Problematising the challenges for gender equality is fraught because too much research takes a unidimensional approach to the issues. Some state ‘the problem is religion’, with both Christianity and Islam labelled as patriarchal constructs that hinder women’s development and equality. Of course if you belong to one of those religions you may argue otherwise. There are women within both of these faith traditions who argue cogently for the emancipatory nature of their faith. So yes, the problem is complex.
Too often simplistic articulation of the problem denies the agentic nature of women’s engagement with and through their faith tradition. Everything about women and how they negotiate their everyday is subsumed under a rubric of their passive socialisation within religion to oppose gender equality.
However, the question that is not answered is how do men and women live their faith differently? What are the negotiations they engage in everyday that enable them to navigate the complexities of the religious and social dynamics that mediate their lives? How do they bargain with their faith, its institutions and traditions, its beliefs and practices, to challenge the barriers they face?
Working in a women’s college in South Asia, I was struck by the different ways women’s education enabled them to negotiate with socially and religiously embedded structures. As an outsider looking in I could only see structures that appeared antithetical to gender equality. As I spent time living in the community, and in some small way began to see how women lived intentionally and purposefully rewriting the rules of those structures, their agency became evident.
I had heard outsiders describe education for these women as simply a ticket to a better marriage, dismissing the education they engaged in as largely meaningless. What I began to see, however, was the ability education gave these women to negotiate who they married, what they brought to the marriage and how the marriage was navigated. Yes, education enabled them to negotiate in their marriage and that was a meaningful was of challenging old norms that would otherwise dominate their lives.
It is too easy for us to disregard the acts of agency of other women because they are not as we imagine their world should be. The path of change can only be defined by those who must pioneer it. Simplistic articulations of problems can blind us to the change that is happening in women’s everyday negotiations and navigations.
Sexual violence against women has long been identified as one of the battle grounds in war. Amnesty International stated in 1995: “The use of rape in conflict reflects the inequalities women face in their everyday lives in peacetime. Until governments live up to their obligations to ensure equality, and end discrimination against women, rape will continue to be a favourite weapon of the aggressor.” From the Democratic Republic of The Congo, to ISIS forces in Syria and the Yazidi region of Iraq; from Uganda to Sudan, women’s bodies have been used as one of the fields of aggression.
But there are other ways in which women’s bodies are used as battlegrounds. In countries like Iran and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, women’s bodies have been intimately linked to male honour and national purity. Women’s bodies become the battle ground on which the battles of resistance to outside pressures for change are fought. The rather crude Arab proverb says the honour of the man lies between the legs of the woman. Pakistan claims to be the bastion of women’s protection and honour places the burden on women: hum maaen, hum behnain, hum betiyaan, qaumon ki izzat hum se hai: We mothers, sisters and daughters, the honour of nations lies in us.
Iranian artist Shirin Neshat has demonstrated in her work the challenge for women. She described in 2004: “The female body has been politicised and has functioned in a way as a type of battleground for ideological, philosophical and religious debates and agendas. Muslim women have been made to embody and practise the value systems of their societies through their bodies and social behaviour.” (https://www.ft.com/content/2aaba124-7b24-11e6-ae24-f193b105145e).
From another perspective, women’s bodies are the battleground on which sales of expensive male toys are played out. They are used to sell everything from cars to alcohol, from male perfumes to chocolates. The exposure and use of women’s bodies to attract the attention of male buyers is but another form of exploitation and war. Women’s bodies are titillated for the consumption of men.
Exploring this the lens of power, the Women in Power conference noted: “The female body has been – and continues to be – politicized, and to function as a type of battleground for ideological, philosophical, and religious agendas. The female body remains at the center (sic) of cultural and political debates about who deserves to take up space and how”. (https://www.womeninpowerconference.org/2020) The question remains, how can women resist the use of their bodies as a battleground, in its many different guises?
The circle keeps coming back to issues such as patriarchy, toxicity, masculinities, sexual violence, power. And when you add religion and politics into this mix, the statement ‘my body is not your battleground’ is tested.
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.