Faith, fundamentalisms and feminists on the frontline

While the 54th CSW last month was designed to review the work of government and civil society actors to advance the global agenda for women’s rights, it also offered a glimpse into the strategies of religious fundamentalist movements to influence policies at the international level
Saira Zuberi
19 April 2010

I attended the CSW on behalf of AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms initiative, in order to facilitate a session entitled “Feminists on the Frontline.” The session marked the launch of a selection of case studies that document diverse strategies to counter religious fundamentalist projects from a broad range of regional and religious contexts. While consensus on a concise definition of religious fundamentalisms was not achieved at the initial Challenging Fundamentalisms stakeholders’ consultations in Istanbul in 2007, our consultations and research data have pointed to a series of defining characteristics which include: a political instrumentalisation of religion; support for the imposition of values on others who do not share those values, and an unwillingness to debate, discuss, shift or consider compromise.


Fundamentalists are active at grassroots, national and regional levels, and within international arenas, they are becoming increasingly influential – stalling efforts on rights treaties, diluting rights-based discourse and creating alliances to immobilize the international human rights system. Survey data in Religious Fundamentalism on the Rise: A case for action was based on an extensive online questionnaire circulated to AWID’s networks. Over 1,600 completed responses drew the following results when respondents were asked “Over the last ten years, how has the strength of religious fundamentalisms changed in each of the following contexts?”; 60% felt that religious fundamentalisms had increased “in the context of their work”, and 76% felt they had increased “globally”. When asked to rate the relative influence of a range of fundamentalist actors in their work, 62% of women’s rights activists named NGOs and charities with fundamentalist tendencies or links. Indeed, the establishment of ‘pro-life’ NGOs is a crucial fundamentalist tactic.


In the lead-up to the 54th CSW, the research of AWID’s partner organisations revealed that fundamentalist groups had registered to attend the event in large numbers. A message from the Italian Association for Women in Development noted that eleven Italian Catholic NGOs registered to attend the CSW for the first time, as opposed to only seven non-confessional NGOs. One report revealed that the US-based Family Watch International had registered over 80 participants. Family Watch International’s president, Sharon Slater, noted in the organisation’s newsletter, that FWI had distributed to official CSW delegates some 150 bags containing Family Watch’s new UN Pro-Family Handbook which highlights UN consensus language in various UN documents that support the family, as well as statistics and commentary for use to support family issues during the negotiation of documents on the UN floor. The delegates’ bags also included a copy of Sharon’s book Stand for the Family: A Call to Responsible Citizens Everywhere...”


Attending the CSW not only offered a valuable opportunity for introducing the Challenging Fundamentalisms initiative and sharing our work with other feminist organisations and those working in human rights and development sectors, but also provided me with the chance to connect with people who have had many years’ experience observing the religious fundamentalist organisations active at the international level. Cynthia Rothschild, consultant for ARC International and former Senior Policy Analyst with the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership observed the increase in partnership and co-ordination between diverse religious fundamentalist actors. She pointed out that the official UNCSW session “Recognising the Critical Role of Mothers in Society” was co-sponsored by Family Watch International, in partnership with Iran, Qatar, Saint Lucia, Syria, and the Doha Institute for Family Studies and Development. As innocuous as the session title sounds, depicting motherhood as a woman’s natural role is a key discursive strategy used by religious fundamentalist actors (whether they be Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, etc.) in order to promote the rights of the unborn and of the hetero-normative family, over those of the individual. Juan Vaggione, a panellist at “Feminists on the Frontline” session, observed that “regional and international spaces are a top priority… Not only is their lobbying directed to the international arena, but also, their agendas are agreed upon at trans-national meetings such as the World Congresses of Family.”


The conversations I had with other participants at CSW support the idea that there is greater co-operation across different strains of fundamentalisms and increasing international co-ordination and influence in spaces such as the UN. Focusing on this could have left me somewhat disheartened, but Cynthia encouraged a more proactive vision. The way forward is, in her view, to keep a focus on our own agendas, and improve co-ordination between rights-based movements: “ different elements and groups advocating on sexual and reproductive health rights, queer rights, HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, … must build bridges and pool our thought resources and activism, so that a response… is not just a queer response, or just a maternal health response…” but rather a co-ordinated opposition that articulates the importance of protecting human rights and freedoms for all individuals.





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