Categorized | Issues, Politics

Women Against Fundamentalism and for Equality

Posted on 29 April 2011 by

The following is an excerpt of a speech given by Mary Robsinson at an international conference held in Paris in February 2011. Ms. Robinson’s speech was originally posted on The Elders website, and can be read in full here.


Citing the issue of child marriage as one example, Mary Robinson 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.

Mary Robinson with WLP Board Chair Thoraya Obaid & WLP Jordan Director Asma Khader at WLP Symposium, CSW 2010

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…

Mary Robinson is the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002).

Automagically Related Posts:

Be Sociable, Share!

0 Comments For This Post

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Musawah – A Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family | Wikigender Says:

    […] Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, quotes from Zainah Anwar’s 2009 welcome speech – Women against Fundamentalism and for Equality […]

Leave a Reply


Photos from our Flickr stream

See all photos

Tag Cloud