Banaban Voice

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James Bhagwan FIJI TIMES ONLINE Wednesday, February 10, 2010

THE word "minority" is often used to describe a "small group of people within a community or country, differing from the main population in race, religion, language or political persuasion, (Oxford Dictionary of English).

We in Fiji are familiar with this particular understanding of the term "minority". I have heard pleas and calls for the support of the minorities from the Indian community, the communities of Rotuma, Rabi, Kioa and the descendants of black-birded Solomon Islanders.

In this sense, I suppose I come under the term minority in a number of contexts. First, I am classified ethnically as Indian (academically as Indo-Fijian) and in the past this meant that my father's name would often follow my name.

Raised in a household of equality, it often concerned me that my mother's name was left out, even though through her I was electorally registered as a General Voter. Second, I am a Christian and while the majority of the population is of the Christian faith, Indian Christians are a minority.

As a member of the Indian Division of the Methodist Church I am in a further minority among Indian Christians in Fiji.

Yet I believe that often we have created two boxes around the word "minority". The first box contains the literal understanding of the term minority based on the above definition. This box excludes minorities in terms of representation in decision-making, the acceptance or perhaps emergence (as in coming out but not yet accepted) of sexual minorities, and the slow (perhaps too slow) recognition of persons with disabilities and living with HIV, the elderly and children as equal members of society, albeit with special needs.

It seems that as a society, it is only the exceptionally strong social conscience or those who have experienced a profound encounter with these minorities that give them the respect and dignity that they deserve as human beings as well as understanding that their particular circumstance demands compassion (not pity) and solidarity (not finger-pointing). At the same time it bemuses me how in a society where women are in equal proportion (more or less) with men in terms of population, we still find women struggling for gender equality.

That 50 (or thereabouts) per cent of the population still is economically, socially and politically a minority is a shameful thing in country whose major religions preach equality of the individual in the eyes of the divine.

I have supported over the years, both in terms of advocacy and with my own vote, the move to have a greater participation of women in decision-making in parliament and I know I am not alone, even though I may be in a minority.

Then there is the other kind of box which limits our understanding of and our positive response to minorities. These minorities are those whose who swim against the tide of popular thought and behaviour. This includes those who dress differently, have eclectic tastes and use unorthodox methods in their work –– be it in the secular, academic or religious field.

Rejected, abused and opposed, many of them play important roles in the evolution of society which is only appreciated when reflected on years later.

There are also those minorities who "rock the boat" and challenge the accepted norms of practice and question decisions based on tradition rather than good judgement and ethical reflection. They also face opposition, rejection and victimisation when they try to change a mindset, even when the point they are making is valid.

A teacher who raises the issue of corporal punishment or a discriminatory dress code is transferred by a principal who would rather not be challenged by issues which in fact are already policies within the education system or have been practiced in the past.

I am not for one moment suggesting that one man or one woman cannot make a difference.

History, our own as well as that of the planet is full of examples, both good and bad, where indeed this has been the case. What I am asking you to consider is that there are many men and women who could be agents for good, yet who find themselves a minority.

We are challenged to open ourselves up to the possibilities for positive change, even if they may sound different to popular positions. As the saying goes, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing".

As a Christian servant, I am constantly challenged to leave the ninety-nine and look for the one, in my ministry and in my life. That "one" is the minority. It is the person with HIV looking for compassion in his or her village. It is the gay man or woman looking for love from his or her family and friends.

It is the disabled athlete looking for the same level of sponsorship as that of an able-bodied person. It is every man, woman and child who ever voiced their concern with a wrong decision or action but was ignored.

A family, a community, a nation is only truly united when there is a space where everyone is recognised and respected for who they are and what they think regardless of how challenging or ridiculous it may be.

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