“You Only Get What You Fight For!”: Siva Thanenthiran

Siva Thanenthiran
Siva Thanenthiran

Siva Thanenthiran is currently the Executive Director of ARROW in Malaysia. Prior to that, she explored different career choices in her life, which included teaching at a university, running a magazine across three countries and working for the United Nations. Her myriad work experiences helped her discover her passion for writing and learning and form her ideals of working in partnerships and respecting diversity.

Siva has co-written and edited books on sustainable development and urbanization as part of her work with the Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI), a regional project of UNDP. She was also a committee member of the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI), which ran candidates on a women’s rights issues platform. She co-authored ARROW’s ICPD+15 and ICPD+20 Asia-Pacific monitoring reports and has written numerous articles and presented papers on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. She has been able to expand the work of ARROW to examine more closely the inter-linkages of sexual and reproductive health and rights with critical development issues such as poverty, food security, climate change and migration. Under Siva’s leadership, the organization’s working partnerships have expanded to 17 countries in the region as well as regional and global networks and organizations. Siva was a member of FAR’s steering committee.

Preeti: Can you begin by telling us a about the work you do at ARROW and how you got involved in doing this work?

Siva: When I first started off my life in the feminist circles, I was really interested in things like political participation. I was part of one of the seminal initiatives in Malaysia called the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, which tried to put candidates solely based on women’s rights issues and whether such a platform would succeed. You know, so this is what we were really keen on doing. Then, I was called to ARROW at a certain point in my life to become a Communications Consultant to help edit certain reports on sexual reproductive health and rights.

I used to often think that reproductive rights are a thing of the past and we had already won those battles, and, sometimes, it focused too much on women’s bodies and just their bodies. But, when I did the editing of the book and I had to work with a number of partners in Indonesia and later on in South Asia in order to derive the data and present it properly, I was outraged. Even till today, in so many countries, for a woman to have a safe abortion, she needs to…in some places she needs spousal consent. Sometimes she even needs a psychiatrist to say that she’s of sound mind to obtain one, and there’s so many unnecessary barriers. You know, even simple things like, you know, men need to be made aware so they can accompany their wives for seeking antenatal care.

So it was really shocking to me that battles that I thought were won in the 1960s were still very alive and present in the year 2006, when I was writing this book. Then, in my mind I said I need to do something about this because this is something so fundamental about women having autonomy over their bodies and making these basic decisions that affect their lives so deeply, and they don’t have this yet. Since then, I’ve been there at ARROW, so this is how I started, and I’m still here. As you can see, I continue to be deeply passionate about the issue and deeply committed to the issue.

Preeti: In the time that you’ve been leading ARROW and also been coming to spaces like the UN engaging on these issues, what have been your observations on how these issues are framed in an international context? Also, how have they changed in the course of time?

Siva: Firstly, I need to say that I spent five years as Program Manager, and I am only five years now as Executive Director. So I think that gave me a really strong base because I had…you know, all the evidence is just basically at my fingertips, and that enabled me to talk to the people at the UN. I’m not sure we can call them policymakers as such, but definitely global policy engagement.

Preeti: Influencers, maybe?

Siva: Yeah, influence global policy. Global influencers, yeah, run the global policy. It was interesting because I think that, you know, in the era that governments are readily committed to agendas like Beijing, and Cairo, and CEDAW, there was a far more unified world, and so many people thought about development and how they were going to bring their countries forward. However, what we see now is…and I think in the last 10 years, or at least 15 years, we can see that the globe is kind of fragmenting to keep political definitions which are in odds with each other. Maybe we can say that this is attributed to the expansion of neoliberal economic frameworks and the underlying political tensions, whether it’s within countries and between countries. It’s actually driven over this mad hunt for resources and who’s going to get the resources. Of course, we’ve also seen expanding inequalities, right, with the same search.

So people have become so fragmented that they are advocating for their own interests, or their small group interests, or their smaller national interests. And I think that that has now led to less commitment to a unified, overall visionary agenda. So, of course, we are actually living in this very complex situation, and that’s when…and you will hear this from many of the feminists as well who attend the UN sessions, is that gender equality, you know, the more social rights are actually something that are used as bargaining chips. You know, “I’ll vote your way and…” and the real things are about economic tradeoffs, and policies, and sanctions, and weapons, and wars. So our issues are traded off. So I think that this becomes a lot more complex, but we also know we can say that, hey, we now have this other media, right?

We can actually let citizens know, you know, what people who claim to represent them…what are they really talking about? What are they interested in? How are they being represented, really? And I think that that’s something that we can really focus on, like social media, you know. It enables the transmission of what policymakers, influencers, global influencers, or what the UN is doing right or wrong, be transmitted very quickly to the people, you know. So I think we have to look at what our opportunities are because, if we focus on the barriers, we’re not going to make the change, right? So we have to look at the opportunities.

Preeti: What advice do you have for a younger generation of feminists, both to build on the legacy of the work done by feminists and feminist organizations, like yours?

Siva: I think that, firstly, we work a lot with young feminists and, of course, we come into a lot of interaction with them through ARROW. I think that a lot of the things that they do, they really make me so proud of them. They are so bold, in a way that, perhaps, I never was at their age, and I really take it as amazing. And they have had the privileges, right? They have had the privileges of education. They have the privileges of having a world that kind of, however reluctantly, says gender equality…men and women are equal. And, perhaps, we didn’t have that recognition 20 years back, 30 years back. I think that that’s the world that they operate in. I think that it’s really important to say that this is the time for them to step up, and to shine, and to show exactly their capabilities and their skills.

I always remember that we still have a challenge, especially for us who are the global south feminists. Audre Lorde says: Excellence itself is actually a revolution. It is like something that we have to say that we need to put our voice out there. We need to put our work out there, our perspectives, because we’re coming from a world that is fraught with both, not only sexism, but also racism, right? And that’s where southern feminists can really be bold, and we need to put that agenda and push the agenda. In that case, I would really urge not only to push yourself out there, push your limits and see what kind of excellent work you can do, because, definitely, they are capable of it. And, also, just stay united because one thing is to do excellent things by yourself, but also to be able to connect with other feminists and work together despite differences. We’ve all worked together despite differences, but to mobilize larger communities, to have each other’s back, and I think that those are really important things.

I see young women, and I’m really immensely proud of them, of what they do and standing up every day to speak up against things. But also remember the battle is not over. I think one of the things that we have not talked about is, in my day and age…girls always face a lot of prejudice, you know. And in this world of media and technology, there are additional stresses on personal image, personal satisfaction, personal fulfillment, whether individually or within a relationship. And to navigate that world is a very complex thing, and, in that, you would need your girl feminist friends, so that’s where the community really can help. But, definitely, we need them to, not only continue their gender, but select their gender.

Preeti: How are laws catching up to the enormous cultural shifts that have been taking place especially in the global south. LGBT rights, for example, have made great strides in South Asian countries, but the law is still playing catch up – decriminalizing homosexuality is still a pending reality…In the same way, we’re still fighting for women’s sexuality rights and health and reproductive rights in several countries.

What has your own reflection been, like, building on the work of ARROW and seeing where you’ve come this far? How do you locate yourself in this movement where so much of it seems to be very pessimistic? I think you kind of answered it a little bit, but I just wanted to know.

Siva: I think, definitely, there has been at least some progress, and the progress very much is in the factors of, like, let’s say, lip service, right. So you can’t actually be sexist openly without getting a lot of flack. But are your policies sexist? Now, that is a different level of thinking, analysis, and interrogation that needs to take place. But I think that the challenges also have gotten more manyfold and complex. Wins that we have experienced are actually wins that were due to us 10 years back. The wins that we need right now, we’re not getting. We are playing catchup. Just say like, “Okay. Now you’ve got that.” But, really, does it, as I said…do you really need data? Do you really need a world community getting together and forming some sustainable development goals for you to be able to do the right thing by women and girls in your country? Of course not. You know, you can do them right. You can just start looking at women and girls and say, “Hey, you are an equal person, just like me. How can I make you equal because you have that potential, you have that capacity?” and, also, because you’re entitled to it simply because you’re a human being, right? So, for me, it’s like after the feast is done, you are handed the crumbs, and then you’re supposed to say, “Oh, wow. That’s been great. I really like that.”

So I think that always trying to understand the environment that we do in, and you named it rightly. There’s neoliberal economic policy frameworks that are in place that really keep disempowering those that are already disempowered, and women are definitely belonging to that category. There’s also capitalism which marks choice, but it’s actually not choice but a reiteration of female preferences, of how you are behaved, achieve, aspire to, and everything, right? And we don’t interrogate that because many young women actually buy that and say, “Yeah, it’s my choice.” But on the third level, you also have ethno-religious nationalists who then again reassert that, “Yes, indeed, it is my choice to be following cultural and traditional practices,” whether that means to undergo FGM or to be in a polygamous marriage, which, again, needs to be interrogated, right?

So I think that these are the kind of complexities of the current world. And have our laws, have our policies, have our global aspirations inside the global community kept up in this? I don’t know. I think it’s sadly lacking in that. But what I know is, that I think individual women are able to articulate that complexity very clearly and, because of the means of technology, they are able to say that to a broader audience. They’re able to mobilize a number of people and to create a platform for a unified voice. We just have to keep going back to women and say like, “Stand up. Talk about your experience and how you experience it.” Tie it back to how this is about gender discrimination and oppression of the sexes because it is oppression. So I think that that’s the way.

“Those who have power will never give it up…which is why collaborations like FAR are critical for enabling feminist solidarity to work across such complexities.”

Preeti: So you are saying that power will not give up without a struggle…

Siva: Exactly. You have to grab power back, and you only get what you fight for! And so, it is important we build on the work of older generation of feminists and forge ahead fearlessly! 

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