Economic booms and educational transformation have pushed religious revitalization and women rights in the Southeast Asia region. Scholars say that despite some improvements, challenges remain in each country, especially those where there is a lack of public policy support.
Scholars and experts on religion and gender relations gathered this month at Georgetown University in Washington DC, at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, to engage in policy discussions to understand how social and economic transformation affects religious change, and impacts women’s roles in the Southeast Asia region.
Scholars believe that globalization has created a somewhat “unprecedented” social, economic and religious change in the Southeast Asia region. A larger middle class and their increased education levels have largely changed the “landscape of religious and gender changes” in each country.
Dicky Sofjan, taking part in the conference from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he’s part of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, says the gradually rising standard of living are generally improving religion and policy in people’s lives in the region.
“There is growing number of the middle class now throughout Southeast Asia,’’ says Sofjan, based. ‘’Many countries are indeed increasingly becoming the economic-power houses in the region if not the world.’’
With improved education, there are these university-trained intellectuals who are engaging in issues like religion, public policy, social justice, and gender equality.
Indonesia is seen as one of the most egalitarian and religiously harmonized societies, say scholars. But it is not the case for Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, where religious tensions are ongoing.
Some scholars believe that Indonesia’s historical and cultural heritage is favorably suited for religious revitalization, not to mention its strong policy support for gender equality.
“I think the Indonesians are so confident with their historical path that they display culture first, before religion,” says Professor K.S. Nathan of Malaysian Association of American Studies, Institute of Ethnic Studies. “Culture, custom, the historical path in Indonesia give them the confidence to talk about religion much more openly.”
The region is somewhat religiously diverse where we see Buddhism practiced widely in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, while Islam is practiced widely in Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. In the Philippines, a majority of the population practices Catholicism.
Scholars agree religious transformation can have a great deal of impact on people’s lives. In Philippines, Catholic Church leaders are not in support of contraceptives for women, and have been against the government’s legislative support for women’s rights to fertility.
In Cambodia, on the one hand, a growing Muslim movement known as “Dawah Tablighi” tends to empower women in religious practice, which is unprecedented among Muslim community; yet, on the other hand, it discourages Muslim women from access to education and public engagement, says, Farina So, a researcher in Islam and gender at the Sleuk Rith Institute.
“Women are encouraged to participate in religious leadership roles and are free from household chores during the movement, but they are discouraged from preaching and accessing proper education which affects their public life,” So said.
Often, religion is seen as separate entity from institutional structures, and thus there is often a lack of public policy engagement when it comes to religious transformation, says Dicky Sofjan.
“Religion has not been thoroughly examined under the scrutiny of public policy. Some people see it as separate entity, separate phenomenon. We have seen a lot of studies that link religion with politics, but not necessary public policy,” says Sofjan.
Scholars are looking at the prospects of freedom of religion and gender equality in Indonesia as a lesson for other countries in the region. In Indonesia, it is by law that nominees for parliament “shall contain at least 30 percent of women’s representation.”
Some scholars agree that having policy support is critical to ensuring women’s shared equal opportunity in public realm. But not all the countries have such strong legislative support, like in Burma, where there is lack of ‘political will’ to promote women’s rights and empowerment, says Maung Maung Yin, from Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT).
“And that is what we’re trying to do now to have this genuine political will to empower women,” he says.
But others warn that the debate can be easily used for political purposes, especially in terms of religious interpretation.
“It is subject to political manipulation when you put it into public sphere,” says Professor K.S. Nathan. “Even within one religion, there can be so many dominations. So the more you emphasize the role of religion being in politics, then politics takes over, then abuses religion.”
Even though it’s commonly believed that economic freedom enables women to advance in the public sphere, culture remains a barrier for women to do so according to Sofjan.
“One of them is culture, and one of them is the interpretation of religious doctrine. We find that there is still lacking of gender equality, but I am saying this not to sort of overgeneralize the region,” he says.
“There are limitations for women to climb the social ladder in many different ways, not only in politics but also in the family, the church, community, economy, and business in Burma,” says Maung Maung Yin, from Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT).
The scholars will meet again in Thailand next year for the 3rd conference of the Religion, Public Policy, and Social Transformation.