Pathways is a partnership with the Institute of Development Studies, which is running a research and communications programme linking academics, activists and practitioners to find out 'what works' to empower women. openDemocracy brings you the voices and views of women working in Ghana, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Palestine, Sudan and Nigeria. Articles for the initiative include contributions by Srilatha Batliwala, Andrea Cornwall, Mulki Al-Sharmani, Cecilia Sardenberg, Takyiwaa Manuh (you can also listen to Takyiwaa's interview here), Firdous Azim, Naila Kabeer, Emily Esplen, Ana Alice Alcântara and Rosalind Eyben. See also the related blog.
Read also The Wrong Turn, a dialogue on feminism in American politics.
We would like to thank The Barrow Cadbury Trust and The Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, for supporting this project.
"This was inspirational. I got the same goose bumps at the rally the day Mandela was released," grinned Waheeda Amien, a founder of Shura Yabfazi which works to empower Muslim women in South Africa, at the close of the five-day launch of Musawah: a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family last week.
"It speaks to the true you that combines your identities as a feminist and as a Muslim woman," commented Hadil el-Khouly, a young Egyptian activist who coordinated the young women's caucus at the event.
"For young women especially these battles are very personal: most young women are living at home, have to fit in with society, face pressures to get married. Musawah takes you out of the isolation"
"When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions!" laughed Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women's Network-UK, gesturing towards the Kuala Lumpur conference hall filled with some 250 women activists and scholars - and a handful of men - from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and countries of the North.
For one young Uzbek woman who cannot be named for her own safety, "We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home."
But for Raissa Jajurie of the Alternative Legal Assistance Centre in the Philippines it is a very different story: "We are a minority group in Mindanao. With the armed struggle going on, it is difficult to look into gender issues among the Muslims, but we are nevertheless taking baby steps. Musawah has inspired us to look at the various possibilities and given us the tools to work with."
Yet the similarities were clearly visible, in particular the misuse of culture and religion to deny women full citizenship and equality in the family. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk put it in her keynote speech, "Culture has become the new stage for global wars. Women stand at the centre." However, the participants in our debate were keen to challenge the dominant understanding which pits human rights against culture: "This meeting has added value to the women's movement with its approach of bringing fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] and universal human rights together," noted Ghada Shawgi of the Khartoum Human Rights Centre, Sudan.
Several participants came from countries such as Iran, Mauritania and Uzbekistan where women's rights activism and public opposition to state gender policies can carry a heavy personal price. Others, such as 31-year old Nassirou Zahara Aboubacar, one of only two women on Niger's Islamic Council, occupy positions of recognized public authority in their countries.
Many women present, especially from North Africa and South Asia had previously used purely secular strategies. But as senior Egyptian feminist Amal Abd el-Hadi explained, "I need to learn now to demystify religion and these claims." Demystification and indeed ‘desacralization' of supposedly divine edicts was also a demand from participants who have long been feminists working within the framework of religion. We have many women leaders but the problem is that their interpretation of the Qur'an is what the religious men tell them. This has got to change first," pointed out Djingarey Maiga, from Femmes et Droits Humains in Mali.
As Special Rapporteur Ertürk commented: "There is a growing convergence around human rights values, whatever their source may be." This holistic framework combines Islamic principles, international human rights, national guarantees of non-discrimination, and analysis drawn from lived realities.
In many ways, a new way of thinking about gender relationships and the family requires new ways of movement-building, and some of those involved in the initiative believe Musawah offers just this. "A lot of feminist organizing is driven by elites. I see Musawah's emphasis on people's daily lives as an opportunity for women at the grassroots to take the lead. It's really about how they see things in their Muslim contexts," says Asma'u Joda from the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment in Nigeria.
Despite the pressure of media interest and the sheer excitement of the event, the participants refused to be pushed into premature campaigning. "The end of this meeting is not a programme of activities and a structure: we need to build a foundation before we construct the house," commented Musawah Planning Committee member Kamala Chandrakirana from Indonesia.
Nevertheless, one concrete outcome was a clear rejection of the proposal from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to produce an alternative to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Another development at the launch was the forming of Musawah caucuses in Africa and among minority communities in the global North, both designed to bring regional perspectives to national campaigns and to the global movement.
Although the focus remains on family laws, the synthesis firmly placed Musawah in its wider context. It acknowledged the impact of conflict, authoritarianism and occupation on rights within the family: "We need democracy so there is space to discuss the role of Islam in our public and private lives," noted Rabéa Naciri of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc. All the many other women's rights initiatives in Muslim contexts, the struggles of women in other religious traditions to reform their laws, and the global human rights movement were likewise represented at the event.
Identifying itself as a ‘knowledge-building movement', Musawah (whose name means ‘equality' in Arabic) not only bridges diversities in terms of context and approach to women's rights but also seeks to bring rights activists and Muslim scholars together as part of the process of generating new approaches to equality and justice in the Muslim family.
The launch was the first time that such a large number of women's rights activists from Muslim contexts and scholars had been brought together. Speaking on behalf of the international planning committee of 12 academics and activists from 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam, Malaysia said, "We hope this will strengthen the arguments used by activists as well as encourage Muslim scholars who support human rights to continue their research. Both of these groups face heavy opposition from some religious groups who claim that ‘non-expert' activists have no right to reinterpret Muslim family laws, and who dismiss the scholarship of those who deviate from patriarchal interpretations."
See also Home Truths in the Muslim family
Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today.
Muslim women's demands for equality and justice in the family seem to be reaching a critical mass, coinciding with what some are heralding as a ‘paradigm shift' in Muslim theological and jurisprudential scholarship. There is clearly a disconnect between the realities of Muslim society on the one hand and the family laws that govern Muslims on the other. This gap lies at the centre of some of the most heated theological and juristic debates in the Muslim world today.
A generation ago, in the early 1980s, progressive staff in international-development institutions argued that women as well as men should be beneficiaries of development. Hard-nosed neo-liberal male economists interpreted this argument in ways that saw women as consumers rather than as producers of wealth. When they thought about women at all, they were seen as a category of the population that had specific needs, such as water and firewood (men apparently never going thirsty or needing to eat). Women had babies. They were wealth consumers, not producers.
In June 2007 - five years after it was first promised during the 2002 electoral campaign - political reform finally made it onto the Brazilian National Congress agenda. It was an opportunity for a corrupt Congress plagued by scandals to salvage its tarnished reputation by creating new criteria for representation, rethinking the role of the legislative branch, and establishing civil society-driven accountability mechanisms for both legislators and executives. After years of waiting, women were anticipating deep changes in the patriarchal rules and elitist power structures that had characterised the Brazilian state for decades. Instead, we watched as pacts and alliances among political cronies squelched the possibility of real reforms yet again, and powers were redistributed based on a convenient set of political friendships rather than a genuine commitment to increasing parity. The majority of women's demands did not even come close to the negotiation tables. This was more than a defeat for women: it was a defeat for all Brazilian citizens.
The nature of men's involvement in the struggle for gender justice has long fiercely divided gender-equality advocates. After nearly three decades of disagreement this seam of tension doggedly persists, little engaged with and largely unresolved.
Emily Esplen is research and communications officer at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex
The processes of globalisation sweeping across the world today are being driven by neo-liberal ideologies which celebrate untrammelled market forces, the free movement of capital and the sovereignty of the citizen-consumer. Labour remains subject to many more restrictions than capital, but it too has become a global resource. As governments are increasingly forced to pursue competitive advantage in the global economy through the construction of flexible labour markets, in which workers can be hired and fired with impunity, women have emerged as the flexible labour force par excellence.
In south Asia as elsewhere in the world, religion has come to play an increasing role in shaping and reshaping women's lives. This process is a particular challenge to people like myself, a feminist who "grew up" intellectually and politically via involvement in the women's movement of the 1980s in Bangladesh. The activism of that period was explicitly secular; its main priorities were the issues of rights, inequalities and violence prevalent in a young state which had achieved independence only in 1971.
The experience of using law to address the issue of domestic violence in Africa contains both positive and negative lessons for gender-equality campaigners, says Takyiwaa Manuh.
A heated debate over reforms to Brazil's outdated abortion laws has intensified across the country in 2007. The tensions were on show in August at the Brasilia gathering of the second Conference for Public Policies for Women (II CNPM), attended by 2.800 delegates representing all twenty-seven Brazilian states. As they waited for the result of a vote on a proposal to legalise abortion - beyond the current situation, where it is legal only if the pregnancy results from rape or when it puts the mother's life at risk - many of those present feared a coordinated attempt by anti-abortion groups to obstruct the voting process.
An Egyptian film of 1975 epitomises the experiences of women in the country's law-courts at that time: protracted, costly, painful, and with no expectation of justice at the end of the process. Duria, the female protagonist of Uridu Halan (I Want a Solution), struggles in vain to obtain court-ordered divorce from the playboy husband who has abused her for twenty years. The gaps in the legal system and its biases against women enable the husband to exploit the situation to his advantage. After four years of litigation, Duria loses the case because the court has not found "strong" evidence of spousal harm.
Behind the melodrama was the living reality of many thousands of Egyptian women for whom the existing family-law system - regulating matters such as family property, marriage and divorce, alimony, child custody, and paternity disputes - offered no guarantee of their civil rights or human dignity.
Mulki Al-Sharmani is an assistant research professor at the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo. Since January 2007, she has been conducting a study of family courts in Egypt. This research activity is part of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment project.
A fuller elaboration of Mulki Al-Sharmani's work in this field is here
The generation since then has seen a wide-ranging effort to reform Egyptian family law. This culminated in the introduction of a new legal framework which came into effect in three tranches of legislation in 2000 and 2004. This was a real advance, but as with any attempt to bring about social change through legal reforms the new system has had complex and multidimensional effects. In this light, I examine here one aspect of the reform package - namely mediation-based family courts - in order to assess how far Egypt's women have travelled in achieving "empowerment through law".
A long campaign
The struggles of Egyptian women in the post-1970s generation to reform family law have owed much to the inspiring example of their predecessors over the past century. This objective has been one of the main goals of Egyptian women's-rights advocates since the "renaissance" of the late 19th century. In the second decade of the 20th century, for example, the Egyptian Feminist Union headed by Huda Shaarawi called for the raising of the minimum age of marriage, restrictions on polygamy, and the introduction of fair divorce laws.
In the 1920s and subsequent decades, reform efforts continued with varying degrees of success until, in the 1970s and 1980s, the hunger for change found expression in the emergence of a collection of diverse groups - including women activists, local NGOs, government agencies and officials, prominent lawyers and judges, and intellectuals. But this was not a single "movement": the various groups had different ideas and agendas, which led to different ideas about what kinds of reforms of family law were needed.
Some efforts, for example, targeted the existing, substantive law to amend articles that discriminated against women and/or to introduce provisions that would enhance women's rights; others focused on reforming the procedures for reviewing cases; yet others championed initiatives intended to preserve the cohesion and stability of Egyptian families.
The Egyptian government, moreover, had in this period its own family-law agenda, though it was motivated by multiple (and sometimes conflicting) desires: among them were strengthening state institutions, creating equality and justice for all citizens, making claims to religious and cultural legitimacy, improving the status of Egypt within the international community, and securing the support of international organisations and donors.
These differences and tensions notwithstanding, the reform project eventually resulted in the passage of three new laws: Law 1 of 2000, Law 10 of 2004, and Law 11 of 2004. Law 1 reformed the terms and procedures of personal- status cases, and includes two articles of great significance: guaranteeing women the right to file for no-fault divorce (Article 20) and the right to file for divorce from unregistered marriages (Article 17). Four years later, Law 10 introduced the system of family courts; and Law 11 established the Family Insurance Fund, a mechanism through which female litigants could collect court-ordered alimony and child support.
A policy success?
A look at the mediation-based family-courts system, one important element of these reforms, is one way to measure their effects on the women they were designed to help. The aim of the courts model is to establish an efficient and non-adversarial legal system that is based on mediation. Thus every potential litigant in a family-dispute case is obliged to file for mediation before he or she can bring a case to court. Mediation offices have been set up in each court, staffed with specialists who are trained in social work, psychology, and law.
Since the agreements reached between disputants in mediation sessions are binding by law, it was expected that compulsory pre-litigation mediation would save a lot of the time and costs spent in court. However, the new system is facing challenges. Three problems are particularly worth mentioning:
The first is the existence of gaps in the legislation that effectively diminish the power of mediation offices. The second is a lack of adequate resources and training offered to those required to operate the system.
Also in openDemocracy on women, power and the state:
Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways to women' empowerment" (27 July 2007)
Srilatha Batliwala, "Putting power back into empowerment" (30 July 2007)
These articles open a new collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.We explore ideas, projects and initiatives from around the world - Brazil to Egypt, Sierra Leone to Bangladesh - which aim to understand what enables women to empower themselves and sustain changes in gendered power relations A third obstacle (related to the second) merits greater consideration. This is that some court personnel and litigants reject the very idea of formal mediation. One of the judges and many of the lawyers I interviewed for a research programme thought that formal mediation was an alien concept borrowed from western legal models. They argued that it was inappropriate and offensive for couples to recount intimate details of their lives to mediation specialists; and that formal mediation was unnecessary because existing, local mechanisms of mediation (e.g. relatives and community elders) were routinely available before a couple resorted to court.
Another judge had a different take on this issue: he thought that resistance to mediation inside the legal system was owed to the that that its advocates and their legislative backers had failed to create a sympathetic, transparent environment in which the new system could operate and be understood. He pointed out that there had, for example, been no coherent effort to highlight the compatibility of the new system with mediation-based Islamic laws that regularly govern family disputes and which are valued in Egypt's public culture.
Several mediation specialists I interviewed offered a further insight into the subtleties of the process. They noted that family-based mechanisms of mediation often escalate a conflict between wife and husband since family relatives are emotionally invested in the problem. Indeed, specialists often have to begin by defusing the anger and resentment of accompanying relatives before they can conduct useful mediation sessions with disputants. The argument here is that formal mechanisms of mediation were needed precisely because local, familial, "informal" ones were not working.
The experiences of female litigants themselves, whom I interviewed for my research, reflect the problems with legal mediation. Some women do not make use of the system because their counsels persuade them of its futility and social awkwardness. The lawyers then go through the motions of mediation without the presence of the disputants. Other women show up to the initial sessions but then stop coming since their husbands regularly fail to appear - mainly because the latter are unprepared or unwilling to reach agreements to which they will be held accountable, particularly in alimony cases.
Yet some women are appropriating the new system of mediation for their own advantage - and in creative ways. They use it, for example, at an earlier stage in the marital conflict and as one of several means (family pressure can be another) of negotiating with their husbands for different claims such as adequate spousal maintenance or the right to work. Thus, Egyptian women have "fused" the existing and new systems to maximise the opportunities which society and its legal framework offers to them.
A dynamic process
The lesson of this story is that the relationship between legal reforms and social change is not a simple one. Many factors affect it: flaws in the legislation, difficulties in implementation, the way judges are recruited and trained, the influence of social attitudes and cultural beliefs. All can pose challenges to the effectiveness of a new system.
Those who seek to use legal reform to aid social progress and women's rights need to make sure that new laws are well formulated, just, and well implemented; that social and institutional conditions are favourable; and that the political and cultural environment is supportive. These are large aims in any circumstance, which so far perhaps have been met in only very few cases. But the experience of Egyptian women in their search for legal and social empowerment in the area of family law shows that small victories are possible.
Andrea Cornwall's article opens a new collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment project at the Institute of Development Studies.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50