Fijian feminist Shamima Ali: Moving beyond band-aid feminism

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Shamima Ali is an Indo-Fijian feminist activist who works with the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC). She visitied Melbourne recently to participate in the Second Latin American and Asia Pacific Solidarity Gathering. Prior to the recent coup in Fiji, Alison Thorne caught up with her for Radical Women.

The FWCC was established in 1984. The centre offers crisis counselling and legal, medical and other practical support services to women and children. It also campaigns to end gender violence. Its work addresses all forms of violence against women, including rape, beating, sexual harassment and child abuse.

Shamima joined the centre eight months after it was established. She described the initial impetus for the centre: “At the time, magistrates and police had made a number of public comments blaming women for rape. Women were criticised for how they dressed or where they were.”

The founders realised that rape was an under-reported crime in Fiji and a taboo subject which many people refused to discuss. The centre was originally established specifically for rape crisis, but Shamima explains that activists “soon realised that there were no services for women who experienced domestic violence, so they took this on, too.

“Volunteers paid out of their own pockets to set the centre up. It now has a head office, three branches and 20 staff.” Shamima explains its role: “Half of our work is to provide direct services for the women. This is at the heart of what we do. The other 50% focuses on change. This working is organising, lobbying, training, community awareness, research and publications.”

There are no publicly funded women’s refuges in Fiji, and women’s services are poorly resourced. “Even though violence against women is now part of the government’s plan of action, this is just words. We rely on the Salvation Army, which runs three refuges. There are no feminist services. We’ve been active for 22 years and in that time, services have only improved slightly. We are still running around to police stations, hospitals, and courthouses and arranging legal aid.”

The making of a feminist. Shamima’s life has made her the feminist she is today. She explains that her feminism came from living in a family where violence was the norm. “My father was violent and, as a child, corporal punishment was a way of life. I saw my mother being beaten regularly. When I went to school, there were more inequalities with boys being treated differently to girls. I had a passion to challenge this, but there was nowhere in Fiji where I could channel that desire.”

In the early ’70s, Shamima was exposed to a range of feminist ideas. She married and went to England with her then husband “as a third-world wife.” She explains, “He studied and I hung around Sussex University. There were lots of feminist groups. I listened to the lesbian feminists, the socialist feminists, and the radical feminists. I watched, learned and started reading feminist books. That is where my real journey began.”

When Shamima returned to Fiji she left her husband and hooked up with the new Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. “Seeing the ongoing violence suffered by women and children sharpened my focus. I learned from what feminists were doing in the Philippines and other parts of Asia and in Australia and New Zealand. This consolidated my thinking and moved me beyond band-aid feminism to become a feminist who saw the linkages with poverty and other issues.”

Getting to the heart of the problem. Shamima is clear about why Fijian women suffer violence. “It happens for the same reason it happens everywhere else! Society is patriarchal and women are not valued. Fiji is no different, Vanuatu is no different, and none of the Pacific Islands are any different.” But, she explains, “What does exacerbate the situation in Fiji is the cultural and religious milieu. Traditional culture is abused by practices such as bride price and bulubulu, which is a form of compensation used to excuse perpetrators.

“We have fundamentalist Christianity creeping into the Pacific. We already have the Methodist Church, and there are a lot of newer branches of Christianity with very conservative views. This is the legacy of colonialism.”

Sharmima also explains that the relationship between women’s economic position in society and domestic violence is very strong. “Economic independence is absolutely essential, because this empowers women and gives them the right to say no!

“If a woman is in a violent situation and she leaves, this increases her poverty. She doesn’t have any money, she has no housing, and she has nowhere to go. Women sometimes have no choice but to stay in a violent situation or to beg on the streets or to prostitute themselves to feed their children. The whole vicious cycle begins again.”

Poverty is a significant problem in Fiji. The 1997 Fiji Poverty Report found that 25% of the population live below the poverty line and another 25% are very close to it. Since this report was completed, the government has imposed a Value Added Tax, the currency has been devalued, the cost of water has increased and mass unemployment has resulted from the political upheaval of 2000. Many who have regular employment are also impoverished, because wages are so low.

Shamina says that reality is even worse than the official data. “There was a good report published recently by the Asian Development Bank. It highlights that women are on the lowest rung of the economy in terms of pay. Women do not get equal pay for equal work. The economic situation has not improved over the last ten years.

“There is a token welfare payment, called Social Welfare Benefit, which is hard to get. Those who receive it have to prove their need.” Roughly 16,000 people receive payments which is nowhere near the number of those in poverty. Shamima says, “The most a recipient can be paid is 60 Fijian dollars a month. This is completely inadequate — it would only cover the cost of raising a small child for about a week. Of the recipients, 72% are women and many are single mothers. We are also campaigning around housing. We do not have housing benefits or any forms of public housing anywhere in the Pacific!”

Shamima says that the feminist movement campaigns for women’s economic independence and addresses workplace issues, welfare, education and housing.

Pushing the unions. According to Shamima, the union movement in Fiji is not strong when it comes to campaigning around working women’s issues. She says, “The feminist movement has at least managed to get the union movement talking about sexual harassment, even though many of the male leaders deny the problem even exists. The union movement itself still does not have its own sexual harassment policy. Despite this, feminists are having some influence. The two major unions have invited us in to talk to them about gender issues. This is not something that would have happened 10 years ago.”

Shamima advocates for women organising autonomously within union structures. She says that the nurses’ and teachers’ unions are the best when it comes to addressing working women’s issues and stresses the importance of organising at the grassroots. “The union movement does have a Women’s Desk and women meet as a group, but often these groups are very much controlled by union executives. As a result, much of this organising does not have a feminist edge to it.”

Constitutional battles. Article 38 of the 1997 Constitution protects Fijians against discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender, marital status and sexual orientation. Shamima was proud to explain that “the feminist movement had a major impact in shaping the Constitution. Feminists made a submission to the Constitutional Review Commission and argued for Citizens’ Constitutional Forums so that we could push our demands forward. We formed a coalition, Action for Change, which included our sister organisation, the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. This coalition organised hard to win constitutional equality.

“It was important to get formal equality into the Constitution as a symbolic thing. Of course, the impact on the ground has been modest. But we have to keep campaigning to make it really mean something. We are also starting to see human rights lawyers using the Constitution to fight cases to advance women’s rights.”

The feminist movement played a key role in winning a clause in the Constitution which recognises gay and lesbian equality. “The Women’s Crisis Centre, the Action for Change Coalition and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement initially put the whole issue on the political agenda. We’ve always lobbied very hard against the homophobia promoted by the fundamentalist forces, particularly the churches that put down gay and lesbian people.”

Shamima says that autonomous gay and lesbian organisations now exist. “There is a very good group called Equal Ground Pacific which started as the Sexual Minorities Group attached to another women’s organisation. They now organise independently. They have credibility and are being consulted on sexuality issues, including issues such as HIV/AIDS.”

There’s recently been an anti-gay backlash, and the movement is firing up to defend its gains. “There is a huge push to remove equality for gay people from the Constitution, and there is fear and panic about the idea of same-sex marriages. Gay people are fighting for their rights to be recognised, to be able to work wherever they please, and to stop gay bashing. The gay rights community — with the support of feminists and other human rights activists — are gearing up to launch a campaign to take on the fundamentalist assault and defend the equality clause in the Constitution.”

Legislative initiatives. Many of Fiji’s laws are archaic, with origins in British statutes from the colonial period. For example, the workplace laws have a strong employer bias, there are no legal protections for domestic workers, and women are denied access to certain jobs. The FWCC has actively campaigned for law reform.

The Industrial Relations Bill was released in 1998, but it still has not been enacted. Shamina explains that the bill “was recently shelved. It has some good provisions for women workers. It includes three months’ paid maternity leave for all women in the workforce. The employers have come out fighting to stop this. Debate on the bill commenced but has now stalled because of pressure from the business community.”

The political upheavels in May 2000 put many legislative initiatives on pause, and in 2006, Fiji is still unstable and democratic rights are fragile. Shamima explains, “In Fiji at the moment, we really don’t know what might happen because of the ongoing standoff between the military and the government. If things go well and no further political instability occurs, then I am confident we can win the Industrial Relations Bill and some of these improvements. But if there is a coup, or an indefinite standoff between the military and the government, these changes will be seen as a low priority.”

But Shamima is adamant: “One thing is certain, nothing will happen if we just sit on our backsides. The government won’t implement these laws if we just wait. We are going to mount campaigns. We will demand that the Industrial Relations Bill be taken off the shelf and re-introduced into Parliament.”

There are other legislative reforms which may become a reality in the future. “The Domestic Violence Bill has been drafted, but not yet passed. It is really good and there was a lot of community consultation. The Penal Code — which covers rape laws, prostitution, laws on sodomy and abortion — is currently being reviewed. The various feminist and other activist groups have all made submissions.”

But the political situation in Fiji in the upcoming period will make a huge difference for feminist activists. “During coup times, there is a clampdown on the right to demonstrate, but at other times we can demonstrate, and we do. As part of our current campaigns, we will have some protests as part of the annual 60 Days of Activism to Stop Violence Against Women, and we will protest around World Human Rights Day in December, too.”

Political upheavals and multi-racial organising. The political instablity in Fiji is the legacy of colonialism. Fiji chiefs ceded sovereignty over the islands to Britain in 1874. The British then brought Indian labourers to work the sugar plantations.

In 1987, alarmed at the economic success of the Indo-Fijians, nationalists staged two military coups and repealed the Constitution. A 10-year struggle by democracy activists led to the Parliament passing a constitutional amendment which permitted the election of an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister in 1999. One year later, armed nationalists led by businessman, George Speight, staged another coup. Attempts to redraft the 1997 constitution — which guarantees equality for ethnic and Indo-Fijians as well as women and sexual minorities — have been prevented by the Fijian democracy movement. But political instability remains.

Shamima describes the impact of the 2000 coup: “Law and order broke down. Much of the violence was racial in nature. There was widespread sexual harassment, sexual assaults and home invasions. A number of young women were attacked on their way to school in rural areas.”

Shamima says that “initially, the events impacted on our ability to organise. It became dangerous to travel. It was difficult for all political organisations. Marches were banned. There were groups of young men roaming the countryside, creating fear.

“Bosses used the instability to sack staff and cut pay. When they laid off workers, women were the first to go. If women were kept on, they were expected to work longer hours for less and told to be grateful to even have a job. Divisions were fostered between women and men. If men lost their jobs, they sometimes got angry and jealous of women who were still working. As a result, women were attacked and beaten.

“Overall, the upheavals in 2000, led to an increased intensity in the violence against women. We are still feeling it. There was a lot more harassment on the streets, with women seen as fair game. Some of the gains we had made were eroded. But we just had to step back and start again.”

The FWCC is a multi-racial organisation and, as a result, was able to weather the racial antagonism that the coup promoted. “Some feminist organisations were badly affected by the racial tensions. Some women refused to work with each other. But this was not an issue for the crisis centre. We had addressed multi-racial organising since the coup of 1987. We provide assistance and support to women from all racial groups. In our training we include anti-racist material. We have a culture where we challenge bigotry and prejudices. We were well prepared in 2000.

“The women — Indigenous Fijian and Fijian Indian — organised themselves and worked out who would take each other where. The Indigenous Fijian women protected the Indian women. They took them home, they did their grocery shopping, and they kept them safe. The Indigenous women went to places where the Indo-Fijian women couldn’t go. They did this without a thought for themselves. I have never seen the feminists from the crisis centre respond in any other way.”

Because of its history, the racial tension did not have a big effect on FWCC. But, explains Shamima, “It did affect our relationship with the more conservative women’s organisations, such as the National Council of Women and the YWCA. The more conservative organisations have become very racially polarised since 1987.

“It is difficult, but important, to organise in a multi-racial way. The crisis centre, the Fijian Women’s Rights Movement and Women’s Action for Change all organise in a feminist and multi-racial way. One challenge we do have is that there are chiefly older women in our ranks. And culturally, young women are taught not to speak back to their elders. Some women elders are quite conservative, and this can create a real difficulty. But we are starting to find that more of the younger women, some of the emerging young leaders, are now prepared to speak up and proudly say, ‘Yes, I am a feminist.’”

Getting to the heart. For the FWCC, feminism is non-negotiable and informs all of their work. But, says Shamima, “There are groups that address violence against women which are not feminist. For example, there are organisations that characterise drunkenness as the cause of domestic violence rather than gender inequality. They do not get to the root cause of the problem.

“Empowering women is a key part of the equation, but to permanently end domestic violence, it is essential that men change their behaviour, too. They need to know that they cannot get away with it! I believe that men can change their behaviour — there are some good human beings among men, and these men need to influence other men.”

Shamima argues, “The FWCC is seen as a threat in Fiji. It is not a group of women who got together because they had nothing else to do. The centre is hitting at the very heart of the oppression of women. Gender inequality continues to exist in Fijian society. Fiji is riddled with unequal gender relationships and factors such as poverty, race and sexuality intersect with this.” Shamina and the other feminists of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre are taking it on!

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