While the ARROW-organised symposium at the 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSH) looked at Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam, we saw many convergences in the excellent presentations showing all too 1graphically what religious exceptionalism is, and what impact it can have. I will summarise these convergences around six points:
Rhetoric: Religious exceptionalisms invoke strikingly similar rhetoric that describes what should be, a proper ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ order. Zaitun Mohammed Kasim’s presentation offered a particularly rich description of this rhetoric, together with prescriptive values (usually female chastity) and behaviour (obedience). Other rhetorical terms like ‘honour’ and ‘morality’ are used with reference to the ‘family.’
Othering: Kalpana Kannabiran describes the links between intimate violence and inter-group violence in South Asia, particularly around the Partition between India and Pakistan, of women suffering from sexual assault, forced marriages, sterilisation, because they did not ‘belong’ to the right group. That ‘othering’ continues today, a vital part of the agenda of religious exceptionalists. To justify religious exceptionalism, we see how the ‘enemy’ has to be othered, through new mythologies and demonologies. Thus, for Christian exceptionalists like George W. Bush, the enemies are terrorists, forming an axis of evil. For Filipino Christian exceptionalists, the enemy is ‘western imperialism’ and its ‘imposition’ of contraception. For Hindu and Islamist exceptionalists, the enemies are ‘western liberals.’ All exceptionalists tend to identify ‘secularism’and ‘humanism’ as the ‘other.’
Arenas: There are many arenas in the battles being waged by religious exceptionalists. Within their own faith-based institutions, religious exceptionalists fight to impose their brand, their interpretation of their religion. The battles in the interpretations of religious dogmas and theologies and, in Islam, of syariah (religious law) often centre on the personal and on bodies, and on households, with definitions of women’s impurity (epitomised in menstruation), and on their potentials as temptresses and seductresses. These arenas are important in the way they control daily life and discourse.
We saw, too, in the presentations, the dynamics of both globalisation and localisation, some of which go back in history, such as in the ways colonial laws coincided with the moralism of older local traditions. Today, conservatives wage global campaigns in international meetings and in the United Nations, and in individual countries and communities, challenging national laws as well as custom law (adat). Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan’s presentation highlights how a country’s laws may be quite progressive, and yet face threats from religious exceptionalists invoking cultural traditions.
Impact: The presentations show how vicious the impacts of religious exceptionalism can be. Religious exceptionalism draws from the rhetoric of ‘what should be,’ and on the labeling of the ‘other’ to prescribe often severe forms of moral policing. More than marginalisation and stigmatisation, we see how religious exceptionalism engenders violence, assault, partitions and polarisation. At the same time, the presentations remind us to be alert to more subtle forms of control and ideologising, especially in the domestic sphere. The attempts to restrict divorce, for example, further sequester battered women, limiting their options to take action.
Strategies: The presentations do not stop with a description of problems. Throughout Asia, the speakers encourage the ensuring of the separation of religion and State and the strengthening of secular institutions especially around education. Moreover, Zaitun emphasises how we need to ‘affect, broaden and redirect’ the discourse, tackling the issues at all levels and arenas.