Reflections On Our Countries – October 2017

October 16, 2017


Every month RESURJ members collectively share and reflect on some news highlights affecting sexual and reproductive, environmental and economic justice from the different regions and countries we work in… Egypt – India – Lebanon – Pakistan – Sri Lanka

Egypt: When an Autocratic Regime Uses Sexuality as a Scapegoat

By Soha Abdelaty

Egypt is witnessing the worst campaign against sexual diversity in over two decades, leaving activists, human rights defenders and lawyers feeling outraged.

Since September 22, when the crackdown began, at least 57 individuals have been apprehended by police forces across Egypt because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says there are likely to be much more.

Some have already been indicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one year to six, others are still being interrogated and a third group has been referred to trials. While same-sex relations is not explicitly outlawed in Egypt, the prosecution resort to  articles from the country’s prostitution law to charge them with “debauchery” or “inciting debauchery”, and even some provisions in a fairly new charge of  “joining an outlawed group that aims to disrupt the provisions of the Constitution, and the law through inciting “deviancy,” according to human rights lawyers working on the case.

What’s worse is that those detained are still being subjected to anal examinations to confirm their engagement in same-sex relations, a practice called out by the UN Committee against Torture in 2002 for possibly amounting to torture and condemned for years by numerous rights bodies.  They are being beaten, humiliated and threatened with rape and sexual assault at the hand of the state. There are also no due process guarantees. Those arrested are being rushed to court, which results in quick sentencing of the individuals, without giving the defendants’ lawyers enough time to prepare for the case.

The recent crackdown was triggered by a few audience members who raised the rainbow flag at a concert by the Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila, who have since condemned the arrests in a strong statement. The band is also now banned from performing in Egypt. Many media and public figures are cheering on the police and state, condemnations are coming solely from the human rights community.

The removal of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 and the return of Egypt’s police state, has also witnessed the return of the morality police and the targeting of sexual diversity and expression. While the Revolution in 2011 managed to introduce many positive changes in the discourse around gender and women’s rights, including a legal reform penalizing sexual harassment, this current crackdown signals a return of the old regime’s strategy of gaining favors with conservative views to distract attention from the real problems the country is facing.

Right to Privacy : Fundamental Right in India

By Jasmine Lovely George

The Indian Supreme Court has recently recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right for all its citizens. The nine judge bench unanimously decided in September 2017 that privacy is a constitutionally protected right emerging from the right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the constitution of India, inseparable from the right to live with dignity.

This has been a historic win for the activists around the country, who have been contesting the Indian government’s nationalized surveillance ( biometric identification) programme, known as the Aadhar programme. Aadhar is a 12-digit random number issued by the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) in 2016. In July 2016, the central government wanted existing Aadhaar card holders  to link to their PAN ( Permanent Account Number) card for taxes-filing purposes. Currently, there are cases pending before the Supreme Court which challenge the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar programme.

This is also a historic win for people working in sexual and reproductive health, as it opens up various debates for marginal sections and personal lives. Experiences from other nations like the USA and the UK in the past have shown that the legal recognition of a right to privacy has to some extent paved the way towards a better deal for sexual minorities and the takedown of discriminatory legislative provisions.  The government’s stance on Aadhaar has remained the same, arguing that citizens don’t have the right to privacy.

The current judgment for the first time acknowledged that the LGBTQI community has a right to privacy with respect to their sexual orientation. In addition to protecting sexual orientation, this judgment also opens up debate around abortion laws in India and the limitations imposed under statutes like the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. One of the judges (Justice Chelameswar) stated that the right to terminate a pregnancy falls within the purview of the right to privacy. The implications of the judgement may however have far reaching consequences in criminalizing marital rape, by discussing the need for privacy within social institutions. This judgment also provides recognition to the fact that privacy cannot be dismissed as an elitist construct, which needs to be forsaken in exchange for welfare benefits from the state. The poor also have a right to privacy. This has again raised the issues of data protection provided to marginalised groups like young women, people living with HIV, the trans community, and sex workers.

Lebanon: Sexual Morality and Incarceration in Xenophobic Times

By Ghiwa Sayegh

In September 2017, a Lebanese-run Facebook page called “Wen el Dawle” (Where is the government?) published footage of a man on a leash who was licking the feet of a woman (subsequently presumed to be trans) in a cruising area in Beirut, a public place where pick-ups and sex acts are common in the night hours. The page qualified the video as “horrifying,” and the act as “sexual deviance.” The video was quickly picked up by dubious media.

The moral panic that ensued called for the lynching of the woman, who’s pictures, name, and address were publicly shared on Facebook amidst transphobic comments. In the same week, Raya Chidiac, a young Lebanese woman, was raped and killed in her home in Meziara. Since a Syrian national was accused in her murder, the Lebanese town evicted all Syrians overnight as a response, and the national outrage was followed by renewed calls to deport all Syrian refugees back to Syria.

In the case of the leaked fetish footage, not only are consensual sexual acts still criminalized by the Lebanese legal system, but they are also considered “abnormal” and “foreign” to the Lebanese imaginary of sexual morality. At the same time, as shown by the horrific rape and murder of Raya, collective punishments are quick to materialize in a climate of xenophobia. The nationality of the murderer was more relevant to much of the Lebanese public than the crime itself, who felt compelled to protect the “national honour” against an alleged “invader.”

Meanwhile, Suzy, a senior homeless trans woman was jailed after being tried in absentia in 2011, and eventually released. Suzy never received notices of her impending trial back then since she was already homeless, and despite many campaigns aimed at raising funds for her in recent months, her sentence was put into motion 6 years later. There was no national outrage then.

In a system where carceral romanticization and heteropatriarchal notions of sexual morality conflate with imagined boundaries of the nation-state, bodies become sites of national honour, exclusion, or repulsion, even in death.

The Population Emergency That Isn’t Being Discussed In Pakistan

By Sheena Hadi

The preliminary results of Pakistan’s newest population census are not telling a very encouraging story. A 57% increase in the population in less than twenty years pushes the numbers to a staggering 207 million people, making Pakistan the fifth most populous country in the world. This, when seven million women still say that they want to limit their families and have not found a satisfactory means to do so. The results speak to an obvious truth: the state has failed to strengthen the public systems and services required to increase modern contraceptive rates and empower individuals to make responsible choices for their families. The task was never a simple one.

Launched in the 1960s under President General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s family planning program was almost immediately met with contention, particularly from the religious right. In response, what was, and continues to be needed is a strategic and committed social awareness and education program and an engagement of community influencers to ensure that a unified message (backed up by health services) is heard. But that message has never been delivered, and as Mohammed Hanif discusses in a recent opinion piece “Pakistan, Let’s Talk About Sex”, the discomfort, unease and fear of discussing family planning has ensured that the “common myth that contraception is somehow un-Islamic” was never challenged.

Hanif’s explanation of government negligence and social stigma surrounding contraception is pertinent and continues to be a huge challenge for Pakistan’s population planning, and a challenge to ensuring that women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are upheld.  However, what Hanif does not discuss, is that a much more complex and disturbing scenario has unfolded in Pakistan as a result of a perfect storm of poorly executed and flawed family planning programs, lack of access to education, a growing and vociferous religious right wing clergy, deteriorating economic conditions and continued gender discrimination. In this troubling scenario, a fragile, and often abusive healthcare system has created so much mistrust, that women would rather opt out for repeated unsafe abortions than seek out contraception.

This is not due to the common misconception that women are not aware of contraception; most are, and even when it is accessible, often choose not to take the risk of using it. For those women that do begin use, the incapacity of healthcare providers to address common myths and misconceptions has resulted in a high dropout rate of 37% within the first year of use largely due to unwanted side effects. Along with discomfort and weight gain, the fear of infertility, in particular, is a significant deterrent for women whose social standing and value is secured by their capacity to bare children. And as with most reproductive health related issues, contraception has become a public debate in which personal and informed choices that women should be making about their bodies, are dictated by the patriarchy. As Dr. Gul of Marie Stopes Society quotes, “Lack of family planning is not a health problem; it’s a social problem and a women’s rights problem, rooted in misogyny and systematic disempowerment of women”.

The tension now lies in the knowledge that Pakistan does not have the luxury of time yet has not been successful in formulating a strategy to contend with the deep social mistrust of contraception as well as the influence held by the religious right. The demographic dividend of the country puts over 50% of the population below the age of 25 years with high out-of-school rates and little to no access to comprehensive sexuality education programs. Moreover, along with the obvious strain of the population on the economy, public services and natural resources, Pakistan is also deeply vulnerable to climate change – a problem which has also been shown to be effectively mitigated through investment in women’s reproductive health. These are but a handful of reasons that population planning grounded in human rights and respect for women’s choices should be at the forefront of political debate prior to the 2018 upcoming elections. However, whether it is the discomfort of talking about sex which Hanif refers to, fear of right wing backlash, or simply negligence, political leaders have been silent. Perhaps the final census report will raise the emergency alarm, but I don’t think we should hold our breath.  

Medical Paternalism: The Price to Pay for Women’s Reproductive Autonomy?*

By Sachini Perera

Abortion reform is currently a topic du jour in Sri Lanka, with dynamic discussions on why reforms are needed, feminist perspectives on the ongoing debate, as well as the view that “public policy on health ought to be made on the basis of strong medical and secular grounds and not on religious beliefs”.

While this final point made by the Chair of the Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka is pertinent, it is imperative we recall that while abortion is a public health concern, it is first and foremost a woman’s reproductive right, and that the choice to have an abortion forms an integral part of a woman’s reproductive autonomy, i.e. whether and when to continue a pregnancy. This calls for a serious public debate on whether the medicalization of abortion through the proposed abortion law reform, the key proponents of which are doctors and the Ministry of Health, is a price worth paying.

Proposed reform

Currently, abortion is criminalized in Sri Lanka with one exception; to save the life of the woman. The proposed reform, if passed, will allow abortions in two instances: in the case of a foetus with lethal congenital malformation, and when a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Both exceptions are at the recommendation of consultant doctors in state hospitals and in the case of rape there is involvement of law enforcement too.

Breaking barriers

An argument in favour of the proposed reform would be to relax the law in order to make safe and legal abortion accessible for more women who need them in the context of the two added exceptions. Another argument seems to be that such a reform would take away restrictions imposed by the state and enable women to access safe and legal abortion, albeit in very limited circumstances.

While these make the reforms sound promising, a closer look reveals that they are deeply problematic, both in principle and in practice.

*This excerpt is from an article published on the South Feminist Voices blog. To read the full article, click here.