Sunday 7 June 2009

Feminism and Religion

Yesterday, at the Religion Revisited conference (scroll down for more posts on the topic), I joined the workshop Religious Feminists - Allies in the struggle for Women's Rights. What is special about "religious feminism" as compared to "secular feminism" - and does it matter what kind of feminist you are?

We have not reached any definition of "religous feminists": feminists who happen to be religious, feminists who argue within religious frameworks or who are part of religious institutions, religious women who happen to be feminists? But there is a distinction between "religious" and "secular" feminists, and in some contexts it matters. In Iran, feminists who declare themselves as secular tend to be discredited as "extreme" or "Western"-influenced. Statements by Polish participants suggest that the situation is not that different in today's Catholic Poland. In Iran, religious feminists, appearing "moderate", have managed to obtain significant adjustments in Islamic (shari'a) family law. (The phrase making the best out of a bad situation comes to my mind.) Women in rural areas apparently speak of rights we know from CEDAW as their "Islamic rights" - who cares about the labelling, as long as the rights are known?

President Ahmadinejad's government has dismantled most of the gains Iranian feminists patiently accumulated over 25 years of activism. But the effects of a recent campaign against stoning, a shari'a punishment for women found guilty of "adultery", have survived: the revised criminal code, about to be adopted, does not include the stoning punishment. "Bearded men" have found a sharia-based reason for this welcome omission. Shadi Sadr, prominent Iranian lawyer, women's rights activist and participant in our workshop, has explained the secular character of the anti-stoning campaign, focussing on the "backwardness" of stoning and its harmful impact on Iran's image abroad. International networking has been an element of the campaign.

In "Western" circles, feminists who introduce themselves as "religious" tend to meet skepticism.
When I say I am a religious feminist people think I'm backward or something. But I insist! a typically German-looking "tall blonde" states. True, many religious women's groupings defend values that contradict basic women's rights. These groups can hardly be considered as feminist. But there are feminists who claim their churches, who conquer spaces within religion and who add their voices to broader women's movements. 

Interestingly, a German participant referred to the "tall blonde", who had not mentioned her religious affiliation, as a Christian. A quick exchange of baffled glances. No-one escapes sterotyping, anywhere.

Migrant feminists face
a special predicament, as an example from Canada illustrates. For reasons of "cultural diversity", the Canadian State of Ontario was about to permit the use of shari'a family law in Muslim communities. Muslim feminists, active in organisations such as the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and Women Living under Muslim Laws, launched a campaign against shari'a rule in Canada. Apparently, it took enormous efforts to win "mainstream" Canadian women's groups for this cause: non-Muslim feminists were worried to be considered racist. The only international letter of support came from the Iranian women's movement - which reportedly enhanced campaign credibility in the eyes of Canadian lawmakers... Eventually, the dangerous precedent in Canadian law was averted. Muslim women in Canada continue to be entitled to the same rights as their non-Muslim peers. (Click HERE for campaign information.)