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Women against fundamentalism and for equality

Speaking at an international conference held in Paris, February 2011, Mary Robinson discusses the relationship between religion, tradition and gender inequality. Citing the issue of child marriage as one example, she argues that promoting the rights of girls and women cannot be imposed on a society; instead, we must support activists working to change their culture from within.

I am pleased to be invited to speak on the subject of fundamentalism and equality for women, as it is one of the key human rights challenges facing the world today.

Freedom and fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is not confined to any one geographical area or religion. Currently, the United States Congress is considering measures which could cut off funding for services in reproductive health and family planning to millions of women and girls worldwide. The driving motivation is part budgetary and part ideology.

There is a notable trend in European countries towards Islamophobia, some of it exploited for political short term gains. So we need to have open discussions on fundamentalism such as this, particularly about the impact on women.

I am aware that this conference wants to shine a particular light on the situation of women in Iran, and the struggle of women in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. I share this concern, and the need to support and protect some 1,000 women dissidents from Iran who are in Camp Ashraf, a large number of whom already suffered severe torture in Iranian jails. They are the women activists who stood out against oppression and claimed their rights, as so many of their sisters are doing today in demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Iran itself.

Looking at television images of young women and men asserting their basic dignity, and seeking human rights and freedom to participate in the political and economic life of their countries, is incredibly moving. They have stood up to tanks, to rubber and even live bullets, and to tear gas. They draw inspiration from each other, and inspire us as we watch in awe.

The Elders, a group of world leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, to which I belong, issued an early statement of strong support in which we said:

“As Elders, we stand with all those crying out for freedom and basic rights. The universal yearning of people to be free, to have their voices heard and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities cannot be extinguished.

“We are, therefore, extremely dismayed by the tragic loss of life that has occurred in recent days, and the repressive tactics to which some authorities have resorted in suppressing the protests. We call upon all those concerned – governments, security services, political parties and concerned citizens – to avoid the use of violence and show the utmost respect for the sanctity of human life and for the right of people to campaign for change and reform in their own societies.”

Given what has been happening in recent days in Libya, with foreign mercenaries and even fighter planes being used against peaceful demonstrators, I would urge us all to use whatever influence we have to stop this violence.

Women's equality in the Muslim world

The Elders decided very early on that a core aim of our work would be to promote equality for girls and women. In particular, we decided that we should try to address the misuse of religion and tradition to justify practices that discriminate against girls and women.

We do not do this as critics of religion and tradition. It is important to point out that our Chair, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is a great man of faith. We represent a diversity of views – some secular but also Christian, Muslim and Hindu. We see religion and tradition as largely positive forces for social cohesion and justice.

What we want to address is the misuse of our great faiths to perpetuate inequality and harm to girls and women.

I propose, therefore, to focus my remarks on the role of women in the Muslim world, and attitudes in Europe and elsewhere towards Islam. In doing so I will be drawing significantly on the work of my friend Mahnaz Afkhami and her colleagues in Women’s Learning Partnership, which was founded in 2000, working closely with local partners, with the goal of empowering women in the Global South, particularly in Muslim majority societies.

But first let me recall how impressed I was, on a recent visit to Malaysia, with the work being done there by Sisters in Islam. The courageous women I met operate in a difficult environment, but are determined to assert their equality within their own religious ethos. They maintain a legal clinic giving free legal advice on family issues, train grassroots women, policymakers, religious leaders and journalists, and have publications available in their resource centre. I was told by one of their representatives that there are about 70 police reports filed against them for their work.

They introduced me to members of one of their initiatives, Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, which also seeks to involve Muslim men. Musawah had just published a report, CEDAW and Muslim Family Laws: in Search of Common Ground. This passage from the report sums up their philosophy, which is deeply impressive.

Musawah intends to bring the following to the larger women’s and human rights movement:

  • An assertion that Islam can be a source of empowerment, not a source of oppression and discrimination;
  • An effort to open new horizons for re-thinking the relationship between human rights, equality and justice, and Islam;
  • An offer to open a new constructive dialogue where religion is no longer an obstacle to equality for women, but a source of liberation;
  • A collective strength of conviction and courage to stop governments, patriarchal authorities, and ideological non-state actors from the convenience of using religion and the word of God to silence our demands for equality;
  • A space where activists, scholars, and decision-makers, those working within the human rights or the Islamic framework or both, can interact and mutually strengthen our common pursuit of equality and justice for Muslim women.

Let me link this impressive statement with the lessons the Women’s Learning Partnership have shared with me, from the experience of over 10 years of training by 20 organisations, working in 20 languages, in over 40 countries.

Rejecting Islamic exceptionalism

They have concluded that 'Islamic exceptionalism', stressed by the neo-conservatives or other right wing elements in the west and the fundamentalists in Muslim majority countries, is both historically inaccurate and practically detrimental to progress in the field of human rights and democratisation.

Islamic exceptionalism stresses the idea that, unlike other monotheistic religions that have undergone change and reform as human beings have become conscious of their rights as individuals, Islam, with clear cut statements on minutiae of human relationships at worldly as well as spiritual levels cannot be flexible or made to change, as times and circumstances change.

This position ignores that other religions also have been integrated into the legal and governing structures throughout history. Heads of state have either acted – and still act – as head of the church or have been greatly influenced by religions. The relationship between God and human beings as everything else is subject to history.

They note that Islamic exceptionalism includes a wide area of activities from 'Islamic Art' to 'Islamic Science', but the most challenging for feminists is 'Islamic Feminism' which, like 'Islamic Human Rights', permits diluting of the concept of universal rights and provides apologies for oppression on the basis of the 'special nature of Islam.'

Within the partnership there are a large number of Muslims who are feminists, but they have no 'Islamic feminists' just as we don’t speak of 'Christian or Jewish feminists.' They believe that feminism is a concept that relates to equal rights for all human beings and equal justice for all. There are no adverbs required to qualify or differentiate it.

They are clear that freedom of religion, which is a pillar of democracy, can only be guaranteed by secular governments. Indeed, democracy cannot be separated from separation of church/mosque and state. For a better understanding of secularism it is necessary to reclaim the definition of it: as distinct from 'atheist' or 'agnostic' – words that have become the accepted definition of the term among many groups.

Rejecting Islamophobia

They are concerned that Islamophobia has created an atmosphere of prejudice and stereotyping that is clearly detrimental to human rights, tolerance, and democracy.

Muslims are being treated in the media and in the public discourse in terms that are unacceptable for any other group affiliation, be it gender, race, political belief, or ethnic origin. There is such a degree of acceptance of denigration of Muslims in the international discourse that otherwise tolerant and thoughtful people are not even aware of being insulting.

They have noted that many human rights activists, not wishing to be identified with Islamophobia have sometimes come to tolerate egregious breaches of women's human rights in Muslim majority countries. This denies human rights activists the support and solidarity they need and encourages governments and extremists to continue their practices with impunity.

Their verdict is that caught between the two poles – Islamophobics and Islamists – are the women and human rights activists who work for inclusive, moderate, democratic societies. The partners respect diversity and value the others' cultures as they do their own. They take strength from the positive aspects of their culture, religion, and ethnic specificity. They also believe that across the world and across time whenever change in relationships between individuals has led to more democratic and participatory societies and stronger respect for human rights, culture change has been the first step.

We all began in societies that were hierarchical according to birth, class, or caste. We changed as circumstances changed and as we became conscious of our individual will. In some societies this process has happened sooner than in others, but wherever lasting change happens, the most important phenomenon is culture change.

Ending child marriage

Let me, at this stage, indicate a practical way in which the Elders are trying to empower girls and women by seeking to encourage culture change. We have decided to dedicate some of our energies to the issue of child marriage – to raise awareness about the harm that it does to girls and their communities, and to build a global alliance to try to end it.

It is a traditional practice – it is not linked to any religion, although religious leaders often sanctify marriages that involve children.

It affects girls disproportionately – boys are married young but far fewer are affected and the impact on their lives is not nearly so devastating.

Above all, child marriage is a taboo – we don’t talk about it, even though it is very common.

In the developing world, one in every three girls is married before her 18th birthday. One in seven girls is married before she is 15. In the coming decade around 100 million girls will likely be married before they reach 18.

These child brides face tremendous dangers. They are pressured to experience sexual activity, prove their fertility and have children well before their minds and bodies are ready. Yet a girl aged 15 or under is five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in her 20s.

A child bride is usually expected to drop out of school to take care of children and domestic chores. With no education, she has far less chance of rising out of poverty and contributing to the development of her community. Her children are more likely than those of older mothers to be poor, malnourished and sick.

It is true that the practice of child marriage appears to be declining in parts of the world, but the pace of change is very slow. At the current rate of progress, it will take hundreds of years to disappear. We need to accelerate change.

That is why the Elders have decided to bring the world’s attention to the issue of child marriage. We want to learn from the activists who are trying to change girls’ lives on the ground.

We do not want to dictate to communities what they should do. We already know that doesn’t work. Most countries have laws prohibiting child marriage and it makes very little difference to what people actually do.

What we do know is that when communities have a chance to discuss the impact of child marriage, and the benefits that will accrue to their communities when girls are educated and delay marriage and childbirth – the rest follows.

We want to give those communities and those grassroots activists the support they need to change. So we are inviting them – and the wider global community - to join us and form a global alliance to promote a world without child marriage.

I was encouraged to read the section on child marriage in Musawah’s Report on CEDAW and Muslim family laws. It began with a review of some of the countries which acknowledged the problem, then stated: “Musawah’s response to the problem of child marriage combines analysis of the Islamic legal tradition on minimum age of marriage, norms set forth in international human rights documents, and sociological and medical data about the realities of early marriage and its detrimental effects on girls and young women.”

Having reviewed these materials, their report concludes: “Early marriage of girls under the age of eighteen is a form of violence. They are deprived of their childhood and forced to take up heavy household and family responsibilities, sometimes on top of their educational or economic responsibilities. Such heavy burdens on young girls often lead to marital problems and subsequent marital breakdown and/or divorce.”

I hope Musawah’s report will be read by women’s groups and wider human rights organisations worldwide, so that as we mark the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day we will stand in greater solidarity and sisterhood here in France, in European countries generally, in the United States and in the Muslim world.

It is that solidarity and sisterhood which also identifies and highlights the plight of those courageous Iranian women in Camp Ashraf. They need our solidarity. They need the collective voice from this conference to bring them greater support and protection.

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