Can religion be a positive force for social change?

Faith is neither a poison pill nor a silver bullet, but understanding its significance is crucial. 

Manini Sheker
5 July 2016

Credit: All rights reserved.

In February 2014 the Guardian joined forces with MamaCash and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) to focus on exploring the issues that are most important to women, girls and transgendered people across the world. While the resulting series brought into focus important work to advance women’s rights and gender equality, it failed to consider one fundamental aspect of women’s lives—religion. In fact the lack of coverage of religion as a positive force for social change is pervasive among most news outlets.

Perhaps this negligence is pardonable: after all, religion plays an important role in driving conflict, and various forms of religious oppression can and do have a corrosive impact on women's rights and freedoms. But this neglect also hampers our understanding of the ways in which religion and spirituality can be a powerful force for personal and political transformation. From the mass mobilization of Christian women to end fourteen years of civil war in Liberia to the founding of Islam-inspired grassroots organizations to advance women’s empowerment and civic dialogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina, faith-inspired movements are playing a critical role in safeguarding women’s rights.

Furthermore, for the majority of people in the world religion remains an important source of meaning, identity and aspiration. According to a global study by the Pew Research Center, 83 per cent of women identify with a faith group. In 2000, when the World Bank spoke to women and men from 60 countries about what really mattered to them, religion formed an important part of their answers. For some of the respondents, a meaningful life constituted one of the most basic human needs of all, and something that for them would be impossible without religion. One widow in Bangladesh, for example, believed that time for prayer was as essential to her wellbeing as a full stomach and a mat to sleep on. Faith-based organizations were also trusted more than state-based groups in delivering social services.

Yet all too often, religion is seen as an irredeemable impediment to social and economic progress, and the stories that captivate us are the ones where women defy traditions sanctioned by religion in order to recast their roles in society. Hence, we read about the egregious policing of women’s bodies and lives by religious authorities, for example, and the Muslim women who stand up for their sexual liberty or fight against repressive marriage laws. While such stories cast an important spotlight on forms of oppression that continue to marginalize many women they are partial, and are often rooted in one particular conception of freedom that derives from Western liberalism with its emphasis on individual choice and autonomy—a philosophy that doesn’t speak for all women everywhere.

In her research on Islamic schools in Pakistan, for example, Masooda Bano from Oxford University shows that some educated Muslim women freely choose conservative roles that definitely limit their freedom. They cover their hair and bodies, become mothers, and restrict their sexual liberties. They also cultivate virtues that are seen to be pious such as shyness, humility and submissiveness. Some do so because they have a different understanding of freedom. Others make a rational calculation that their economic interests are better served within a stable family: with economic freedom comes the burden to earn, and sexual liberty may lead to constant dissatisfaction.

Such women believe that Islam encourages men and women to play different roles in society, but this doesn’t mean that it condones gender inequality. Yet liberals tend to view all behavior that might restrict individual freedom with suspicion. Free choice is also harder to distinguish in instances where choices accord with custom and the transcendent will of a Godly authority. From a Western, liberal, and secular perspective, it can be difficult to accept that individuals might freely choose to subordinate their freedom to culturally embedded customs or practices derived from scripture.

However, the growth of conservative female Islamic movements and Muslim civil society organizations that advocate simultaneously for women’s rights and the preservation of valued aspects of religious tradition attest to the equal importance that many women place on political reform and individual piety. In fact, in some communities the transformative potential of socio-economic initiatives may depend fundamentally on whether they accord with the core religious values that are held by community members.

In the Lindi region of southern Tanzania, for example—where I worked as a research analyst for the Aga Khan Foundation last year—a group of Muslim women have gathered every week for the past six years to perform the simple act of saving together, taking loans from each other with interest and sharing in the profits. The money they received helped them to buy food during the lean season before the harvest, set up small businesses, renovate their houses, and send their children to school. They also have a social fund to which each member contributes so that they can get an interest-free grant to cover emergency medical and funeral expenses. 

The women call their savings group “Tuyagantane,” which is Makonde for “helping each other.” “Islam above all teaches compassion to all humans,” one of the group members told me. “To treat each human being like she is like yourself. If your neighbor is hungry, you have an obligation to support her.” The women say that the group encourages them to solve common problems together.

Yet many were reluctant to join at first. Islam forbids riba or interest, and some Muslims are troubled by conventional transactions that place an unfair burden of risk on the borrower rather than the lender. It is haram (forbidden) to profit from another person’s misfortune. A transaction is only considered ethical in Islam if the risks are shared. The injunction against riba is intended to prevent economic transactions from unleashing forces in people that could lead to injustice and exploitation.

The debates that take place within groups such as these suggest that the unreflective pursuit of economic gain can disrupt human relations in significant ways. Heeding the ethical limits set forth in religious teachings might therefore be important to the success of economic activities that avoid accentuating inequality and boosting over-consumption.

It is clear that any effort to understand the issues that are important to women requires a meaningful engagement with the complex ways in which religion can both impede and catalyze personal and political transformation. If there is no “faith silver bullet” then there is no “faith poison pill” either, as Georgetown University’s Katherine Marshall puts it.

Religiously-inspired movements from Liberia and Pakistan to Tanzania offer valuable lessons in showing us how actions that are anchored in religious teachings can lead to significant social change. They remind us that freedom from all restraints may not be an absolute good for all women or all men. And they warn us that the unrestrained pursuit of economic gain without regard for ethics may impede real progress towards equality and rights.

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