Faith in service: what has gender got to do with it?

Faith-based organizations are playing increasingly prominent roles in service delivery. However, the premise that such organisations promote gender equality and the empowerment of women needs critical re-examination.
Mariz Tadros
16 November 2010

Faith-based organizations play a central role in welfare provision and delivery in many parts of the world. They account for roughly 50 percent of health service provision in many African countries and play a significant role in the provision of education in South Asia, Latin America and Africa. The role of these organisations in AIDS treatment in Africa has also received recognition, providing 40% of HIV care and treatment services in countries such as Lesotho and almost a third of the HIV/AIDS treatment facilities in Zambia. There is an increasing interest on the part of many actors, not least donors and policy-makers, in using and promoting faith-based organizations delivering services to advance a variety of agendas.

The case for enlisting faith-based organizations to advance gender equality rests on three central claims. First, the possibility of calling upon religious leaders and organizations who can, through their high profile and legitimacy, endorse positive social change UNFPA (2008), for instance, provides some impressive case studies of recruiting religious leaders on AIDS campaigns and reproductive health awareness initiatives.

However, partnership with male leadership fails to guarantee that an equality agenda will be adopted, as the experience of the Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria( FOWMAN), a prominent faith-based organization shows. An alliance between FOWMAN and Islamic scholars and government has rendered the movement dependent on powerful men for legitimacy.

Second, the social networks provided by faith-based organizations and the help women receive through membership in churches and mosques can be crucial to their daily survival. Building social capital through membership in religious groups, however, raises concerns over social cohesion and the politics of exclusion in multi-faith communities.

Finally, a faith-based approach to development is claimed to allow for a more holistic understanding of needs that takes account of both material and spiritual dimensions. However, the distinction between spirituality and religious observance is often blurred when there is pressure to conform to one particular understanding of how faith should manifest itself in mores, behaviours and relationships.

Three conundrums are worth noting in relation to faith based organisations delivering services. While some provide women with a spiritual and social repertoire that may act to empower them, they may simultaneously prescribe (and circumscribe) the ways in which they are expected to exercise their agency. Furthermore, the assumption that FBOs working at the grassroots level necessarily emanate from the grassroots and respond to local concerns is questionable. The third conundrum concerns the implications of what may be termed as the “food-for-faith” relationship. These will be discussed in turn.

A critical dimension of women’s agency and power has to do with the conditions and terms of their participation in FBOs. In some instances, women take leading positions in the organisations but within strictly defined parameters of appropriate gender roles and with minimal latitude for negotiating the terms of their participation. For instance, the establishment of faith-based service delivery organizations by Hizballah in Lebanon, subsidiaries of a parent organization based in Iran, initially prohibited women’s participation in management. Established in Southern Beirut to serve the Shi’ite community that was the exclusive beneficiary of their services, Mona Fawaz observed that Hizbollah-affiliated organizations “reproduce the division of tasks, the classification of beneficiaries and even carry the same names as those of Iranian non governmental organisations. They are, thus, duplicates of an existing elaborate model of service provision that has been re-adapted to fit local circumstances”. The parent organization in Iran did not have a volunteer sisters’ outreach, and it was only upon the expressed request from the Lebanese offices that such a division was created. However, Fawaz notes that “since ‘volunteer sisters’ are members of the Hizballah, they have all adopted the dress code that was decreed by a fatwa of the late Imam Khomeini, which, in addition to the traditional veil, requires women to cover their chins and foreheads. Women have also adopted the traditional Islamic clothing: they wear long, formless, dark-coloured dress and entirely cover their arms and legs.”

Julia Berger, in fact, observes that the majority of faith-based organizations, across religions, tend to be more transnational than global, in the sense that there is a central headquarter domiciled in a particular country from which international operations are conducted rather than a devolved structure where partners from around the world have equal opportunities of participation in the decision-making process. This type of control may become particularly critical in the case of FBOs for whom a particular type of gender hierarchy as an organizational form acts a proxy for religious observance and piety.

Secondly, the myth that all faith-based organizations represent local people’s agendas, values, needs and priorities by virtue of their grassroots connections requires careful scrutiny. Asef Bayat for instance, identifies a pattern in the agency of a wide ranging set of Islamic groups in the Middle East (including Turkey and Iran) in which they provide badly-needed welfare services for the poor, yet the latter are not actors influencing the course of welfare policy, rather they are its objects.

Some transnational faith-based organizations have through their top-down structures sought to export their own doctrines, especially in the area of gender. Kristen Ghodsee’s (2007) work highlights how the quasi-missionary activity of proselytising transnational faith-based organizations obliterates local variants of religious practice. Wahhabi transnational faith based organisations exported a highly conservative strand of Islam that was at odds with the local practice of the faith to Eastern Europe where the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence allows for a more flexible interpretation of texts.

Ghodsee argued that in Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and eventually Kosovo, “reforming the dress and behaviour of women was a strident goal of these Islamic charities.” In Bulgaria, after a long legacy of communist rule promoting egalitarian gender roles, she observed that prior to the arrival of these Islamic charities, “Muslim women no longer felt the need to cover themselves, had long joined the workforce and enjoyed autonomy from their fathers and husbands”. Their version of Islamic clothing reflected a cultural adaptation of the veil, which took the form of a colourful headscarf tied under their chin and which left some hair visible. These and other aspects of Bulgarian Muslims’ lives were proscribed by Islamic faith-based organizations such as the Union for Islamic Development and Culture (UIDC), an organization engaged in welfare delivery as well as da’wa (propagating the faith) in Southern Bulgaria. The UIDC targeted women through its separate women’s section with messages to the effect that they had deviated from the true faith As a result, members of the younger generation of both sexes were beginning to internalise the message that “true” Islam requires a good woman to stay home and obey her husband. More women were choosing not to study or work and stay at home in order to conform to the teachings of Islam.

A final conundrum arises from what we might term “observance conditionalities”, whereby the extension of services and assistance is made conditional upon conformity to the FBOs religiously-sanctioned expectations of gender roles and behaviours. While faith-based organizations, like their secular counterparts, engage with women in many different capacities, the key question posed here is whether some FBOs exceed their service delivery mandate by engaging in indoctrination practices, in overt or subtle ways. Whether there is a “food-for-faith” transaction in dealings with female constituencies or not is influenced by a set of local factors. My own research conducted in Cairo suggests that if the leaders of the religious congregations are also the actors directly engaged in service delivery, the likelihood of a “food –for- faith” conditionality is higher. A second factor concerns the geographical location of the FBO: if the organization shares the same premises as the mosque or the church, this increases the blurring of lines between the two. A third and crucial factor is the absence of any alternative sources of assistance and the level of desperation of recipients ,increasing the organization’s leverage to impose conditions to its assistance.

However, “targeted” women, no matter how poor or desperate, do not always comply with FBOs policies and prompts. There were many acts of both open contestation and more subtle subversion against the “food- for- faith” policy in Cairo. Women found ways of exercising their agency even when faced with pressures to conform and comply. For example, in one deprived community, women subverted attempts at conformity by wearing the khimar, a form of veil covering upper part of the body until below the thighs, on the day they were going to collect their financial hand-outs but removed it afterwards (the majority wore hijab, a veil covering hair and neck). This is also corroborated by research undertaken by Iman Bibars pointing to similar tactics of subversion deployed by women in another poor urban community in Cairo. This particular faith-based organization had introduced a new system whereby those wearing the niqāb (veil covering all the face except eyes) would be served first, followed by those wearing the khimār and finally those who wear the hijāb. Prior to that, women were served in alphabetical order. To save time, women exchanged one head cover (the khimar) between them as they waited down the stairs!

Engaging with faith based organisations delivering services as if they were apolitical, grassroots conduits for the fulfilment of a variety of donor-approved agendas - including a gender equality platform - is based on a limited and instrumentalized understanding of their operations. The questions posed by this article can, hopefully, help to open the way to more critical engagement.

To read a longer version of this article go to “gender conundrums for faith-based organizations delivering services” published by the Religion, Politics and Gender Equality programme at UNRISD, 2010













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