Women’s rights at the intersection of politics and religion

In a fascinating book called Women in Place Nazanin Shahrokhni[1] has done a wonderful exploration of what happens when women’s rights are caught at the intersection of politics and religion. In this ethnographic study of women’s spaces in Iran, buses, parks and a football stadium, she highlights the pulls and pushes women rights face in the changing relationship between politics and religion. Her study goes further though, it demonstrates the agentic power of women when their rights are caught in these crosswinds.

Whereas the leaders of the Iranian revolution sought to control women by excluding them to private spaces, they were forced to renegotiate what that meant when economic, social and political pressures demanded these spaces be reconfigured. The language of control changed from that of religious and moral necessity to the state as protector and provider. Whatever the language, control of women through boundary making underpinned it all.

At the same time women were able to use that language to blur the edges of these constructued boundaries and call for greater freedoms. Places of contestation at this intersection of politics and religion became sites of negotiation and change.

Could we say that these spaces of contestation become liminal spaces for women’s renegotiating place, identity and belonging?

Expanding educational, work, leisure and economic opportunities along with shifts in political, social and economic imperatives continually rupture constructions of gender and rights. They bring new insights into the liminality of the space at the intersection of politics and religion that is inhabited by women, throwing open, albeit semi-controlled, spaces for transition and change.

Richard Rohr has described liminality as ‘where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…[2]

In a changing world, where economic and political pressures, globalisation, social change, education and technology are creating ever-changing waves of pressure women’s rights can appear to be blown away and lost in the midst of it all. Where we can see these intersections and contestations as liminal spaces, we see women’s agency rewriting their future in the shadows of these power tussles.


[1] Shahrokni, Nazanin. Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran, University of California Press, Oakland, 2020.

[2] Quoted in https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/. Accessed 25.01.2022

Don’t use me and then throw me away

Talking with a friend recently, we were discussing the challenges of women being included as equal participants, whether in political, social or religious spheres, until things became institutionalised. Once the goal of change was achieved, women were expected to go back to the margins.

In Algeria, in the fight for independence, women played a key role alongside men to remove the French colonial rule. They imagined that this meant a new day of freedom was dawning. But, once independence was gained women were excluded from the ongoing development of the state, pushed back to the margins where they were controlled and restricted.

During the years of Martial law and the Islamisation of Pakistan’s political and legal spaces, women became tools in the play for legitimacy. On the one hand moves made by the regime took control of women, their bodies and social spaces, claiming to restore their honour and dignity. At the same time, these changes burdened them with the role of protecting cultural norms, values and identity. Their voice was delegitimised and marginalised.

These are not only challenges in nation states. This challenge of making women what someone else wants them to be, of delegitimising their contribution, is found in work and organisational spaces as well.

In 1910, just under half of the registered Christian mission boards in the USA were women’s boards. They were told that they were dividing resources and so needed to join the general (read male dominated) organisations. There were promises that they would be given voice in leadership, strategic direction and planning. What actually happened was that women’s voices were marginalised and delegitimised.

Bible women in Korea carried the gospel from house to house, playing a leading role in establishing the church in that nation. When the church became institutionalised it was masculinised and women were made invisible. There work was harvested by male leadership, while they were pushed to the margins.

Women have been leaders, pioneers who have forged the way, opened doors for the greater good of the community, only to find themselves marginalised when the battle is won, progress attained. So, what is it about the institutionalising of structures and organisation that leads to their masculinisation and the concurrent marginalisation of women?

Let me simply offer some words for us to ponder.

Power
Control.
Authority.
Identity.
Belonging.
Patriarchy.
Bias.
Discrimination.
Inequality.
Injustice.
… what words would you add?

Civil society: alternative definitions

Civil society is a contested and ambiguous term that can accommodate a wide spectrum of views.  The state can use the notion of civil society when it wants to promote projects of mobilization and modernization, non-state actors use it as an angle for a legal share of public space while independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty.

It has been conceptualised variously as civil institutions, as human networks that exist independently of the state, as a realm differentiated from the economy and state, and as a place of social life independent of the state that cannot be swallowed up by the state.  Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian political sociologist describes civil society in terms of the link it creates between ‘democracy, development and a peaceful management of conflict domestically and regionally’ (Ibrahim, 1995).

A number of authors argue that civil society is a Western construct and there are problems in applying it uncritically to the Third World as a measure of modernity and progress. Serif Mardin is categorical in asserting that civil society cannot be unquestioningly translated into Islamic terms.  He bases this assertion on his argument that civility and civil society are not interchangeable terms and therefore the presence of civility does not automatically translate into a presence of civil society (Mardin, 1995).  Deniz Kandiyoti suggests an alternative way of conceptualizing the interface of engagement between state and society.  She refers to it as the site of a ‘new political society’ that does not necessarily conform to the norms of civil society but facilitates mobilization that channels popular demands in the emerging state (Kandiyoti, 2001).  Alternatively there is literature that seeks to redefine Islam’s internal structures, groupings and associations as demonstrable evidences of civil society from its earliest beginnings (Esposito, 2000:, Esposito and Burgat, 2003:, Chambers and Kymlicka, 2002:, Hanafi, 2002).

An alternative to civil society as framed by Western theory is needed to understand where engagement for negotiation occurs in non-Western societies.  The basic premise of Western civic culture is that sovereignty lies with the will of the people whereas Islam is based on the ultimate authority of God’s Word.  Therefore, how can the interface that allows for negotiation, where women’s organizations and activists can engage with state and society be conceptualized? 

Saad Eddin Ibrahim defines the concept of civil society by linking it to the concept of public space or the public sphere.  (Ibrahim, 1995)  The concept of the public space is variously used to identify that place where discourse and interaction between players of society happens and where society can interact with the state.  Nancy Fraser refers to it as mediation between state and society with society ‘holding the state accountable’ as she explores Habermas’ use of the concept (Fraser, 1992).  

However, where the concept of civil society contrasts public and private space, there are limitations in its usefulness as a framework for understanding negotiation for change for women. Concepts of public and private spheres are foundational to Islam’s designation of male and female space and roles.  It can be argued that these designations serve to maintain the inequalities and reinforce the power structures that are part of the problem for women living under Islam.  Talal Asad conceptualizes this when he argues the inherent and unquestionable link between the public sphere and articulations of power (Asad, 2003). Bari and Khattack observe that civil society is intrinsically linked with masculine interpretations of the state (Bari and Khattack, 2001).  Suad Joseph and Susan Slymovics further this idea, arguing that definitions of what constitutes civil society are based on a gendered distinction between the public and private (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).  The public domain is an arena from which women are largely excluded in strict Muslim definitions of space. 

Joseph and Slyomovics speak to this perspective when they assert that central to public, private and domestic spheres in Arab-Islamic societies is the patriarchal family, which they view as a construct of power in society.  They elucidate their argument by describing kinship and community as central organizers of social life; that state institutions and civil society do not operate independently of kin-based and communal relations (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).

Shahnaz Khan, in an article ‘Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space” offers an alternative space, one that is neither traditionally differentiated public and private but what she designates ‘political space’ (Khan, 1998). This is a place for ‘supplementary sites of resistance and negotiation’ formed when the original symbols and signifiers that have been translated through the discourses of Islam and colonialism, are re-appropriated, re-historicised and reread.  Nancy Fraser’s work on a ‘multiplicity of competing publics’ suggesting that ‘subaltern counterpublics … function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment … [and] … as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics” (Fraser, 1992:124) may be helpful in developing an understanding of this.

How do women in different societies negotiate and translate these discourses that regulate their lives into a ‘politics of everyday living’? 

Toxic Misogyny: what should be done?

A July 2021 article described the issues underlying a women’s alleged murder by family members as a result of toxic misogyny[1]. The article laid the blame on the government and its failure to protect women, citing a culture of impunity, patriarchal attitudes, victim blaming, the power given by certain religious teachings, or even the influence of western values and thinking. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has blamed women themselves for the violence perpetrated against them.

Perhaps part of the problem is in the generic use of the term, toxic misogyny. When all attitudes and behaviours are caught up under one label, nothing is clearly identifiable in order to be dealt with. The Atlantic, in describing the dilemma, said: ‘the concept offers an appealingly simple diagnosis for gendered violence and masculine failure…[2]’.

The problems that lead to gendered violence are multiple. They are not simply dealt with by a fierce description. Human rights lawyer, Hina Jilani told me once that she could not fight violence without laws. But we don’t just need laws, we need the enforcement of laws. The women’s movement in Pakistan has recognised over its decades of work that it cannot tackle gendered violence without using the language of religion, otherwise it is heard. Patriarchal structures that embed attitudes that make women less than equal have been show to be at the centre of the issue also. Institutional structures that deny women a voice and control them perpetuate the problem. The valorisation of cultural norms that place family honour and well-being in a woman’s body accentuate the burden women must bear and are used to legitimise violence and abuse.

We must be careful not to assume that the causes, and practices, of this toxic misogyny are the same everywhere. While lessons can be learned and learning should be shared, there is simply no single solution. And there are times when we feel like all the progress that has been made is wiped away with a simply stroke of the pen, comment of a leader, or failure of a legal system.

Toxic misogyny, what can be done? Let’s not give up calling for laws, demanding their implementation, addressing the abuses of religious belief, working for rights, challenging structures, creating spaces where women come together to work in multiple ways for the dignity and inclusion of all.


[1] https://www.dw.com/en/noor-mukadams-murder-exposes-toxic-misogyny-in-pakistan/a-58645017

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/

Does Internationalisation of local issues help women’s rights?

When Muktar Mai was gang-raped on June 22, 2002 at the behest of the tribal jirga, or panchayat, the incident should have finished there. Many women before her have suffered such a fate and out of honour/shame have committed suicide soon after. Mukhtar Mai did not accept her fate and fought back. Her story brought a range of issues pertaining to women, the government’s lack of will in addressing them, and the clash between cultural and religious norms and women’s rights, into the public arena where they were and are debated, discussed and written about. It also provoked increased discussion on what ‘civil society’ might mean for Pakistan as activists confronted what they term ‘barbaric tribal customs’.

The issue has become an international flashpoint for the government and embroiled the President, General Pervaiz Musharraf, in an ongoing international debate on rights versus image. Sept 13, 2005, in an interview with the Washington Post, President Musharraf said the talk around Islamabad was that women get themselves raped to get a visa for abroad and make large sums of money. President Musharraf continually sought to defend his handling of the Mukhtar Mai case, claiming its internationalization has tarnished Pakistan’s image abroad and, he has attempted to scapegoat women’s organizations and activists by publicly accusing them of seeking to harm Pakistan in their demand for reform or the way they articulate it. The spotlight has been put squarely on laws and customs that adversely affect women.

The Government then initiated an international conference in Islamabad on Violence against Women, a direct response to the national and international outrage over its inaction on this issue as highlighted by the Mukhtar Mai case. The internationalization of a local incident highlighting rights’ abuse created almost unprecedented opportunities for women to negotiate forcefully for change.

How women engage with the State, society and other power brokers are telling in terms of the changes they are able to achieve. Internationalization of issues becomes a double-edged sword, and one on which women’s negotiations for change rise or fall. At times, governments react with cosmetic measures that appease foreign powers putting pressure on them. At other times they resist and restrict the activities and work of local initiatives for change.

When international attention is brought to bear we need to be careful to work in service of local initiatives, understanding the broader picture, while not forgetting the need for justice for every women and her story.

Featured image: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-muktar-mai-thumbprint-opera-20170616-story.html

Women and the cost of poverty

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In a United Nations report, Transforming economies, realising rights, survey results showed that women aged 20 – 59 were more likely than men to live in a poor household, in 6 out of 8 Middle East and North Africa countries. The majority of the world’s absolute poor are females.

Too often women bear the burden of poverty. This has impact on a range of areas of their lives. Poverty is particularly destructive to women’s health, especially their reproductive and sexual health. Women and girls are often the last to eat and their health problems are considered secondary to other family priorities.

Maternal mortality rates soar where poverty is rampant. In part, this is because of the link between poverty and early marriage. More than half of Yemeni women are married before they are 18. The average age of marriage for a girl in Yemen is just 14 years. Early marriage is one of the main causes of high maternal mortality. A United Nations Development Programme report on Yemen suggested that every day 8 women die during childbirth and for every 100,000 live births, 366 women die. It said that approximately 19% of maternal deaths occur in women aged 15 – 19.

Early marriage feminizes poverty. Girls do not complete education, trapping them in cumulative cycles of deprivation, powerlessness, insecurity and poverty. The gender values that permeate all aspects of life and affect all social groups are intrinsic to a woman’s access to life and services.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) identified 4 key indicators of the feminization of poverty.

  1. The temporal dimension. Women are often primarily responsible for childcare and household duties—tasks for which they receive no pay. Women living in developing nations may also be relied upon to participate in exhausting physical and/or agricultural labor to help support the livelihoods of their families and villages. Having so many other responsibilities, these women have less time to devote to paid employment, and consequently earn a smaller income, even though they are effectively doing more work than their male counterparts.
  2. The spatial dimension. When employment is sare, women may have to migrate to other areas to find work temporarily. If a woman has children, however, she may be unable to pursue a job that takes her far from her family.
  3. The employment segmentation dimension.Being naturally classified as caretakers, women have often been corralled into specific lines of work, such as teaching, caring for children and the elderly, domestic servitude, and factory work such as textile production. These kinds of jobs lack stability, security and a higher income.
  4. The valuation dimension.In the same vein, the unpaid labor that women perform in taking care of family members and other household chores is considered of far less worth (at least economically) than positions that require formal education or training.

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~abbat22l/classweb/feminizationofpoverty/causes.html

There is a negatively-geared symbiotic relationship between poverty, which most affects women, and the gender disparities that marginalise women. The rigidity of socially prescribed gender roles in communities exacerbates the burden of poverty that women bear.

This burden is part of the daily cycle of life that many women must negotiate for their own survival, as one Egyptian woman described: “When our father died we suddenly found ourselves cast upon the waters like a ‘band of cripples’ … We would have to struggle from this time forward to keep ourselves alive … I recall my mother crying and saying, ‘O poor one, are you not like a creature drowning now. Where do I go now? To whom have you left me? I have neither brother or sister to lean on and no shore on which to rest. In whose hands have you commended my fate, O lost one? … early we learned to work not only in our own fields but as field hands picking sweet potatoes for others at seven or eight paisters a day” (Om Naeema in Khul Khall).

Untying the hard knots of women’s subjugation is essential to tackle other social issues that burden our world, one of which is poverty.

Unintended consequences

In an article on Citizenship and Gender in Middle East Suad Joseph talks of the ‘pervasiveness of patriarchy’ and its over-arching influence in shaping notions of propriety and umpiring behaviour. Khawar Mumtaz and Fareeda Shaheed, in their book ‘Women of Pakistan, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’, describe the enmeshing of patriarchy into the structures of feudalism, tribalism and capitalism as symbiotic; creating an interdependent relationship between these structures. While theoretically distinct, opposition to one immediately implies opposition to the other.

Emancipatory measures have in fact been adopted by the State in many instances, though they often seem more cosmetic than genuine actions for change. They are often enmeshed in the patriarchal structures of society, binding women ever more deeply to those structures. Deniz Kandiyote charges that such measures are never intended to lead to renegotiation of men’s existing privileges, but are simply an endowment upon women of additional capabilities and responsibilities. Women are dependent on these pronouncements to procure any advancement.

However, limited though these emancipatory measures introduced by governments may be, they have seen the rise of women who are today’s advocates for change in gender relations. A body of highly-skilled, professional women who are concerned to change the ‘gendered balance of power, has been born. Pakistan is one example, where such women are to be found now as activists and leaders of women’s organizations.

Laws that deal with male violence, family law, female exclusion from education, health provisions for women, are all dependent on men acting to provide for women. Women activists have leveraged these small scraps to challenge the state and society on more structural and institutional levels. Governments never intended that their offerings would become the catalyst for more, and yet there is significant evidence that women are using these small openings as major opportunities to engage in negotiations for change.

Identity: Women are not schizophrenic

Women have multiple identities, raising the question as to when these different identities are articulated. The family is where definitions of gender are most immediately experienced, identity defined in part in the tasks she is assigned. Society and state articulate her gender within a framework of cultural symbolism, as the bearer of cultural authenticity. Farida Shaheed argues this is particularly so in Muslims states which have lacked a coherent ideology concerning their independence. Men rely on Islam and therefore require women as the markers of their cultural identity. The legacy of colonial domination has been a crisis of identity that has trapped women in struggles over culture.

Identity has a material shape embodying beliefs and behavioural patterns that order society. As identity is translated into tangible norms and customs, pre-existing social structures and power relations are pivotal in determining social customs and religions practices. Whereas it can be argued identity is a means of autonomous self-expression its manipulation is a means of control. Manderson and Bennett say “hegemonic constructions of gender are pivotal in the formation of women’s and men’s social identities, their personal subjectivities, their status and the power dynamics of female/male relations.” (Bennet and Manderson, 2003:11) Social control is exercised through notions of what is respectable and what is not. As repositories of their family honour it is family interpretations of religious and social values that are central determinants for the lives of women.

The inter-relationship of religion, class, law and society forms multiple layers of identity for a Muslim woman within an Islamic framework. Culture, customs, religion and law define the space available for self-definition and are the strands woven into formation of identity. Within this framework there are two levels at which gender identity is experienced and defined, the public arena of political discourse and the personal everyday existence. Gender and the position of women becomes politicised where religious, cultural, ethnic and national identity are under pressure.

A woman’s actions, her self-affirmation and desire for change must be negotiated within these boundaries.

We cannot remain silent

A recent World health Organisation study showed that globally, 38% of all women murdered are killed by their intimate partners. The report included some key findings on the health impact of domestic violence:

  • Death and injury– The study found that globally, 38% of all women who were murdered were murdered by their intimate partners, and 42% of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner had experienced injuries as a result.
  • Depression– Partner violence is a major contributor to women’s mental health problems, with women who have experienced partner violence being almost twice as likely to experience depression compared to women who have not experienced any violence.
  • Alcohol use problems – Women experiencing intimate partner violence are almost twice as likely as other women to have alcohol-use problems.
  • Sexually transmitted infections – Women who experience physical and/or sexual partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire syphilis infection, chlamydia, or gonorrhoea. In some regions (including sub-Saharan Africa), they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV.
  • Unwanted pregnancy and abortion– Both partner violence and non-partner sexual violence are associated with unwanted pregnancy; the report found that women experiencing physical and/or sexual partner violence are twice as likely to have an abortion than women who do not experience this violence.
  • Low birth-weight babies– Women who experience partner violence have a 16% greater chance of having a low birth-weight baby.

(http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/violence_against_women_20130620/en/)

View the associated infographic here: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/VAW_infographic.pdf

Fear and shame keep victims of violence silent and isolated. But there are small glimmers of hope. It has been found that communities form and activism is sparked when victims are supported to speak up.

Pakistan has shown the way in this over many years. Women’s activism took on the government, legal system, constitution and laws after the draconian Hudood Ordinances punished victims for the violence perpetrated against them. Wave after wave of activism has confronted violence against women, pressing the government for change and calling society to action. Laws have been changed. The rate of change is slow, but with relentless pressure from activists changes have been made.

The rape of a young women on a bus in India, led to outrage and calls for action that gave other victims support and courage to speak up. Following the reporting of this one incident several others were immediately reported, raising questions about what was happening to women in the country.

The media must be encouraged to speak with clarity, not for the sake of a story but for justice, to prevent victims being hidden by the community because of shame, to challenge laws, policies, social conscience and the status quo that accepts such violence as the norm.

But more is needed. Perhaps the case of Pakistan shows that hand in hand with activism support structures are needed for victims. The structures need to empower women to make choices, enabling them to find their identity and not become stuck as victims. Activists must enable the voice of victims to be heard, even as they take up the cause.

Challenging violence that marginalises women needs the voices of all.

Facing Culture and Religion – the case of Samia Sarwar

The broad-daylight, cold-blooded murder, in April 1999, of Samia Sarwar by her family in the office and presence of her lawyer Hina Jilani, a leading human right’s lawyer and activist and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, shocked and stunned many in Pakistan. That her family would so boldly shoot her dead was seen as indicative of their belief that they would not face prosecution or even condemnation for the deed. There was a storm of protest with human rights activists storming the Civil Secretariat the following day demanding justice.

But the country was divided. In a Special Bulletin, ‘The Dark Side of Honour’, by Shirkat Gah (part of the international network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Law’) Rabia Ali writes that members of the Senate refused to pass a resolution condemning the murder, arguing that honour killings were part of their ‘cultural traditions’ (Ali, 2001). The NWFP Chamber of Commerce and religious organizations added their voice, declaring her killing ‘in keeping with tribal laws’ (Ali, 2001). The Ulema went so far as to declare Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyers and a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and Hina Jilani infidels deserving to be killed because they were misleading Pakistan’s women and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad. Public support for the honour killing was said to be overwhelming in the NWFP because it was deemed to be in accordance with tradition and therefore not a crime.

Government inaction on honour killings was publicly exposed by this event. Honour killings were placed firmly on the public agenda and women’s organizations and activists were able to publicly engage on the issue. It was a local flashpoint with international ramifications. The Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS and the International Centre for Legal Protection of Human Rights convened a conference in November 1999 to look at the question of honour killings. In the summary report produced from this ‘Roundtable on strategies to address ‘crimes of honour’’ they state explicitly that “the project was initiated in response to the murders of Samia Sarwar in Pakistan and Rukhsana Naz in the UK in early 1999 and the explicit articulation of an ‘honour’-based defence by the alleged perpetrators in each case.” (Welchman, 2000)

WAF, Shirkat Gah and other human rights bodies issued press releases condemning the murder and calling for action. Asma Jehangir filed an FIR (First Incident Report) and demanded a Government enquiry into 300 cases of honour killings for the previous year. There was no response. Women were confronted with the realities of cultural norms given religious weight in condoning crimes against them. In October 2004 the government rejected legislation introduced into parliament by Sherry Rehman, an opposition MNA, seeking to articulate clearly the criminal nature of honour killings. Kashmala Tariq, an MNA belonging the then ruling party, put up a private members bill in March 2005 seeking to prevent those accused of honour killings from winning impunity through the provision of diyat, or blood money, but this too was dismissed by the National Assembly. Culture and tradition are not willing to give up their right to sanctioned violence against women.

The process of negotiation is fraught with difficulties but the Samia Sarwar incident showed how culture and religion, when they become intertwined, are a toxic mix for women.