The celebrity-boosted boycott of the Sultan of Brunei and his Beverly Hills Hotel could open the way for an important partnership of activists supporting women’s rights and those pushing for LGBT rights.
So far, though, little progress has been made in that direction, although a mix of both types of advocates joined former talk show host Jay Leno in his endorsement of the boycott, which targets Brunei’s adoption of sharia rules that repress women and sexual minorities. (See photo above.)
Other celebrities backing the boycott include actor Stephen Fry, TV host Sharon Osbourne, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. The Feminist Majority Foundation, co-chaired by Jay and Mavis Leno, pulled its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards out the hotel, and several other organizations followed suit.
So far, gay-rights advocates and women’s rights advocates have mostly kept their distance from each other, while each opposes the strict new law.
“Why are gay bloggers, Tweeters and groups like Human Rights Campaign hyping this as an ‘anti-gay’ law? Obviously, because they haven’t talked to anybody in Brunei or elsewhere in the region. They especially haven’t consulted feminist groups in South and Southeast Asia who could clue them in on the impact of these laws. And they show no interest in building long-term coalitions with such movements — realistically, the only way to affect Brunei’s politics and policy. They’re interested in publicity and the satisfaction of speaking their minds. That’s not change. That’s catharsis….
“It’s clear that the Human Rights Campaign and other U.S. gay activists still haven’t learned the importance of alliances, a blindness doubly alarming when projected onto an international scale. The current fetish for fast results and clicktivism only feeds into this. A quick boycott threat might bring down a Firefox CEO in a few days, but political change across continents takes patience and persistence and hard work, not hashtags.
“Indifference to the broader issues at stake, to the fate of women in Brunei and to the work of feminists throughout the region, is disgraceful. It endangers LGBT Bruneians by turning the dispute over the Syariah code into a battle solely of ‘the Sultan vs. the gays.’ It damages regional women’s movements by relegating their campaigns again to silence. This isn’t international solidarity: It’s international solipsism.
The Human Rights Campaign, which only last year added international advocacy to its campaigns for gay rights in the United States, has focused primarily on LGBT rights but has not limited its criticism of Brunei to that issue. In a May 2 letter seeking support for the boycott, HRC President Chad Griffin also wrote about how women will be affected by the upcoming changes in Brunei:
“In addition, the so-called “offenses” of adultery and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, which would primarily be used against women in the country, make women convicted of these crimes eligible for fines, imprisonment, and stoning.”
BuzzFeed noted a different approach from the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, which had decided that now was not the time for a boycott:
“As the push against the hotel gathered steam in Los Angeles, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission held its fire. IGLHRC, one of the oldest U.S.-based groups working on LGBT rights abroad, had been working with a coalition of activists in Southeast Asia to try to develop a way to pressure Brunei to reverse the law. Brunei is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a trade bloc including countries like the Philippines and Thailand, whose governments have at times been supportive of LGBT rights.
“And the situation in Brunei was unclear — there were some hints that the sultan might already be looking for a way to back out, and forcing a confrontation over the issue might cause him to take a more hard-line position. The law was initially slated to go into effect on April 22, but the boycott began after the government announced it would delay implementation. And when the sultan set a new implementation date of May 1, the government also announced it would be implemented in three phases, with the capital punishment provisions not taking effect until next year.
” ‘I felt that it would be counterproductive to attack Brunei, when there was a decision to put things on hold,’ said Grace Poore, IGHRC’s Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands. She also stressed that framing this issue primarily through the lens of LGBT rights could backfire.
” ‘It’s important not to just focus on the LGBT issue,’ said Poore. ‘That is counterproductive. It’s divisive, it gives the impression [to] other people who suffer under these penalties that we’re only focusing on our issues instead of focusing on how they’re all interrelated.’
“But it’s also an issue that grabs Americans’ attention in the way that other human rights issues often do not. ‘It’s a measure of our success in the United States that gay is the bright, shiny object that catches the attention of some people,’ said a source with an LGBT organization doing international work.”
Even after the celebrities got involved, the advocacy group Women Living Under Muslim Laws has gotten little publicity for its opposition to the law, as articulated last November:
“Women’s rights organisations are particularly concerned that the new penal code includes stoning as a punishment for the crime of adultery. There are 15 countries in which stoning is either practised, legalised, or both, and if this law comes into effect, Brunei will be the sixteenth.
“Stoning is not prescribed in the Qur’an or in any other religious texts. We view the introduction of this penal code as part of a larger retrogressive step for women’s rights and gender equality in the country where spousal rape, for instance, is still tolerated under the Shari’a law. We reiterate our call that no ‘religion’, ‘culture’, or ‘tradition’ should be used to excuse killing and maiming for supposed moral crimes. While stoning is a method of punishment to be applied to both women and men, the victims in reported cases of stoning are overwhelmingly women.”
Related information recommended by Women Living Under Muslim Law:
- The WLUML campaign Violence is Not Our Culture: publications and resources in English, Arabic and French.
- Other WLUML resources in English
- Control and Sexuality, a study from 2010 on “connections between the criminalisation of sexuality, gender-based violence and women’s rights activism.”
- The Real Story Behind Brunei’s Sharia Laws Isn’t the One That Gay Rights Groups Are Telling You (Scott Long in PolicyMic)
- Michelangelo Signorile: Brunei’s Sharia Law Will Be Rewarded by Obama’s Fast-Track Trade Deal (huffingtonpost.com)
- Hotel Dropped By Oscars Party Over Sharia Code (news.sky.com)
- All The Things That Can Get You Stoned To Death In Brunei (BuzzFeed)
- Gay Rights Crusade Against Stoning in Brunei Began with a Los Angeles Labor Dispute (BuzzFeed)
- Made-in-Brunei designs, pieces for Muslim women (Brunei Times article about the business opportunity that the Syariah Penal Code creates for those who will sell women’s clothing that won’t violate that law.)
- Muslim-ruled Brunei OKs stoning for gay sex (76crimes.com)