This is the story of a group of people who kick the ball to promote gender equality and SOGIE rights in an area of armed conflict. What is this armed conflict and how does playing football promote gender equality and SOGIE rights?
The Southern provinces of Thailand (Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwas) have been mired in an armed conflict since 2001, although its origins can be traced back to 1948 when the ethnic and religious separatist movement began, and continues till today. The insurgency has forced the people in this area to live under violence and martial law for over 14 years. Although more than 80% of the people living here are Malay Muslims, they are a minority in Thailand and are deeply marginalised. The Southern Bandit discourse, created by the State and mainstream media, has led to further stigmatisation of Malay Muslims, and has deeply contributed to Islamophobia in Thai society.
Local Muslims have faced numerous human rights abuses by the State. The armed groups in turn target and kill members of other minority groups in the area such as Buddhist villagers. Many Buddhist families have been forced to relocate. Between January 2004 and October 2017, over 6,500 people (Muslim and Buddhist) died of which 610 were women. This area has one of the highest rates of human rights abuses in Southeast Asia.
The conflict in the area is further complicated by patriarchy and heteronormative standards, dictated by religion. Although Islam is created equally for both men and women, Muslim women here have limited negotiation power, compared to the men. Furthermore, homosexuality is a sin according to Islamic teaching. Homophobia and a lack of understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) have resulted in a lack of recognition of LGBTIQ people and high incidents of bullying, stigmatisation, discrimination, and physical and mental abuse. There is no safe space for learning about sexual well-being and sexual rights, and the problem is seen as less important compared to the unrest in the region.
Buku Classroom or Buku’s Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights Classroom, a grassroots organisation based in Pattani, started to raise social awareness on gender, sexuality and human rights for gender equality and justice in 2013. The organisation began as a small classroom in a bookshop - Buku Books & More (Buku is a Malay word meaning book) - where people came to discuss and learn about gender, sexual diversity and human rights issues. The classroom moved to the football pitch in 2015 as a part of the national campaign to stop violence against women and girls. In August 2016, Buku Football Club was founded officially with the slogan “Football for Peace and Equality” and since then, over 200 players have played with us.
Football is a tool for sending a strong message to the community. To us, the football pitch represents a model of society and the way we play represents our social order. It helps us understand many issues in our society, especially, gender inequality and patriarchy both in personal and public spaces. Let us consider the gender politics of football: men and boys occupy many of the social spaces for football, and everyone else is excluded or discriminated from joining. There is a gender hierarchy in a sport like football that mirrors societal hierarchies.
Football in Thailand is seen as a game for boys and men, with no space for women, girls or LGBTI people. In fact, this is just a myth: everyone can kick a ball and have fun! We are raised under the social construct of gender roles and rarely question gender norms that we have internalised.
Buku Football Club aims to break such stereotypes, to create a space that pushes people to think about inclusivity and gender equality, through football. It encourages everyone to play and enjoy football, improve their self-esteem and learn to respect each other, in spite of our differences. In my understanding, this is the way we can live together and create positive peace in society.
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