During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.
When I began doing human rights and peace-building work in Nigeria in 2013, I struggled with the role religion should play. I worried about strengthening structures that continue to be patriarchal and homophobic, and which in some cases accentuate religious tensions that lead to violence. The conflict in the Middle Belt of the country is a good example. This recent sermon by David Oyedepo, one of the most influential pastors in Nigeria, is another:
“God has anointed me to lead the revolution against Islamist jihadists... You catch anyone that looks like them. [Stamps foot] Kill him. There is no report to anybody. Kill him. Pull out his neck and spill his blood, I will spit it on the ground.”
When I talk about religion, I’m referring to religious institutions and ‘big men’ rather than to the personal beliefs that people hold. Many people of faith question the power of religious institutions and the ways in which they use it. When the Ebola virus came to Nigeria last year, for example, many pastors and faith healers invited those who were worried to come to them for a cure. Most people of faith I know denounced this act as highly irresponsible.
But faith-based organisations in countries with inadequate welfare states also serve the vulnerable and marginalised. They garner huge respect and influence by offsetting the failure of the state to provide basic services. They are filled with women and men who have a genuine passion for the work they do—setting up safe houses for women experiencing violence and abuse, bringing different religious communities together in inter-faith dialogue, providing food and shelter for the displaced and much more. My time spent with them has been among the most rewarding in my work.
So I’ve come to realise that I have to work with what’s already here—what has meaning for and influence over people’s lives—and that often does mean religion.
I was brought up a Hindu. I tried to see my way through the thicket of hetero-normativity and male domination by learning the history of alternative practices, but I couldn’t find a form of Hinduism that wasn’t shot through by Brahminical patriarchy, one without ingrained caste-based ablist discrimination. I go to temples with my family and do puja (worship) with them, but I am guided by my own ethics rather than religious morals.
I doubt whether any revisionist Hinduism could uproot its oppressive nature: even the most reform minded believers come up against unambiguous words in religious texts and practices eventually. For example, most religions teach the superiority of men over women. The Buddha may have changed his mind about allowing women to join the Sangha (community) after protests from female followers, but the eight Garudhammas or “weighty rules” still entrench hierarchy between women and men regardless of their knowledge and experience.
Hetero-normative and patriarchal interpretations dominate. This is unsurprising given that most texts are written, interpreted and taught by men. It is vital to reinterpret these texts, to question what is presented as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ and recover the lived experiences of different people in the past. This is particularly so in countries where there’s little room for manoeuvre outside of religious frameworks.
One of the most effective strategies in the toolbox of the activist can be their knowledge of culture and religion, whether this is the history of same sex love and desire in India or the role of women in Buddhism. Our ancestors can surprise us with what was permitted, accepted and even celebrated: so-called ‘unchanging’ traditions are never static since social mores alter over time.
Nevertheless, transforming religious structures isn’t easy. As a woman in Port Harcourt recently told me, “I am a Christian and we are taught we must be submissive wives. I now know that although I still must submit, there are some things that should not be tolerated.” She was talking about violence against women and girls, so there is progress of a sort in shifting consciousness. But the transformation I seek is not that women know that violence against them is wrong, but that they see themselves as equals—and so much else besides.
Perhaps these deeper changes won’t happen unless religion itself is fundamentally transformed. Given the power religion has already, do we risk strengthening the hands of reactionaries and patriarchs when working with religious institutions? Recently an Indian activist told me about an all-male gathering of religious leaders that was organized by an international aid agency to talk about the struggle against sex-selective abortion. On returning home, the men started speaking about all abortion as ‘sin.’
An over reliance on religion can also marginalise religious minorities that are already ostracised. It can strengthen narratives that declare that ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ are synonymous, such as the myth of “Hindutva” culture propagated by Hindu nationalists in India. The logical result is that all others are seen as ‘foreigners’ who dilute the ‘purity of the nation.’
This includes those who do not believe in any religion, whose numbers are often kept artificially low by social opprobrium and the danger that comes with questioning religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is a death sentence in many places. Most of my friends in Nigeria who see themselves as humanists are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, families and friends, which is understandable when the potential risks include being beaten by family members, committed to a psychiatric hospital for the medical diagnosis of “the personality disorder of atheism,” and receiving death threats.
In the UK, those wishing to leave religion have a safety net since there are structures in place to protect them. However, even here, the move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’—where ethnic minorities are viewed through the lens of religion, often at the expense of any analysis of race—marginalises the diversity of voices and viewpoints. Relations with racialised communities have become mediated by religious leaders. Black people have become essentialised as inherently religious, casting those who are not as ‘inauthentic.’ Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion—everywhere and for everyone.
Yet fundamentalism is increasing in many parts of the world. Contemporary religious-political movements make use of the state machinery to consolidate power and impose their version of doctrine. The primary victims of fundamentalist action are those who come from the religion, community and society in question. There are many, like those in Women Against Fundamentalism, who are fighting these trends, and they need allies.
Nevertheless, in countries where religion is a major social force, there’s a real need to engage with religious leaders precisely because of the power they have. Not doing so minimises impact, and means that one can’t reach the majority of women and men for whom faith is a daily lived public and private reality, often mediated through religious structures.
In some cases, pushing for the implementation of religious doctrine may actually help to realise human rights, at least to some extent. For example, using the technicalities of Sharia jurisprudence saved Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal from death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria—a ‘crime’ supposedly ‘proven’ by their pregnancies. Safiya says she was repeatedly raped, but she was still judged guilty. In many communities, pushing for rights by using religious arguments is more likely to be listened to, heard and accepted, both by those who are marginalised and those in power.
Religion also offers its own possibilities for transformation. In Malawi for example, Anais Bertrand-Dansereau writes about how youth organisations that are faith based can have a more positive approach to sexuality by telling young people that “sex is a gift from God.” They can raise and discuss issues that others shy away from for fear of being seen as ‘immoral.’ This teaching is restricted to sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, so it has its limits in terms of human rights, but still it is instructive.
However, the women and men everywhere who are trying to challenge oppression and discrimination need to be supported directly, not just through religious leaders. I recently heard a woman in the Niger Delta talking about violence against women and girls:
"I now have a platform to challenge our imams about what they say. Mostly our husbands don’t allow us to meet and attend gatherings. They choose which Islamic schools we attend... It’s our imams who are asked to represent us. Women don’t attend Friday prayer – but Muslim women organise too."
The growing trend in the development industry to work with those in power—meaning men, religious leaders and traditional authorities—at the expense of strengthening the mobilisation of those oppressed is profoundly dangerous. Religion is power and it represents the status quo.
For these and many other reasons, we need to engage with religion, but to do so critically. We also need to fight for, maintain and strengthen secular spaces where people of all faiths and none can come together and organise, outside of the influence that established religion can exert elsewhere.
Do we see transformation in terms of negotiation and compromise or disruption and revolution? This has implications for the nature of the changes we’re working towards and the process of how to get there. Working with religion can be an important stepping stone along the way, but we should not be constrained in our vision or strategy by what is said by holy books or holy men.
After all, in the history of struggle, freedom is only gained when it is demanded. It is achieved when those who are oppressed and their allies rise up and force the hands of those in power. We should not be constrained by religion when we envision and strive for the transformation of society. As the Indian activist, intellectual and architect of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar once said, “Put away the orthodox scriptures. Follow justice.”