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The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) was founded in 2001. It was only a few weeks after September 11, 2001, when 19 NGO representatives and experts from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen came together for the landmark meeting Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East and Mediterranean held in Istanbul in September 2001. The meeting, a first of its kind, aimed  at breaking the taboos around sexuality and the very significant role it plays in the disempowerment of women in the Middle East and North Africa.

All of the participants were NGO representatives or academics who had been working on various forms of women’s sexual oppression in their countries, including honor crimes, FGM, virginity tests or sexuality and war. Based on their years of experience and the discussions at the meeting, they issued a press statement after the meeting stating that, “Sexuality is not only a personal and private issue, but it is also linked to systems of power politics and domination in society. Means to control sexuality are institutionalized not only in cultural and social norms and customs, but also in legal policy and practice.”  The thinking at the time – that increasing global militarism, conservatism and nationalism would feed into the intricate mechanisms of political, economic, social, legal and cultural manipulation striving to oppress women’s sexuality – proved more than valid in the  subsequent years.

The meeting led to the foundation of an international solidarity network, The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), striving to promote sexual, bodily and reproductive rights as human rights in Muslim societies. In 2004, upon the demand of organizations in South/Southeast Asia, CSBR expanded to include many organizations in these regions and now includes forty NGOs and many academics from the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. The coalition is founded on the principle that all people have the right to bodily and sexual integrity and freedom. To this end, CSBR takes an inclusive and affirmative approach to sexuality, recognizing its pivotal role in private, public and political life.  The coalition has played a pivotal role in establishing and expanding the notion of sexual rights, which had been non-existent as a term in Muslim societies until its foundation; has played a leading role in breaking the taboos around LGBTQ rights in many countries and has strengthened the work its members by breaking the isolation and building bridges over regions, themes and methodologies.

Male dominated social norms based on gendered ideas claim that women’s bodies and sexuality belong to men, the family and society. They uphold notions of “chastity”, “honor” and “morality”, turning sexuality into a taboo. Human rights violations such as forced and early marriages, “honour” crimes, female genital mutilation, and virginity testing are legitimised in this context. Many national laws in the Middle East and South/Southeast Asia include discriminatory provisions sanctioning these violations, whereby honor killing perpetrators receive sentence reductions, marital rape is not criminalized, abortion is illegal, and same-sex relations are criminalized, and so on.  These violations extend beyond the realm of sexual, reproductive and bodily rights and gender equality: they constitute major impediments to development, social justice and equality as they obstruct access to economic, political, social and educational opportunities of women and youth.

In law and social practice, religion and culture are often misused as powerful instruments of control. The last decade has witnessed a strong alliance of conservative political forces attacking sexual and reproductive rights and health on the international level. The so-called global war on terror led to growing Islamophobia and the tendency of the West to view Islam as a monolithic religion instead of recognizing the  wide diversity of Islamic interpretations and religious practices in Muslim societies. Increasing militarization and violence, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, led to unprecedented expansion of Muslim  religious and nationalistic ideologies and drowning of existing liberal voices and spaces in the region.  Thus, since 9/11, the coalition had to intensify its efforts to counter these forces in order to open up spaces for liberal voices on sexuality and rights.

To achieve gender equality, social justice and democratization, it remains essential to:

  • revise and reinforce legal systems
  • adopt and implement comprehensive rights-based education and health programs and policies
  • increase budgetary allocations for programs and institutions to ensure gender equality
  • develop policies and programs that aim to reduce and eliminate feminization of poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Despite the challenging context, CSBR members have succeeded in working for these aims by countering the existing assumptions around sexuality, advocating for law reform towards the safeguarding of sexual and reproductive rights, and creating progressive spaces for the promotion of sexual rights.*
*Above text was prepared by Pinar Ilkkaracan for the Institute of Development Studies (IDS)