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

Fighting over women’s rights

There was chaos in the Jordanian parliament at the end of 2021 when some members opposed proposed changes to the constitution around women’s rights. It was reported that punches were thrown, threats and insults exchanged amidst angry outbursts.

What could have caused such an undignified ruckus among lawmakers? It seems a review committee had wanted to address an issue of language, to include feminine as well as masculine in the way it addresses citizens.

It seems language matters. Through language that is always masculine we establish male as the default key to the structure of society and management of life. Even gender-neutral terms are assumed to be masculine. What about engineer, doctor, pilot, president. ‘… the masculine form speaks for all genders: for example, in India’s legal system, documents are written in the masculine, which is considered to include women unless otherwise specified’ (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201006-are-some-languages-more-sexist-than-others).

I often got myself into trouble when learning Urdu because of the masculine and feminine forms and how I was expected to address men and women differently. I think, and probably I still don’t understand this enough, I am meant to speak more formally and respectfully to men.

Arabic is one of the most highly gendered language, so the discussion in the Jordanian parliament is addressing a very contentious issue. More than language it is addressing social structures that are embedded in the forms of language.

The way a language encodes gender is reflective of gender equality, or not, in a society. The efforts of the Jordanian constitutional review committee was seen to challenge issues of gender equality. The fight in parliament brought up issues of the impact a language change could have on inheritance and citizenship laws.

Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said ‘Every time the women’s movement gets closer to achieving something, closer to living in dignity in this country there is a fear coming from the patriarchal system that this will mean a change in the power relations within society’ (https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/29/middleeast/jordan-parliament-fight-intl/index.html).

What does hope for change in women’s rights look like when those responsible for the laws fear that change and fight to stop it?

Featured image: https://www.9news.com.au/world/jordan-parliament-brawl-over-womens-rights-debate/ef5d094b-9c62-48fc-8c0b-3407db9f862b

Are human rights Western?

When cultural traditions come under pressure women appear to face greater demands to be the bearers of ‘cultural authenticity’.  While discourses of feminism and Human Rights can become wedges of opportunity for women to raise demands and negotiate for change in gender relations, women’s organizations and activists embracing them are open to charges of succumbing to the seductions of the West and its cultural imperialism.

Many Muslim women activists seek some kind of accommodation with religious belief because of its critical role in local culture.  Shaheen Sardar Ali, in her book ‘Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal before Allah, Unequal before Men?’ articulates a perspective for understanding the rights of Muslim women within Islamic tradition.  She locates Muslim women within the “concentric rings of religion, class, law, and society that form the multiple layers of her identity and encompass her from the moment she is born”[1].

In such a culture, where feminism and cultural authenticity are deemed mutually exclusive categories, what framework can women’s activists and organizations use to negotiate for change? There is a need to search for a more culturally authentic genealogy of women’s right.

Western human rights discourse emphasises an individual construct of self that does not resonate in many Muslim countries where the construct of selfhood is relational and specific connections with others privileges access to rights. Talal Asad, in his work on human rights, argues that the language of human rights that is based on notions of redemptive emancipation is not only unhelpful, but provides a frame for its use for imperialistic purposes[2].

A culture with a relational notion of national identity and a relational notion of rights requires an alternate approach to ethical dilemmas. The feminist ‘ethic of care’ complements ethical theories that extol justice and autonomy as the ultimate goal.  It informs a moral endeavour to ‘alleviate the real and recognizable trouble in the world’ through interpersonal connections.   Rather than demanding rights and rules for all, it champions avoidance of harm for all, advocating responsibility in relationship.  It celebrates difference, contrasting the inherent demand for universalism within the impersonal justice and autonomy models.

Given the ongoing challenge to addressing gender violence, is it time to consider a new narrative of human rights?


[1] Sardar Ali, S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Men. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 89

[2] Asad, T. (2000). What Do Human Rights Do?  An Anthropological Enquiry. Theory and Event, 4(4).

Can we redefine ‘honour killings’?

There is a Punjabi proverb that says ‘one does not share the bread, but one shares the shame’.  And yet, honour and shame, while attributed to individual acts are not about the individual, but about the family. The honour of the family, in particular its male members, is located in the bodies of women.

Unni Wikan argues that it is not clear that honour and shame are binary opposites[1]. Drawing on studies conducted in Cairo and Oman, she argues that the location of these concepts in the everyday life of the community, and not just in select discourses, is essential. She shows that honour and shame relate differently to behaviour: that shame arises from an identifiable act, whereas honour is an attribute of the whole person[2].

But the debate continues. How else can honour and shame be seen? Whereas Nafisa Shah argues they are ‘two parallel states, honour is masculine, shame is feminine. Just as men have honour, women have shame. A woman’s shame summarises her public reputation and social position in much the same manner as honour does for men’[3], Tahira Khan suggests they are ‘dialectical states’: shame is the opposite of honour and both are male attributes, men possess honour and suffer shame[4].

Honour and shame are intrinsically linked in everyday discourses that shape women’s behaviour and the control of it. Purna Sen suggests that ‘codes of honour serve to construct … what it means to be a woman’[5]. Others link it to patriarchy and possession. Fatima Mernissi in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’, also makes a connection between honour and possessions. She argues that there is a strong link between money and female sexuality on the one hand, and the social construction of honour and purity on the other. Her point is that although honour is linked to material wealth, its location is firmly fixed in the body of women[6]. The woman’s body and her sexuality are the idioms of honour and shame. 

Is it possible then to redefine honour killings? The popular shorthand referring to killing women because an alleged shame besmirching the family honour as ‘honour killing’ becomes a tool for the defamation of women. What stops us simply calling it murder? In every other instance of killing it is called murder, and yet the killing a woman because someone alleges she has shamed them is not called murder.

Honour killings are murder, whatever the reasons attached.


[1] Wikan, U. (1984). “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair.” Man, New Series 19(4): 635 – 652. p 636

[2] Ibid. p638

[3] Shah, N. (1999). Women in revolt. Dawn. Karachi.

[4] Khan, T. S. (2006). Beyond Honour. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p 46

[5] Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p 48

[6] Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Revised Edition ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p 46-64

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

Covid exacerbates disparities for women

The Global Gender Gap Report of 2021 says that another generation are going to have to wait for gender parity. One of the reasons for this, they say, is the impact of Covid.

Women have been ‘locked down’ with abusers. UN Women referred to violence against women as the shadow pandemic during Covid. All types of violence against women, but particularly domestic violence, has increased over the last 18 months. Domestic violence helplines in many nations have seen an upsurge in calls during the pandemic, while at the same time many women’s help and support organisations have lost resources as these are diverted.

Economic challenges have seen many lose employment, with women bearing the greater burden of that. A Mckinsey report suggested women were 1.8 times more vulnerable to job loss than men, accounting for 54% of job losses during the pandemic even though they make up just 39% of the world population. Lack of financial stability for women, particularly in poorer countries, means the effects of Covid-related economic impacts for women is greater.

A UN briefing paper said that ‘the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic’ . Reallocation of resources has adversely affected women, particularly in the area of reproduction and sexual health. The majority of health care workers are women, exposing them disproportionally to the virus, while the must also bear a greater burden for care of others at home during lockdowns associated with the pandemic.

Governments and legal bodies now have a reason, or is it an excuse, to put aside the needs of women. The long term consequences for women are being ignored. The Gender Gap report suggests that closing the gender gap has increased by that generation, from 99.5 years to 135.6.

Do we simply sit back and accept this? We too will be culpable before our daughters grand-daughters and great grand-daughters. While we can’t ignore the pandemic, we should not accept as inevitable its consequences for women.

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.

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.