“Sexuality Is Not A Private Issue, But Rather A Site Of Struggle”
Ahead of the November 9th “One Day, One Struggle” Campaign, Pinar Ilkkaracan and Irazca Geray from the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) speak about the global post-9/11 backlash against sexual and reproductive rights, the evolution of the coalition and its most significant accomplishments to date, and the coalition’s upcoming campaign.
By Masum Momaya
AWID: Why and how was the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) founded?
CSBR: Two weeks after September 11th (9/11) in 2001, 21 women from various NGOs and academic institutions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) founded CSBR as a solidarity network. This followed the international “Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East” conference in Istanbul. CSBR was established as a solidarity network for advocates working on various issues related to women’s sexuality in their countries. We believe that religion is often misused as a powerful instrument of control and sexual oppression, with the goal of legitimizing human rights violations in the domain of sexuality. At the time, there were few organizations consciously addressing the theme, and most were very isolated in their own national contexts. Over time, our work expanded beyond the original framework.
By 2003, our aim became “promoting sexual, reproductive and bodily health and rights in Muslim societies.” Due to 9/11 and its impacts, we needed to disseminate information to those genuinely interested in Muslim societies and also fight growing Islamophobia and increasing misinformation within Muslim societies, too.
AWID: How has the coalition grown over the years?
CSBR: In 2004, the coalition was extended to include members from South and Southeast Asia. AAHUNG, an NGO working on sexual health and education in Pakistan, played a key role. They explained to us that a lot of practices and discourses that violate sexual rights in South and Southeast Asia are imported from the Middle East through religious fundamentalist networks. It is incredible how far the Coalition has come in only eight years! It now has around 40 leading partner organizations in MENA, South and Southeast Asia.
AWID: How does CSBR differ from other coalitions working on sexuality elsewhere in the world?
CSBR: CSBR is unique in its multi-disciplinary approach and diverse membership. It includes both women and men; has a membership that encompasses women’s human rights NGOs, LGBTQI networks, organizations working on HIV/AIDS, and academic institutions. It builds bridges across various regions, between NGOs and academic institutions, and across various themes related to sexuality. Also, the coalition also includes Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and other religious minority groups from Muslim-majority countries, as they are also affected by various practices that violate human rights related to sexuality.
AWID: What are some key issues CSBR is working on now? And are these issues particular to and/or particularly challenging in Muslim societies? If so, how and why?
CSBR: Since our founding, global politics undergone tremendous changes, resulting in increasingly difficult challenges for us. In the post 9/11 context and during the eight years of the Bush administration, we witnessed new international alliances between the Christian and Muslim religious right, specifically targeting sexual, bodily and reproductive rights to advance their own political agenda. These alliances were often led by the Vatican or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and supported by the neo-conservatives then in power in the US.
The emergence of the OIC as a “united body” of 57 Muslim countries blocking any advances related to sexual and reproductive rights at international UN conferences took place after 9/11. Earlier, they acted as a united front in various UN Human Rights Committee meetings on various other issues; however, it was shocking to see how they acted as a united front to block any language related to sexual and reproductive health and rights at the 2006 High-Level Meeting on AIDS held by the UN General Assembly. They were even against articles on “girls’ empowerment,” which was totally new and shocking.
Since then, the OIC has amplified its efforts in this direction. However, despite the OIC’s seeming unity at the UN conferences, in fact, there are wide differences among Muslim societies regarding the progress made or the backlash encountered regarding sexual and reproductive rights at the national levels. Nonetheless, in general, the Bush government’s right-wing ideology and discourses related to the so-called “Global War on Terror,” its invasion and occupation of Iraq and the increasing militarization in the region as a whole has strengthened religious extremist, militarist, nationalist and patriarchal ideologies, not only in the Middle East, but across all Muslim societies. As a result of these global power struggles, the Islamic religious right discourse that frames sexual rights as “an imposed Western agenda,” has gained more strength in the post-9/11 context. We are working to offer alternate framings to this.
AWID: Is legal reform important in the contexts your members work in? If so, why?
CSBR: CSBR’s analysis posits that sexuality is not a private issue, but rather a site of political, social, and economic struggles for equality, human rights, democracy and peace at the national and international levels. Control of women’s sexuality, as well as the sexuality of all those who are perceived to be non-conforming, including LGBTQI people, girl children, single people, widows, etc., has always been a major aim for civil laws, personal status codes, and penal codes. In various countries, these laws include many articles that violate human rights related to sexuality. Accordingly, legal reforms are on the agenda of many CSBR members at the national level, as well as for CSBR as a transnational advocacy network.
CSBR has produced various research reports and publications regarding legal reforms, including Gender, Sexuality and Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa and Turkish Civil and Penal Code Reforms from a Gender Perspective.
AWID: Can you share a few success stories of the coalition and its members?
CSBR: Within the context of such disadvantageous global politics, the biggest success of CSBR has been to resist all these challenges not only by increasing solidarity, but also by advancing alternate discourses on sexual and reproductive rights at national, regional and international levels. Not only has CSBR expanded membership, but the coalition has also stimulated the creation of NGOs working for sexual and reproductive rights in various Muslim countries.
At the national level, CSBR pioneered the very first high-level international meetings on sexual and reproductive rights in countries like Lebanon and Tunisia - places where sexuality had been a taboo subject through most of the colonial and post-colonial period.
At the international level, CSBR facilitated – for the first time - the externalization of specific political issues relevant to advocates in Muslim societies working on sexual and reproductive rights to the global civil society. It also facilitated advocates from Muslim countries working on sexual and reproductive rights being able to participate in various international conferences and organized numerous panels at international academic and activist forums. In terms of legal reforms, activists in some Muslim countries had incredible successes in realizing legal reforms, despite strong national opposition, as in the case of civil and the penal codes in Turkey in 2001 and 2004 and the reform of the family law in Morocco in 2003.
AWID: Are there specific projects or programs that the CSBR is implementing now?
CSBR: We organize annual CSBR Sexuality Institutes to foster the continued vitality of the Coalition and encourage active cooperation among its members, because each member organization has emerged in response to a local need or demand that is shared by the network’s members. For example, with the rapid expansion of the network, there was an emerging need to solidify our common language, discourse and vision. The Institute aims to build knowledge and capacity, both internally for Coalition members as well as for other advocates, researchers and practitioners working on sexuality issues in Muslim societies.
The Institute has helped build, share and strengthen alternate discourses on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. One participant, Mahrukh Mohiuddin from BRAC University in Bangladesh, said “I would summarize the experience [of] the CSBR Institute in one word: LIBERATING. The novelty of CSBR’s discourse in our socio-cultural context is certainly one important aspect, but more importantly, the silence that our society harbors around sexuality has become so ’normal’ that we often forget how integral it is to our existence and well-being.”
Another participant, Ghassan Makarem from HELEM in Lebanon, noted “[t]his is the first time in a long while that I [went] to an international meeting on sexuality where there is no Islamophobia, and this gives one the chance to actually critically think and talk about Islam.”
AWID: Tell us more about the One Day, One Struggle campaign.
CSBR: Through the One Day, One Struggle campaign, which will be held on the ‘other 9/11’ (i.e., November 9, 2009) we hope to show that even though we are in different continents, working on different aspects of sexuality and sexual rights, we are united in our quest to realize sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. The Campaign aims to contribute to the advocacy efforts of CSBR members by raising public awareness on sexuality and sexual rights in national contexts and drawing international public attention to issues and struggles. The Campaign consists of simultaneous actions that will take place in the countries of coalition members and allies. The theme of each activity is based on pertinent issues in each context.
Issues include: sexuality education in Tunisia; stoning as a punishment for adultery in Aceh, Indonesia; femicide; the impact of the Apartheid Wall and house demolitions on women in Palestine; women’s reproductive rights in Sudan and Bangladesh; the treatment of homosexuality as a disease in Pakistan. Campaign activities are very diverse, ranging from conferences to artistic performances to book launches. All are public events, aimed to raise awareness amongst other civil society groups, the media, and the general public.
The author would like to thank her AWID colleague Saira Zuberi for support with this piece.