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

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/

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.

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.

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!’