How has the new approach to religion since 9/11 impacted on efforts to address women’s rights? How has it affected women’s day to day realities? This study examines various forms of instrumentalisation of religion, gender and human rights, against the backdrop of today’s volatile political context, the rise of identity politics and increased economic inequality and deprivation. It argues that the binaries of religious versus secular, moderate Islamist versus radical Islamist, feminist versus Muslim activist, conceal the ambiguities and fluidity of identities, strategies of engagement and framing of ideas. They are undermining efforts to improve the lives of women.
In our securitised post-9/11 world, religion has been used by global, local and national actors as a way of engaging with gender issues in Muslim communities. However, these forms of instrumentalism need to be set against the backdrop of other discourses: the use of women’s rights discourses by Western governments to justify war (as with Afghanistan) and the deployment of human rights discourses by Islamist groups to legitimise gender inequalities. There are thus overlapping tensions:
- International actors – including donors – have engaged with gender, human rights and religion through the prism of a security agenda.
- States have presented themselves as the bastions for defending secularism against Islamism while simultaneously presenting themselves as the protectors of religion and cultural authenticity.
- Feminists, social movements and human rights activists have found themselves forced to reconsider their strategies of engagement as the normative framework in which they work has become increasingly delineated by religion.
- Activists have had to challenge the double standards of international human rights frameworks while fighting for the right to work within multiple frameworks and not be restricted to the religious normative one.
There is an urgent need to move beyond the abstract and the polemic to undertake context-specific empirical work. Critical policy messages inform analytical approaches as well as practice:
- While ideological projects are not unimportant, the way in which actors exercise their agency does not fit neatly into one of two binaries.
- The discourse and the politics behind ‘engaging the Muslim world’ as if it were a homogenous category should be abandoned. Such a discourse assumes people have one identity marker – their religion.
- Using religion as an entry point in development should be recognised as only one possible approach to community engagement, even in communities where religion is an important mobilising force.
- Engagement through the religious framework is one way of approaching gender issues, but it is not ultimately the goal, which is gender justice.
- A feminist engagement with sacred texts should be promoted as an end in itself. The benefits are the production of a religious scholarship that is more gender sensitive.
- The politics of transforming gender power hierarchies may require strategies that go beyond dismantling the patriarchal religious premises by which they were justified.