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How are women working to eliminate violence against women in Muslim-majority societies?

Tue, Dec 2, 2008

Press

AWID Resource Net / By Rochelle Jones

AWID highlights the efforts of Muslim women to eliminate violence against women, as discussed in the recently released report from the International Symposium entitled “Leading to Change: Eliminating Violence Against Women in Muslim Societies.” The Symposium was convened by the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP) in March 2005.

In March 2005, more than 250 participants representing over forty countries converged in New York for the Symposium entitled “Leading to Change: Eliminating Violence Against Women in Muslim Societies”. The Symposium coincided with the forty-ninth session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women. Proceedings of the Symposium have just recently been published, and this article draws specifically from these proceedings in order to highlight the outcomes of this important Symposium, which “provided a forum for women from Muslim-majority societies to discuss their experiencesmeeting challenges and creating effective strategies”.

“Islam is not the problem. Rather it is the misuse of Islam by interpreting it to fit the needs of the partriarchal order – the powers that be – and theprivileges that one gender has held over the other”

This quote from Mahnaz Afkhami’s opening address, founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), summarises the motivation behind the Symposium. She and others asserted that the focus on Muslim societies was because “women living in Muslim societies are living in times of historical significance”. The resurgence of militarism and fundamentalisms as complex reactions to globalisation, poverty and new forms of imperialism mean that women living in Muslim societies are facing unprecedentedchallenges regarding their rights.

The Symposium was divided into three sessions:

1.Culture, Conflict and Extremism

In this session, culture was identified as being dynamic, and the role of identity politics in shaping communities and conflicts was highlighted. Ayesha Imam, the Chief of the Culture, Gender and Human Rights branch of the United Nations Population Fund, argued, for example, that “what aspects and understandings of culture become dominant depends on who has the power to define, transmit, legitimate and enforce them? Culture is not static, and its interpretation depends on power relations and sociopoliticalsituations at particular times and in particular places”.

Ayesha asserted that identity has become a critical factor within communities, particularly resulting from globalisation, fundamentalism and extremism. Fundamentalist movements construct a version of a “collective identity as the only true, authentic and valid one”, which has disastrous implications for relationships between other people existing outside the orbit of these beliefs, and for women in particular.

Participants highlighted the need to challenge cultural norms within Muslim societies that portray women’s rights as being in opposition to family, religious, ethnic or community rights. Afghan woman Sakena Yacoobi, president of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), shared her experiences on the role of grassroots education as a strategy to eliminate violence against women. Her work with refugees and resettled women in Pakistan and Afghanistan focuses on bringing education to villages so that “poor women to understand that they have rights and voices, which empowers them to participate meaningfully in the social, economic and political developments in their communities”.

2.Shaping the future together: International Perspectives

The focus in this session was on how amplified militarisation in the post 9/11 world has increasingly blurred the boundaries between security and human rights, with violence against women justified on the grounds of security, religion and culture. Hilary Fisher, the Director of Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, reaffirmed that “the factors contributing to violence against women in situations of conflict and militarisation have their roots in the pervasive discrimination womenface in peacetime as well as during and after conflict”.

Masculine values have seen a resurgence in this era of increased militarisation, and these values have impacted on religion and culture. “There is a resurgence of ‘father’ as a patriarchal figure and head of the family as well as a resurgence of religious fundamentalism, which portrays itself as the answer to the disruption of family life by globalisation”, argues Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director of the Center for Women’s GlobalLeadership.

Violent attacks on Muslim households in Gujarat, India, by right-wing Hindu groups in 2002, was used as an example of how paranoia about Muslim societies has been perpetuated by the language of “terrorism” coming from the United States, which gives “already existing latent interreligious hostilities” an additional handle (Devaki Jain – Founding Member, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era – DAWN). A participant from Gambia told the Symposium that she had never experienceddiscrimination until 9/11.

3.Leading to Change: Women, Empowerment and Justice

The final session encompassed innovative strategies that women in Muslim societies are employing to deal with the new challenges that have led to increased violence against women. The key current running through this session was the affirmation of women’s rights as human rights, and that legislative reform, coupled with economic, social and cultural approachesshould use human rights as the foundation of all efforts.

Examples of successful campaigning from women’s organisations to implement change within their own countries indicated that it is possible to facilitate change, and that it is necessary for women’s organisations to work together and to be prepared for a lengthy commitment. The women’s movement in Morocco, for example, was successful in advocating for legal reforms of discriminatory legislation in 2004 after over twenty years of advocacy and consciousness raising. Morocco introduced a new family code that “guarantees the sharing of family responsibilities, equal rights and responsibilities among couples and in contracting marriage relationships, and no discrimination between girls and boys except for inheritance.” A new civil code recognises sexual harassment as a crime and penalises domestic violence. The women’s movement has still the challenge of overturning other discriminatory laws regarding nationality, divorce, voluntary termination of pregnancy and others (Rabéa Naciri & Amina Lemrini from Association
Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc).

Sisters in Islam, based in Malaysia, provide another example of feminist mobilizing and advocacy for Malaysia’s domestic violence law, which was challenged by religious authorities to exclude Muslims from the jurisdiction of the law in the name of Islam. Sisters of Islam researched alternative interpretations of verses in the Qur’an, and made these interpretations available to the public on small leaflets – effectively shaming the government who eventually admitted it was wrong for any man, regardless of religion, to beat his wife (Zainah Anwar, Executive Director of Sisters in Islam). The organisation NOVIB, is also creating a videolibrary of alternative interpretations of passages from the Qur’an.

The closing session of the Symposium discussed further strategies women can use for change, which included the following:

·Use culture and religion as positive resources in the struggle to prevent violence against women.
·Gain access to alternative media as a vehicle for impacting mainstream media and for raising public awareness.
·Strengthen networks and bring international attention to cases of rights abuses.
·Share advocacy strategies for legislative change in Muslim societies, particularly those based on new readings of texts.

As a follow-up activity to the Symposium, WLP are developing “culture-specific curriculums and manuals on how to mobilize women to advocate for legislation and actions to help eliminate violence against women”. A CD of the Symposium will be available in the near future, and an audio recording is available on the WLP website, along with a downloadableversion of the report:

Visit www.learningpartnership.org or email wlp@learningpartnership.org.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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