Religion, peace and gender

As the number of interfaith and faith-based peace initiatives grows, women peace activists from twenty one countries met in Nicosia to discuss how to use faith to build peace
Diana Francis
18 October 2010

Religion has a bad reputation in relation to war and peace, but the Nicosia gathering entitled Interfaith Peace Building consultation: the need for a gender perspective called by the Women Peacemakers Program of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, was designed to allow participants to focus not only on the negative side of religion but on the positive potential of faith-based peacebuilding. The invitation to the consultation cited historical examples of the role religion has played in promoting peace and human rights, from the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the role of the Catholic Church in the People Power movement in the Philippines, to the interfaith cooperation of Imams and Christian ministers in Nigeria and joint reconstruction efforts by faith-based NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet it is clear that religious bodies tend to be hierarchical in structure and sexist in doctrine and practice, which places obstacles in the way of women’s full participation in faith-based peacebuilding and makes gender analysis essential.

The consultation’s interactive process began with intensive conversations about the current exclusion of women from power, within their own experience of religion. One key theme that emerged was the lack of space and opportunity for women’s voices to be heard, especially higher up the ladder of religious hierarchies where decisions are made. Discussion focused on the relative advantages of on the one hand creating spaces and gaining power for women within existing structures, and on the other hand creating new, parallel structures designed for cooperation and inclusion.

Individual women described how they used different strategies for dealing with the problem of exclusion from circles of power and influence. Itaf Awad from the organisation Council Training simply ignored it, asserting herself without reserve wherever and whenever she chose, trading on her grandmother’s past role and reputation, as a natural leader who was respected in her Palestinian community simply in her own right. She also recounted how she and three other women had overcome the prohibition against women’s participation in the Hajj without male accompaniment, by banding together as a foursome, which made it permissible. Loreta Castro, from the Center for Peace Education. in the Philippines, looked for allies within the Catholic system to help increase space and recognition for women, in one case finding a Bishop to host a workshop proposed and facilitated by women.

The point was strongly and repeatedly made that many of the exclusionary or violent norms and practices in use against women that are thought by many to be religiously based, come in fact from cultural norms and constructs which are then imputed to scriptures and embedded in religious teaching. Furthermore the texts adduced to support discrimination are almost always selected and interpreted by men. Women lack the education and hence the confidence to challenge these scriptural interpretations. The education of women was identified as being crucial to their emancipation, in religion as in other things, and while alternative opportunities such as training workshops can be created, changing mainstream education was seen as a priority for many of the participant. Women reported that when they do write scholarly books, their works are relegated to the back of library shelves. More women need to write with the support of other women and from male allies in making their writing known.

The stranglehold of culture and toxic belief systems was illustrated by Bridget Osakwe of West African Network for Peacebuilding Nigeria, who said that ‘in some remote parts of Nigeria, women don’t even realise that rape is a crime’. She explained that this was because rape was so common and the perpetrators were not held to account. Educator Shinjita Alam, of the Centre for Peace Initiatives in Bangladesh, had been told recently by a village woman that she considered herself most happy in her marriage because her husband beat her severely whenever she erred, saving her from future mistakes. Similar ‘good fortune’ was experienced by the couple’s children. Among some Bangladeshi’s there is a belief that parts of the body that have been beaten will be resurrected after death. Shinjita reported that money for women’s education is short, with most efforts going into micro-credit; but a measure of economic independence does help women find the courage to challenge the system, and while she was aware of the size of the problem she was determined not to do everything within her power for change.

On the second day of the consultation we extended our focus to the potential for women to act as peace builders It was clear that for many women their religious faith was a strong motivating force for peace making and their accounts of their work was moving. Aesha Aqtam and Piera Edelman both belong to Parents Circle Families Forum, an organisation working for peace, whose members have all lost relatives in the Israel-Palestine conflict. They addressed one workshop together, describing the impact of the violence on their personal lives and outlining their common hopes and values. Speaking of the cost of violence, Aesha said, ‘There is nothing more expensive than the person’.

Another example of women’s work in peacemaking came from a Liberian participant, Awanah Flee, of the Women in Peacebuilding Network in Liberia She described the role Liberian women had played in helping to broker an end to the Liberian civil war when Christian and Muslim women activists came together during the civil war to demonstrate against the war and expose its horrors, and how they managed to pressure male leaders into signing the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Ezabir Ali of the Athwaas Women’s Initiative in Kashmir observed ‘for the poorest and most powerless, thoughts about peace go no further than the question, Will my husband come home?’ Ezabir and her colleagues work to help women who have been traumatised and those who have lost the breadwinning members of their family to cope with these effects of violence, bringing them together across the lines to share their experiences and form a common platform for coexistence and mutual support.

The poor have little influence on events. However, Vololona Razafindrainibe gave an account of changes taking place in Madagascar that offered some hope. She is a member of MIR-MAD, which ran a public awareness campaign in the media to help reduce the levels of violence and hatred that were prevalent in 2009, and to foster the necessary climate for peace. She told us that while the volatility of the current political situation threatens progress, there has been in Madagascan society a growing sense of the need to find ways of coexisting, and that the economic hardship experienced by all classes has reduced the gulf between rich and poor, encouraging a simpler lifestyle for all. In this more egalitarian and accommodating climate, religious attitudes are changing and outside official church structures women are increasingly taking on leadership roles. In Vololona’s words, ‘Belief in a higher God, more loving and egalitarian – instead of severe and punishing – is slowly being promoted and a new movement is growing for a lasting peace, based on spiritual values.’

On the final day of the gathering we focussed on strategies to bring a gender perspective to inter-faith and faith based peacebuilding, agreeing that to do so meant recognising the equal validity and importance of women’s and men's dignity, needs, well being and contributions, and seeing gender justice as essential to peace. Building solidarity between women and finding allies among men were confirmed at this consultation as twin approaches to overcoming the current inequities in power and participation.

As we went through these three days we probably all experienced the difficulty of separating the different strands of our thinking: mapping out the positive and negative aspects of religion in relation to gender, and analysing where religion, gender and peacebuilding intersected. We did not define what we meant by ‘interfaith’ and ‘faith-based’, though it was clear that this consultation itself was an interfaith event with each day beginning and ending with some form of meditation, which was led in turn by women of different faiths and in which we all participated. It was clear also that some of the peacebuilding work undertaken by the women was by nature ‘inter-faith’, in the sense that it concerned bridge-building between people of different faiths, and that the belief in and commitment to peace that many of the women brought to their peacebuilding work was based in their religious belief.

When talking about women in peacebuilding, we tended to focus rather generally on women as peacemakers and to forget the focus on interfaith or faith-based work. In our discussions about religion and gender we talked a good deal about the malign aspects of religious teaching and hierarchies and how to change them, and because religious and cultural belief systems and practices are often inseparable, the conversation often strayed into general discussions about gender-based discrimination and violence. Yet I believe that the fluid shape the consultation took reflected the concerns and experiences that the participants brought with them. And it provided an important opportunity for developing practical strategies and networks.

In their closing reflections, one after another, women described how the sense of isolation they had felt when they arrived had been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of solidarity and an awareness that, although there was a very long way to go, they were in good company for the journey. This was an important and ground-breaking meeting, which was hopefully just a beginning.




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