Interfaith Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalisms and Women’s Rights

May 23, 2012

On the final day of the AWID Forum WLP held the panel discussion “Interfaith Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalisms and Women’s Rights.” During the panel leading activists from the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the United States commented on fundamentalist groups, their recent rise in power, the values they hold, and their view of women’s “appropriate” role in family and society. They emphasized the need for a concerted international effort by those seeking to advance women’s rights and civil liberties to counter the negative impact of the fundamentalist position on gender equality. Speakers included Daisy Khan, Co-founder of American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), Israeli peace and human rights activist Yvonne Deutsch, WLP Kyrgyzstan/CAC Executive Director Tolekan Ismailova, and WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami, with WLP Lebanon/CRTD-A Executive Director Lina Abou Habib moderating the panel.

 
Opening up the discussion, Afkhami spoke about the root causes of fundamentalism spanning borders, religions, cultures, and time itself. Fundamentalism, she said, is a reaction to change, surging especially when change is radical and poorly understood by society. Globalization, and the myriad of social changes that have resulted from it, has fueled the rise in fundamentalism since the second half of the 20th century. The most radical of these changes, at various stages of development across the globe, has been the change of women’s role in society and the family. This change affects every aspect of life – politics, architecture, religion, art. To succeed it takes time and depends on the kind and quality of culture change, in particular the embrace of democratic, egalitarian principles not only in public life, but also as the foundation for relationships between individuals. According to Afkhami, fundamentalists can’t quite accept this radical upheaval in human relations. But, through the work of women’s rights activists and large populations of youth around the world seeking a more just, peaceful world, this change is surely coming.  
 
Daisy Khan shared her personal experience with U.S.-based Christian fundamentalists and the parallels between their ideology and those of radical Islam.  Much of her comments focused on the intense backlash to her organization’s planned interfaith cultural center – the incorrectly branded “World Trade Center Mosque.”  Khan discussed the fact that extremism exists in all religions and stems from a perceived threat from secularism, which is frequently misunderstood.  The extremist ideology is one of exclusions. According to Khan, extremists believe in three things: exclusionism, non-pluralistic societies, and that women hold the keys to the social contract. Fundamentalism poses the greatest threat to society when it becomes violent, and fundamentalists are most likely to resort to violence when they feel otherwise powerless. Fundamentalists believe that they are the only ones able to bring salvation to their society. Just as in the midst of the debate on the Manhattan cultural center a prominent Christian preacher told Khan hers was not a true religion, fundamentalist Muslims refer to non-believers as Kafir.  For Khan, fundamentalists operate out of fear; liberals operate out of hope; and women are the glue that holds the family, community, and society together. “They know that – this is why they want to keep us in check.”
 
Leading human rights activist Tolekan Ismailova followed Khan, and discussed attempts by fundamentalists in Kyrgyzstan to roll back women’s rights and secularism in the wake of the country’s recent revolution. During this time, Muslim fundamentalists attempted to embed sharia in the Constitution, claiming the former society did not have justice, and that the country should return to its religious values.  In hopes of silencing opposition from civil society, fundamentalist politicians proposed to have the state control foreign funding for NGOs.  Additionally, in keeping with fundamentalists’ focus on controlling women , conservative MPs also sought to pass a law banning women under twenty-two from travelling abroad, in the name of stemming sex trafficking. However, large numbers of youth and women advocated strongly for a secular state, and when interim President Rosa Otunbayeva turned over power to the new president – the first peaceful political transition in the region – the secular state remained intact. This was not only a win for secularism, but also provided a strong example of women’s ability to lead, particularly during times of transition. 
 
Following Ismailova, Israeli peace and human rights activist Yvonne Deutsch discussed Jewish fundamentalism in her country, and its deleterious effects on democracy and women’s rights. According to Deutsch, fundamentalism is on the rise in Israel, where religion already plays an important role in public life. Just as in many Muslim-majority countries in the region, there is no civil marriage. Soldiers’ loyalty oaths to the army are often performed in front of the Wailing Wall, one of the most important sites for the Jewish religion. She noted that, as fundamentalism has increased, so has the portion of the military espousing fundamentalist principles. Notoriously, male soldiers have recently walked out of performance halls when women are singing. In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, even public spaces are becoming more sex-segregated – portions of sidewalks are designated for one sex, so families may not walk together, and women must sit at the back in certain buses that serve these communities. For Deutsch, the problem is not growing religiosity, but the co-growth of sexism, nationalism, and racism. She closed by appealing to those in the majority who do not share a fundamentalist outlook to work to build secular spaces and a shared spiritual grounding based in our common humanity and dignity. 
 
In closing, Afkhami said it is important to recognize the degree of unity between fundamentalists of different faiths and nationalities – demonstrated, for example, by their shared voting patterns in forums such as the United Nations, especially when it pertains to women’s rights. The vast majority of the world does not embrace extremist ideology.  Therefore, to succeed, those who support women’s rights, minority rights, religious freedom, and civil liberties must work together to stem the influence of extremists and remain focused on the correct understanding of secularism – the separation of laws from religious dictates and the freedom to choose, including  freedom to worship, or not, as one wishes. 
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