If I were an ASEAN woman (Part II)

Estrada-Claudio is Associate Professor, Department of Women and Development Studies, Colleg of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, December 18, 2006 edition, page S1/6.

My argument about citizenship and rights as well as cultural identity is two-fold. I have made the first argument: that there is both a history and a culture for citizenship based on the enjoyment of human rights in ASEAN countries. These democratic aspirations are tied to the colonial struggles that gave birth to most of the ASEAN members, save perhaps for Thailand.

But I shall make a second argument. It is one that is based on yet another definition of citizenship.

Rian Voet (1998) argues that what she calls “an active and sex-equal citizenship” is achievable only if women exercise the rights they have fought so hard to gain on paper. She argues that women have to actively exercise those rights especially in the political sphere if they are truly to enjoy citizenship.
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Mary Dietz (1987) also advocates a citizenship that is participatory and democratic. She believes that the conception that a citizen is merely a bearer of rights is “politically barren”. Her indicator of true citizenship is active political participation.

I  argue that citizenship means the active participation of citizens in shaping and molding culture and traditions including religious traditions. Too often restrictions on human rights, especially women’s rights, in the ASEAN have been justified on the basis of religious edict or cultural traditions. Such justifications treat religion and culture as static and ahistorical and give too much power to the state and other institutions of ideological hegemony in determining just exactly how these customs and traditions are to be interpreted and implemented.  This kind of cultural homogenization is essentially undemocratic and tends to reinforce male power over women and majority power over minorities (whether sexual, religious or tribal) in families and communities and nations. The power of these cultural hegemonies can very often be tied up to repressive states in obvious forms such as when we see the establishment of theocratic rule, or in less overt fashion as when the state cites some myth of Asian culture to justify the sacrifice of human rights.

My definition of citizenship means I will speak my mind and fight for my beliefs regardless of what mainstream culture and religion says about what women can and cannot do. Whatever else that custom and tradition is, my right as a citizen allows me to participate in it and change it.  This generation of ASEANS, if you will allow me that tentative term, through democratic processes, must shape and pass on to the future a culture that will help the next generations adapt, survive and flourish. That culture of survival certainly cannot be one that has been fashioned on conditions that prevailed centuries or millennia ago.

When I say that even culture must be subject to democracy, I allude to the fact that the ASEAN members are indeed culturally diverse both across nations and WITHIN nations. Mutual respect and free interaction must be the rule that guides relationships between member states and relationships between citizens within member states. This principle ties up with the human rights standards such as those of freedom of religious belief and conscience.

There is however one way where I think we can speak of a more ASEAN mode of citizenship and rights. The classic liberalism of the west is indeed beset by the cancer of rabid individualism. This individualism is the premise upon which is built the ecologically dangerous lifestyles of runaway consumerism of the elites and the myth of economic rationalism that underlies neoliberal economics. It is also why human rights discourse in the past century has over-emphasized individual civil and political rights over the more collective social and economic rights.

Indeed women’s unrecognized, undervlaued and often unpaid participation in both production and reproduction has been conveniently overlooked by the purveyors of neo-liberal economics. Such severe denial of this reality is understandable since accepting the reality of women’s “irrational” sacrifices would threaten neo-liberalisms neurotic belief in homo economicus. Here again, the ability to shatter the myth of rational individualism that is the legacy of western liberalism may very well serve an ASEAN seeking more communal, democratic and people-centered models of economic development.

Such individualism is also based on binary conceptual thinking that tends to make the individual separate from the collective and nature. Such binary conceptualism is rejected by many eastern philosophies notably for example the philosophy that underlies Buddhism.

Women have long proven that they are not economically rational in that they very often sacrifice personal and economic gain for their children, friends and lovers. This nurturing capacity of women often places them in a double bind. Their more compassionate and  communal virtues are held in high regard when autocrats bar them from enjoying the more individualistic benefits that come from the full enjoyment of their civil and political rights, saying that this is not in the nature of women. Yet how quickly this valuation of women’s virtues is forgotten when heartless neoliberal economic policies are forced down their throats!

Similarly some states and religious authorities argue that granting women sovereignty over their bodies would somehow be an abrogation of national sovereignty or cultural/religious integrity. Yet women’s bodies are indeed markers for cultural and national sovereignty when invading armies rape or kill women. This has now become a common technique of genocide and ethnic cleansing that has happened in ASEAN countries as well, most recently in Aceh.

It is obvious from these examples that women are treated as collective identities only when it is to our detriment.

Yet, the rejection of individualism in eastern philosophy is coupled with the valuation of interconnectedness of life. It thus rejects the false binary between the individual and the collective—something that I have yet to see in the interpretation and implementation of economic policy and human rights. To be clear, I believe that an ASEAN rejection of western individuality should result in the full enjoyment of both individual political and civil rights as well as the more collective social, cultural and economic rights. It would also mean the recognition of women’s agency and sovereignty as a necessary condition of national sovereignty.

Indeed  Anne Phillips (1993), cautions against an uncritical reading of women’s political involvement as citizenship which defines the political in narrow terms and ignores the barriers to women’s political participation that arise from their roles as nurturers. To avoid this the political sphere must be defined to include the areas of reproduction, nurturing and family relations where women’s agency as a political actor must also be recognized.

So, is there such a thing as an ASEAN identity? Indeed, forming a regional identity for Southeast Asia is difficult. Unlike other regions, we are far too diverse culturally. We have no common religion, no common language, not even a single land mass.

Yet, these obstacles are becoming less daunting because of the changes brought about by an increasingly globalized world. We in civil society have the practice, the theory, the philosophical traditions and therefore, the capacity to influence the formation of a regional identity. That identity will ensure equal enjoyment of individual and collective rights. That identity will be based on the recognition of individual sovereignty as the bedrock of national sovereignty. It is an identity that can ensure social justice and people-centered economic development for all of the citizens of ASEAN.

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