The religious lobby and women’s rights

None of the main political party manifestos tackle the encroachment of religion on our society. As more and more public spaces are devoured by religious interests creating particular problems for women, Rahila Gupta argues that it is time to end state funding of religion and faith based organisations as service providers.
Rahila Gupta
19 April 2010
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As the UK election campaign hots up, various voices are bemoaning Christianity’s apparently anorexic state. Pretend social liberals, like David Cameron, are reopening the abortion debate, fudging gay rights and promoting marriage. Anyone propounding secular ideas is being dubbed a fundamentalist, an oxymoron if ever there was one. It’s very interesting that a powerful lobby can make a half-decent case for itself as victim when, under New Labour, it has seen a huge extension of its powers. This is a fat cat with a mouse complex. Minority religions, which have always used the privileges of the Christian church as leverage for greater rights for themselves on the basis of parity, have also grown. This has led to more and more public spaces being devoured by religious interests and created particular problems for women, especially ethnic minority women who are classically at the bottom of the pile.

This is what the cellulite in the cat consists of: At the end of 2008, it was estimated that the Catholic church had £1 billion in assets and an income of £279million in the UK & Ireland alone. The C of E’s assets in England and Wales are estimated to be worth £8.3 billion with an income of £1 Billion.

Roughly one third of state schools are religious in character. Until 1997 when Labour was elected all state faith schools were Christian or Jewish. Since then, 14 new Jewish schools, 11 Muslim schools, 4 Sikh and 1 Hindu school have been state funded. Funding initiatives targeted at the religious lobby, now innocuously dubbed faith based organisations (FBOs), have formed a central part of the government’s strategy to boost this sector. A capacity building fund which ran from 2006-2008 was worth £10.5m to faith groups. The Regional Faith forums and Faiths in Action programme will together provide £7.5m to promote understanding and dialogue between faith groups from 2009-2011.

As part of the government’s ongoing privatisation of welfare services, FBOs have been encouraged to apply for government grants and contracts. There are no overall figures available for what is known as ‘Non-Faith specific’ funding although the Faith Based Regeneration Network provides a partial figure of approximately £12m for the period 2006-2008 based on an analysis of funding programmes such as Futurebuilders, the DCSF Parenting Fund, Opportunities for Volunteering, Department of Health Section 64 Grant Scheme and Connecting Communities Plus. A number of significant funding sources like the Lottery funds, primary care trusts and regeneration funds, for instance, have not been analysed.

FBOs are not best placed to provide women-centred services. I have written extensively on this elsewhere. CHASTE, an umbrella group of Christian churches, for example, provides three safe houses for women trafficked into the sex industry and yet refuses to be drawn on its abortion policy, an important issue for their users. CHASTE claims that ‘women who have found themselves at the bottom of the rung can receive full divine attention and be set free’ with support from them. I have spoken to women who have used their services and felt stifled by the religious ethos to which they had to submit. Similarly, black women whose uncertain immigration status subjects them to the No Recourse to Public Funds rule, which means that they can be denied access to refuges, have to sometimes fall back on the ‘mercy’ of religious institutions when escaping domestic violence. Here, they may face hostility as nonconformist women or they may be encouraged to return to violent situations to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

An unholy alignment

Why would a modernising ‘New’ Labour, which claims to uphold the rights of women and other minorities, seek to expand the religious sector when church attendances among the white British population are dropping away? This is partly do with Tony Blair’s deeply held belief that religion is a force for good. According to Sukhwant Dhaliwal, member of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) whose PhD thesis focuses on this question, ‘there is a significant degree of alignment of interests between the state and religious groups…[on]: policing; a pre-occupation with social order…; the strengthening of patriarchy and of heteronormativity; and the perpetuation of neo-liberal governance.’

Even Tony Blair on his Faith Foundation website has to admit that ‘today we still see how it [faith] can be distorted to fan the flames of hatred and extremism’. And it is in that swamp between ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ that government policy is floundering. This is nowhere more apparent than in New Labour’s approach to ethnic minorities. Multiculturalism is out; community cohesion is very much the flavour of this decade. This began to take concrete shape with the Cantle report into the disturbances in Northern cities in 2001. Cantle’s mistaken view that the breakdown in community cohesion was a result of multiculturalism, because it encouraged segregation, led the government to search for new ways of building cohesion. This was mainly articulated through the development of a concept of British citizenship based on shared values which alienated rather than included minorities. It usurped such notions as tolerance and fair mindedness as uniquely British values which did not reflect the experience of minorities. When the whole notion of ‘Britishness’ was exploded by the London bombings in 2005, the official view began to construct minorities as primarily loyal to their religious rather than their race identities. From now on communities were constructed as primarily faith communities and community cohesion was to attempt to bridge different faiths.


The new imperative for government in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 was to foster the growth of moderate religious (read Muslim) groups. To this end, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) set up their largest funding stream, the Preventing Violent Extremism (PREVENT) programme totalling £45m over three years, which is disbursed through local authorities to mainly Muslim groups to tackle radicalisation in their communities – attempting to cut down what it had pumped up with its other faith funding initiatives. How to define ‘moderate’ is itself a minefield as we have seen in the on/off relationship between the government and the Muslim Council for Britain whose leaders have proven connections with religious extremists such as the Jamaat-e-Islami party on the Asian subcontinent. Besides as Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters (SBS) puts it, ‘So called moderate religious groups may be moderate when it comes to bombing the streets of Britain but they are certainly not moderate when it comes to women’.

The Prevent programme is aimed at Muslim youth, women and mosques. According to Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations, the sums of money given out are directly proportional to the size of the Muslim community in each area making it obvious that the Muslim community has been targeted as a ‘suspect’ community. After much criticism, the government recently annnounced that it will also sweep the far-right racist groups into its ambit.

Announcing the programme, Hazel Blears, the then Communities Secretary, said, "resilient communities can only exist where women are playing a full and active part". Women were to be empowered to challenge and head off extremism amongst Muslim youth. Their human rights are of no intrinsic worth despite the government’s declarations to the contradictory. It is quite despicable that this government should play the same game as religious fundamentalists using women as a means of social engineering.

Little surprise then that Shaista Gohir of the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group resigned recently in protest that the government had not consulted with them on the empowerment of Muslim women ‘ who face multiple discrimination based on their gender, ethnicity, faith and dress; highest unemployment rates; the poorest health; low educational attainment.’

However, the group’s remit clearly involved advising the government on the role of women in preventing violent extremism which should have made the government’s real agenda painfully clear from the start. Gohir found that the Prevent programme was being used to build up Muslim women to 'spy' on their families, rather than participate fully in society and overcome barriers they face. The allegation of spying is confirmed by Arun Kundnani who found that ‘In practice, a major part of the Prevent programme is the embedding of counter-terrorism police officers within the delivery of other local services. The primary motive for this is to facilitate the gathering of intelligence on Muslim communities.’ Furthermore, many organisations were told that they could not access the funds unless they were prepared ‘to sign up to a counter-terrorism policing agenda’.

Gohir also points to the divisive nature of Prevent funding. She feels that other faith and secular women's groups are hostile towards Muslim women's groups as a result of the 'Prevent' funding being targeted towards them. One of Kundnani’s interviewees reported that ‘All the doors to obtaining funding for work with Muslim women were shutting and all the signposts were pointing to Prevent.’ Secular women’s groups are not hostile to Muslim women’s groups per se, but to the idea that women should be defined primarily in terms of their religious identities when many of the issues – such as forced marriage and honour crimes – are faced by Muslim women in common with other minority women, and need to be fought on a common platform, precisely to avoid a racist perspective which equates one community with a particular practice .

When New Labour declared itself against forced marriage as a litmus test of core British values, it led to further contradictions. Instead of it becoming a step towards cohesion, by positing it as an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ issue, it had the opposite effect. By not acknowledging Asian women’s stand against it and thereby, the traditions of dissent in minority communities, it constructed minorities as an undifferentiated mass of ‘backward’ values. Whilst the cohesion agenda claimed to promote race and gender equality, the ‘fighting extremism agenda’ definitely undermined it. For instance, a senior commander of the Met police has found that the government’s agenda on terror is hampering police work on forced marriage because the government is keen not to alienate those same leaders in the bigger fight against extremism.

With the advent of the community cohesion agenda, single ‘group’ funding had fallen out of favour although paradoxically not to religious groups. It was only when Ealing Council’s attempt to cut the funding of Southall Black Sisters, on the basis that it was a ‘single’ group, despite being a secular group which provides services across a range of ethnic groups, was successfully challenged in court that this policy began to unravel. Local authorities which refuse to fund religious groups on the basis that “Single group funding has negative implications for community cohesion" have now been told that this is a myth in the myth-busting guidance published by John Denham, the communities secretary, when he announced a further £1m to faith groups for media training. A somersault that exposes the government’s bare faced cheek!

Equality and cohesion

It took the judge in the SBS/Ealing case to point out that, ‘There is no dichotomy between funding specialist services and cohesion; equality is necessary for cohesion to be achieved.’ That connection between equality and cohesion is the essence of the matter, an analysis that the government shies away from. Equality for women cannot be achieved through the religious route as women’s groups have found, when supporting women who are attempting to break through the cultural and religious stranglehold on their aspirations.

Apart from funding, the government has also used legislation to sweeten Muslim groups after embittering them with their heavy handed War on Terror tactics. Take the enactment of the Incitement to Race and Religious Hatred Act 2006, the intention of which is clear in the title. The history of how this Act came into being itself illustrates the point about the government’s parallel strategy. There were two failed attempts to bring it in: firstly as part of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in 2001; and secondly as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill in 2004-5. There was substantial protest from the artistic community and minority women, in particular, that their right or need to be critical of religion could be construed as incitement to religious hatred. The Act was brought in anyway but as a sop to the critics, the key line was amended by the words in bold, ‘A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he (sic) intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.’

Similarly, the Equality Act 2010, despite protest from a number of quarters, has included religion as one of the strands to be protected. This goes beyond tackling religious discrimination and protecting freedom of conscience and religion. Religion is woven into the power structure and hardly in the same place as those unequal minorities who form the other strands of the Equality Act. SBS believes that “the state will be implicated in promoting indirect discrimination and inequality and indeed in human rights violations” because religions often institutionalise race and gender inequality, and inequality on the basis of sexual orientation. It is like introducing legislation that protects the bankers’ bonus as well as the account holders’ deposits.

Where the ‘equalities’ are in conflict, they will have to be resolved in court. The Equalities commission published a document ‘Myth-busting: the Equality Bill and Religion’, which, interestingly, is entirely focussed on religious people anxious that their rights to practice their religion will be adversely impacted by the new laws, with nothing at all for those minorities who are anxious about how their rights might be trampled upon by religious interests. The desire to placate religious anxieties does not bode well. It is more important that religion is held accountable by the Equality Act, rather than being a sectional interest requiring protection, by ensuring that effective mechanisms are in place to enforce the equalities of others, like women and LGBT people.

Irreconcilable contradictions have dogged the government’s funding and legislative response to the religious lobby. How to cut through this welter of contradictions? Religious groups may, in limited circumstances, be a force for good but they have enough of a funding cushion from their own devotees to eschew government support. We should be pushing for an end to the state funding of religion and FBOs as service providers. None of the main political party manifestos deal with the question of religion. Local authorities who do not fund FBOs in the belief that "This is too much of a cosy relationship between faith and government" have been castigated by Denham’s myth busting guidance (Myth no 8) for perpetuating a myth. They have touched a nerve, right?

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