Religious Influences Strong Incentive for Social Change (3-3)
‘The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
Other key points
Individuals have multiple, intersecting identities, including gender, class, age, culture, and ethnicity. Some are owned, and others perceived. Labelling which only focuses on one aspect of identity can have a negative impact on women’s rights as it hides the diversity of needs and roles that women have based on their multiple identities;
Religious ‘fundamentalism’, discrimination, stereotyping and political instability are some of the many factors obstructing work to promote gender equality;
There is a need to respond using local knowledge to adapt the broad and shared human rights framework to tackle specific local development needs;
When talking about ‘Muslim contexts’, we should bear in mind that contexts are constantly evolving, and that our understanding of context is both time- and place-specific, and subjective.
Changes in contexts
Two years later, in February 2006, Oxfam GB again brought together a group of staff from a cross-section of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Philippines, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and the UK.
This workshop aimed to deepen the analysis of the previous workshop and to share learning on practical development interventions and responses at programme level.
The second workshop began by identifying the changes that have occurred – globally, nationally and locally – over the two years since the previous workshop.
Some of the points identified by participants were:
* Some extremist fundamentalist groups are using the global political situation to justify and increase their strength; often the war in Iraq and atrocities against Muslims in other places are used to justify their point;
* Military action involving Western forces in several Muslim countries has exacerbated a perception amongst some people that all organizations originating in the West, including international NGOs, are hostile to Islam. This can present security challenges for Oxfam staff;
* There is an increasing withdrawal of civil liberties and erosion of women’s rights and a concurrent rise in ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations of Islam and other religions across the globe;
* Some Muslim fundamentalist groups are using their involvement in disaster relief to introduce narrower interpretations and definitions of Islam – often these target women’s dress, mobility, and behaviour;
* The global debate on identity politics has come to the fore in the UK since the bombings of July 2005 in London;
* While discrimination against Muslim groups continues, there is a greater effort to understand ‘fundamentalism’ and Muslim contexts, while also becoming aware of the complexities of engaging with ‘religious groups’.
Challenges for work on gender equality
Specific challenges to gender equality identified by participants included early or child marriage; a lack of choice in marriage; imposition of dress codes; male migration resulting in desertion, polygamy, and additional burdens on women-headed households; and restrictions on girls’ education and women’s mobility justified with reference to religion. Many of these challenges are common to different contexts and locations. Other challenges identified, although not experienced by all participants in their countries, include:
* Ensuring development initiatives reach marginalized communities, and difficulties in persuading governments to allocate sufficient resources to promoting gender equality in development;
* Contradictions between the ideal and reality of women’s roles in society, and how to change women’s own attitudes;
* A lack of social and political alternatives to the fundamentalist vision;
* Rising ‘fundamentalisms’ and communities of men and women seeing themselves in terms of narrowly defined religious identities, rather than taking rights-based positions on their development needs.
There is an undeniable global focus on Islam, and increasingly narrow definitions of Islam promoted by the international media, countries and ‘fundamentalists’.
This has brought a greater urgency to specifically understanding challenges facing gender work in Muslim contexts, even if there remains a need to question the intentions behind this focus. These challenges include the fact that understandings of what is and what is not acceptable ‘behaviour’ by women are dominated by conservative, male opinion. This is because in most Muslim contexts, women are not permitted to engage in religious interpretation and are generally silenced, whereas men who engage in progressive interpretation may face condemnation and violence. This makes the challenge of protecting the space for dissent and alternative voices, including progressive interpretations of Islam, extremely important, given the tendency of the media to overlook such progressive interpretations, as these do not produce the kind of headlines that match stereotyped visions of Islam. This does not help the popularization of progressive, gender-friendly interpretations globally, and assists in keeping them invisible locally. Finally, in some places where Muslims are a minority community, there are additional or particular challenges, as there may be parallel legal systems for different communities.
Successful strategies for promoting gender equality
Despite these challenges, Oxfam GB staff has worked to achieve progress in promoting gender equality in various programmes in Muslim contexts around the globe, and the workshops were able to draw out some of the strategies employed by different teams. Indeed, discussions highlighted that despite the common perception of religion as a barrier to gender equality, it can also present opportunities.
Some of Oxfam’s programme teams have found that using religious arguments to promote gender equality is an effective strategy. Many local NGOs working in Muslim countries, both secular and faith-based, have similarly found that using a religious framework has been an effective strategy to bring about social change. The following example from Oxfam’s Pakistan programme illustrates this well.
The remote desert area of Makhi and Achhro Thar in Sanghar District is 300 km north-east of Karachi. With no irrigation facilities, few roads, and no public transport, the area, which has a population of around 70,000, is one of the poorest regions of Sindh Province. The community is reliant on subsistence agriculture, cattle herding, and fishing, and has been sorely neglected by the government and political parties. The literacy rates in Achhro Thar are extremely low. Overall, only 5 per cent of people are literate – and only 0.3 per cent of women.
With Oxfam’s support, the Makhi Welfare Organization opened schools in seven villages and started classes in September 2000. Within six months, 34 boys and 49 girls out of the 191 children enrolled at that time passed their first exam and were promoted to the next class. The total enrolment is now 274, of whom 168 are girls. For the first time there are girls and boys in the villages who can read and write.
Prior to the project, villagers had been opposed to girls’ education, considering it a waste of time and money, and showed little interest in educating boys either. They did not think that education was relevant to their lives.
However, MWO’s social mobilization and awareness-raising activities convinced village elders of the importance of sending girls to school. The children, too, are enthusiastic about their education. Girls told project workers how they work during the cotton-picking season to earn money to buy their uniforms and schoolbooks. One girl explained: ‘I want to study further and want to be a doctor, if the financial situation of my family would allow this to happen.’
By Ursula King Bristol University, 13/04/2012