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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Irom Sharmila Chanu

Aung San Suu Kyi

Even as the world observed International Women’s Day on March 8 and India rose to the occasion by initiating the passing of a landmark piece of legislation that is expected to bring about dramatic changes in the role of women in politics, all of this seems little more than lip service when we turn our attention to the plight of two women in particular– Irom Sharmila Chanu and Aung San Suu Kyi – and their protracted struggle against injustice. What ought to make us more uneasy is the fact that one of them is an Indian citizen whose struggle is against the elected Indian government.

Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for more than a decade in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which is in place in large portions of the north-east, including her own state of Manipur. She is alive only because the authorities have been force-feeding her under arrest, to prevent her from committing suicide. On March 8, she was released from captivity as a token to mark Women’s Day, only to be rearrested on the charge of trying to commit suicide. The AFSPA is an act that vests the army with arbitrary powers on the pretext of maintaining peace in a ‘disturbed area’. However, it has been misused over the years by army personnel and basic rights and freedoms of the people of the north-east have been repeatedly violated. Countless lives have been lost to indiscriminate firings and extrajudicial encounters, and the perpetrators have never been brought to task because the Act gives them immunity from prosecution. Irom Sharmila’s fight, therefore, is not one for the rights of women, but rather for the right of any human being to live in dignity and freedom and his right to the protection of his life and personal liberty. These are guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen of the country, and the people belonging to disturbed areas can not be treated as exceptions. Fundamental rights are not favours to be dispensed or withheld by a government at will. They are the aspirations of a free people born in a free society, and the constitution is but a document that recognizes these aspirations. Denying a group of people their fundamental rights, therefore, is not just a subversion of the Constitution, but an outrage on their dignity and a criminal act per se.

The Indian government has been reluctant to do away with the draconian AFSPA, citing the secessionist atmosphere in the region. What it fails to realize is that secessionist or anti-state actors everywhere are always in minority, while the majority is always law-abiding. In imposing what amounts to military rule in the region and thereby withholding from the people the rights and freedoms that their brethren in other parts of the country enjoy, the government is further alienating them and aggravating the separatist feelings. This kind of a strategy to contain separatism can only be counter-productive in the long run. The government must wake up to this reality and undo the wrongs that have been allowed to happen. Repealing the AFSPA, as recommended by the Jeevan Reddy Commission and various international human rights organizations, can and ought to be the first corrective step in this direction.

Not very far from Imphal, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to languish in captivity in Rangoon for the fourteenth consecutive year. Though her fight against the oppressive military junta has received wide international attention and earned the Burmese government severe censure and sanctions, very little has come of it. The military continues to hold her in house arrest on flimsy and unsubstantiated charges, and has recently debarred her from contesting the upcoming elections. It is but obvious that the elections, if and when held, are going to be an orchestrated event, very much like those in Pakistan under General Musharraf’s rule, intended more as a PR exercise than a genuine social and political reform. Sooner or later, however, the military is bound to collapse from within if not from without. History tells us that such totalitarian regimes generally meet one of the two fates: they are either overthrown by popular revolution or they succumb to external pressure and economic sanctions. The present regime in Rangoon has been resisting both, little realizing that the longer you stretch the string, the harder it snaps and hits you back. Be that as it may, Suu Kyi’s relentless fight against the military regime should stir the conscience of the neighbouring nations, particularly India, and also of powerful nations like the US, who should step up pressure on the Than Shwe administration to step aside and let the Burmese people determine their own destiny.

The current situation of women in the world presents us with a glaring paradox. On the one hand, there are the genuinely empowered women who are represented by the Hillary Clintons, Angela Merkels and the Nancy Pelosis in the western world. Even back home, we have women in key positions in every walk of life. Meira Kumar presides over the world’s largest elected assembly, Pratibha Patil is the supreme commander of the armed forces (against which Irom Sharmila is fighting), and Sonia Gandhi is arguably the most powerful person in the country. On the other hand there are women like Rebiya Kadeer, Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila who are leading the struggle against wanton oppression and human rights abuse from the forefront in different parts of the world. What then prevents the former from coming to the aid of the latter? What prevents Ms Clinton from paying a visit to General Than Shwe in Rangoon and impressing upon him in no uncertain terms the indignation of the freedom-loving people of America at Suu Kyi’s detention and demanding her immediate and unconditional release? Why for that matter does President Obama not live up to his Nobel Peace Prize by coming to the aid of Suu Kyi who happens to be another peace laureate? What prevented Ms Gandhi from insisting that on March 8, the House engage in a constructive debate over alternatives to the AFSPA in the north-east, instead of pushing through a controversial and largely symbolic legislation whose long term impact, if any, is yet to be understood? What stops the young and promising Agatha Sangma, member of Parliament and a minister moreover, from raising her voice in her own government against the rights violations in the north-east, a part of the country from which she herself hails and whose troubles she can not be ignorant of? Why, after all, is there more tokenism and lip service in these matters than concrete action?

It frustrates me every time I am reminded that women like Irom and Suu Kyi are being held captive against their wishes, more so because their fight is a righteous one by all standards. They are fighting for the very same things that Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela have fought for in their generation and age, and as it was with these men whom we today look upon as heroes, so it shall be with these women, the heroines of tomorrow. The confines of the prison cell shall prove to be very weak indeed for them, for their spirits are free and always soaring.  As the author of Shantaram puts it, they will always be “free to hate those who torture them or to forgive them. Though it doesn’t sound like much, but in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility…”

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I have, before this, spoken of the eventual irrelevance of ‘religion’ in the affairs of the human species. It may not seem to be near at hand and neither is it, but I believe its gradual marginalization is a historical trend, and it must die out ultimately when men will have no use for it.  Surprisingly, its staunchest proponents are the ones who perceive this clearly, and never cease to find out absurd ways and means to stem this inexorable tide. The plea before the Indian Supreme Court by a section of the Muslim community to allow veiled women to be photographed (with veils on) for voter’s ID cards is one such example of absurdity and desperation. (Click here for the story.) The Supreme Court has rightly dismissed such pleas with the comment that those Muslim women who do not wish to be seen by men need not come out and vote. No matter what its origins may be, the burqa system is a blot on the seemingly liberal character of our society, and far from being a symbol of faith, it is today a glaring symbol of oppression of women. What can be worse, those who support this depravity do so on the grounds of religion, something which is above and beyond any debate.

While it can not be ignored that in some ‘liberated’ Muslim societies where burqas have been banned, women have themselves come forward protesting this ban and asserting their right to sport that particular piece of clothing as a symbol of their faith, I still believe this has been more out blind belief in religious diktat rather than prudence or reason. (The Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s novels portray the pro-burqa movement by women in Ataturk’s secular Turkey.) Whatever these women may be fighting for, they are doing little to further the cause of the millions of women who are being subjected to emotional as well as physical torture behind the shadows of the burqa.

Coming back to India, we have a society which has ‘given to itself’ a constitution, which in turn guarantees it the right to freely profess, practise or propagate any religion, subject to public order, morality and health. By this token, an instrument of religion like the burqa which is blatantly immoral in as much as it encourages oppression of women and denies them another fundamental right, that of free expression, ought to be declared as an infringement upon the constitution and comprehensively banned along the lines of other social evils like Sati and untouchability.

There was a time not too long ago in our nation’s history when Indians across religious lines came together to cast off and burn pieces of clothing that had become a symbol of oppression. These were the foreign-manufactured clothes, and their mass burning became a rallying point for the Swadeshi movement and the fight against British rule in India. We may have won that fight, but we are yet to win another one in which once again a piece of clothing has come to symbolize institutionalized oppression against women in our society. Once again, we must cast it off and burn it, not just symbolically, but for good measure. The initiative rests with our brothers and sisters in the Muslim community. They have the option of perpetuating this social evil under the guise of religion, or casting it off once and for all and revealing the truly liberal face of India to the world. Theirs indeed is the historic moment, either to seize or to let pass idly.

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