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Live from the Carter Center: A Roundtable Discussion with Zainah Anwar of Malaysia, Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya and Louise Arbour on the Role of Human Rights Defenders Around the Globe

StorySeptember 07, 2007
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Zainah Anwar is considered Malaysia’s leading feminist. She is the executive director of Sisters in Islam, which promotes the rights of Muslim women within the framework of Islam. Kaari Betty Murungi is a leading Kenyan activist and lawyer. She is the executive director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa, and she serves on several boards including the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two human rights defenders attending this annual forum here at the Carter Center in Atlanta are joining us now, along with the high commissioner on human rights of the United Nations, Louise Arbour. Zainah Anwar is considered Malaysia’s leading feminist. She’s the executive director of Sisters in Islam, which promotes the rights of Muslim women within the framework of Islam. She’s also a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. Kaari Betty Murungi is a leading Kenyan activist and lawyer. She’s the executive director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa, and she serves on several boards, including the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

Zainah, talk about the human rights work you do in Malaysia.

ZAINAH ANWAR: Well, the challenge that we face is, as the country moves forward and democratizes and modernizes, the challenge posed by an understanding of Islam that discriminates against women and that violate fundamental liberties and constitutional guarantees of freedoms and rights. And as a result of that, laws, Muslim laws, laws made in the name of Islam, family laws and various other laws made in the name of Islam, continue to discriminate against women.

And so, my group, you know, we set up the group really basically to intervene in the lawmaking process and the policy-making process and the use of Islam to continue to perpetuate discrimination against women. And we do this by offering alternative interpretations, alternative opinions within Islam, to locate our demand for rights, for justice, for equality for Muslim women.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about examples?

ZAINAH ANWAR: For example, Islamic family law. There are many — well, the family law for the non-Muslims in Malaysia — Malaysia is an ethnically diverse country, and we have 40 percent non-Muslims in the country. So the family law for non-Muslims have been amended to recognize equality and justice, so every part of the family law between a man and a woman, non-Muslim man and non-Muslim woman, are equal, but not for Muslim women and men.

So for us, as a citizen, the whole issue of citizenship as citizens of a democratic country, why do we, as Muslims — I know, why should we continue to be discriminated against by a government that is committed to law reform, that’s committed to recognizing equality between men and women. But in the name of Islam, Muslim women continue to be, you know, kept backwards. So for us, this is unacceptable.

So we’re pushing for amendments to the family law to recognize equality between men and women — for example, amendments to the Guardianship Act to recognize that women, mothers, also have a right to guardianship of their children. The Guardianship Act was reformed to recognize equal right of guardianship for non-Muslim mothers, but not for Muslim mothers. So these are some of the issues that we’re fighting in Malaysia.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do women in Malaysia respond to your advocacy? And how does the government respond?

ZAINAH ANWAR: It’s mixed. You know, there are those who support our work, and there are those who don’t support our work. And this is the challenge that you face in Muslim countries, where at the leadership level, the political leadership level, there is recognition for equality. The constitution was amended to say that there cannot be discrimination on the basis of gender. So you have one arm of the government that, you know, recognizes equality and the need to push for reform.

And another arm of the government, the religious authorities, which is also a part of the government, that says, “No. In Islam, men and women are not equal.” And so, therefore, they’re very resistant to the kind of law reform that we’re pushing for.

And, again, among women, too, there are many, many women who support our demand for reform, and there are women who don’t support our demand for reform, because of a traditional understanding that they’ve been brought up with, you know, that men and women are not equal in Islam, and therefore to push for equality in Islam is to go against God’s laws and God’s teachings, you know, so this is a challenge that we face on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask the U.N. high commissioner for human rights: How does the kind of work that Zainah does in Malaysia fit into your global work?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, I think it’s absolutely critical. Human rights protection begins in the national framework. There is no doubt about that. By the time you have to come to Geneva for redress, that means there’s been a total collapse of the human rights protection system nationally and regionally. Asia, unfortunately, is not very well equipped with regional mechanisms, as compared to, say, Europe or Latin America, that has a human rights protective framework, or Africa, for that matter. So protection starts at home. And I think the embracing of human rights values has to be done very much by home communities. That’s the whole question of the universality of rights, but the culturally specific context in which they have to be exercised. So we need to support, I think.

It’s a question also of empowerment of rights holders. Rights cannot be given as a matter of charity or handed down from declarations in human rights treaties in New York or in Geneva. They have to be — people who have rights have to be empowered to claim their rights. And I think in the case of women, it’s absolutely critical that it be done by them on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Kaari Betty Murungi, you are in Kenya, except for right now you’re in Atlanta, Georgia. Can you relate to what Zainah is saying?

KAARI BETTY MURUNGI: Yes, in many respects, although, of course, our contexts are different. My organization works across Africa to work with women responding to conflict and crisis, which, as you know, is a particular problem for us on the continent. And we need to be coming out and supporting strategies by women at the local levels to respond to conflict and crisis.

I have to say, in respect to your question in identifying with what Zainah is saying, some of the incursions on freedoms that we have seen in Kenya are related to the war on terror. We have seen incursions on freedom of movement of Muslim communities in my country, and we have seen incursions on freedom to obtain counsel. There has been a lot of arbitrary detention, which are not explained, but, of course, they are all conducted within the framework of the war on terror. So, in a sense, we have seen the American policy on terrorism affect the enjoyment of human rights in parts of Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-backed forces that moved into Somalia and the exodus of people from Somalia into Kenya, can you talk about that, and particularly women?

KAARI BETTY MURUNGI: Well, the people didn’t actually move into Kenya, because Kenya closed its borders, again within the framework on the war on terror. So we had a situation where refugee rights were now being violated because the refugees fleeing Somalia were not able to come into Kenya, because Kenya closed its borders. But connected to that has been the transfer of Kenyan citizens to Ethiopia and to other places. One Kenyan was transferred to Guantánamo Bay, to the prison there, again, without recourse to local law. So that created, did create, huge problems for refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: And a report of one of those secret sites in Ethiopia now.

KAARI BETTY MURUNGI: Yes, but we don’t have information, so that is one of the issues that is currently a big human rights issue in Kenya.

AMY GOODMAN: How dangerous is it for you to do your work in Kenya?

KAARI BETTY MURUNGI: It’s not as dangerous as it used to be 20 years ago. One has to understand that Kenya has a long history of advocating for human rights over the last 20 years. And the threat now is really around just ensuring that we anchor some of those democratic gains and human rights gains in a democratic constitution. So that remains our challenge.

Human rights defenders are not threatened life and limb, as used to be the case 20 years ago, unless, of course, you are a Muslim human rights defender, in which case then it becomes problematic. And I think it behooves all of us to support the Muslim human rights defenders that are working specifically on issues to do with terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you gain, Zainah, by coming to the Carter Center, by meeting these human rights defenders from around the world? I mean, everyone has their unique situation.

ZAINAH ANWAR: I think it’s really, you know, meeting people from different parts of the world, the awareness that the challenges are actually very similar, and to learn, you know, that what you’re doing is very, very important in terms of the interventions that you, as a human rights defender, are making, and to learn from the conflicts in other parts of the world, because for me, like yesterday, just to realize the importance of the media inflaming conflicts, yeah? In many countries where conflicts —- where violence have broken out, the media played a very, very important role in inflaming public opinion and inciting hatred and the use of hate language, demonizing the other -—

AMY GOODMAN: The specific example?

ZAINAH ANWAR: For example, you know, in Serbia, in Rwanda. And so, for us, this is really important, because one of the strategies that we use, that my group Sisters in Islam use, is really to break the monopoly of those in religious authority, those in the Islamist movement and their control over the discourse on Islam, to break — to get our voices, the voices of the women who believe in human rights, believe in justice, the voices of other human rights defenders, to get that voice into the public space so that the public is exposed to a diversity of views within Islam. That is important.

The role of civil society, as well, is really, really important, because, as we learned yesterday, too, like in Serbia, civil society was very weak. And so, there wasn’t an alternative group that could challenge the dominance of the nationalist group and the nationalist voices. So this is really important for us to learn and to be strengthened by that knowledge that this is the right path that we’re taking, you know, by using the media to break the monopoly of voices, strengthening civil society and to build the diversity of voices within society so that you, the human rights defender’s voice, is not the only voice that is being heard within the public space.

AMY GOODMAN: Kaari Betty Murungi, we have 10 seconds. What do you take from this conference? And what message do you have for people in the United States, particularly women?

KAARI BETTY MURUNGI: Well, I’d like to say that their solidarity is absolutely critical. And for us human rights defenders, the solidarity of prestigious institutions such, as the Carter Center, and the former president and the office of the high commission for human rights, I think adds value to the work that we all do. And the message is that we would really appreciate the continued support and solidarity for our work on the continent, you know, assisting women responding to conflict and crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us: Zainah Anwar from Malaysia, executive director of Sisters in Islam; Kaari Betty Murungi, executive director of Urgent Action Fund in Africa, based in Kenya; and Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. We’re broadcasting here from the Carter Center. Tune in Monday for my interview with the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

AMY GOODMAN: At this conference, you describe the wall as worse than the Berlin Wall.

JIMMY CARTER: Oh, it’s much worse. The Berlin Wall was built by the communists on the communist side of the border between East and West Germany, as you know. This wall is built on Palestinian land, and it’s designed not for security — that’s an ancillary benefit — but it goes deep within the West Bank just to carve out more and more land for the Israelis to occupy in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the point of the wall?

JIMMY CARTER: The wall was built — was planned originally by Yitzhak Rabin when he was prime minister — he’s the one that negotiated the Oslo Agreement, a peace agreement — to be built along the border, the 1967 border between Israel and Palestine. And the International World Court and I and others approved completely. There’s nothing wrong with that. That would have been like the Berlin Wall. But then Rabin was assassinated, and his successors — Netanyahu, Sharon and others — decided: Let’s move the wall from the Israeli border to intrude deeply within Palestine to carve out some of that precious land for the Israeli settlers to occupy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy Carter. That’s Monday on Democracy Now!

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