women’s suffrage, rise in women’s education and career prospects, recognition of women’s ability in the domestic and public spheres, so on and forth. The struggle has been hard, definitely it continues, as there are still many grounds yet to cover.
However, the struggle for equality does not only cover calls for the things that were mentioned above but it needs also to encompass the rights and equality for women whose issues and needs are obviously visible but neglected. Some of these issues are women who have different sexual orientations, women with disabilities, Christian women who made a conscious choice of remaining single and being or not being in motherhood, among many other self-determined decisions and choices. Is there a reason for labelling these as ‘controversies’ hence we will only adhere to those that we think we should struggle for and neglect those we think do not come under our “Christian” values? If we reject the stereotyping and definition of women set by the patriarchal institutions, we need also to acknowledge as well as respect the diversity of and the differences in women, more so for Christian women. We need to challenge ourselves not to stereotype or define women issues as those we usually and habitually advocate for. It is not a surprise when many of the secular women’s movements are actively going into issues that address the emerging realities while many of us in the Christian movement are lagging far behind. Are we one step slower due to our structural religious baggage that may contain an un-listening and un-empathetic ear ignoring the emerging realities of women?
We would thus like to challenge the SCMers to go beyond what they have already been advocating for to look into emerging issues and realities that are faced by many women particularly Christian women. The SCM has always been providing a space and platform to think out of the box, let’s not lose this meaningful attitude and in the process, we hope the SCM will take up the challenge that aims for an encompassing, not divisive, arm of equality for humanity.
Wong Yock Leng
Regional Women’s Coordinator
by Monica J. Melanchthon
In Asia, the patriarchal dictums within the church are far stronger than in the society and hence women within the Church experience many of the problems confronting women in the wider arena of society. The church is in fact far behind the State in granting privileges to women and use scriptural arguments to deny women their rightful place. Many churches today ordain women and allow women to be represented within the decision-making bodies of the church and yet the attitude of most men towards women is far from the ideal. There is still a great amount of suspicion and possibly fear that hinders the church from giving women their rightful place in church and society. But the struggle for equality of women and men within the church will not take root unless it is linked with the wider struggle for empowerment in society. Despite the fact, that the impetus to bring about equal participation of women within the church came from the Secular Women’s movement, the involvement of Christian women in the wider women’s movement is minimal. Those Christian women, who are within the secular movement for change, are unfortunately not able to affect the Church in a significant way. The main reason is the role of religion in each of the movements. Religion does play a dominant role in the lives of women in our traditional cultures whether we are aware of it or not, and influences almost all aspects of our daily life. Hence, serious thought needs to be given to religion and women’s religiosity.
The gap between the secular women’s movement and the faith-based women’s organisations is far too wide. The reason for this is mainly the role religion play or does not play in the secular movement. The lack of sufficient focus on religious issues or ideals within the secular women’s movement has contributed to the hesitancy of faith-based women’s organisations to join them. The reasons for this may be as follows:
Churchwomen on the other hand hesitate to participate in the secular women’s movement, precisely because:
Luther’s concept of the two kingdoms has been used to justify violence, injustice, totalitarian regimes etc., because it taught that the church should not interfere in politics. God’s work was seen as opposite to his people’s work. God’s salvation in personal terms was regarded as the only possible work, making void any human effort towards justice, love and peace.
The real challenge for women in the wake of emergent global culture is the fragmentation of women and the increasing individualisation of religion. Religion is seldom the common voice inviting all, but as a system tends to be diminished and relegated to the margins. But considering the role that religion plays in the lives of people, particularly in Asia, it is essential that religious resources also be mobilised to counteract the ill effects of sexism and gender violence. Approaching the problem of gender discrimination and analysing it with the tools of social analysis will help us understand the problem but will offer no grounds for hope or the articulation of goals. Analysis alone does not produce hope. Only a religious experience or religion would give grounds for hope and envisioning the goal of overcoming a system that is oppressive and painful. Only a movement that is rooted in religion or faith will have the required stamina, energy and motivation to keep going despite pitfalls and setbacks in the fight for women. Faith enables and equips the movement to see the goal even before it is realised, it provides hope, a hope that something good will come. In times of peace hope gives way to thanks and expects further good. In times of grief and distress, hope still directed towards God, longs for deliverance. This hope is not a lulling opiate but a radical hope that is a critical and creative power for the transformation of the world in its personal, social and cosmic dimensions. It is hope that is rooted in a faith that will not allow you to die in the wilderness.
Religious reflection is not the exclusive prerogative of the clergy or the seminary faculty. All of us make choices and act in certain ways because of the way we think theologically. In other words, our actions are guided by our understandings of God, Humanity, the community and so on. To think theologically is to appropriate the resources of our faith in reflecting on real-life dilemmas and situations. Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations and this is possible only through involvement in the wider struggle for women’s emancipation.
Traditionally it is religion, which mediates the link between personal life and wider political concern. Religion spells out a way of life as well as a world-view. It is true that religious affiliation has contributed to the distortion of economic and political issues. The result has therefore been socially and politically reactionary. But where efforts have been made to utilise an enlightened and moderate approach, secular approach, and appeals have been made to overcome caste, communalism, and oppression of women it has not resulted in the transformation of personal life and social relations, since it was devoid of religious reform. What do we mean by religious reform?
I really like Dietrich’s definition of religious reform. She defines religious reform “as such a reform which enables individuals and groups to participate in secular, political processes which are struggling for equality of all citizens and against economic, political and cultural exploitation, without being forced to abandon the faith dimension of their religious identity.” It is the possibility of identifying and emphasising the humanitarian content within the religion, the humanist content, which any individual irrespective of religion can relate and adhere to. This latter dimension is an indispensable part of creating a rich secular culture. Christian involvement for the cause of women calls for engagement for the promotion of religious harmony. This feminist concern and perspective, in its turn, will also add a new dimension to inter-religious understanding and dialogue.
Considering the very important role religion plays in determining the status and roles of women in society, efforts to reform religion are as essential as social reform. In fact, I would place a greater emphasis on the former since the former does have impact on women in the social sphere. Closer cooperation and joint efforts would result in being advantageous to both movements and benefit the wider struggle for emancipation and liberation of women. Hence, among other things, far more needs to be done in forging closer cooperation among women within the church and women in the secular women’s movement.
A Call to women in the Church to be involved in the wider women’s movement
Whether we are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, asking ourselves some basic questions may reveal how we think or act theologically, for example. Do our thoughts about God hinder or help us in loving other persons? Does the way we read the Bible obscure or open our vision of God’s truth? Do the traditions and teaching of our church freeze us in the past or free us for the future? Does our Christian faith contradict or correspond to what we experience in life? Does our theology limit or liberate us in the way we respond to people and the kind of world in which we live? Do our beliefs create barriers or draw us closer to other children of God? Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations.
God in fact rules over both the secular and the spiritual world. It is said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). This means that God is in charge of both human conscience and human action.
The Kingdom of God, contrary to what many Christians think, does not signify something that is purely spiritual or outside this world. It is the totality of this material world, spiritual and human that is now introduced into God’s order.
This of course calls for the recognition of the fact that God’s rule is here transforming the consciences of individuals for the establishment of the reign of God through Word and Sacrament and preparing them for the service of the World to counteract forces of evil and to bring about justice, peace and order. God uses individuals, men and women, as God’s instruments for change in both of the realms. The praxis of those who belong to the Reign of God is the evidence of being saved by Jesus Christ and being in relationship with the liberating Christ and instruments of liberation in the world.
Human beings do not live in isolation from the social, economic and political realities of their time. “It is therefore wrong for them to accept existing conditions as given and unchangeable. While struggling for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, it must also stand uncompromisingly against every kind of injustice and tyranny.” Christian Women in Asia have for long sought assuage and meaning through works of charity and kindness in response to suffering caused by dehumanising socio-economic and political conditions that are prevalent in the world. But they are expected to proclaim the will of God for all human relationships in the world. In other words, they are to stand against tyranny and injustice. “Saving their souls” or working towards a change in the faith stance of women, educating them and responding to their economic needs through charity, development and welfare programs has never been an issue. But when it comes to the holistic liberation of women, women of the official church and majority of its membership is full of ambiguities. It is time that we overcame our fears and allows our faith in the liberating God who identifies with the weak and the oppressed to strengthen us in order to follow on until the goal of women’s freedom and liberation has been reached.
by Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes
To reflect on the situation of the University students is to make a pronouncement on the educational system of most universities. I was taught by SCMers and the militant student activists that the academe is but a reflection of the socio-economic and political terrain of the larger society. In most semi-feudal and semi-colonial countries like the Philippines, the school, the church and media constitute the State instrumentality for promoting its ideology. For instance, the Philippines decided to remain as a neo-colony of the United States, being its supplier of natural and human resources. To serve this political framework, the Philippine educational system is patterned after that of the United States. Nursing students are taught skills that will make them effective care givers at the New York General Hospital. Medical students learn how to operate medical equipment found in North America, instruments that are totally absent in rural Philippines. It is safe to say that, for the most part, Filipino doctors are incompetent in a countryside setting. Or since Japan wishes to project its military superiority in the region, history textbooks conveniently blot out Japan’s war crimes—an issue that the National Christian Council of Japan has mounted a campaign against.
My reflection today contains two major sections: First—My Lamentations About the Academe. Second—Some Notes on Churches and SCM Partnership Towards an Ecumenical Student Ministry.
Progressive teachers and students in the Philippines claim that education is elitist, commercialised, and colonial. Today, education is no longer a right. It has become a privilege and only the privileged are able to be educated. Sure, there are scholarships but these are available only through hard-nosed competition. With the privatisation of State Universities, a college degree is almost beyond the reach of ordinary students. Statistics has it that, in the Philippines, of the 100 pupils entering Elementary, less than 10 will be able to finish University. When I was teaching at Central Philippine University many years ago, I had to counsel a student who was traumatised by her experience during the week of finals. At CPU, as in most schools, students are allowed to take the final exam only if they have paid all outstanding accounts. This student came from a peasant family and the farmers had an extremely bad harvest that year due to the El Niño phenomenon. As could be expected, her parents had nothing to send her. This student was graduating and it was imperative for her to take that final exam. To make the long story short, she had to lose her virginity in exchange for a measly Peso 3,000.00 to pay for her tuition fees so that she could take the exam. In talking with her, I discovered that hers was not an isolated case.
The colonial aspect of education shows up not only in the content of education but also in its export-oriented perspective. Most of my former students are at a drilling site in Riyadh or at an engineering project in Brunei or in a geriatrics’ home in Canada or in a Videoke bar in Osaka. You know as well as I do why they are there.
In a country where 75% of the population live below the poverty line, what can we expect of the youth of the land?
I lament the fact that education in most schools is repressive. I am aware of some schools in my country where even the Student Christian Movement is not recognised by the administration as a legitimate student organisation. Moreover, I see repressive education reflected in which departments have the largest enrolments. These are departments whose courses are technical, exact, and neutral. Learners are not encouraged to take courses that make them think, analyse, critique and reconstruct. In a subtle way, students are forced to gloss over the truth—to the way things are and to hold in abeyance, nay, stifle the urge to unearth uncomfortable and painful truths. Has it ever occurred to you that the learners’ natural inclination to inquire and to seek is actually repressed by education? Has it ever occurred to you that learners’ natural disposition for creating and seeing things afresh is, actually, obliterated by education? I fear that this pattern will raise generations of, what I call, “bonsai intellectuals” who are not analytical. Unable to critique situations, they will, no doubt, allow the ruling class to ride roughshod over them.
I am deeply concerned that the educational system in most universities is domesticating. Where do many graduates end up? Aren’t they turned into any more than domestic helpers in places where the work environment is no different from a household? Take a look at the situation of domestic helpers: (1) the master assumes that he knows everything and the helper knows nothing; (2) the master talks and the helper listens meekly; (3) the master disciplines and the helper is disciplined; (4) the master chooses and enforces his choice and the helper complies obediently and passively; (5) the master chooses the activity and routine for the helper and the helper is expected to adapt to it. That finds easy translation in the schools. The classroom teachers’ task, as defined by the educational system, is to “fill” the students with a perception of reality that has become motionless, static, lifeless and petrified. A reality that is disconnected from that which has engendered the learners and given them significance.
I am disturbed that the university setting creates an unreal world for the students. The classroom projects a seemingly artificial environment that eventually alienates the learners from their class origins and themselves. For the professors, the “publish-or-perish” policy impels them to grind out just any kind of reading material. Never mind if it does not make sense to people at the base. The more esoteric, the better. Research is a matter of physical survival instead of an aid for social reversal. For the students, the university resurrects the law of the jungle: survival of the fittest. The push to be competitive strengthens the “crab mentality” which gives license to people to excel at the expense of others. In most cases, the academic community institutionalises rugged individualism at the expense of community and solidarity.
Globalisation does not make matters any easier for University students. It is true that information technology opens more opportunities for faster communication and wider access to new knowledge. The world is flashed right on one’s computer screen. But has the University helped its students acquire handles to sift through the maze of information, considering that selective attention needs to be guided by some modicum of appropriateness?
There is some unity that the effect of globalisation on people is one of indifference and fundamentalism. There is a tendency to be inward looking and simplistically literal, to emphasise personal or individual salvation and to reduce faith to almost a personality cult. In a situation of complexities and uncertainty, people are wont to turn to a faith-perspective that calms and soothes and provides black and white answers. This kind of perspective only compounds the unthinking culture of the University. Moreover, globalisation highlights capitalism’s “get rich quick” philosophy which is under girded by the prosperity gospel. In a condition of poverty and deprivation, the promise of appliances, opportunities to climb the social ladder, wealth are most attractive.
What I have said thus far smacks of one who has nothing but repugnance for the academic community. Maybe I do detest the University. I had to un-learn all I had accumulated from school when I moved out into the real world. Facetiously, the only blessing I received from the University was my husband. On second thought, this bleak negative view of the University is its saving grace. It creates favourable conditions for transformation. To the extent that students are frustrated over the way things are, to that same extent will they search for alternatives. And I believe this is one of the reasons for our being at this Consultation. The restlessness that our students and teachers feel about the academic community pushes them into organised actions that will embody that which they believe is the solution.
From that subjective assessment of the academic community, I turn my gaze to partnership in the ecumenical student ministry. I refuse to name alternative ways. I am most uncomfortable with mandates. Allow me to merely pose initial thoughts which I hope will be given some thought at this Consultation.
I am a product of the elitist, commercialised, and colonial educational system: 16 years in the Philippines; 3 years in the United States. All that brainwashing churned out a person who was conservative, fearful of novel ideas, unaware of objective reality, arrogantly feudal, very pro-Western. In the early 80’s while I was pre-occupied with teaching University students to speak impeccable English, my students forced me to see the world as it really was, to be more sensitive to the concrete realities around me, to make a connection between theory and practice. My students led me through a painful process of conscientisation that stripped me of all the academic garbage that I spent so much money and time in collecting. I changed gears in 1985 and travelled the road toward integral redemption (people’s liberation) together with my students and the oppressed classes of Philippine society. As I look back on that “conversion experience”, all I can say is: I am grateful to God that the students then fearlessly challenged me to step out into “ever new frontiers and emerging unexplored areas of life.” My hope is that, as in the eighties, our campuses will once more reverberate with the youth and students’ passion for freedom, peace, and justice.
Summarised by Maria Ana Manalo Santiago for Women in Action
(SCMers from Indonesia and Australia, Vanda Lengkong and Shehara Viswanathan respectively, participated in this online discussion organised by Isis International Manila)
Two years since its initial attempt to bring a group of Southern feminists to an online discussion, Isis International Manila organised another such virtual meeting of six articulate young women from Indonesia, Philippines, United States and Australia. Women in Action is publishing excerpts of this discussion a glimpse into the minds of young women today: what they are into, their role models, their takes on specific realities.
Mari Santiago: Hello everyone! All of the expected participants are online now so we can now start the discussion. Introductions first, ok? I’m Mari Santiago, your moderator for this online chat. I’m a Filipina, a staff of Isis International Manila, 37 years old, but very young at heart. Amara, can you go next?
Amara Quesada: Hi, good morning, everyone! Everyone calls me Mara. I’m 27. I work for Action for Health Initiatives Inc., an NGO in the Philippines working with migrant workers with special focus on health. I coordinate the Regional Campaigns Programme which has campaigns in the Asian region.
Shirin Sameer: Hi, everyone! I’m Shirin from India. I’m 25 years young and I work with Isis International Manila.
Mavic Cabrera-Balleza: Hi, Emily! How are you? Mavic here. I’m an observer, though later I’ll go on invisible mode.
Emily Freeburg: Hi, Mavic! I’m good. I am about to go to Morocco. I am in Seattle now, but will fly to NY tonight—it’s a global week. Hi, Shirin! Hello, Philippines! Hi, everyone! I have never really done this before. I’m glad it’s working. I am Emily, 23, from Seattle, but presently living in New York and working for various NGOs. I met up with Isis at the women and media events of some UN meetings this past year.
Claire Villacorta: Good morning everyone. I’m Claire Villacorta. I’m based in Manila. I’m 28. I self-publish and write for a small-scale feminist pop zine called Jawbreaker.
Vanda Lengkong: Hello all, sorry for being late. I’m Vanda Lengkong from Indonesia, 24 years old, cool and cute, full of smiles. I work with the Church World Service.
Mari: Our discussion for today will focus on young women’s involvement or non-involvement in the women’s movement. To start off, how did you get into your current advocacies/lines of work?
Amara: After college, I immediately started working for a women’s NGO—Women’s Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization (WEDPRO Inc.). That’s where I got acquainted with so-called feminism. After nearly five years and with three NGOs behind me, I believe that my advocacy work, both personal and professional, is still deeply ingrained with the feminist values I’ve picked up.
Shirin: My mother and father have been involved in the human rights movement since their youth. Their work inspired me to learn more about the issues involved. I have been involved ever since and I’m not likely to go back.
Emily: I studied international development and creative writing, did research on NGOs in Latin America and then, got an internship for a Franciscan NGO in New York. I’ve always been interested in being a writer, so I followed what women writers were doing. A lot of women team up for publishing and I think that is really interesting for creative and political reasons. I started to notice what stories about women were missing, and what wasn’t being represented. I have always thought women’s voices were missing in the classroom, in the media, and other spaces.
Vanda: I joined a Psychosocial Mental Health Training of the Church World Service. After that, they asked me to be one of their staff in North Sulawesi. During that time, several areas in Indonesia were suffering the effects of the armed conflict, causing a significant rise in the number of internally displaced persons (IDP) in my area.
Claire: I keep up with a lot of forms of mainstream expression (pop, teen magazines) and what it has to offer. I was sort of raised on teen magazines, but the vacuousness it retained throughout the years is appalling. So, with the female reader in mind, my partner and I decided to put out Jawbreaker, a zine (a self-published magazine) that didn’t underestimate its readers. It’s youth-focused, and wears our influences on its sleeve. It’s our way of connecting with young people.
Mari: Amara, why “so-called feminism”?
Amara: The concept was fairly new to me then. Now that I’ve been around NGOs for some time, the whole concept has evolved into my own perspective of feminism. The way I look at it now is unlike before, but this is still evolving.
Emily: How did you view feminism before?
Amara: It appeared to me that feminism, then, was mainly about telling women that they are oppressed and men are to blame for it.
Shirin: In India and elsewhere in Asia, there are women who refuse to accept the word “feminism.” They associate it with colonialism. They have their own definitions.
Mari: How do you define feminism? How do women’s issues and feminism figure into your present professional concerns and personal lives? Do you consider yourselves feminist?
Emily: I used to be turned off by the word because I thought it was a 40-year-old white women’s movement in the U.S. Then, I went to Guatemala, saw the women there and realised how badly the world needs a women’s movement… People don’t realise feminism is for total social justice. Growing up, I was never comfortable with the word feminism because I thought race concerns were much more important in the U.S. But if feminism is about empowering everyone, keeping class and race on the forefront, then I can call myself a feminist. I can embrace the word.
Shirin: I completely agree. I think it starts at the personal level—with parents, brothers, boyfriends, friends. Then, it goes to the next level of people who are not related to us directly, but who influence our lives or with whom we interact, then, to an even wider level. Feminism has a meaning, the context of which changes at each level. Also, it is linked with everything else. Feminism is not a water-tight compartment. For example, if a woman is getting sexually harassed at work, isn’t just a question of women’s rights, but of society’s culture as a whole. Feminism is a struggle for a more just and egalitarian society and, therefore, it is part of the social justice movement.
Vanda: I do agree with Shirin, it depends on our perspective on feminism. People, even women, just think that feminism is a movement of women against man. However, I do consider myself a feminist because I’m a woman. I also live and exist with others (man) and, together, we struggle for justice for all.
Claire: We had to look for feminist resources on our own. I felt disconnected from local feminist initiatives. Much of what I learned was through music and cultural expressions going on abroad that I’d read about in magazines and zines. They called it “riot grrrl,” a jumping point for feminist discourse. Young girls would talk about personal issues like public safety, being violated, about how much privilege went to males and the double standard it reflected when girls tried to do things. On a personal level, I always believed in not succumbing to dominant standards of femininity. It seems that I get more flak from leftists who think we’re not addressing issues that are “deep” enough. In a small spoken word gig that we had, there were girls who discussed date rape or about wanting to be sexualised on their own terms. Then this lefty guy said that we weren’t even getting to the bottom of the whole thing when it came to violence against women. What did he expect? We were trying to initiate something, keep it on the level where it’s relevant to these young women, considering that not many of us even talk about these things openly.
Amara: The problem with the left, at least in my experience in the Philippines, is that they totally lack the feminist perspective. I agree with Vanda, whether we’re old or young, perspective is very important. It has to be based on the concrete experiences of women. It is also very important that we keep on studying the evolving context of women. I consider myself a feminist. For me, feminism is simply understanding the situation and contexts of women and working to change a situation that puts women at a disadvantage. When I say, working for changes, I mean not only in our line of work, but also in our daily personal lives.
Mari: There seems to be a general reluctance toward the term “feminist,” especially among young people. How do you explain your feminism to your peers/people of your generation?
Claire: I wouldn’t introduce myself as feminist either, but I do make it known that I practice feminism. I try to encourage people that it is not, and should not be, a dirty word. I get a bit conscious in attaching the word to myself, especially since I’m not involved with direct [mainstream] feminist advocacy. In my case, the practice of feminism is a social responsibility on a day-to-day basis.
Amara: It’s funny, but even women I’ve worked with in women’s NGOs refuse to be called feminists. I asked why, and one said she didn’t want to be associated with the older feminists she knows. Eventually, we are the ones who define what we are.
Shirin: In India, many women, even those fighting for equal rights, do not call themselves feminist because of its colonial connotations. Even today, a lot of feminist discourse is dominated by white women in the West. It is no surprise then that women of colour do not like associating themselves with it. There is a need for a struggle within feminism to break its racist history, as well as its domination by really old women. I think that one cannot be a feminist if one is racist.
Vanda: Yup, that’s right. We appreciate the hard work of the feminist movement before, but we should now contextualise this. Is it still relevant or not? Should we reformulate our understanding of it in relation to our realities?
Emily: There are many injustices in the U.S. to deal with, as well as those that they create in other countries. Here, people think there isn’t much left to do in terms of asserting women’s rights. People are more focused on other movements with other names, even though so many women in the U.S. are poor.
Amara: Feminism incorporates the gender perspective as well as the human rights perspective. In my experience, whatever issue I come across with, my analysis is still from a feminist perspective. We have to recognise that whether it was largely a white women’s movement, or one of old women, feminism was and still is a struggle against an oppressive system.
Shirin: Yes, but it has this troublesome history of speaking for others. Many brown women think that the white women have for so long spoken on their behalf. Feminism is a stream full of knowledge. We must drink from it, but we must open our horizons and become part of an even larger movement.
Emily: I think inherent in feminism is emphasising that many more people have voices and should be heard.
Mari: We know there are many other kinds of subordination that silence different voices, e.g., race, caste, class, religion. How does this play out in your own contexts?
Amara: In my line of work, I’ve seen how these other issues further oppress women. Take the case of women migrant domestic workers. They are women from a third world country doing the kind of job not respected anywhere and not even recognised by laws as work. The sad thing about the experience of these women is that they are in no position to assert themselves because they have internalised the weakness imposed on them by race, by their economic status and by being women.
Shirin: One kind of oppression contributes to the other; they feed on each other. Caste encourages sexism, racism encourages caste. Those who fight oppression are not concerned with feminism alone as it is commonly understood. For instance, for a black woman raped by her colonial master, the issue is not just that she is a woman, but that she is black. How can you separate one from the other?
Claire: I can choose my line of work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t experience the power play in different spaces. Example, I used to be part of an underground music scene, an environment that’s male-dominated, mostly middle-middle-lower class. As they busted their asses off to find jobs, I didn’t have to worry, being more materially privileged than they are. Still, I felt that they had the privilege of space and public safety. They could go to areas in Manila where I wouldn’t feel safe and secure.
<Yahoo! Messenger: Sheharav has joined the conference.>
Shehara Viswanathan: Hello all! This is Shehara from Sydney.
Mari: Welcome to the discussion, Shehara. Please introduce yourself.
Shehara: I am 29, an engineer and I work in telecommunications. I’m from the Australian Student Christian Movement and was also on the World Council of Churches’ women’s advisory group. As a woman of colour who has lived in Australia since I was 9, it has been an interesting experience.
Mavic: Hi, Shehara. This is Mavic, also from Isis. We were discussing the many kinds of subordination and how it intersects with your identity as a young woman. We’re now actually following Amara’s point that you’re worse off because you are poor; you do not belong to the dominant religion; you are a lesbian; and, on top of it, you are a young woman.
Claire: I thought my Catholic school upbringing was pretty oppressive. I was in a classroom with girls who had lots of money. I came from an upwardly mobile family, but these girls tend to look down on girls who didn’t wear designer labels. There was also “girl competition.” These girls could not grasp the idea of “individuality”. They all had these dominant notions of male-female power play. And if you were to call or strike up a conversation with a boy, you’d be branded a flirt or easy. It was hard for me to find kinship with these girls, which was why it wasn’t easy for me to learn about feminism. We had absolutely no resources on feminism. The most ironic thing is that we had supposedly feminist nuns in our school.
Shehara: I have been thinking a lot about the levels of violence and power. One of the most obvious in the world at the moment is the oppression of Muslim people. Unfortunately, Muslim women are much more obvious and are often easily identified for abuse.
Amara: In the Philippines, whether it’s Islam or Christianity, religions are largely anti-women. The Catholic Church is the largest and most powerful, and the government just follows its dictates.
Shehara: Generally, the problems with religion in terms of feminism are not truly religious problems, but “man-made” issues of tradition and power disguised as religion. While a lot of terrible things have been done in the name of religion, so has a lot of good.
Shirin: There are movements of reform within religion. Due to a feminist reading of the Koran, people now agree that abortion is not irreligious. So, it is good that Islamic feminists were able to prove this. But I think that if they weren’t able to, we should still insist on what is just. Religion can be empowering, but it is not all we have. One bad thing is that it creates walls. So, Hindu women are separated from Muslim women by an artificial wall. But then, it unites them, too, because the oppression cuts across (religions).
Emily: My religion—Unitarian Universalist—is practically dominated by feminists. It’s a very different place to be than being a Muslim or Catholic.
Vanda: Education is the most important thing because if someone is well-educated, she or he will “protect” himself/herself from whatever kind of injustice.
Mari: What are other distinct issues facing young women today in your countries? Shehara, could you talk a bit about your experiences as a young woman of colour living in a white-majority country? Vanda, could you tell us a little more about what’s happening in Indonesia?
Shehara: Living in Sydney, I am surrounded by people of many cultures and I have not encountered any obvious racism. My bar is quite high, though, as I left Sri Lanka as a result of racism after the riots in 1983. I am Tamil. I think a common theme between all Australian women—young and old—is violence. Other main issues facing women are inequality in the workplace and, for indigenous, migrant and refugee women, a variety of issues related to isolation, racism and violence in their communities.
Vanda: Here in Indonesia, most of the districts are still male-dominated. Women’s oppression can be seen in rape, trafficking and domestic violence. Many young women do not realise that they are trafficked but some of them justify it by invoking “economics.” Another issue is religion, because one “big” community thinks they have power to pressure the minority.
Emily: There are many different young women in the U.S. Some have access to education and some do not. People think it’s such a rich country that everyone has a fair shot. Also, the girls have huge body image issues and the situation seems to be getting worse.
Amara: Responsible sexuality is a big issue. More and more young women are getting pregnant—teen pregnancies resulting to unwanted babies or unsafe abortions. The problem here is caused by lack of correct information on sexuality. Young women do not really know their bodies. Also, in the Philippines, all young girls want fair skin.
Shehara: There is racism in Australia, but there isn’t a feeling among dark people that they want to be white. There is a difference between fashion whiteness and racism whiteness. As a black woman in Sydney, I never understood the concept of whitening creams as all my white friends wanted my colour. It is only when I travel to Sri Lanka that people make comments about how dark I am. I find it amusing. So, being lily white isn’t as important as it is in India. In Australia, there are also issues of anorexia, bulimia, etc.
Shirin: Yes, you are right about tanning, but the racism is still there in terms of feeling. So the brown people in Australia still want to be “white.” I lived in Australia for a couple of years and saw a lot of brown immigrants trying to ape the whites because it means a higher status somehow.
Mari: Claire, are you still here? I agree that body image is a “universal issue.” In your countries, how does media reinforce the existing body-image standards?
Claire: Body image is a big issue with me. Many clothes stores are sizist because “Filipino sizes” are small. There are some efforts to put up plus-size clothing stores, some more stylish than others, but it’s hard to assume that people have the same taste. Women’s magazines and teen magazines sell thinness as the ideal.
Shirin: But even this “plus-size” business means that we assume that the standard size is thin!
Claire: I’m still trying to decide whether plus-size-ness is tokenism. What bothers me is the slant. Even if one is plus-sized, the emphasis is on “flattering clothing.” Sure, everyone wants to look presentable, but flattering? What’s there to disguise? As if I can’t be proud if I’m big, and I am, so I have to make concessions by allowing my clothes to flatter my figure? Whatever!
Emily: I think the media makes everyone wants to look the same, like Britney Spears basically. And Britney is so boring. I think business is just as responsible. Much of what we buy is chosen by corporate interests, and we all end up looking the same. I think creativity is in danger.
Amara: Problem is, girls go for Britneys and Barbies. Any effort to curb these dominant images does not sell, so, media doesn’t take it on. It’s also because young women are at a point where they want to belong. Since we are bombarded with images of what we should be like to be accepted, we go for it, with no questions asked.
Shehara: I know it is hard, but what can we do to make even a small difference? We need to change these attitudes. In schools, we have a lot of programmes to encourage young women to be healthy and proud of their bodies. But, aside from that, what do we do to change this?
Emily: I have access to independent media. People need to realise that they have access to media, to claim it themselves. Activists have the responsibility to get into it, not just complain about it.
Amara: The Internet is a good form of media and a lot of young women have access to it. But let’s not forget the young women from the communities who have no access to information. I think there should be community-based interventions as well.
Claire: There needs to be more independent media that can be made accessible to the mainstream. We have a few independent magazines, but they don’t last long because of funding and the demand to go glossy just to be noticed. If more people thought about self-publishing, it could add to what little is out there.
Emily: There are tons of indy media here in the U.S. I think that happens all the time, just small each time. Or it is hard to see what it adds up too, here at least. But only people interested in indy media see indy media. Nowadays, anyone can make something for the Internet, a zine, a website. Media is exploding and tightening at the same time.
Shirin: Oh, yeah, Emily, you guys have some good independent media, but then the majority don’t see it. That is why people still hate Iraqis. Let’s start our own journal. As they say, every drop counts.
Amara: Packaging is very important. It’s very difficult to get into the mainstream.
Claire: Packaging really helps. There are tons of print zines here, but not all of them are after penetrating the mainstream. Some don’t even want to be known because they serve their own community, like underground music.
Mavic: Hi, Mavic here. Who do you think are the role models that young women identify with—and not just physically, and why?
Amara: Our president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is the last woman I can identify with. She is macho. I have a guy friend who did not like Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft because she was much tougher than James Bond. Men are intimidated by her attitude and her strength, so they prefer to concentrate on her body.
Claire: I was reading about how women in the U.S. in the 1960s fantasised about being a female counterpart to James Bond, but knew that they would more likely end up being one of his disposable chicklets, given time and context. Growing up, it was hard to find role models other than pop stars. It was easier to have male role models. As a girl, my role model was Cyndi Lauper. There’s Kelly Osbourne now, because she has a wicked dress sense, and she’s plus-size. Of course, she’s Ozzy’s daughter, too, hehehe!
Shehara: I love Kelly as well.
Amara: When I was growing up, I liked Winnie the Pooh largely because Winnie was neither a girl nor a boy. Funny, I can’t really think of a role model. I guess I was never one to pattern my behaviour after someone else.
Vanda: I like Winnie the Pooh, too. I admire Mother Theresa. She was a great woman, fighting and struggling for justice for poor people. Her compassion for humanity was so intense.
Emily: Amy Goodman (democracy now, indy media, foreign correspondent). She goes out and speaks to people too, and when you see her, she moves you. It’s so important to inspire people in person. My friends who work for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eve Ensler [author of The Vagina Monologues] because she uses the money she makes to build domestic violence shelters in Africa.
Shirin: I respect Amy Goodman, too, because she has the courage and intelligence to provide us with the alternative news. While the rest of the U.S. media tells us that Iraqis are bad, she goes to find out the other side. She takes up issues ranging from peace to corruption to racism to everything that matters. She is not CNN, thank god.
Shehara: From Australia, Cathy Freeman. Mum Shirl and Lowitja O’ Donahue, who are indigenous women. Indira Gandhi. The outspoken women of Afghanistan… All the witches that were burnt for their natural healing powers.
Shirin: Please, not Indira Gandhi.
Shirin: Because she was a dictator.
Shirin: She did nothing for a just and egalitarian society. Being a woman does not automatically make you anti-sexist. Just because a woman became the Prime Minister does not mean equal rights for women.
Shehara: Different opinions, Shirin. Indira was still a female role model for many young women and role models cannot be perfect. That is what we are fighting—the Barbie principle. We want women with all their imperfections.
Mari: Indeed, different opinions coming from different contexts. Live and let live.
Shirin: Yeah, they can’t be perfect, but they shouldn’t be dictators, too. See, this is a kind of fanaticism, too, that’s why people dislike feminism. We seem to think that all goddesses are empowering; they were not.
Amara: Of course, they were not, even the goddesses were male constructs.
Shirin: Not all women are feminists. Margaret Thatcher? Condeleeza Rice? Arroyo?
Shehara: But why is that wrong? They are just different women doing their thing in the world.
Shirin: He, he! The paucity of role models. Okay, and what about our own mothers?
Shehara: Yes, and grandmothers.
Emily: My mom is definitely my role model. She is a partner in an all-male accounting firm. I think we—older and younger women—need to talk about feminism together and we don’t.
Claire: For a time, I didn’t get along with my mother. We get along now. She has admirable qualities, but I guess indirectly, she influenced my direction toward the arts. She was involved in theatre, though I am more into pop culture.
Amara: I love my mother and she was so strong for us, but she thinks my father is god who can’t go wrong.
Shirin: My mother is my best role model. My maternal grandmother was ultra-racist. She disowned my mother because she married a Muslim! I love my mother. I love my father too. And he is a feminist!
Shehara: My mom and grandma are my biggest role models. My fiancé is also a feminist. His mom and grandma taught him well.
Claire: My boyfriend is a feminist too. He’s into girl culture. He’s what I call a “riot colehiyala.”
Mari: Interesting role models... Last 15 minutes, sisters. Just to go back to an earlier question, what do you think of older feminists, our feminist foremothers?
Shirin: Older women are repositories of knowledge, but they also have to continue learning, just like all of us. I want to learn from their experiences, appreciate the good things they did, and not repeat the blunders they committed.
Amara: The older feminists I know refuse to deal with men. Come to think of it, they also refuse to deal with lesbians and gays. I think this goes against the basic principles of feminism, which is human rights and gender sensitivity.
Vanda: They are great. They were the ones who were first to realise that women should struggle for their rightful existence. They started to “open” a new perspective on human beings, especially women’s existence. Our duty now is to push it forward based on our own contexts.
Claire: I know of an older feminist who is awfully dismissive of third wave feminism. And to think that my introduction to feminism was third wave! There are older feminists out there with great ideas and some have managed to keep in contact with what young people are doing.
Emily: Older feminists can help us understand what more there is to do in the struggle. I think as women we oppress women, too.
Shirin: Sometimes I think that they think they have the world figured out already. They are very stubborn and refuse to change or admit that younger women can be intelligent, too, and that they can teach them, too. Feminism cannot be successful if racism, casteism and ageism within the movement do not go away!
Amara: Still, there are some who have kept up with the times, they are the ones I can still talk to. With 15 years of the movement behind them, they still have not become grim and fanatic about the issue. I continue to learn from them.
Mari: Thank you, everyone, for such an engaging discussion. Let’s do this again. We’ll keep in touch and keep you informed about the offshoot of this online discussion and its future publication in Isis International Manila’s Women in Action. Again, thanks and have a good day.
by Doim Bang Joo
I started my internship with the Burma Issues in Bangkok on 16 May 2003. At first, I was very nervous because I knew little about the Burma. I just knew that there were rampant and serious human rights violations in that country. And of course my English was not so good, moreover, it was my first trip to Thailand. However, the staff of the Burma Issues welcomed me in very friendly ways and gave me a very detailed introduction on their work as well as my job. Particularly, I was introduced to the Documentation Center of Burma Issues which updates and keeps records of the situation of Burma. I feel that the data-base for the Internally Displaced People in Burma was very valuable and impressive.
After I had adjusted to the working environment of Burma Issues, I started to meet several ethnic groups from Burma who are staying in Thailand. I had very valuable discussions with them which I will never forget. Before I came to Burma Issues, I thought that democracy was the only issue for the country. However, after I met some ethnic peoples of Burma, I realised that the ethnic issue was as important as the issue of democracy in understanding the country. In other words, the people in Burma want to achieve self-determination for the ethnic groups as much as they want to achieve democracy.
Burma consists of many ethnicities. It does not mean that Burmans is the majority and other ethnics are minorities. On the contrary it means that Burmans is one of the ethnic groups in Burma. Some people say it is a real democracy to treat all ethnics equally. The different ethnic people who are working for the human rights of their own people are against the military government’s relocation policy and its human rights abuses, said that they do not hate Burmans but they just want to live together with each other in peace.
When I met with the youth from several ethnic groups, some of them told me that the best way to achieve democracy in Burma was to recognise the self-determination of each and every ethnic groups in Burma. But some people argue that federalism is the best way to the betterment of all ethnic groups in Burma—just like after World War II, Burma achieved federalism according to the ‘Panglong Agreement’.
However, it is clear that both opinions agree that the main problem at this moment is the military regime that does not want democracy in Burma. They also agree that most of the sufferings have been caused by the military government’s discrimination policy.
Through several encounters I reaffirmed my conviction that human rights movements from the grassroots is important because the quality of life of the grassroots is the measuring standard of human rights and democracy.
The purpose of this Myanmar trip was to experience the life of the ethnic people especially the minorities. While I had indirect information about Burma in the office of Burma Issues, I also had more concrete understanding of the human rights and social situation in Myanmar in my trip to Myanmar. Fortunately I had many opportunities to talk with the ethnic minorities especially with the youth. So, I would like to introduce some dialogues, as follows:
“If USA or any other countries attack Myanmar I will fight against the invader” said one of youth from Chin. She said she does not like the military government but she loves the people who live in Myanmar. That is why she is willing to fight against any invaders. When I was talking with her, she was angry that US attacked Iraq and that it has imposed economic sanctions in Myanmar. She did not believe what the US said about economic sanctions will help improve democracy in Myanmar and by doing so is actually supporting democracy. According to her, the US is still reaping benefits indirectly through Japan or other Asian countries that are dominating the Myanmar market. She emphasised that she does not like the Burmanese government and but love those who live together with her.
I met one person who had attended a gathering in Monywa to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign. He told me what had happened:
“I think the accident was planned by SPDC, I am sure! Prior to the gathering, a helicopter landed at the place where Aung San Suu Kyi stayed and soldiers forcefully divided the youth group and Aung San Suu Kyi, then they attacked and killed the youth. Maybe more than 50 people were killed by the soldiers and those who are supported by the SPDC” According to him, the SPDC is very cunning and clever because they use the tactic, divide and rule, between people and pro-democratic group. The SPDC likes to propagate that Aung San Suu Kyi is supported by UK who has once colonised Myanmar, but nobody believes this propaganda. He added that those people who support Aung San Suu Kyi do not support the National League for Democracy (NLD) because they do not believe the NLD members except Aung San Suu Kyi. He also said he likes and is willing to support Aung San Suu Kyi but he does not follow the policy of NLD because they do not have any policy on ethnic conflict transformation in Myanmar. In his opinion if the NLD wants to be a party which enjoys the support of the people, they should be concerned on the ethnic conflicts between Burman and the others, and be against SPDC’s policy of ethnic discrimination.
Whenever I was asked, “Where are you from?” I will feel guilty because my country Korea is one of the supporting countries to SPDC. I saw many Korean business people there at the Yangon airport and they were talking about businesses and where are the best places to build factories and how much money they could make in Myanmar etc. Nobody talked about the human rights abuses and economy crisis in Myanmar. And the worst was that some of them were giving money to the SPDC in order to receive business benefits from the military government. It was sad to me because most of the Korean business people are supporting the military government through this way. It was not so hard to see many Korean companies advertisements such as ‘Samsung’, or ‘LG’ on the streets, but it is difficult to meet Korean people who are concerned on human rights abuses in Myanmar. Yes! I know they are business people and not human rights advocates, but they are Korean and I am also Korean, that is why I feel guilty every time when I was asked “where are you from?”. This question always reminds me of a challenge that I should work both in Myanmar and Korea.
The whole challenge of my internship was how to relate Minjung (grassroots in Korean) in the movement. I believe Minjung is God, that is why I have dedicated my life to work with the Minjung. When I meet and talk with the Minjung, I convince myself again why we have to work together in and with Minjung. The Minjung realise their situation and accept struggles of human rights abuses from the bottom of their heart. It is important that we should listen to the Minjung’s voice and respond to their needs, otherwise all our movements will lose the vision.
Before I started the internship, I was worried about my English ability and that I will not be able to contribute to Burma Issues as an intern. But soon after I found this was not an obstacle for learning and sharing with the ethnic people in Myanmar and staff in Burma Issues. They kindly took care of me from the beginning to the end. “Nobody is perfect! Don’t worry!” the coordinator said to me. Now I think I was lucky because I met so kind staff in Burma Issues and I had the chance to meet ethnic youths and grassroots people in Thailand and Myanmar.
Through this internship programme, I became aware of two things. First, Minjung’s (or grassroots) perspective is very important in human rights advocacy work, and secondly the ecumenical movement should be based on the perspective of Minjung. We have a tendency to mouth that ‘Minjung is the fundamental foundation for our movements and churches but many times we forget this truth.
In this internship programme, I acknowledged that ethnic conflict is the most critical problem in Myanmar. Burmanese soldiers are constantly attacking and killing ethnic minorities from the jungles to the villages. Although democratising the political system in Myanmar is very important, I question “for whom is this system working”? For me, the answer is clear—the system should work for the Minjung.
The encounters with the ethnic youths in Myanmar inspired me that youth and students should actively involve in the struggle for human rights, peace and justice, not only for themselves but also for the future generations. After the internship, I keep the slogan of Burma Issues in my heart: