By Minerwa Tahir
KARACHI: What are the effects of religious fundamentalism – be it Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim – on the cultural rights of women?
Classical dancer and activist Sheema Kermani addressed this question while speaking at a press briefing she organized at the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, on Wednesday. The briefing was on an event, titled ‘The Impact of Fundamentalism and Extremism on the Cultural Rights of Women: Time to Take a Stand’, that took place at the United Nations headquarters on October 26 this year. Kermani was one of the five panelists at the event. At the press briefing at Arts Council, Kermani was flanked by Dr Shershah Syed, a Pakistani gynecologist and surgeon known for his work on fistula, and Ahmed Shah, the president of Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi.
Speaking at the event, Kermani explained that the event in New York was held after Dr Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner in the field of cultural rights presented a report before the United Nations General Assembly’s Human Rights Council in March this year. The report addressed the issue of how cultural rights, especially those of women, are affected in the wake of the rise of fundamentalism and extremism, said Kermani.
“After that, a discussion was held on October 26 at the United Nations headquarters,” she explained. “Dr Karima was leading the panel. From Bangladesh, we had Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who is the widow of the blogger axed by fundamentalists.” Wanda Nowicka from Poland, who works on family planning, was the third panelist.
“From Burma, we a young woman from the Rohingya community, Wai Wai Nu, who has spent 12 years in jail,” said Kermani. “She spoke on Buddhist fundamentalism at the event. Meanwhile, Cole Parke from USA spoke about how the rights of transgender people are affected in the wake of rising fundamentalism.”
Kermani said that Indian writer Nayantara Sehgal, who was also invited but couldn’t come, sent a video message for the event. “She talked about the rising Hindu fundamentalism in India and the problems being faced by a secular India.”
According to Kermani, all the panelists shared their experiences in their respective countries. Talking about the report presented by Dr Bennoune, Kermani shared some of its objectives. “To address rising fundamentalism and extremism across the world – be it Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim – and its impact on women and their cultural rights,” said Kermani. “In the report, Dr Karima has stated that cultural rights are a basic human right of women and that we should be free to express ourselves the way we want to, be it through dance, music, theater, sports or poetry. It is imperative for every human being to have this freedom. And our goal is to sensitize everyone towards the importance of this freedom.”
Be it state or non-state actors, it is important to combat the opposition to cultural rights, she said.
“Another goal was to highlight how female activists and women rights defenders are oppressed, silenced and physically harassed,” said Sheema.
Talking about the recommendations presented in the report, she said that governments, non-governmental organizations and United Nations were urged to take steps for protection of women’s cultural rights in the wake of rising fundamentalism. According to her, Pakistani women have been victorious in the past 20 years in getting laws passed. But implementation of those laws is more difficult. “I urge upon the press to sensitize the masses about the laws regarding women,” she said. “Without implementation, laws by themselves become meaningless.”
According to Kermani, arts, science and culture are what can combat fundamentalism and extremism and media should extend support for them. Moreover, she said that as per Dr Karima’s recommendation, the Pakistani government should also allocate 1% of the budget towards culture.
Addressing the press briefing next, Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, President Ahmed Shah lauded Kermani’s struggle, which, according to him, has continued undeterred “in dictatorships as well as civilian dictatorships”.
“A society cannot claim to be civil until it guarantees gender equality,” he said.
Talking about how women are deprived of justice due to lack of implementation of legislation, he said that a common example is to silence women by raising fingers on their character. “For example, when a woman accuses a political leader of wrongdoing, she is targeted on social media and her character is brought into question instead of finding an answer to whether it happened or not,” he said. “This pressure is built to tell the rest of the women to remain silent. This is what’s been happening for centuries.”
According to him, we need to talk about the vices plaguing our society. “The dirt of our society needs to be exposed,” he said. “Otherwise, everyone will live in perpetual fear.”
Similarly, Dr Shershah Syed said that no society can progress when 50% of its population (women) does not have basic health facilities.
Talking about the cultural rights of women, he said, “Pakistan is perhaps the only country where artistic expression of women is perceived as sexual objectification.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed Shah told the media that Urdu poet Sahar Ansari has been deprived of his membership at the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, as he is facing an inquiry for sexual harassment.