If I Were an ASEAN woman (Part I)

Estrada-Claudio is an associate professor, Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is involved in various groups; among others, she is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, December 11, 2006 edition, page S1/6.

I can begin with what I grasp to be the predominant force that is pushing the drive for greater ASEAN integration—globalization. Suffice it to say that I speak of that economic paradigm that is the target of the anti/alter globalization movement and that, despite its seemingly economic face, carries with it social, cultural and political elements as well.

Resistances to globalization have contributed to critical theories that problematize the formation of identities around certain axes such as citizenship and national sovereignty.

We have seen the sovereignty of developing nations undermined by the regime of neo-liberalism.  We have seen as well the redrawing of the geo-political map (for example the EU, Mercosur, and ALBA) as nations cope with the changing global economic order. The arguments cut one way or the other—-regionalize so that we can push competitive advantages together against other regions. Regionalize so we can exploit our competitive advantages over others in the same region instead of letting others in other regions do so. One argument makes a regional identity seem sensible (ASEAN vs. others) while the other is a potential deal breaker for any genuine regional cooperation (the more developed economies in the ASEAN already exploit their competitive advantages over the less developed ones.)

Similarly, the migration of labor to serve increasingly flexible and transnational processes of wealth and commodity production has made national boundaries porous. The advance in communications and travel that has made the flexibility of production and the mobility of the labor force possible has also caused cultural maps to be redrawn markedly. We no longer assume that cultural communities can be defined by geographic boundaries and the decades-long time frames that we once believed nurtured our rootedness. Here again, we are confronted with the duplicity of our conceptions. Is there really a basis for an ASEAN culture that would allow the Singaporean employer to call her Filipina maid her sister? Does my California-based understanding of Buddhism have anything in common with the Buddhism of my Cambodian brothers and sisters?

What all this has meant is that we now have to create theories of resistance and power that do not take identity and citizenship as givens. It also means that we need to understand that power struggles need to be redrawn because we are seeing foci of power outside the economic processes of production or the political power of the state that are nevertheless necessary to the preservation of neo-liberal hegemony.

If identity both regional and national can be constructed by our political power, what kind of identity would we want?

My first identity proposition would be that I would want to be a citizen of a sovereign country (in my case the Philippines). Classic liberalism casts citizens as those who possess certain rights that are guaranteed to them by a sovereign state. Many of Southeast Asia’s nation states arose from anti-colonial struggles that attempted to attain civil and political rights for the colonized population. Feminists, indigenous peoples, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, etc. have then had to insist that they be constituted as citizens by demanding that they enjoy the same rights as their liberated able-bodied, heterosexual and ethnically mainstream brothers. Whereas before the 20th century these rights were confined to the civil and political sphere, social movements have demanded and often achieved guarantees for a broader set of rights in the social and cultural spheres as well as the recognition of new categories such as sexual and reproductive rights.

I am afraid that across the ASEAN, few populations have hurdled the rite of passage to citizenship via the full enjoyment of human rights. The totalitarian regime in Burma, the recent military coup in Thailand, the unabated political killings in the Philippines are but a few glaring examples. Across the region we continue to see massive violations of women’s rights and especially sexual and reproductive rights.

On the basis of the assurance of human rights within my nation, I would then be willing to have an identity of being an ASEAN citizen. This would mean that should I travel or work in any country in the ASEAN, all my rights would be equally guaranteed. In my conception of a regional citizenship, I would be quite willing to surrender national sovereignty to a regional regime of common human rights standards that are at par with international standards. Such a ceding of sovereignty would allow exceptions to the principle of non-interference so that violations of human rights such as that which occurred in Aceh or East Timor can be subject to regional mechanisms of mediation, and yes, sanction.

I am aware that I shall be charged with being quite western by some, seeing as how I have now confessed to being a feminist and a believer in the universality of human rights. But my desire for civil and political rights is quite homegrown, having developed a taste for it when I began work as a young doctor treating the victims of torture under the Marcos regime. I am also aware that the torture techniques that were carried out in the Marcos jails were surprisingly similar to those carried out by the US military during the war of pacification of the Philippines. I am also aware that the aversion to torture as well as other forms of violation of civil and political rights was an intrinsically ASEAN value during the time of Japanese occupation in World War II, the struggle for national liberation of Vietnam, the struggle against the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and so on.

As for my feminism, I will also state that Filipina women used the term “feminista” a hundred years ago when they founded the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in 1905 after having come through the revolution against Spanish colonialism and the Filipino-American war. These women also founded the Gota de Leche, which was concerned with a core reproductive health issue, maternal mortality. The sisters of that great exemplar of Malay genius, Dr. Jose Rizal, were also involved in the forming of these feminist associations. Trinidad Rizal, also helped form the first Masonic lodge for women in the Philippines, a revolt against the colonial Catholic Church and its theocratic excesses. There is also evidence that Trinidad sought information from her brother on birth control.

My point?  The interest of Filipina women on reproductive health and rights as well as their revolt against fundamentalist religious precepts and their adherence to a non-secular state is also at least a hundred years old and is tied to anti-colonial struggles.

In my travels to ASEAN countries, I have discovered women and their organizations fighting passionately for their rights.

Thus, whatever may be the historic and cultural basis for these advocacies, I will argue that the basis for the full respect of human rights including women’s rights is a point that the social movements must insist upon if we are to form an ASEAN to our liking.

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