From treating menstruation like a taboo to shunning abortion, religious fundamentalism can seriously affect the reproductive and sexual health of women, opined experts on the second day of a conference at Hyderabad. "Whether it is Hindu, Muslim, Catholic or any other kind of fundamentalism, it especially affects the women community at large," said Jasodhara Dasgupta of Sahyog, an NGO in India. She spoke about Hindu fundamentalism at the ongoing 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSH).
"A woman's body is considered as the site of community and family honour. Talking about religious fundamentalism, a woman's body is supposed to be guarded for the sake of family honour and in order to punish the other community, their women can be violated against," Dasgupta said. Dasgupta said fundamentalists opposed a woman's right to choose her sexual partner. They believe that sex education, the right to be aware of issues that can cost one's life, is against Indian culture.
"The concepts of fundamentalists are weird. They see abortion as foeticide. They don't think that a woman has the right to choose whether she is ready for a child or not. "In the same breath they don't do much in preventing the hordes of female foeticide that go on in front of their eyes," she said.
Menstruation is again a time when a woman is made to feel like an untouchable, bound by different rules like not being allowed to enter the kitchen, she noted. "When the movie 'Water' showed the condition of Indian widows, who were sexually exploited but not allowed to re-marry, the fundamentalists fiercely opposed it. That's because truth stings," Dasgupta remarked.
Zaitun Mohammad Kasim of Malaysia spoke about Muslim fundamentalism, while Junice Melgar of the Phillipines talked about Catholic fundamentalism, and both stressed on abortion being considered a sin in their communities. "Wife beating, oppression of women is seen as legitimate in the purview of religious fundamentalism. This pushes women into believing that they are meek beings with no right whatsoever in voicing their opinion and discussing their problems.
"Contraception is considered un-religious. Even if this means that the health of the woman has completely deteriorated because of repeated child births and the family simply can't support so many children," Kasim said. Kasim also said that HIV is often tied up with morality, thus discouraging people from coming out and talking about HIV/AIDS openly.
Participants at the conference also discussed how transsexuals and transgenders were shunned by religious fundamentalists. Kasim, while quoting an example, said if a transsexual is arrested in Malaysia, he has to pay $7-14 as compensation. But if the person is a Muslim, then the compensation amount increases to $200-800! "So you see the kind of discrimination in the name of religious fundamentalism."
Kalpana Kannabiran of the NALSAR law university, India, said that some of the most drastic effects of religious fundamentalism could be seen in the pages of history. "Whether you talk about the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947 or the 2002 Gujarat riots, women were harassed to no end. Men raped and murdered women from other communities brutally, considering it a sign of victory since the other community's honour was taken away.
"And the saddest thing is that none of these stories, of women suffering, surface. For instance, in the 2002 Gujarat riots, hundreds of women were raped and sometimes killed, but only one case till date is being fought in the court," Kannabiran said.
Earlier in the day, Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury stressed that religious leaders could play an important role in spreading awareness about reproductive and sexual health and rights. "This is because religion can be more powerful than law at times," she said.
Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a Malaysia-based organisation which led the discussion, will be conducting a two-year study to analyse the impact of religious fundamentalism on women's reproductive and sexual health.
The study will be conducted in 12 countries, including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.