Gender Development Projects should Target the Whole Community (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.’
Finding out about, understanding and engaging with faith-based attitudes towards gender
It is often difficult to find out about a faith-based organization’s attitudes towards gender issues. Development practitioners may be wary about openly critiquing religious organizations or leaders when their attitudes towards gender are problematic. Alternatively, some staff may be reluctant to engage with religion and religious organizations, either because they feel they lack sufficient knowledge to do so, or because they are concerned about being perceived to ‘interfere in local culture’.
This point to the need for gender and development practitioners to develop understanding and trust with faith communities and to engage in activities that are guided by detailed knowledge of the particular situation. It is also important to promote ‘religious literacy’ – knowledge of religion and religious organizations in the local context – as an important skill for development workers. In some situations, as the chapter in this volume on the work of Tearfund by Mandy Marshall and Nigel Taylor suggests, other faith-based organizations that share the same faith background may be better placed to delve into the gender attitudes of religious organizations and to suggest change where these attitudes are found to be problematic.
Women’s agency in faith-based organizations and ‘food-for-faith’
Considering the highly patriarchal nature of most religions, women’s participation in religious institutions (e.g. churches, mosques) and faith-based organizations is likely to be marginal as they are so often excluded from positions of leadership and decision-making processes. Mariz Tadros suggests that even when women do have opportunities for leadership in faith-based organizations, this does not necessarily challenge traditional gender relations.
While religion can provide women with coping strategies and concrete support services, this may also involve gender costs. For example, faith-based organizations may provide women with a range of spiritual and social services while at the same time limiting their freedoms. In some situations, women’s access to welfare services provided by religious organizations may be conditional on them adopting religiously appropriate gender roles and behaviour.
This suggests the need for careful evaluation before alliances are formed with faith-based organizations.
Do faith-based organizations and religious leaders represent women’s interests?
The capacity of faith-based organizations and religious leaders to support women’s ‘spiritual development’ as well as their ‘material development’, is sometimes cited as an advantage. In addition, faith-based organizations and religious leaders are often typified as being closer to the grassroots and therefore being in a position to reflect women’s best interests.
Although some faith-based organizations are undoubtedly grounded in local communities, others ‘seek to impose their own values and ideologies’ instead of responding to locally expressed gender priorities. We cannot simply assume that religious leaders understand the facts of women’s lives and needs, or that they necessarily have gender equality as a goal.
Because faith-based organizations are not primarily motivated by gender concerns, their engagement with gender issues may seem contradictory. Some of their actions may appear to support gender equity while others undermine it. For example, in Malawi, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant faith-based organizations opposed harmful widowhood practices. Yet the same organizations simultaneously opposed a government campaign promoting condom use. Engagement with faith-based organizations needs to be underpinned by an understanding of their gender politics, and of the broader social, political and economic context in which they operate.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will discuss three areas of recent academic research that raise important conceptual and practical issues for future work on religion, gender and development.
The implications of religion for development: a means to an end or a basis for dialogue?
Some commentators criticize development organizations and donors for merely wanting to use religion instrumentally, to achieve their ends, rather than recognizing that it might challenge their goals and conception of development more deeply. Séverine Deneulin and Masooda Bano argue that development donors engage with religion on particular issues that suit ‘what [they] conceive of as valuable and desirable development outcomes’.
For members of religious traditions, the values and long-term goals of belonging to that tradition may well conflict with or challenge some aspects of development priorities. For example, such critics may consider that the mainstream development agenda ignores the ‘spiritual’ aspects of people’s lives in pursuit of the material and that the ethical foundation of their religion is at odds with the dominant capitalist underpinnings of development.
Some members of religious traditions may also argue that gender difference is fixed according to divine sanction, but that this does not mean that women should be oppressed or subject to violence because of it.
Should the inclusion of religion force us to theorize or practice development differently? What trade-offs, compromises or tensions does this entail for the pursuit of gender equality?
For instance, when we engage with religious actors around gender concerns we cannot assume that all parties subscribe to a unified feminist vision. The success and ambitions of religious feminisms in different contexts are likely to be highly variable. Nonetheless, in many contexts there is a genuine commitment to exploring women’s empowerment within a religious framework, even if by Western feminist standards the goals might sometimes seem quite modest.
Séverine Deneulin and Masooda Bano argue that in many Muslim countries, development initiatives around women’s rights have tended to support interventions that are influenced by Western feminist thinking. In engaging with Westernized elite they have marginalized ‘Muslim women, in particular the Islamic female leadership’. They contrast different notions of women’s empowerment held by secular women’s rights NGOs and female madrasas in Pakistan. Whereas the secular organizations stress ‘individual liberty, including sexual liberty, and participation of women in economic and political affairs’ the madrasas have focused on women’s interests being ‘best served in a stable family unit ... [where] the emphasis is not on equality but on equity’ (ibid.). They suggest that through ‘dialogue’, where each group attempts to understand the other point of view, combined activism to improve gender relations is likely to be more successful than a situation where each side is unwilling to compromise and pursues separate agendas.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 18/05/2012