Monday, 11 October 2010

Pro gay, pro-women international Muslim coalition holds third meeting in decade

Source: Jakarta Post

By Julia Suryakusuma

I am pleased to announce that last week about two-dozen men, women and myself enjoyed six sex-filled days at a hotel in South Jakarta. We all agreed it was truly a religious experience.

Were we engaged in a week of transcendental tantric sex? If only!

In fact, there was nothing transcendental about our (ahem!) coming together. What we were doing was way more down to earth. You see, between Sept. 18 and 25, the Coalition for Sexuality and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) held its third session, this time in Jakarta (the previous events were held in Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul).

It was a religious experience because, as the name implies, the organizers, trainers and participants were mainly from Muslim countries, and the links between sex and religion were a key theme. Imagine a room packed full of Muslims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, all learning about sexuality and exchanging experiences. Exciting stuff!

The CSBR was co-founded in 2001 by 21 representatives of MENA (Middle East and North African) NGOs, initiated by the Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR – New Ways), a leading women’s advocacy NGO founded by Pinar Ilkkaracan, a pioneer of the Turkish women’s movement.

 CSBR is still the only international solidarity network for Muslims that works to promote sexual and bodily rights as human rights. Geographically it covers a vast region from Morocco to the Philippines, engaging in advocacy work in the areas of women’s rights, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights, and sexual and reproductive health rights. The Coalition itself now includes 40 organizations and academic institutions from the MENA countries, and South and Southeast Asia.

Now this is what I call the true Coalition of the Willing! In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that the CSBR coalition numbers were about the same as the one George Bush used to invade Iraq. Not hard to guess which would be more fun: Make love, I say, not war!

The two Coalitions may be obviously diametrically opposed in their aim and orientation (sic!), but they are still related in a way. After all, the sex coalition arose as a response to the war coalition, and, in particular, the increased militarization, violence and fear-mongering that emerged in the wake of the horrific 9/11 attacks.

As we all know, one legacy of 9/11 has been a revival of Islamophobia, and a tendency in the West to “essentialise” Islam, lumping us Muslims together as “terrorists”, dangerous or at least undesirable. This, in turn, prompted the rise of equally destructive conservative political forces in the Islamic world.

The resulting anti-Western phobia among many Muslims is all-encompassing to an absurd extent, linking sexuality (and especially alternative sexualities) as somehow inherently “Western” and thus evil.

Yes, that’s right — if you’re a homosexual, it’s because you’ve been corrupted by the “West”, and should be jailed, or worse. If you’re a teenage girl who wants to make friends with boys, you’re “Westernized” and deserve to be killed to preserve the honor of the family. The results of such lunacy are often deeply tragic.

Not that it is so new, I suppose. The-Powers-That-Be in many Muslim countries have long used Islamic conservatism to repress their own peoples.

Religion, like culture, easily becomes a powerful instrument of control for unscrupulous rulers. What is new, however, is the way this has proliferated in the last 10 years.

The CSBR’s first meeting was in 2001, soon after 9/11 triggered escalated tensions in the Muslim world, just as Bin Laden had intended. Nineteen NGO representatives attended the event, titled “Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East and the Mediterranean”, to discuss links between sexuality, gender equality and sociopolitical struggles. Their conclusion: that increasing global militarism, conservatism and nationalism would feed the mechanisms of political, economic, social, legal and cultural manipulation that oppress women’s and LGBT sexuality — has proved spot-on.

As you could imagine, the course of last week was pretty intense. Topics taught ranged from basic concepts to health and rights issues, HIV, nationalism, international law, and advocacy (at national, regional and international levels).

The two roundtable discussions where participants spoke about the situations in their countries — the commonalities and differences, their struggles and successes — were riveting.

The first discussion featured the South and Southeast Asian participants from Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia. The second was for African and MENA countries (Nigeria, Sudan, Iran and Lebanon). Despite the disparities in culture, there were many disturbing things they all had in common, in varying degrees: domestic violence, marital rape, child sexual abuse, discrimination and violence against LGBTs, a lack of access to reproductive health services including safe abortion, rejection of sex education, rising incidence of HIV, female genital mutilation (FGM), honor killings, teenage pregnancies and baby-dumping, together with a host of other equally gruesome problems.

Listening to their stories, I couldn’t help but think that compared to many other countries, Indonesia seems like heaven!

Not that we’re not immune. We’ve had the law on pornography passed, and a Jambi provincial legislator recently floated the sick idea of a virginity test for girls as part of their entrance exam into state schools. This makes me think we need a sanity test for all would-be legislators — or at least six days of sex and religion in a hotel with the CSBR gang!

The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad.
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