Employment Opportunities Increase Women Empowerment (2-3)
‘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.’
Social Enterprise Development Initiative (SEDI), one of Oxfam’s partners working with Muslim communities, carried out research to identify the experiences of Muslim women in accessing the labour market in the north-west region of England in 2005.
There are increasing numbers of Muslim women living in Britain reasserting a self-conscious Islamic identity. By adopting the hijab as a symbol of resistance towards male attention, many Muslim women feel able to move freely in the public sphere. There is a pervasive view that Muslim women are silenced, oppressed and controlled by men, and references to the barriers to employment
Muslim women face are often made in this context. However, Muslim women are diverse, and the barriers that they face vary greatly. And these barriers are not necessarily related to men. Nevertheless, many of the women who participated in this research also felt that how and where they spent their time depended on socially constructed attitudes and stereotypes of gender roles, that either enabled or restricted their choices. SEDI’s main research findings were as follows:
* Widespread views and comments that those who are ‘visibly’ Muslim in terms of dress and behaviour are more likely to be affected by religious discrimination. This can affect their experiences in the labour market.
* Many Muslim women have no direct objection to entering the labour market, or undertaking education and training, but see flexibility, particularly for women with children, as the key requirement to their working outside the home.
* Those Muslim women who have engaged in further education or gained further qualification are the most determined to work and manage childcare at the same time.
* Family, friends, and the community can at times have a significant effect on the field of work and study Muslim women can enter.
* Many Muslim women are confident about setting up their own businesses, but lack assistance and understanding from UK service providers, including business advice specialists, and often lack encouragement and support from family members.
* The cumulative barriers to employment impact unfavourably on Muslim women’s self-esteem and confidence, and ‘lack of experience’ is the most cited reason given for the difficulties Muslim women encounter in securing employment.
The workshop participants identified a number of key challenges that Oxfam will need to face up to as we develop this area of work further.
The ‘war on terror’ has affected the work of Oxfam employees in many countries, and created difficulties for them. Some of the workshop participants gave examples of how the UK government’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has made it necessary for Oxfam to keep a lower profile as a British NGO in their countries, and to undertake advocacy work to clarify Oxfam’s independence from the UK government. Oxfam staff members have needed to explain their activities very clearly, be transparent about sources of funding, and counteract local views of British people and organizations being anti-Islam.
As an international NGO, we have to be particularly careful to ensure that when we work on sensitive issues like violence against women, the actual implementation of our initiatives is undertaken by appropriate local organizations. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of being accused of interference and introducing ‘foreign’ ideas that are not appropriate to the local cultural and religious context.
Framing programmes in terms of human rights
Oxfam is committed to a rights-based approach to development, but it is not always possible for staff to use human rights language in their work.
Participants at the workshops felt that the UN had lost credibility in many of the communities in which they work, and that as a result human rights treaties are increasingly being dismissed as a ‘Western imposition’.
This is true of women’s rights, which have been labelled as a Western idea, irrelevant to local culture, and so have met with resistance from both men and women. The challenge lies in how to present women’s rights programmes in a way that is accepted by local communities. Using quotes
from the Koran (as in the Pakistan case study) or examples from other countries, that demonstrate that women’s rights are compatible with Islam, may be a pragmatic strategy, although this is very much dependent on the local context.
Extending our analysis to other religions
Participants were clear on the need to extend discussions of gender and identity politics beyond Muslim contexts. All religious contexts exert pressure on the development agenda, and our work would benefit from inviting more perspectives on this debate. We are taking this into account in our strategic planning on our gender equality work for 2007–10.
Conclusion: understanding the interaction between religion and tradition, gender inequality, and development
In many of Oxfam’s programmes, staff have an inadequate understanding and appreciation of the diversity of Muslim contexts, and of the links between gender inequality, faith, and development. In some instances, expatriate staff may use their lack of understanding as an excuse to do nothing – ‘not wanting to interfere in local culture’. However, Oxfam has a clearly stated commitment to addressing gender inequality in all our work, and so this gap in understanding needs to be addressed.
In 2002, the return of relative stability to Afghanistan gave Oxfam staff the space to focus on issues beyond emergency work. It was at this point that a two-member gender team was put in place. Their role was to address the major gap in the team’s understanding of concepts such as gender roles and gender equality. Without this knowledge, members of staff were finding it difficult to challenge existing gender roles and promote women’s rights in the communities with whom they worked.
As a result, Oxfam staff have participated in more than 20 workshops and training sessions, to consider the links between gender inequality and poverty, and to understand concepts like gender indicators and gender-disaggregated monitoring and evaluation. All relevant documents, including Oxfam’s gender policy and tool kits, have been translated into the local languages for staff to use, and have been incorporated into inductions for new staff.
The overall conclusion of Oxfam’s workshops has been that there is a need to emphasize and understand the local context, and how specific issues affect gender relations on the ground in each country, and consider the way in which the global context intersects with local politics and existing practices that obstruct or promote gender equality.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 16/04/2012