Gender Development Projects should Target the Whole Community
‘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.’
Such examples show us how religious feminisms may not map exactly onto gender and development goals, but can enable women to improve their lives through negotiating religious boundaries in culturally appropriate ways.
This approach requires a clearer understanding of what constitutes women’s empowerment in different contexts, and openness to including a diversity of views and approaches even when they clash with secular feminisms based on the pursuit of female and male equality in all spheres of life. Research that addresses this could assist development actors in modifying their language and expectations in different contexts so as to support approaches to female empowerment that are culturally embedded and appropriate, and therefore achieve the best outcomes for women at any particular time. Research that addresses the tensions as well as the instances of successful interaction between secular and religious actors around gender concerns can be useful in highlighting areas where they are likely to agree as well as potential flashpoints to be negotiated or even avoided.
Rethinking the boundaries between the religious and the secular
Development discourses have sometimes assumed that moves towards secularism are inherently positive for women’s rights, since the influence of religion will be reduced within politics and the public sphere. Recent research shows that this is too simplistic. Shahra Razavi and Anne Jenichen argue for the need to revisit discussions about secularism and theories of secularization and the implications of these for women’s rights.
Secularization is sometimes understood as meaning that religion will become a purely private matter, playing less of a role in public life over time.
Some researchers argue that in fact the opposite is true, and that religion is being ‘de-privatized’ and becoming increasingly present in the public sphere. Others maintain that religion has never been a purely private affair and has always had an impact upon various aspects of social and political life, even in contexts where there is a constitutional separation between religion and the state.
In addition, an understanding of secularism as state non-interference in religious matters may actually allow inequality in family and personal customs to continue outside the domain of state law. The notion that religion in the private sphere is freely chosen and directed towards one’s relationship with the divine – or towards making one feel better in difficult times – may have some validity, but ignores the broader impacts of religion on women’s lives where it can act as a tool of control and oppression in the private domain.
The assumption that secularism is good for women overlooks the ways in which the private is political and the family is ‘public’, in the sense of exerting an external influence on women that is often beyond their control. We need a more mature and realistic account of secularism and secularization which pays attention to the actual way that religion operates in women’s lives at both the public and the private levels, and which is accompanied by the space for appropriate responses to develop.
Oppositions between public and private, secular and religious, are inadequate as frameworks to accommodate the diverse ways that religion influences women’s oppression as well as the opportunities that engaging with religion can offer for women’s empowerment and development. For example, one of the key messages of this book is that the line between different feminisms, secular and religious, is more blurred than we once thought, as Shahra Razavi and Anne Jenichen write: ‘it is also unhelpful to set up an opposition between internally and externally generated change, or to represent one avenue as superior to the other. The dividing line between the two may also be porous, as those who work for ‘internal reform’ very often draw on the ideas and arguments of ‘external’ advocates for change. Alliances between feminists of different religious and secular communities are therefore imperative’.
Moreover, alongside the rise of various fundamentalist and extreme versions of religion, we also find a strengthening of transnational women’s movements, constituted by networks of regional groups and movements that promote their own strategies for women’s empowerment. Organizations such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Catholics for a Free Choice, as well as movements within religious traditions around issues such as female ordination, all suggest the growth of vibrant transnational feminist networks that aim to negotiate women’s empowerment within local religious and cultural contexts. This contrasts with earlier styles of international feminism that were often perceived as Western-driven and top-down, favouring ‘secular’ approaches and values.
Women’s social movements and development
Despite the growing presence of religious actors in women’s movements for social change, this is an area that remains under-researched. This can partly be attributed to the fact that feminists and development practitioners often view religion as being a hindrance to the achievement of gender equality.
While women’s movements globally have tended to take a secular route, many of the campaigns and issues that they address are linked to religion in important and complex ways. Increasingly, women’s movements, particularly in developing countries, have had to face difficult questions with regards to their position on religion as it is both a potential barrier to, as well as a driver of, social change. The public influence of religion is arguably becoming more prominent across the globe, while at the same time there are concerns that ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘extreme’ versions of religion (that are typically conservative in their attitude towards women) are gaining a firmer foothold in civil society and within the state. In such a climate, there is a need for empirical studies and theoretical reflection that explore the ways that religion can act as a barrier as well as a positive force in the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights.
For instance, recent research in Nigeria indicates that with respect to the campaign to reflect CEDAW in domestic law, religious opposition was successful in blocking legal change. Conversely, religious groups were instrumental in the success of a campaign to enact legislation to outlaw harmful widowhood practices.
In both of these cases, the aim was to influence those in power to make legal changes in women’s favour. Duncan Green argues that those who wish to design strategies to influence decision makers need to understand who are the ‘champions, shifters, and blockers’ of change; they need to consider with whom they might seek to form alliances and coalitions; and they need to be wary of ‘pre-emptive reforms by the powerful’.
My aim in this conclusion was to summarize the key points raised in the introduction to the book and to consider them in relation to the challenges of the future. In particular, I have identified a tension between the ‘rush to find the religious’ as a positive shift in development policy and practice, and the observation that in the absence of sustained and careful research, engagement with religious leaders and faith-based organizations runs the risk of exacerbating already fragile gender regimes. The emerging openness to thinking about and engaging with religion in development therefore offers both challenges and opportunities for working in gender and development. The chapters in this volume offer insights from empirical research as well as outlining evolving themes and good practice that will be of interest to students, researchers and development policy makers and practitioners.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 22/05/2012