Using social customs and religion to perpetuate injustice against women

Sustainable development goal V aims at “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. (https://www.ohchr.org/en/faith-for-rights/faith4rights-toolkit/module-5-women-girls-and-gender-equality).

Two recommendations from CEDAW address some of the areas of concern with respect to this:

Recommendation No 35: “One of the primary challenges in the elimination of harmful practices relates to the lack of awareness or capacity of relevant professionals, including front-line professionals, to adequately understand, identify and respond to incidents or the risks of harmful practices. A comprehensive, holistic and effective approach to capacity-building should aim to engage influential leaders, such as traditional and religious leaders”.

Recommendation No 36 acknowledges that “the discriminatory and harmful practices of child and/or forced marriage, associated with religious or cultural practices in some societies, negatively impacts the right to education.” 

Women’s oppression is often justified on the basis of cultural norms and/or religious beliefs, even though at times these two are at odds with each other. Religious ideologies about creation, religiously sanctioned practices like polygamy, cultural beliefs around education, violence, forced marriages, women and property ownership, as well as cultural practices such as circumcision have informed cultural and religious decisions to justify the oppressive injustices experienced by women in many places. 

In a story attributed to Joan Chittister, we see how such injustice and inequality has many faces. ‘A merchant in the Middle East went from bazaar to bazaar buying rugs to export. One day he passed a stall where an elderly woman sat on a tiny rug before a very large hand-woven rug. He asked the old lady whether the rug behind her was for sale. Without looking up she answered that it is for sale. He asked her how much she wanted for the rug on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees, sir. One hundred rupees’. Again he asked her to confirm the price on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees. Not a single rupee less’. He looked at her and said: ‘Old lady, I have never seen a rug that beautiful’. She nodded and said: ‘I know that, sir. That’s why I’m selling it for One hundred rupees and not a single rupee less’. The merchant then said: ‘In the name of Allah, old lady, if you realize how beautiful your rug is, why would you ever sell it for only one hundred rupees?’ Shocked at this question the old lady looked up for the first time, and after a moment of silence she answered: ‘Because, sir, until this very moment, I never knew that there were any numbers above 100’.’ (http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222019000100009)

Where governments, religious institutions or civil society organisations seek to address social reforms that impact people’s private lives they face immediate backlash. To challenge traditions like polygamy, genital mutilation, inheritance rules or males’ authority over women requires a deep commitment to justice. I recall so many of the women activists in Pakistan who paid a heavy price in seeking to address the injustices perpetrated by these practices.

Where institutions and individuals seek to address the injustices written in religious laws, they face an even greater backlash. Governments fall, organisations and individuals are slandered, attacked and threatened, some even killed for seeking to ‘break the code of God’. That which is considered sacred is immutable. That God who is just could perpetuate injustice seems lost on those who feel they must protect God.

While we may want to think religion addresses issues of justice, religious laws and social norms make a lethal cocktail used to deny justice and equality to many women. Not only do women need those who will fight on their behalf, they need those who will enable women to raise their voices. But it will come at a cost.

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?

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

Gunnel - diverse 033

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.

Challenging the law: the case of Safia Bibi

The Hudood Ordinances were the first laws introduced in Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his programme of Islamization. They are a collection of 5 criminal laws dealing with theft and armed robbery; Zina or rape, abduction, adultery, and fornication; Qazf or false accusation in respect of Zina; prohibition of alcohol and narcotics and public whipping. Most of these were already offences in Pakistan when the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated, but these new Ordinances introduced forms of punishment recognized by Muslim jurists. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, in their book ‘The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?’ described the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances as ‘transparent political opportunism’. (Jahangir and Jilani, 2003) Their framing and implementation has been described as ‘slipshod’ at best and lending no credibility to the notion of Islamisation. However, once a religious label has been attached to a law it becomes an extremely sensitive issue and any criticism is perceived as heresy.

While there was widespread consternation at the promulgation of the laws they were brought sharply into focus in 1983 with the case of Safia Bibi. Raped by her landlord and his son Safia Bibi became pregnant. Her father filed a complaint of rape when her pregnancy was revealed and the case went to court. Because she was blind and therefore unable to visually identify her alleged attackers they were set free. Her resultant pregnancy though was seen as admission of zina, adultery, and she was convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, public flogging and a fine. These laws caught Safia Bibi in their web. Under them she, the victim, had become the accused.

Women’s activists and supporters of human rights were outraged and for the first time the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), formed in 1980, went out onto the streets to protest this punishment and demand changes to the laws. Pressure was mounted as journalists wrote articles to highlight the issue and women lawyers agitated in their Bar Association. While many had opposed the promulgation of the laws this incident gave a focus to concerted agitation and attempts to negotiate for their change. It was a defining moment in the life of emerging women’s organisations, and that original protest is still celebrated each year by women’s groups around the country. It continues to provide opportunity for raising issues that concern gender violence. When the Federal Shari’a court acquitted Safia Bibi on a technical ground it made clear in its ruling that national and international pressure had played no small part in this decision.

While there was success in seeing the particular decision overturned, much of those Hudood Ordinances remain in force today. The question must be asked; was this an individual revolution or have women’s organisations and activists been able to use this as an opportunity to engage and negotiate?

I am not that woman!

I am not that woman

selling you socks and shoes!

Remember me, I am the one you hid

in your walls of stone, while you roamed

free as a breeze, not knowing

that my voice cannot be smothered by stones.

 

I am the one you crushed

with the weight of custom and tradition

not knowing

that light cannot be hidden in darkness.

Remember me,

I am the one in whose lap

you picked flowers

and planted thorns and embers

not knowing

chains cannot smother my fragrance

 

I am the woman

whom you bought and sold

in the name of my own chastity

not knowing

that I can walk on water

when I am drowning.

 

I am the one you married off

to get rid of the burden

not knowing

that a nation of captive minds

cannot be free.

 

I am the commodity you traded in,

my chastity, my motherhood, my loyalty.

Now it is time for me to flower free.

The woman on that poster.

half naked, selling socks and shoes –

No, no, I am not that woman!

(Kishwar Naheed, Translated by Farrukhi, A., Ed. (2004). The Distance of a Shout. Karachi, Oxford University Press.)

Women do not constitute a homogeneous category. They are located in different places, belong to different social spheres, are members of different ethnic groups, and adherents of different religious groups. Their lives are mediated by their differing locations, and the ways they engage from these with dominating structures. At the same time, there is much that women share: their incorporation as women into the state and nation; their incorporation into dominant discourses that mediate social relationships, citizenship, religion and law; and definitions of gender by the institutionalised structures of state and society.

While the debates about women who call for change rage, their privilege of class or education, political influence or dominant ethnicity, women are bound together by these structural definitions. The issues of marginalization, violence, commodification, identity, and value affect all women. The voices for change use the space of their ‘privilege’ to advocate for change for all women.

The barrier to change is not that someone with privilege in one area engages in the struggle for change for all women, the barrier is that others tell us that this is wrong. While women experience the boundaries differently, structural definitions are just that, structural boundaries that all women experience.

As women we must continue explore together the tensions at the intersection of diverse constructions that mediate our lives. Together we will understand the mediating influences and how they shape our identity as we traverse the contours of these discourses that inform and shape our daily experiences. Together we will shout to those who want to give boundaries to our being, ‘ we are not that woman!’